This Beautiful Corrosion — William S. Burroughs at the ZKMTags: Ian MacFadyen
A Review of The Name Is Burroughs: expanded media at the ZKM, Karlsruhe
Curated by Axel Heil, Udo Breger and Peter Weibel
March 24 — August 8, 2012
Text: Ian MacFadyen
Photographs: Eric Andersen
.” . .the city moved in swirls and eddies and tornadoes of image. . .”
Off the Map
This is a major exhibition of Burroughs’ work in all media over a lifetime of unparalleled research and creativity, and it also explores Burroughs’ influence on later generations of artists. With around 2,000 items, including books, newspapers and magazines, photographs, films, paintings, sculptures, letters, and artefacts, it is a wonderful testament to Burroughs’ extraordinary achievements, and to the dedication, scholarship and originality of the curators. It is a huge show, with 600 editions of Burroughs’ books and publications, and 150 original exhibits courtesy of the Estate of William S. Burroughs, as well as a selection of works by artists who collaborated with Burroughs, who acknowledged his influence, or whose works seem aesthetically, historically and culturally connected to Burroughs’ own ethos and praxis. The show is a travelogue in which sidetripping off the map is not just allowed, but de rigeur. Although Barry Miles has provided an excellent chronology and the show moves from birth to death, conventional structures of linear biography and historical “progress” are contradictory to and made redundant by Burroughs’ work of recycling and rewriting, cutting up and folding in, and the ZKM show severs the time lines at strategic junctures. Echoes and correspondences are set up by placing particular works in different contexts, so that one of Rolf-Gunter Dienst’s paintings, for example, a blue-on-red calligraphy, is hung not in the Gysin section with Dienst’s other work, but in another space, alongside Gysin’s “DANGER” photos of Burroughs and the cabinet containing The Soft Machine. Likewise, a Gysin Naked Lunch quotation grid, the opening of Naked Lunch transcribed from the German, is hung, appropriately, in a space relating to that book, rather than in the Gysin section of the show. In this way, a too-rigid uniformity of thematics and practices is avoided. Directional signs are set in the floor at strategic points, psycho-geographic Situationist homages used to some purpose — that way Rauschenberg, this way Paris, and over there Photography. . . But you make your move, get diverted en route, and find yourself happily lost in fascination. The exhibition is not a tourist itinerary, a chronology of dead sites, a comparative presentation of artworks, but a switchback topography, inviting excursions off the main drag. . . St Louis. . . Tangier. . . Paris. . . Los Alamos. . . London. . . Kansas. . . South America. . . The viewer-stroller moves in and out of the sets and the unfolding creative domains. . . Larry Clark. . . Robert Mapplethorpe. . . Walter Stohrer. . . George Condo. . . Genesis P-Orridge. . . Clemente. . . Basquiat. . . Patti Smith. . . Rauschenberg. . . Orientation is by design, desire and pure happenstance, and the route you take determines what you see and how you see it. . .
