Friday, April 6, 2012

Whatever you do …

                                                 PHOTO BY DAVID JEWELL

Really, steampunk is the wrong word.

Because the steampunk impulse springs from a desire to embody a fictional existence within the context of our putatively duller reality, to engage in a sort of retro-cultural cosplay ~ regardless that it's a form of cosplay both less specifically derivative than most genre-based costuming and more often on par with inspired pinnacles of mainstream craftwork.

And that's not what Steve Brudniak is doing.


"I don't know," says the artist over coffee at the Green Muse Cafe on Oltorf Avenue,
"I wonder if ~"

No, steampunk is the wrong word. Because what Brudniak is doing is another thing entirely. He's not forcibly regressing modern tech toward some brass-hinged Victorian aesthetic for the delight of those who might yearn for a brighter, more mechanized version of (mostly European) days gone by.


"I don't know," says the artist over coffee at the Green Muse Cafe on Oltorf Avenue,
"I wonder if my denial of steampunk ~"

No, nevermind the steampunk. What Brudniak is doing in his Bouldin Creek studio that's equipped with drill presses and table saws and arc welders and industrial-strength angle grinders … what he’s doing in that workspace where the walls' shelves are chockablock with thick lengths of molded aluminum and iron, with copper tubing and johnson rods, with lenses and lasers and antique tiles and porcelain fixtures and dismantled apparatus that looks ripped from the guts of a Decepticon … what he has been doing there for almost three decades is using salvaged scientific and industrial equipment to create eerie structures that embody a timeless, ur-technological style. He's constructing machinelike (and painstakingly machined) objects that often serve as thick-plated frames or repositories for more fluid and personal … things.

It's a completely different motivation.


"I don't know," says the artist over coffee at the Green Muse Cafe on Oltorf Avenue,
where several of his scientific-looking sculptures are installed. "I wonder if my denial of steampunk might, ah, come back and bite me in the ass someday."

                                                  THE VAGUS LEVIATHAN

"I started out working with found objects in about 1982," says the artist, tearing hungrily into a thick Green Muse sandwich. "Which makes it, what? Longer than time is supposed to be. Twenty- eight years. And I just fell right into it, too. I started with some clay and went right to a neon-sign transformer after that. I was … 22?

“I was a bit of a science nerd, starting out. I think I just found the transformer at a neon-sign dump, and it said, on the side of it, that it would put out 15,000 volts. And what comes out of the wall is 110 volts. So I thought, hey, I'm gonna see what this does, and started playing around with it. Because you can take the two electrodes and you get a two-inch spark going like bzzzzt! between them."

"Like a Jacob's Ladder?" says your reporter.

"I actually made a Jacob's Ladder with coat hangers," says Brudniak. "And I had a landlord who worked for the electric company, and he said, 'Oh, transformers like that, you can't even get near them, a spark could just jump out and kill you.' And I didn't realize that he was talking about the big transformers up on the lightpoles. So for the first month of me playing with this neon-sign thing, I'd get a broomstick and poke it with that. And I started experimenting with fruit, cutting a banana in two and sticking the halves on the ends of coat-hanger wire. And electric sparks started jumping between the two halves of the banana ~ because, y'know, there's moisture in a banana, so the water conducts the current. And I ended up making my first sculpture, which was a carved wooden banana and a little angel from a Dungeons & Dragons set, a metal angel that's holding a staff, and the banana comes down, and there's ~ bzzzzzt! ~ a little spark that jumps to it. And it's all in this glass case, gilded, in stained glass. You can see it on my website."

"From the start," says your reporter, munching a few Zapp's salt & vinegar-flavored potato chips that the artist has kindly offered him, "you've set your works up as parts of an exhibition from some giant, gorgeous museum that doesn't actually exist. With the glass cases and the gilding, as you say, with the frames and all. What made you decide to do that, as opposed to just 'Okay, I've finished this object, now I'll move on to the next one?'"

"I've always had a real fascination for science museums," says Brudniak. "Since I was a kid, I've loved the displays in science museums ~ and art museums. Just the fact that something has been made precious by being surrounded by glass, in a vitrine, or framed and on the wall. Like, have you seen the photograph, the World's First Photograph, at the Harry Ransom Center? It's got a booth of its own; and then you go into the booth and there's a glass case; and in the case there's another case full of nitrogen; and in the nitrogen case is the photograph ~ inside a picture frame. And there's something gorgeous about that.

"So, yeah, almost everything I do has a central, ah, focus. Like a window or a tube or a case. Something that's being held, behind glass. And some of that relates well to the human, ah, psyche, you know? How there's this whole body that we've got that ages ~ it gets older and starts falling apart, gets gray … but inside there's still that little seven-year-old kid, you know what I mean?"

