An Interview with Artist Bryan Lewis Saunders


“My Deepest Darkest Fears” by Bryan Lewis Saunders & Kaontrol Kontraos from Bryan Lewis Saunders on Vimeo.

Catharsis is the deliberate stimulation of emotion as a means of performing psychological & spiritual purging.  A ritual ablution to purify one’s senses, best summarized in the attitude, sometimes “the only way out is through”.

In this capacity, Bryan Lewis Saunders is an unsuspecting shaman, holding ceremony over the spectral shadows which haunt liminal American consciousness.  Plunged into a deep channel of collective suffering, death, danger and disassociation, wading through the murky swill of unchecked psychological trauma, performing reverse hypnotic sun dances, a sweet vultureman of psychopomp and ill circumstance.

Intrigued by this dynamic character I decided to scratch the surface and my curious itch, with a follow up interview for Disinfo.


CW:  How would you describe your work?  

I’d say that I do a wide variety of stuff that all have one characteristic in common. All of my work is antithetical, or a polar opposite to forms that have been well established. For example: stand-up tragedy, stream of unconsciousness, lost art, even the daily self-portraits in that I see them as a way of putting the world into myself and not vice versa.

CW:  There seems to be an undercurrent of deep trauma and catharsis informing both your visual and performance art. Do you feel as though you have transcended the demons of your past or do they still haunt and fuel your work? Either way what would you say is a primary source inspiring your craft?

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve exorcized most of my demons, which was extremely cathartic, but there are some that are still too raw and “untouchable” that fuel me to some degree. That said, total disdain and repudiation of any form of self-censorship is what drives me quite often. The majority views censorship as artist and freedom control, but as an artist I see it as audience control so I refuse to self-censor anything. In my opinion, it’s the stuff most people hide that makes them interesting and unique.

CW: You live in a pretty freakish vortex from what I gather, the building you have called home for a decade is filled with veterans, the morbidly obese and every pill in the pharmaceutical codex. An apparent madhouse, do you stay so that you can keep the muse handy?  What is the best and worst aspects of living in the shadow of  Mountain Dew? 

Hah! My building has its moments. All the time. Once I found a blood bath in the stairwell, and in one of the pools of blood there was a big bone fragment in it. Pretty nasty. The halls frequently smell like putrescine and cadaverine too so mostly I just keep to myself, I don’t get involved, I share it on facebook and then I move on. I did do an album about my building once called, “Busting Open” on the Chaotic Underworld label.

Listen to this though, a couple of months ago I was experiencing this strange phenomenon where I’d wake up in the midst of a seizure and think I was a baby being born for the first time ever. The world was way too bright and my fists were balled up and shaking, I was soaking wet and silently convulsing. It was horrific. Then on the third day of these near birth experiences, I woke up thinking I was a breech birth baby, where I’d gotten turned around and tangled up in the umbilical quilt. Anyway, I thought oh my gosh what if tomorrow I’m a c-section or a still born? I was scared to death! Then nothing happened and I woke up normal. But then the next day I woke up with a near birth seizure experience again only this time there were four cop walkie talkies blaring over my head! When I got to where I could hold myself up by the walls, I went and looked out of my peephole straight across the hall from my door to my neighbors door with a line of cops on each side. And there was a dead woman on the kitchen floor of my neighbors apartment! She’d been dead for 3 days and one of the cops said, “There’s a lot of blood here so it must have come from up there.”, whatever that means. And then they slung her onto a gurney with a sheet, like she’d been snatched off the streets of Syria! I had went straight from a near birth experience to an instant peephole tunnel vision of death! But what’s even creepier is, I had been doing a series of middle aged naked yoga self-portraits for 5 days, so for 3 of those days I’d been doing naked yoga less than 20 feet away from a dead body and didn’t even know it! After that I quit doing yoga to focus more attention on my environment. The next day I woke up fine again but when I got on the elevator to check my mail, there was a dead body on it! It was (almost) too much. That’s the only time I’ve ever seriously thought about moving. But it comes down to economics so I can spend all day and night making art.

The downside is, I never ever have company. The upside is, The Hideaway is right across the street! Besides friends, they always have incredible bands so when I do leave it’s like I really escape. Literally!

CW: You are best known for yours series “Drugs” where you in rapid succession over the course of 11 days did 18 different types of drugs and created a self portrait on each. Even though you were temporarily brain damaged, in subsequent interviews you had mentioned wanting to try Ayahuasca, D.M.T and Crack to round out the series, when do you expect you might return to this body of work and what have you learned from the experience?

Occasionally, when an opportunity presents itself, I’ll try something new. The most important thing I’ve learned is that drugs make me look ugly. It can be really sobering to see yourself intoxicated.

CW:  You’ve been described as the embodiment of Xenia, Ohio from Harmony Kormine’s Gummo.  Does that designation strike you as accurate?  How has living in the thick of southern poverty informed your perspective and what do you think about the deeper pockets of the bible belt?

I personally don’t feel that way at all. If I was the embodiment of Gummo‘s Xenia, I would only be the tornado part. I was born and raised in and around D.C. too, I’ve just lived in the South a long time now. When I first started performing I was totally delusional and wanted to “unbuckle the Bible belt!”. But people’s waistlines have grown a whole lot bigger since then and the “belt” feels much much tighter. Like anywhere really, there are wonderful things and some not so nice things about it.

CW:  Tell us about your family life growing up?

I was a latch key kid, and I think that enabled my imagination to really grow a lot in both positive and negative ways. My mother was supportive of anything I did (unless it was illegal), which took me a while to figure out. But she always stuck up for me when it came to the police. I have a good and interestingly wild family to put it mildly.

CW:  What are current projects you are developing?