The Writer Is on the Cover
Burroughs’ books are displayed in specially constructed shelved wall cabinets of varying dimensions. Hardback and paperback editions, including German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and other languages, chart the images and typography and design of Burroughs’ books over 50 years. These cabinets, fascinating to fans of Burroughs and book collectors, and beautiful to look at, also function as cultural transmission collages, 3D time capsules, and they reveal the complex history of the marketing of Burroughs’ avant-garde writing and the representation of homosexuality and drugs from the early 1960s onwards. There are also wall-angled and standing vitrines in the ZKM show in which journals, periodicals, critical reviews and anthologies, photo books and compilations are displayed — along with scores of images of Burroughs. Certain vitrines collect and focus on particular areas such as the Beat Hotel and the Paris years, with books by Harold Chapman, Harold Norse, Barry Miles, J-J Lebel and Henri Michaux, others are rich with Burroughs’ coverage in the media, from Big Table I and the Chicago Review of Autumn, 1958, to Life’s November 30, 1959 issue, with “Beats: Sad But Noisy Rebels” by Paul O’Neill, through into the 1960s and a cornucopia of underground mags and newspapers. . . There’s a drawing of Burroughs as the man with X-ray vision on the front of RAT: Subterranean News, October 1968, and there’s Burroughs again on the front of Books and Bookmen, March, 1963, with Madame Rachou making an extremely rare media appearance — “his banned book The Naked Lunch is named by Mary McCarthy ‘one of the two great novels of the twentieth century’ but. . . read B&B’s cool appraisal of this unknown, unread author.” That phrase gives one a start — Burroughs, the “unknown, unread author.” . . On into the 1970s and 1980s, Heavy Metal, magazine littéraire, Creative Camera, Soho News, Playboy — the sheer range of sources is striking. Here’s Burroughs as a comic book character by S Clay Wilson, or in serial solarisation on the cover of the December-January 1977 issue of lightworks. . . There’s Burroughs photographed with Jimmy Page on the front of Crawdaddy in June 1975, and Richard Avedon’s classic whiteout shot on the cover of HP (Bocken), 15 January 1983, “De Godfather Van De Beat-Generation,” and Burroughs posing with pistol on the front of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring, 1984. One thing for sure — from glossies to mimeograph, high to low, Burroughs really made the covers. The Soho News, February 18-24 1981, has one of those rare pictures of Burroughs smiling — “The Inner Burroughs: Novel Ideas On Urban Terror,” by Edmund White. . . The punning title neatly condenses and promotes Burroughs’ peculiar mixture of fiction writer and polemicist, the infamous marginal man getting his radical ideas out there, the renegade author as professional writer, making a living from his own strange perspective. . . Another vitrine contains newspaper spreads from Basler Magazine, 1989, 1993, 1999, by Udo Breger — just one example, along with expanded media editions publications such as Naked Scientology, Electronic Revolution, Ali’s Smile, and issues of Radium Magazine, of the importance of Burroughs’ work, especially the cut-up, for more than one generation of German-speaking writers and artists. Burroughs is contextualized within an international avant-garde, appearing on the cover of Radium 226.05 Magazine, Spring 1986 — “Bisticas Bowles Breger Burroughs. . . Giorno, Gysin. . . Ploog P-Orridge Wilson.” A vitrine with copies of Burroughs’ seminal The Job also includes So Who Owns Death T.V., The Dead Star, Apo-33, and L’Herne’s Burroughs Pélieu Kaufman: Textes. The textual material is skilfully juxtaposed and both thematically coherent and visually striking, so that The Soft Machine is accompanied by Exterminator and Minutes to Go, while, for example, editions of Roosevelt After Inauguration are placed in the same cabinet as copies of The Yage Letters — as Miles says in his guide notes, “It was not until 1979 that Lawrence Ferlinghetti finally published it with City Lights and in the meantime it has been reinstated where it originally belonged in The Yage Letters.” Miles’ notes which accompany the show are excellent and precisely informative, and he’s prepared to take issue, too, as with Burroughs’ attitude to women: “the old dualism of men being of the air, that they have the adventurous spirit and women being home makers are earthly, committed to stay grounded. . . This is of course the opposite of most stereotypes which attribute magical knowledge, witchcraft and spirituality to women and pointing out that men created the rigid authoritarian structures of state and the military that Burroughs objected to so much.” It’s significant in this respect that Burroughs was inspired by nagualism, and although he knew that in the history of this heretical magical system there had been many vitally important women shamans and followers, he criticized Carlos Castaneda for being surrounded by female devotees — “Too many nagual women.”
