Affect and Bryan Lewis Saunders

Last week’s readings and lecture made me think of a website my friend had recently shown me. The site belongs to artist Bryan Lewis Saunders (here!). Saunders has, since March 30 1995, drawn at least one self-portrait everyday and he intends to continue to do so for the rest of his life. He considers each self-portrait, like a snowflake (sorry for the cheese), to be completely unique. It’s interesting to examine Saunders’s self-portraits as instances of his own becoming on many levels (some of which might include: the juxtaposition of one portrait with the one that precedes and proceeds it, the similarities and differences in the thousands of works he produces and what I will mainly be discussing here, these portraits as incarnations of his relationship to his environment). For Cezanne, conception could not precede execution, I would argue that the same is true for Saunders: conception and execution happen simultaneously as his portraits are renderings of an amalgamation of internal and external factors he felt at the very moment he began to paint. On Saunders’s website he acknowledges that this process was, for him, a way to document his own discovery of how his immediate environment has a decisive impact on his sense of self. He renders visible the sensations, affects and precepts that form his relationship to his environment and his daily subjective experience.

I might be off base here, but I think these self-portraits can also be linked to Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of ‘blocs’, which are intrinsic pieces to a larger whole. For Saunders these self-portraits are blocs connected to his environment, his entire life, those with whom he shares social, physical relations, etc. I think his pieces work towards rendering visible a liminal sense of self that oscillates between his interior and exterior realities.

Another part of Saunder’s survey of his relationship to his environment that I found interesting is the different constraints he self-imposes. Notably, Saunders chose to, for a period of time, take a different drug everyday and draw himself under its influence. In “Percepts, Affect and Concept”, Deleuze & Guattari are quick to dismiss drugs as an approach to accelerate the artist’s process that stimulates sensations, affect and precept:

The question of whether drugs help the artist to create these beings of sensation, whether they are part of art’s internal means that really lead us to the ‘doors of perception’ and reveal to us percepts and affects, is given a general answer inasmuch as drug-induced compounds are usually extraordinarily flaky, unable to preserve themselves, and break up as soon as they are made or looked at (165).

I’m not sure if I wholly agree with this perspective as I understand it (which, admittedly, might not be very well, so anyone feel free to jump in and elaborate/explain). I think the use of drugs can fabricate false and superfluous sensations and percepts, but I think they can also work to unveil latent desires or unrealized affects of one’s environment. Although I know Deleuze and Guattari distance themselves from Freudian analysis and tend to privilege the self’s relationship to form, I think there is something to be said for Saunders’s work here. Saunders’s self-portraits on drugs (which you can see here), I found completely fascinating (see “Morphine IV”) and some absolutely terrifying (see “One Bump Crystal Meth”). These pieces certainly elicit an affective reaction from me, thus working to construct my relationship with his art. I think that Saunders’s use of drugs not only heightened his sensory perception, altered his lived reality and consequently his relationship to it, but also perhaps provided him limited access to unrealized thoughts, feelings and desires. Just because his reality is mediated, I’m not quite sure why drugs are disqualified as “a means that really lead us to the ‘doors of perception’”. I consider this “drug” series as something that was part of his reality that he chose to infuse into his artwork. Either way, I think this drug series is significant in examining his larger project – how his evolving relationship with his environment led him to choose to experiment with drugs and self-representation.

I think his self-portraits serve as an interesting example of how the construction of the self consists of a multiplicity of interacting sensations, affects and precepts. Thoughts, anyone?

– Aïcha

One Response to “Affect and Bryan Lewis Saunders”

  1. An interesting, somewhat under-explored area of discussion… I agree that the use of drugs – despite being a “synthetic” method – can be just as valid an approach to exploring affects and percepts as eating a madeleine (see Proust, “In Search of Lost Time”) or falling ill or listening to really moving music or experiencing something sudden/traumatic. All of these experiences reorder brain synapses, and it seems obvious they are not sustainable states – nor should they be – for creating art. Rather, drug use may contribute to the artist’s perceptions in developing their own work, or to the subject of the work itself — as another layer of experience to be examined and explored through art.

    Caveh Zahedi comes to mind immediately when I think of filmmakers exploring this area. In addition to being a fantastic filmmaker and a teacher here at the New School, he often has fairly insightful things to say about the use of hallucinogens (and other forms of self-exploration) in film.

    From an article with Zahedi in GreenCine (2004):

    “It’s impossible to film a drug trip. It’s such an internal experience. I’ve been making the same film for years of tripping and filming it; every year I’ll do a drug trip and then I’ll film it. It’s been going on for ten years now for a film I want to do about drugs. But every time I think, “I’ve finally captured it, this is it.” And people will see God, or whatever was so clearly visible to me as it was happening – and then I look at the footage and it looks like a crazy person gesticulating wildly. I’m always really disappointed. So I actually don’t think I do capture them very well, but think there’s something that comes across in the physical seeing that is valuable. But it’s just a fraction of what’s going on.”

    Thanks for posting the link to Saunders — disturbing but interesting work.


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