streams of unconsciousness

bryan saunders tennessee based experimental artist and stand-up tragedy performer speaks with i.t.a. about his daily self-portraits, the third ear series and the stream of unconsciousness (narrative mode).

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you’ve been conducting a daily self portrait project; to date you have produced over eight thousand six hundred. how long have you undertaken this project and what was the inspiration for it?

I've done at least one self-portrait every day since March 30th, 1995.
The original thought was that it would be a quasi-spiritual act without limits. A place where everything could be included, like a sketchy encyclopedia of the self. A personal journal, art journal, a workbook for teaching myself how to draw, paint and illustrate using every single style and technique etc. The sky was the limit. But right away it became a therapeutic place where I was purging myself every day of anxiety, stress and self-loathing. The realization of this helped me come to grips with my unconscious awareness that I felt totally dead inside. I was flat and soulless. I think the first eight books were all black and white. I was an antisocial sociopath with a ton of negative self thoughts. The act seemed narcissistic but was completely and entirely unflattering. So in essence I was breaking myself psychologically and then I was faced with rebuilding. And I began to look at the act as a way in which I could attempt to 'grow' feelings, face fears, control my environment, experiment with experience and try to get as much out of life as humanly possible. And hopefully one day love myself and others in the process.

many of the art projects you embark upon (such as the drugs, the third ear and the stream of unconsciousness series) require daily production over a lengthy period of time. how do you find the time to commit yourself to such concentrated work over lengthy periods of time?

I live alone. Apart from the internet I don't socialize much. I have one friend, Nicole, that I talk to on the phone everyday. I eat free meals at churches and soup kitchens so I don't waste money on food. And I just stay inside working on stuff all day and night.

do you have a preference for doing these extended projects or are these the random products?

Pretty much one project leads to another and to another and so on. After 10 years of putting all of my feelings onto a very confining 8"x11" surface, I was ready to emotionally implode. That's where the stand-up tragedy performances came out of. Then, after consciously exorcizing my personal demons in public I started tackling the ones in my sleep and dreams which led to the stream of unconsciousness narrative mode. There is nothing random about it. It's really an artistic evolution of dealing with life and the will to enjoy a better one.

what is the third ear?

(Psychiatry) Similar to intuition, sensitivity, and awareness– a psychiatrist will use his/her 'third ear' to look for subliminal cues to interpret clinical observations of patients during therapy.

(Physiology) Hearing through ones eustachian tubes, tubes that link the pharynx to the middle ear, as opposed to hearing sound through ones external ears.

(Mysticism) An esoteric concept similar to the third eye of certain spiritual traditions. Often referred to as 'the listening mouth' and 'the all hearing ear'. The third ear is believed to be a doorway that leads to inner awareness and deeper regions of consciousness between self and world. People who have developed the capacity to use their third ears are known as hearers.

what did your “third ear experiment” entail? what inspired you to undertake it?

For 28 days I sealed up my external ears and attached a copper funnel to my mouth to see and hear what would happen. The goal was to attach my eustachian tubes to my pineal gland by physically rerouting the way sound enters the body. Years ago I had done a 30 day vow of silence self-portrait series, and I did a month of self-portraits blindfolded or in the dark. And on two occasions I attempted to do a month of self-portraits while deaf. However, the volume of your body in the world increases when you block out your ears. You quickly start hearing through your bones, eustachian tubes and both sides of your eardrums all at the same time. It’s quite maddening. As far as I know it’s physically impossible to make yourself temporarily deaf, but I tried it again. And with the support of Brant Withers, who produced the experiment, and others in the Third Ear Experiment group on facebook I was able to go so much farther than ever before.

what did you discover and what were the results of the ‘third ear experiment’?

I went through four different stages of hearing: Personal Silence, Literal Silence, Frequency Symphony, and the Four Elements of Sound. The last of which stayed with me for over 4 months after the experiment ended. I also experienced some auditory hallucinations, all from the same unknown female voice, and I went through days and days of visual hallucinations. I could make up an entire spiritual path to enlightenment surrounding the experiment but I really don’t want to. It’s interesting to me how I sometimes do these quasi-spiritual acts but then would rather just go onto the next one instead of taking any one of these experiences too seriously. But I did get an overwhelming amount of ideas and art documents from it. So many that I’ll never be able to fully express them all.

your “drugs” series of self portraits have gained a far bit of media attention lately and yet you produced these works over a decade ago. it seems that periodically these works come under the spot light; why do you think this is?