Silver Boys and Screaming Skulls
“The space of heaven is filled with naked beings rushing through the air. . .” Burroughs’ painting Silver Boys, 1987, is a dance of cosmic transcendence, like the one performed by Lykin in The Ticket That Exploded — “He was drifting through space, wafted by currents of glowing gases. . . twittering creatures pulling and tugging at him and dancing on their way leaping from soaring black heights into deep blue chasms trailing the neon ghost writing of Saturn. . .” The Silver Boys derive from bodies which “burn with a silver flash” and drift like phosphorescence in The Ticket That Exploded, while the silver flash is described in The Place of Dead Roads — “the answer came to Kim in a silver flash. . . Silence.” Boys’ eyes flash silver in Burroughs’ texts, they escape gravity and mortality and swirl through the silence of space, breathing silence. . . Their bodies merge in an erotic space dance, drops of semen falling like shooting stars, “like opal cane” and “jissom turn to little white flowers in the air fall so slow. . .,” while “The SILVER SMILE” is the ghost sign of the Wild Boys, floating in a blue twilight sky beneath a silver crescent moon, an erotic, beckoning apparition. . . The aerial ballet is anti-gravity sex, and the boys copulate in space in The Wild Boys and in The Ticket That Exploded — “The sexual acrobats balance a chair on high wires and ejaculate from the tension” and turn “jissom cartwheels.” As ever in Burroughs’ work, in all media, there’s the fated switcheroo — a rocket’s blast cuts to a burning oil drum, the great project of self-creation and immortality devolves into corpses and rubble-strewn streets. You see breathtaking satellite pictures of silvery galaxies and then the close-up of a sad dead monkey’s paw. Those adolescent aeronauts joyfully swooping through the ether have their dark counterparts floating on a river of night, screaming skull-masks cast into outer darkness, noir silhouettes in a dead city, a pistol in a gloved hand. . . No other writer, no other artist has ever approached Burroughs’ visionary alternation between transcendence and degradation, the cosmic and the quotidian alternating in a continual flickering stream.
Slits in Time / City of Sodom / Flying over Ruins
Looking at Burroughs’ paintings at the ZKM, I remembered André Breton’s statement, that surrealist collages are “slits in time” through which “former lives, actual lives, future lives melt together into one life” — the collage cuts through time and space, juxtaposing and concatenating and merging historical and psycho-geographic scenes. Breton’s “slits in time” seems in accordance with Burroughs and Gysin’s practices of “cutting through time lines,” and with the spinning slits of the Dreamachine, while Hal Foster has pointed out the resemblance between Breton’s understanding of collage and Walter Benjamin’s definition of the dialectical image: “It isn’t that the past casts its light on the present or the present casts its light on the past; rather, an image is that in which the past and the now flash into a constellation. In other words, image is dialectic at a standstill.” This, in turn, suggests something essential to Burroughs’ approach to the visual image, both written and painted — the evocation of the silver flash and the whirling mosaic, and the hole “blown through time,” resurrecting pirate utopias, activating the sets of the Old West and the New World, escaping from the doomed planet. . . Burroughs seeks those transcendent moments of stillness and wonder which Breton evoked in his paradoxical formulation of collage as the creation of “illusions of true recognition.” Through written and painted palimpsests and those “magical photographs and films,” Burroughs explored the psychic potential of social mythologies, cutting through the materials of historical reproduction, transforming the dialectic into flashes of enlightenment, creating constellations of fascination — promising escape from the self, out-of-the-body experiences, the living of other lives in other times. . . It is in this sense that Burroughs has the “company” of his own shape-shifting characters, and why he employs the maxim, “It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live.” For Burroughs, painting was a method of time travel, the conjuration of the scenes and times and characters of his own life and cosmogony, and it was also the convergence of psychic exploration and the reclamation of radical, secret histories. Like Gysin, Burroughs was an instinctively and determinedly heretical historian, and Operation Rewrite was crucially bound up with the two men’s homosexuality and their lives lived in subcultural, marginal milieux. If history is fiction, if nothing is true and everything permitted, then the social and political records