"Sure ~ it's preserved," suggests your reporter. "Like with the reliquaries you make, right? With your mentors' blood in them … ?"

"The blood reliquaries, yeah," says the artist.
"They're over at the East Side Show Room right now."

"And what got you started on that, on putting human fluids in with all this mechanical stuff?"


"Well," says Brudniak, "I'd been using biological things previous to that, too. And I'd seen a Catholic relic called The Blood of St. Genarius. It's this pole that the Pope or a bishop or somebody holds. It's all fancy, and it's got this glass bowl or jar at the top of it. It's this giant wand that the bishop uses. And what's in it is the blood of St. Genarius, and it's coagulated. But the bishop does a ritual, and starts to move the pole, and the blood magically becomes fluid ~ supposedly. And I saw that, and I thought, wow, what an awesome idea. Because, what is it? It's a relic. It's a relic that's been framed and put into a context where it's on display ~ and so it's a reliquary. And the Buddhists have their reliquaries, too, like the bones of their saints. So I thought I'd just use my own saints ~ or people who had affected my life."

Brenner: Which people in particular?

Brudniak: I went all the way back to my best friend in fifth grade, who was like the guy who pulled me out of my early nerd-dom. He'd be like, "Steve, let's jump between these two buildings!" And we would. And another friend who, later on in life, was one of my spiritual guides and teachers, in a way, who taught me a lot about Letting Go. And my parents are in one reliquary. And a good friend of mine who taught me a lot about how to laugh and be optimistic. And another one is an ex-girlfriend who taught me about benevolence and giving. There could've been a lot more reliquaries, but those pieces take a long, long time to make.

                                                    BODHISATTVA SETTEE

Brenner: Do you draw the blood yourself, or do you have a dedicated phlebotomist
that you work with?

Brudniak: I have two doctors who help me. And, oddly enough, my friend from fifth grade had always wanted to be a pilot, and I hadn’t talked to him in twenty years, and when I finally got in touch with him through the interwebs, he was like, “Hey, I’m actually a pilot now.” And I told him about the reliquary project, and I was like, “Can you do this?” And he goes, “Well, you know, I happen to be flying to Texas tomorrow.” And I go, “Oh, really? Where you going?” And he goes, “San Antonio.” And I’m like, “Guess where my doctor lives.” And so, the next day, my doctor’s drawing his blood.

And I have a psychiatrist friend who’s also collected some of my work; he did my parents. My dad’s like, “Steve, why the hell do you wanna use my ~ why couldn’t you put flowers or something in there, something that’ll sell?” It was tough, getting my parents to give it up, but they did it.

And then my friend, my guru buddy ~ who’s actually dead now ~ I had to go to Oklahoma to get his blood. But I couldn’t find a doctor in Oklahoma, so I went to a hospital and went to the supply room, and talked the guy there into giving me the phlebotomy kit. I’d seen it done enough times ~ I’d been a guinea pig at Pharmaco, so I’d had my blood drawn, like, eight million times when I was in my late twenties. So I did my first and only blood draw, ever. Luckily, this friend of mine had huge veins. And I did it perfectly: he didn’t even flinch! So I got his blood, and that was fun. Fun and scary ~ because I’m real squeamish about blood, so it helped me get through that.

There was one point, where I was filling up one of the reliquaries ~ and you have to get a syringe and squirt the blood in, and you have to have an outlet for the air ~ and I filled it up too far and some of the blood just ~ psssshhhhh! ~ it sprayed out onto the wall. And I remember getting really dizzy. I almost passed out working on my own art.

Brenner: What about that arrangement with game designer Richard Garriott, where you got some reliquaries taken to the International Space Station? How’d that come about?

Brudniak: I met Richard a long time ago ~ back in the Eighties. And he had a Tesla coil, and I had made a piece of art with a Tesla coil ~ the San Antonio Museum of Art owns it now ~ and I’d kind of met him back when we had a science museum here: Discovery Hall. I didn’t get to know him very well … but there’s a group of artists called The Robot Group, real sweet group of people who are doing some neat stuff and bringing technology to kids, and another group called Jumpstart, and we got city grant money to do science workshops with kids at schools. And I think it was through one of the guys in The Robot Group that I got Richard’s number. And I sent him some photos of my work, and he eventually got back to me and said he wanted to buy a bunch of it. And he did; he bought a few pieces from me.