I think this second time around redit and some other blogs posted them first and there was no concern for dating them. It was just like “check this out today” and then newspapers and magazines just grabbed it from them because people are the products now. It used to be that the newspapers were the products. The people bought the newspapers. But now the newspapers are selling the people to advertisers as demographic hits on their page for money. So the newspapers and media don’t care about the information at all. A catchy headline and some pictures can get hits from certain demographics and then they sell that information to the advertisers. That’s the only information they really care about. If some news is 11 years old, most people won’t even notice and most media outlets don’t even care if they can use it to sell to people.

what would you say was the drug you most enjoyed being under the influence of during this experiment and which drug did you find was the most conducive for creating a self portrait?

I’d say I preferred the anti-anxiety agents, which I need anyway. There wasn’t one that was any more conducive for drawing than an another. They all had their own value to me, whether it was a pleasant or harrowing experience.

we’ve been listening to some of your sound works from the ‘stream of unconsciousness (narrative mode) series.’ could you outline how you began this project and what it involves?

Throughout my life I tried many times to keep a dream diary, but by the time I woke up and found the pencil etc. I would start forgetting all of the stuff that I had just dreamed. So I started sleeping with a tape recorder in my fist. Then when I woke up I could just push the record button and say/remember all kinds of details. This quickly became obsessive compulsive and I started waking up four times a night and recording every single dream. Then that act evolved into me unconsciously pushing the record button in my sleep and sleep talking. I would wake up and have no recollection of saying anything but there would be tons of dialogue on the tape. And in the morning when I started waking up for good I would still record what the dream was about. And with those two things together, the unconscious dialog and the semi-wakeful dream descriptions, what I heard was the closest humans can get to fully capturing the dream experience. That turned into me transcribing all of the tapes and turning the unconscious vocals and dream descriptions into what I termed the stream of unconsciousness (narrative mode). Using this method I’ve created poems, stories, and a comic book as well as vocal tracks for experimental music albums. This process culminated with the unpublished novel, “The Confessor”. Right now it’s being released a few chapters at a time as a ‘book on tape’ with 24 album/chapters total. The novel is made up of 30 days of dreams and it’s 11.5 hours long. The great artist Alice Salyer is doing all of the incredible art and design for every album. It’s wild and at times troubling because there is no self-censorship at all. That would defeat the whole purpose of digging into the unconscious in the first place.

you experimented with the narratives produced in the four stages of sleep. what where your findings?

I’m glad you brought this up because not everything I do artistically that’s sleep/dream related is “stream of unconsciousness”. When I first made the “N1-N4 Variations” CD, I was quite misinformed. I knew that it was physically impossible to speak during the N-4 (REM) sleep stage. But I thought wrongly that I could locate the N4 stage by discerning when I was in the N3 (sleep talking) stage. So if that was followed by a long period of sleep breaths and then snoring I assumed that the snoring was me in the N4. But I’ve since learned that it’s impossible to snore during the N4 sleep stage as well. So I’ve come to know that without a machine, I can’t tell from the cassettes where it is that I am in my sleep with exception of N1 and N3. Sometimes I’m pretty sure when I’m in the N2.

besides your daily self portraits which you’ve decided to continue with for the rest of your life; what else takes up the creative impulses of bryan saunders at the moment?

I’ve been doing some artwork for bands lately and also some self-portraits on commission for others. People will pay me and then tell me what they are interested in and I’ll do a self-portrait for them based on that. I’ve been getting ready for a bunch of different performances that I have coming up overseas as well.

our current issue at powder is, 'i want a little sugar in my bowl’ what springs to your mind when you hear this phrase?

I said that phrase every single morning while I was in China. In a city of 3 million people every single person ate the same exact breakfast at home or at a restaurant it didn’t matter they all ate the same thing. Every morning, the entire city ate white rice in soy milk for breakfast. As an American I always asked to put a little sugar in my bowl and they thought that was hilarious. If any kids were around and saw this they would ask for some too. But only occasionally would their parents allow it.

bryan's second album "Near Death Experience"

the bryan saunders website