may be recast, reconfigured, according to homosexual desire and the experience of criminalization — the hidden histories of homosexuality would be regained through the writing of fictions, through visionary projections, through a spirit of systematic contradiction and deconstruction. News clippings in Burroughs’ paintings are presented in order to be lacerated and scorned, as in the 1988 painting Last Chance Junction And Curse on Drug Hysterics — “It is my firm belief that the drug addicts in the United States should be dealt with the same way they were dealt with in China. . .” This cutting of the Ann Landers column is both framed and despoiled by brush strokes, red painted flames shooting out from the derided text, while another clipping in the picture is titled “the world’s end” — “Scores of religious fundamentalists are heeding an author’s predictions that a prelude to Christ’s second coming is near and some are selling their worldly goods to prepare for the end of the world. . .” These true believers liquefy their assets before The Rapture comes down and lifts them up — they’ll bank their cash as soon as they’re booked into Paradise . . . Christian Fundamentalism, the oppression of gays and drug addicts, the coming apocalypse, the buying and selling of the earth, the extinction of wilderness species — Burroughs literally draws upon the reportage, sticks it on the painting wall and frames the lunacy and bigotry with his own splenetic calligraphy and graffiti. The train image in this painting, captioned “Casey’s last ride,” is an early steam-driven version of the Nova Express — the train of history on its fixed linear tracks, on its one-way trip to oblivion. Asked about the “world situation,” Burroughs would reply, “Hopeless,” but if he intended to “write his way out” of personal anguish and despair, and out of an ideological, historical and linguistic impasse, he and Gysin would also create their own, alternative anti-capitalist image bank, picturing and transmitting the world otherwise, the way they wished to see it, while envisioning other ways of being in the world. Paul Hallam, in The Book Of Sodom, 1993, writes: “There is no Sodom, there are only Sodom texts. Stories of Sodom, commentaries, footnotes, elaborations and annotations upon Sodom.” But the Book of the City of Sodom would surely include images as well as texts, pictures hidden in plain sight as well as the provocatively “pornographic” — elegiac and celebratory representations and projections, from black-and-white Times Square hustler photos to the paintings of Francis Bacon. Sodom City would exist not only through the recreation of a City of Words, written out of the erasures of censorship, but would be a City of Images, a plenitude of polymorphous-erotic pictures filled with human feeling. A number of Burroughs’ paintings are part of this City of Sodom, though they are only rarely illustrative or specifically “queer” in their iconography — rather, they are allusive in their seductive effects and sensual sweep, invoking the return of the repressed, the lure of what lies hidden beneath. The breaker of taboos, the scorner of censorship, the creator of images of attack and rupture, is also the artist of drift, of endless recreation and disappearance, ceaseless transmigration and dispersion. Burroughs’ painting is a form of Memory Theater, the re-staging of characters and sets from his written work, though only vestigial narrative links are suggested — the image fragments are caught in circulation, phantasmatic ciphers marooned in space, ghostly manifestations among the ruins, images of separation cut adrift in splatter and whirl, torn and punctured. Burroughs’ written narrative sequences, in which sets and characters are linked and combined in scenarios, however fractured or elliptical, are spilled in his painting, traced and registered only to dissolve and become undone, visual versions of the great theme of disembodiment in Burroughs’ writing. It is painting as the medium of remembrance, and painting as perpetual Disappearing Act — the salvation of shards from the Floating World, and the dream of escaping entropy and the planet’s gravitational pull. . . Asked about his belief in the possibility of immortality, Burroughs would reply, “Well, a writer has his books, an artist has his paintings. . .” Faithful to the spirit of contradiction, Burroughs’ belief in the immortality of art challenges his dictum that the artist is working towards his own obsolescence — the artist would live on through the magic of his creations, through his radical vision: ars ab experimento. Paul Klee, the artist so revered by Burroughs, wrote in 1935: “I have long had this war inside me. . . And to work my way out of my ruins, I had to fly. And I flew. I remain in this ruined world only in memory. . .”