Right now I’m working on art for Scull Soup! Preparing for a role in a short film by Lawrence Klein. Promoting an album I recently appeared on called “Empires Should Burn…” by ASVA and Philippe Petit. Also featured on the record were Jarboe (Swans) and Edward Ka-Spel (Legendary Pink Dots)! It’s by far the most beautiful record I’ve ever been on in my life! I’m also adding finishing touches to my latest book, “Authentic Soup Kitchen Menus” to be published by Leif Elggren’s Firework Edition. And Jim Hollenbaugh is making a film for my album with Z’EV titled, “Daku” so maybe I can perform that live soon. Then there’s the “Prison for Dummies” poetry book and “The Third Ear” book which chronicles my recent experiment where for 28 days I blocked up my ears and attached a copper funnel to my mouth in an attempt to connect my eustachian tubes to my pineal gland by altering the way sound entered my body. Plus I still have 10 album/chapters from my unconscious book on tape left to release. And a few commissioned self-portraits to make.

CW:  Which artists inspire you and who would you like to work with?

In the visual arts I’d say Martin Kippenberger, Henry Darger, Antonin Artaud and Paul Cézanne have inspired me the most. In the literary/performing arts I’d say Lydia Lunch and Steven Jesse Bernstein, they are my pioneer super heroes. I’d love to do albums with John Duncan and Stuart Dahlquist!

CW: I see you are touring in Europe and recorded many of your performance pieces there, what is the scene in Europe like compared to the States and which do you prefer?

Cities and places in Europe have been around a lot longer so they have more history and things that are interesting to me. The scenes are probably similar but the countries are smaller and so close to each other that it makes it really fun. I mean there’s not nearly as much variation from state to state as there is from country to country. What it comes down to is just leaving my building, hah, I could probably have just as much fun in Dayton as I could in Riga.

CW: What is Reality?

Reality is anything that keeps kids arguing on reddit for more than a year.

CW: What are 5 of your favorite films or books?  

1- Personal Effects, Steven Jesse Bernstein

2- Psychosis and Spirituality, Isabel Clarke

3- Even Dwarfs Started Small, Werner Herzog

4- The Third Mind, William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin

5- Strike, Sergei Eisenstein

CW: What is happiness?

Happiness, is being dragged by a jesuit pony.

CW: Finish this sentence:

Barack Obama is a human being.

Mitt Romney is a robot.

Professor X is a character.  

Gandhi is an avatar. 

Jesus is a meme.

CW: Tell us about “The Beach”. Is this based on personal experiences with the judicial system?

Yeah. “The Beach” is a collection of 8 months worth of self-taught advice from the Lorton Correctional Facility. (Oddly enough the prison has been turned into an art center.) To me that’s poetic justice, literally! Anyway, what I did was I took 8 months worth of advice and jammed it all together in an “orientation style” format letting people know what was going to happen to them as soon as the COs opened the cell block door and let them in. They didn’t have anyone to tell me these things when I went there. There was no orientation or anything to prepare you at all. You just had to figure it out on your own and do what you had to do to survive. Some people didn’t and a lot of people got hurt for the same reasons over and over again. So I wrote that as a sort of “Hey world, you didn’t tell me about all this now!”

CW:  Any comments on the American political process? Our impending “humanitarian” war with Syria?

I don’t keep up with politics a whole lot, it’s often a mystery as to what’s really going on and the mystery is ripe with red herrings. I think it’s perfectly fine to skip the entire first season and just catch the last few episodes before any election. We’d be much nicer to each other for it. I must say that the Protest Eating or Eat Ins For Bigotry as I call it, added a whole new dimension to my cognitive web for repulsion.

And as for what’s happening in Syria, people should know that photographs and videos don’t really express how terrible the situation is for the people that live there. It is worse! My heart really goes out to them. And to think that as Syrian women and children were being killed and their bodies posed for the press, people here were in drive thru lines so their stomachs could demarcate their bigotry? Shame on us! Shame on all of us!

CW: Do you watch TV?

No. I understand the whole thing about making me feel ugly, sick and dirty so I’ll buy their cleaning supplies, meds and shiny new pretty stuff, but they haven’t invented a product yet that’ll wash away what it did to my soul.

 CW: What is a POWOD?

A POWOD is what I call any prisoner of the war on drugs. Especially a federal weed prisoner with a mandatory minimum sentence that I have good reason to suspect is being marketed within our government as the new “Made in the USA” labor force. Whether they’re assembling furniture for Target or stitching open crotch panties for Victoria’s Secret, or putting the chocolate on our Starbucks coffee beans at 9 dollars a month that’s slavery plain and simple. It’s been less than 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and we’re already in need of another one! Bring them home!

CW: Would you mind sharing today’s self portrait with our audience?




2 Comments on "An Interview with Artist Bryan Lewis Saunders"

  1. TennesseeCyberian | Aug 20, 2012 at 9:16 pm |

    The two most interesting people I ever met in the Far East (of Tennessee) were Brian Saunders and Brandon Braggs.  Looks like Saunders is still as insanely lucid as ever.   Or lucidly insane.  Both are compliments.

  2. Ignomat Lee Kwo | Aug 25, 2012 at 12:43 pm |

    I will never be the same again how many locks do you have on yr door do you have a collection of guns do you feel sometimes that Burroughs has inherited yr body the prison sequence was liberating and will come in handy at some point in my life/Do you think the same information would help out if I was put in a Concentration Camp?/Do you think that the Baroque is a unity of the arts?Hey I supposed to be commenting not interviewing/The whole concept was brilliant and how you remembered the prison survival information was miraculous/Do you think of yrself as miraculous sort of a Saint of the Facebook Culture?/So unique/Keep up the trail blazing my friend/Lee Kwo

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