And a few years later, he came over and bought some more work. So we began kind of a dialogue, and once in a while we'd chat online, and I got a tour of his awesome house. And then I heard him on the radio, talking about going to the space station. So I emailed him and said, "You know, I have this idea. If I make a piece of art, and you take it to the space station and bring it back, I'll let you keep it." And he was like, "Well, that's a great idea, I'm gonna be bringing up some of my mother's watercolors … "

But he told me that the artwork had to be very small and not be able to crack or break and so on. And I'd been thinking about doing little blood reliquaries, but Richard said it couldn't be anything that could potentially contaminate the air in the space shuttle. And his father was an astronaut, so I got a clipping of Richard's hair, and a clipping of his father's hair, and got these little Cartier watches from the Seventies ~ these were fake Cartier watches ~ but they have a cool little window, kind of square, and there's tiny screws all the way around. I happened to find two of those at a thrift store and I'd been wanting to do something with them. So I pretty much ground everything off the watch until there was this perfect little window, and I took the guts out, put a little velvet in there, and stuck some of their hair in each one.

My plan was that I would keep one, and Richard would keep one. And he didn't really do an art show up there, but I have a video where you can see him doing a demonstration with some tennis balls on the space shuttle, and the watches are stuck on this bulletin board behind him. He put Velcro on the back of them ~ everything he had was literally stuck on this bulletin board. And I was watching the video, and I was like, "There they are! There they are!" But Richard's plan was to keep both of them. Which he has, so far. But, fortunately, I have two other pieces of art that I borrowed back from him …

                                    HEIROPHANTIC APERTURE (SAMSARA)

Brenner: So by now you're making a living from your art?

Brudniak: It's always now.

Brenner: You … uh, you've always made … a living from … ?

Brudniak: No ~ it's always now, Brenner.
It's always now. This is the moment.

[Nota bene: The wry grin, the Zen sparkle in the artist's eyes. Nota bene: The frown, the flow-thwarted frustration in your reporter's eyes. Nota bene: He's a sincere man, this Brudniak, a decent man; but he will fuck with you.]

Brenner: No, I mean ~ look, at some point ~ at some point ~ including now ~
you started making a living by selling your art. Is that right?

Brudniak: I've always made part of my living selling art, because, eventually, I sell every piece that I make. But some of them take a while ~ like that very first piece, with the wooden banana: It was a very good piece, but it took twenty-some-odd years to sell. And I'm just now getting prices on my work where I can ~ I mean, if I sold everything I made, immediately, I couldn't quite make a living at it. Because, in a good year, I can only make two or three large pieces a year, with another five or so smaller pieces. In my best year, I think I made nine pieces of art. The piece I'm working on now, I've been working on it since last October, maybe earlier than that. And hopefully somebody will buy it and I'll get close to $20,000 or so for it. But it's a tough sell ~ somebody's got to want a weird-ass thing, and they have to have room for it. They've got to be rich, pretty much. I certainly could never afford …

Brenner: To buy your own art?

Brudniak: Yeah, you know? The really sad thing in the art world is that, if you go 25 or 30 years and you're still selling your big pieces of art for a thousand dollars, people are gonna be like … well, the collectors want to buy valuable work that's valuable, you know? So I raised my prices a couple years ago and was still able to sell stuff. But it's a slow process. I rent out space, part of the property I own, and last year was a really good art year ~ so my income was split about fifty-fifty, between the art sales and the being-an-evil-landlord sales. But the only reason I bought the property and turned it into rentals was so I'd have time to make art and not have to worry about whether I sold anything. Because the market is so unpredictable.

Brenner: And times are hard.

Brudniak: And people have different tastes ~ everybody buys for different reasons. You might buy a, like, a Jeff Koons because you can invest with it later or something, you know? There's a lot of people that are infected by the Emperor's New Clothes virus: Ninety percent of the art world is.


  1. Just wanted to point out that Richard Garriott confirmed to me, he did have the art exhibit on the the space station. (The first art show in outer space by the way!) Having missed the announcement, I had made the wrong assumption.

    More importantly, the comment about him intending to keep both pieces is paraphrased a bit out of context; I believe I said that he still had both pieces and jokingly remarked that I was keeping some of my art from his collection for ransom. I never intended to infer he was keeping both for himself. Indeed, he paid me generously for my half of the pair.

    Unfortunately, a smile or a wink wont always convey in print. Though Brenner, your were pretty astute with that in the rest of the interview! Nice piece... xoxox

    Steve Brudniak

    1. Indeed, I could've done a better job of indicating the impish sparkle in your eye as you spoke of those two pieces. In conversation, that jesting quality was much more obvious ~ as was your general respect for & delight in the company of the man some yet know as Lord British.

      ~ BRNNR

  2. Excellent! We will definitely make it to Austin to see your latest exhibit. Frank and I miss you - I am getting my Audio Production Bachelor's online starting school next week. Frank said you and your band should be one of the projects I record. Frank could make the album cover!! I think a thermin would sound great!!