Cut-Outs and Terminal Holes
The stencils Burroughs used for his sprayed paintings are displayed — the ex votos of the art process, a talismanic cabinet. These tools of the trade, paint-splattered masks and silhouettes, have their own seductive power, progenitors of Burroughs’ cut-out figure painting Crazy Man. Stencils, sprayed, painted and screened, feature in the work of a number of artists in the show, like the grimacing lapel badges, upside-down smiley faces and idiot grimaces in Walter Dahn’s Materiabild of the 1980s. . . Wolf Pehlke’s Beat Farming Area 23, in which the dead play panpipes and have mushroom heads, is spray-painted with stencils on canvas. . . Mike Kelly’s exhibits include a striking black mask visage from the Pansy Metal series while in his paintings Stump, A Scion Of Gun World, and Finger Poppin Time, all from 1975, crystalline star forms radiate around ragged, torn, impasto holes, centers of absence, coagulated, the informe of the material of paint itself . . . There’s a Peter Doig painting of repeated gun motifs, with a face mask sticking out its tongue, and Philip Taaffe’s gorgeous Sanctuary, 2002, a biomorphic paradise garden with templated, tentacular biomorphic forms in red on a green ground. . . A work by Wallace Berman, document paper on wood, from the 1970s, features his signature repeated motif of a hand holding an image box — a cross, a stopwatch, daisies, a Buddha. . . Turn any corner and you pass from an urban inferno to a new Space Eden, from pictures of riot culture to projections of transcendence. A prevalent mode is that of pictures-within-pictures, painted and stencilled and photo-inset, with the repetition and variation of painted cut-outs. . . The transposing and subverting of media is apparent throughout the show — the reproduction and manipulation of images, the creation of détourned, personalized iconographies. Artists engage with chance procedures, expressionist and calligraphic gestures, heterogenous materials and processes, variation through reiteration, creating palimpsests of layered images, transforming digital information into analogical, handmade motifs. . . Burroughs and Gysin influenced other artists through cut-up and Third Mind media processes — this included systems artists of the 1960s and early ’70s. But Burroughs’ painting did not influence other painters, rather his late career coincided with the rise of a new expressionist figuration in art in the 1980s, including graffiti artists, while younger artists like Basquiat, were powerfully attracted to Burroughs’ legendary life and his writing, and Burroughs’ collaborations with many artists, including Keith Haring, Philip Taaffe and Robert Wilson, contextualized his art within contemporary practice. Book and magazine artists had previously illustrated Burroughs’ work — Malcolm Mc Neill‘s collaboration with Burroughs, Ah Pook Is Here, showed that this could be done with great individual style and elan, and likewise Bob Gale’s illustrations to The Book Of Breeething were striking and apposite, while several of Norman Rubington’s black ink illustrations to extracts from The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded in The Olympia Reader of 1965, were effective. A crucial part of the influence of Burroughs’ iconography and iconoclasm is his own image reproduced in the media, and at the ZKM we see versions of this image as they have been re-deployed, re-contextualized, subverted and celebrated by other artists, through photography, paint, collage and film. Beyond this fascination with the mythos, we find many artists inspired by the anarchic spirit of Burroughs’ work — violent, satiric attacks upon America, the military-industrial complex, religious bigotry, censorship, the war on drugs, a destructive culture of excess imperiling the ecology, blindly killing thousands with unmanned drones and signing off on it.
Dangerous Immaculate / His Work Is Crystal / John Isaacs On Burroughs
I spoke with the artist John Isaacs about Burroughs and his work, and about his own contributions to the ZKM exhibition, in particular John’s 2007 sculpture Where Is My World, made of glazed ceramic, steel, plastic, spray paint, human hair and an electric appliance. John Isaacs:
Burroughs’ front is armour-plated, a carapace, he’s there with a gun or a typewriter, and it’s frontal, frontal, frontal. . . He confronts you, he’s looking out directly, and it tells you something about the image world, the world he sees and how we see his image . . . Then you see him from behind and he’s totally vulnerable, you see him walking in a field in a photo or shooting at targets and he’s so frail and defenceless, even though he’s shooting a gun, and you realize he was always that way, he was always old, he was always vulnerable, but he stood there, he looked at the world, he confronted it. . . Burroughs’ work, it reflects the light, it’s so pure, it can’t be corrupted, it’s dangerous, immaculate, the most terrifying thing, and Burroughs’ purity was terrible to people because their view of life could be crumbled, obliterated. . . His vision cuts through, his work is crystal, crystalline. . . I studied art after I studied biology and that’s part of the connection, I mean, Burroughs is about getting away from the body, out of the body, but the body in his work is insistent in its beauty and in its decay. . . The drugs, the alcohol, people will do it in