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The Idea Machine: Brion Gysin

Painter, performer, poet, writer and mystic Brion Gysin (1916-86) was an early prophet of our age. He was a pioneer of the cut-up method, a technique that in many ways anticipated the internet’s impact on the way that we break down information and ascribe meaning to symbols and words.

His innovations include early sound poetry and a scientifically-researched device known as the Dreamachine. Despite forging a creative practice that would influence some of the twentieth century’s most important artists, from the Beat Generation to Bowie, Gysin has slipped into relative obscurity. His anonymity is in stark contrast to his lifelong friend and collaborator William S. Burroughs, whose Naked Lunch became a countercultural bible and must-read for any teenage recluse.

Gysin was born in England to Canadian parents in 1916. He was introduced into Surrealist circles while studying at the Sorbonne, and after the war accompanied Paul Bowles to Morocco. It was there that Gysin met Burroughs. The two ended up back in Paris together in 1958 at the infamous Beat Hotel. Their experiments with the cut-up technique, in which words and phrases are literally cut up into pieces and rearranged to disassociate them from their received meanings and reveal new ones, culminated in Burroughs and Gysin’s The Third Mind, a book-length collage manifesto on the possibilities of the practice.

From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Gysin’s style manifested itself in a series of calligraphic paintings and drawings that he produced in Morocco. Fluent in written Japanese and Arabic, Gysin’s script-like canvases represent an attempt to fuse writing and painting into a single complex system of mark-making. He used a grid formation, making marks from top to bottom as well as right to left, to create a dense pattern of abstract language.

Circa 1960, Gysin collaborated with Ian Sommerville, a mathematician and budding computer scientist studying at Oxford. He and Sommerville were attempting to computerise the shift and change of words and sounds, naming these experiments with printed words and magnetic tape Permutations. Works like ‘Pistol Poem’, comprised solely of pistol shots recorded at varying distances, and the poem ‘I Am That I Am’ made him a pioneer of sound poetry. Embracing magnetic tape and computer technology, at a time when such practice was the preserve of scientists, Gysin equated his Permutations with those of a machine. He went on to perform these works around Europe, accompanied by music and handmade slide projections.

Gysin believed that his Dreamachine would eclipse television

In 1961, Gysin and Sommerville developed the Dreamachine. A cylinder with slits cut in the sides and a suspended light bulb at its centre is placed on a record turntable and rotated at seventy-eight revolutions per minute; the rotation speed projects light at a constant frequency of eight to thirteen pulses per second, which corresponds to alpha waves present in the human brain during wakeful relaxation. The flickering light creates a trance-like hallucinatory state. For Gysin, the Dreamachine was the culmination of his research. With it, images were freed completely from representation. He believed that the future of painting was the mind, which could be an inexhaustible source of artistic revelation with the help of the Dreamachine. The piece was officially unveiled in March 1962 at an exhibition titled The Object at the Museé des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. It did in fact prove to be a source of artistic inspiration, though not to the degree Gysin hoped – he believed that his Dreamachine would eclipse television. Burroughs even thought it could be used to ‘storm the citadels of enlightenment.’

At the exhibition Brion Gysin: Dream Machine, the New Museum in New York invited viewers to experience a Dreamachine alongside notebooks and drafts for The Third Mind, letters between Gysin and Burroughs and videos of Gysin’s friends and collaborators. The exhibition also comprised Gysin’s calligraphic paintings, drawings, films and personal notebooks – all providing a platform for a rethinking of Gysin as an artist in his own right.

I met New Museum curator Laura Hoptman to discuss the show and the dynamic relationship between Gysin and Burroughs.


QMarina Cashdan — Being relatively unknown, perhaps Brion Gysin didn’t get the recognition he deserved: he did make an incredible impact on a great number of creative people.

ALaura Hoptman — He was a huge catalyst for so many people. His first exhibition was with André Breton, if you could imagine, and his last years were spent with Keith Haring and George Condo. It’s extraordinary – that’s the twentieth century, really, in terms of culture. He knew everybody. He was Zelig in that way, or a Zelig figure.

QMarina Cashdan — It seemed like the show was built largely on the intense relationship between Gysin and William Burroughs.

ALaura Hoptman — That was the great collaboration. He was a serial collaborator; he started his collaborations early on and he did them until the end of his life. But he was also what George Condo called ‘an idea machine’. So he’d come up with something like the cut-up and then he’d toss it to someone who was perhaps more talented or more brilliant in certain aspects. With the cut-up method he changed William Burroughs’s life. Burroughs tried his entire life to tell people that Gysin invented cut-up, but because Burroughs ran with the idea, producing numerous novels, he is the one credited. And of course there’s a famous quote by Burroughs but it’s still very beautiful. He said Gysin was the only man he ever respected.

QMarina Cashdan — Do you think that really means the only man he ever loved?

ALaura Hoptman — I absolutely do, and it’s funny that you should mention that because someone who’s visiting the New Museum today is James Grauerholz, who was William Burroughs’s last boyfriend and is the executor of both the Burroughs and Gysin literary estates. I asked him: ‘So why weren’t they ever lovers?’ and he said, ‘Well, it was different but it was a strong love and perhaps even stronger than an affair or a physical kind of love’.