a nightclub filled with light in darkness and smoke and Burroughs has that in his writing, the shattering of syntax and words like hieroglyphs, a writing you have to navigate through, you can see it moving on the page, and you’re passing through these atmospheres and the feeling you get is not like any other. . . My sculpture in the show, the one you like, it’s an amorphous blob of flesh in ceramic, but the neon light coming through the hair is kind of angelic. . . And on top of it is a Kurt Cobain record. . . It’s the idea of a lamp as a domestic object that you reach out for in the dark, at night, to illuminate, the first thing you reach for, to switch on the light, to read a book in the night, to be illuminated. . . And it’s the light, the radiance taken over by the Church, the monopoly of Divine Light. . . There’s a fair degree of highly suggestive surrealist possibilities in this idea of a highly manufactured object with this hair hanging down, it’s absurd, uncanny, untimely, and these metamorphoses you can’t grasp. . . You ask what this has to do with Burroughs, but it doesn’t work like that, this piece is in the show and there are certain correspondences, it’s about confluences, possibilities, and I don’t prescribe a single meaning to a work. . . It floats in space and yet it’s this amorphous mass, and there’s a lot of amnesia involved. . . I’m the artist but how can I account for the origins of this piece? Well, no, I can’t. . . You said you found it one of the most fascinating things in the exhibition, but it isn’t specifically about Burroughs’ work, and a work must transcend its own origins. . . That ceramic lamp, it’s exotic, you can’t account for it, you want to cuddle it and demolish it, and maybe that’s how it belongs in the Burroughs show. . . This ceramic blob is the tumour, it’s broken through the surface, it’s the light you just switched on in the darkness, and you switched it on, and you’re looking at it. . . So embrace it, hate it, love it, smash it to bits.
Not Dead Matter
There are spectral aphasias throughout Burroughs’ cosmogony, scenes of sensory overload and cancellation, a feeling comes through, but it escapes visualization as it exceeds verbalization — ectoplasmic flesh, the odourless alleys of space, the silent frequency of junk, the colorless no smell of death. . . And then there is the deliquescence of the abject and anomalous, the dissolution of matter into liquid oozing sludge — super-entropic schlupping-up. Life becomes ethereal, phantasmagoric, or degenerates, becomes base, loathsome, informe. The viscous state seems allied to cooking up heroin and shooting up, the liquid shot and the liquefaction of the body, and Burroughs returns hypnotically to the tropes of the degraded and the spilled. . . As psychoanalyst Mary Douglas wrote in her seminal work Danger and Purity, “The viscous is a state half-way between solid and liquid. It is like a cross-section in a process of change. It is unstable. . .” Heroin is escape from “base conditions,” it is transport out, and a taste of immunity, but the addict’s return to the suffering body is excruciating, and the ethereal and the abject are intertwined throughout Burroughs’ writing — in his painting the materiality of paint and its ineffable effects combine as praxis and synecdoche of this existential dialectic. Burroughs treats paint as matter, smearing it around with a suction cup or his hand, he splatters it and scrawls in it and presses and drags it. Even shot at from a distance, paint is physical material to be manipulated or damaged, or, in Gysin’s more restrained phrase, “given a little push.” In his painting Burroughs was indeed indebted to Gysin, and to their collaborative scrapbook work which returned in his paintings, and he continued the Third Mind precept of creating through processes which bypass the agency of control — the physical matter of paint conjures both ethereal states and biologic degradation through a panoply of effects, conjuring both transcendent spaces and scenarios of earthly horror. It’s paint as the prima materia from which new life emerges — as Burroughs wrote in Nova Express, “the image material was not dead matter.” It was physical material transformed into the living image, coming alive through other eyes and seeing fingers. Burroughs’ paintings mix expressionistic brushwork, calligraphy, collaged newspaper and magazine texts and photos, grids and lattices, scrawls and drips, satellite photos, cut-out figures and shotgun holes, sprayed silhouettes and space-filling pattern-making. . . He used anything and everything to hand, and in process and in form they are heterogeneous works, while they are structured to provide multiple viewpoints and layered surfaces. Composed as a series of pictures within pictures, equivalent to his writing which concatenates scenarios and develops stories within stories, their effect and their meaning is intrinsically bound up with the jumps and bridges they make between quite disparate kinds of material, and very different representational forms — again, the Scrapbooks of The Third Mind were the progenitors of this approach. Vision moves through grid and splatter, photo and calligraphy, sprayed masks and pours of paint — from hand-smeared pigments to a gun-blown hole in a literal Door of Perception. The blast hole is a space for projective vision, an opening, an invitation to see through. . .
Flynn’s Flying Fuckers / Painting His Way Out / A Killing Hate
There are swirls and veils of color in pictures like Dance of 1001 Veils of 1990, Key to Pink Door, 1987, and Compunction in Silver and Tourquoise, 1990 — strokes and sprays of paint which might be seen as “space-fillers,” decorative and repetitive mark-making filling the tabula rasa of the blank panel or the empty page, but Burroughs sees and treats the unfolding, burgeoning space as cosmic, with the trajectory of celestial bodies passing through multi-dimensional lattices, confirmed by the inclusion of satellite photos. Burroughs had described the writer, with a nod to Trocchi, as a “cosmonaut of inner space.” As a painter he approached the image as both dream travel and space travel, equating the two — both were trips into the unknown, across the event horizon, through spaces which, as Gysin insisted, were not contained in the individual psyche, but existed between psyches as well as being observable, under certain conditions, in parallel dimensions. For Burroughs, painting provided access to those spaces, he was trying to make visible the creatures he believed inhabited those literally magical realms, seeking contact . . . Alien heads and masks appear in the paintings alongside space photos and “Anyone can see them,” Burroughs said to me — anyone alive can access these apparitions, so long as they are open, receptive: “None so blind as he who will not look.” He knew he was researching areas of decried and scorned experience, perceptual and spiritual — as Burroughs once said to Gysin, in Gysin’s apartment in Paris, “If you can’t see it, you’re nowhere. If you can see it, it’s in the folklore department.” In The Last Rocket Out, 1992, a gold penis escapes a liquefying grid as the structures of the doomed earth buckle and melt. The winged, flying rocket penis recurs, an emblem akin to Erroll Flynn’s private gang pin-badge, which Flynn once gave to his child co-star Dean Stockwell, a winged penis with the initials F.F.F. — Flynn’s Flying Fuckers. Stockwell proudly showed the badge to his mother, who was appalled — like an outtake from Burroughs’ Port of Saints. The penis reappears in the painting The Old Man of the Mountain, 1988, beneath the crossed bones of piracy and heresy, an emblematic homage to Hassan I Sabbah — the erection in insurrection. The image links the silence of images and Hassan I Sabbah who, at the end of The Ticket That Exploded, paradoxically speaks — “Silence to say goodbye.” Painting for Burroughs was a way of continuing his attempts to “learn to think in silence” — painting was communication in silence, through space, escape from the linear sequencing of time-bound, endlessly circulating word jabber. Another silver spray painting, Room For One More Outside Sir, 1988, reverses the phrase from the film Dead of Night used in Naked Lunch and other texts, but plays once again on the inside / outside thematics of Naked Lunch‘s “Postscript” — well, it may be “COLD OUTSIDE,” freezing in the “icy blackness of space,” but that’s where the artist wants to go, to escape the mortal condition, the nagging aging body, the gravity drag, the earth-bound quotidian, to blast off into those “fluid spaces” and stream through galaxies. Burroughs’ pictures do not seek to illustrate his texts, but rather transpose subjects and even characters through a process which brings them forth. When I talked with Burroughs about this, he spoke of “recognizing” scenes, of making connections and associations as he worked on a picture — elements emerged and mutated, apparitions which he would track in a painting, and from picture to picture, and these spirits and demons, revenants and archetypes, and the sets they inhabited, moved back and forth between his paintings, his writing in progress, his published books and his memories and dreams. Painting was not illustration, but conjuration through felt transpositions, revealing what Burroughs could not have accessed otherwise. It was an extension of the visualization processes which had vitally fuelled his written work, and it was also the fulfillment of a long-held desire to create his own entirely visual art — he had made hundreds of drawings in Tangier, and worked on scrapbooks, and discussed art with Gysin and studied his paintings, and he loved the work of Paul Klee. . . It had been a long and dedicated apprenticeship. Burroughs writes in My Education of “the untenable position of an omniscient observer in a timeless vacuum. But the observer is observing other data, associations flashing backward and forward.” Through his painting Burroughs pursued and traced those flashing