QMarina Cashdan — You can sense that immediately and it’s one of the beautiful aspects of the show. But was Gysin frustrated with being labelled the ‘ideas person’, with not getting the credit he might have felt he deserved?

ALaura Hoptman — Actually no. Or he was frustrated that he wasn’t famous and he was certainly frustrated that he wasn’t rich. I mean, he died in poverty. And Burroughs – from what I can gather from the letters – was the person who supported him in large part for years and years. Every time Burroughs would get a royalty cheque from one of his books, he would send a money order to Gysin, but in the guise of something else. He would say: ‘Here’s the deposit for such and such’, or, ‘Here’s the investment for so and so’. I think that having to rely on Burroughs was a big disappointment, from what I can get from the letters. But I do know that once Gysin created these ideas, he was not selfish with them. It was important for him to bring them out into the world. And when William Burroughs took up the cut-up method, he did it with gusto.

There is a series of letters that he wrote to Gysin in 1960 or 1961 from Tangiers. I mean they wrote daily – there are hundreds of these letters – and they would say things like: ‘Go outside and do a dérivé; walk around and find all the blue objects and take pictures of them and cut them up,’ or, ‘Take your permutation poems and translate them into different languages and then cut them up’. And Gysin would write back: ‘You know, man, this cut-up thing is just not my bag, but this Dreamachine! Let me tell you!’ He had already moved on. There was a moment in one letter that I read in the Public Library, Burroughs was like, ‘God damn it, man, do you know what you have here?!’ And Gysin would go: ‘It just bores me; it’s just collage and it just bores me’.

‘Ahhh! I can’t believe it! This is like the atom bomb for the English language and you’re not doing anything with it!’ Burroughs would answer.

So, you know, Gysin patented the Dreamachine, primarily because he thought it would really replace television. He had a very Duchampian idea that he could market it, but back to the question – just from the evidence, he didn’t seem like a very selfish thinker at all.

QMarina Cashdan — It was an intense passion, maybe more about the idea and the constant energy behind these ideas…

ALaura Hoptman — That generation, that whole group of guys – Burroughs, Gysin, John Giorno – were in their little subcultural bubble. Their sense of reality was very strange. Burroughs wrote to Gysin when they were about to do The Third Mind and said, ‘Come to New York, I have a publisher, It’s going to be a best seller!’ Now where, in what universe, would a 200-page cut-up collage novel by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin ever be a bestseller? But Burroughs was just sure.

QMarina Cashdan — Can you talk about the genesis of the cut-up method and The Third Mind?

ALaura Hoptman — The idea to equate the written word with the abstract language of painting or art-making was an innovation that Gysin began to think about in the early 50s when he learned Japanese and Arabic calligraphy. The Third Mind is simply the merging of words and pictures and taking them apart to divine new meanings once they have been put back together. Both of these guys were very interested in esoterica, and they felt there was meaning hidden in words and images that was not being allowed to come through. They wanted to reclaim consciousness from societal control. Burroughs felt it was important to get the word out about the cut-up because he thought it could free people’s minds.

QMarina Cashdan — They really lived in this other-worldly space. The Dreamachine is almost this transcendental place, between imagination and reality, dream and real life. The experience is incredible, or at least my own experience with the Dreamachine was. But Brion Gysin, from what I’ve read, was someone who could write about that space in a way that no one else could.

ALaura Hoptman — Yes, he was very articulate and a great storyteller.

QMarina Cashdan — You talk about the subversive nature of this group of friends. They were very involved with drugs and many had sordid pasts – hardcore, really. That subversive quality was very prevalent in 222 Bowery, where Burroughs had his ‘Bunker’] and in the spirit of the group, but also in the personal glyphs he created, cracking a code. I wonder if it’s a quality that can’t exist now in the internet era. They had the space to create that world and today with the internet, everything is broken down so quickly, because everyone has access to that information so easily.

ALaura Hoptman — That’s what Gysin predicted, isn’t it? That’s the whole notion of the cut-up.

QMarina Cashdan — Yes, there’s definitely a relationship between how people comprehend information and how they break it down. We now get everything in bite-size pieces. Twitter feeds are the modern day cut-ups! He was very prophetic. It’s incredible to see, it feels very relevant.

ALaura Hoptman — 45 years ago, I know. It’s an interesting and fine line between divination and deconstruction. They were not destroyers. Gysin wasn’t a destroyer. That’s the way I get around the parallels between the Dada experiment, for example. But it wasn’t really about that, it was about something else, about divining meaning.

QMarina Cashdan — Transcendence, going to this other dimension or space or universe. A very sci-fi feel…

ALaura Hoptman — Yeah, he talked a lot about astronauts. They didn’t say ‘psychonauts’, which was the proper seventies term. Both Gysin and Burroughs were interested in science fiction – Burroughs especially. For a couple of years, Burroughs was involved in scientology. It mixes with this notion of the occult and science fiction, but they did talk about astronauts. They were interested in going places.

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