associations and they lead him not towards “a timeless vacuum” but into the infinite unknown, a scorned, ignored universe of magic and possibility, systematically eclipsed by the quotidian earthbound. He was getting old, he’d lived a life, and it might be supposed that his preparations for death and his desire to travel through space were synonymous. But if death was inevitable, Burroughs’ desire to “get off the planet” was a choice, a conviction, and polemically driven — “anything to avoid the hopeless dead-end horror of being just who and where you all are: dying animals on a doomed planet.” In this sense, space was not death, it was the promise of escape from death, and painting, for Burroughs, was the projection of his characteristic desire for literal transcendence. To paraphrase Burroughs in “Lee’s Journals” — “I include the painter in the painting,” even though the painter is “painting his way out.” Burroughs’ paintings may be beautiful and seductive, and he certainly emerges from this show as a captivating colorist, but in his art, as in his writing, he is polemically driven — perhaps only Burroughs would have proselytized painting as a method of implementing curses. Throughout his work Burroughs is confrontational, intransigent, and hostile to the impositions of morality and law, enraged by attempts to curtail his own desires or restrict his liberty. In Queer, Lee “felt a killing hate for the stupid, ordinary, disapproving people who kept him from doing what he wanted them to do. ‘Someday I am going to have things just like I want,’ he said to himself. ‘And if any moralizing son of a bitch gives me any static, they will fish him out of the river.’”
Pied Piper Artists of Marrakech and Hamelin
The titles of Burroughs’ paintings are bestowed, not pre-ordained, they are possibilities, not givens — here language provides points of entry to the unfolding ports-of-entry of the images. The titles can also be pretty long, word streams generated by triggered associations — part of Burroughs’ exploration of the relationship between word and image, as in the silver skein painting from 1993 at the ZKM which is titled, Cosmic Sad Clown He Knows the End. He’s Full of Holes! He’s Full of Holes!. However poetic such titles may appear, they are actually intuitive, felt recognitions and responses to the apparitional images, providing glimpses of the moving scenarios and “living forms” which Burroughs saw emerging from the pigment like our own doomed species in The Soft Machine — “When we came out of the mud we had names.” A critic has said that it’s sometimes unclear what Burroughs’ titles refer to, but in the two examples he cites, the titles are both lucid and richly suggestive. The Alleys Of Marrakech, 1993, pays homage to Peter Mayne’s classic 1953 book about the Medina, better known today under the title A Year In Marrakesh, and still a wonderful read. In the painting a storm breaks over the Djemaa el Fna and the rain runs in red torrents down the “red clay walls” which Burroughs referenced elsewhere in his writing. A linear sketch of the stalls, rooftops, alleys and awnings can be glimpsed through the downpour, reminiscent of Gysin’s exquisite ink drawings of the Medina, and the exemplary site of Gysin’s multiple image paintings — the topographic eye penetrating the shifting pictorial maze with its many “ports of entry.” The picture is a memorial to Marrakech, the city which Burroughs had visited with Ian Sommerville, and with Mikey Portman and Brion Gysin, in the 1960s. Those friends and lovers have gone, and the red storm has driven the acrobats and storytellers and musicians and dancers away, but visions of Marrakech remain, and Burroughs would dream about the city at the end of his life — “Walking along a narrow street in Marrakech with Brion Gysin. The street is covered overhead, as many streets in Morocco are. . .” The 1992 painting The Door in the Mountain Side Through Which the Piper Led the Children of Hamelin does not illustrate Grimm or Robert Browning’s versions of the story, both of which Burroughs knew well, rather the image of a line of dancing figures emerges from the process of smearing and impressing paint over a chaos of grids, and the title recognizes and identifies this possible reading of the picture while the theme also corresponds to Burroughs’ approach to painting as lure, seduction, the hypnotic magic which leads astray, off the map, into the picture. The Painter is the Pied Piper, the magical artist Brion Gysin who listened to the trance pipes of JouJouka while he painted his visual seductions, and who paid homage to Wu Tao-tzu, the artist who vanished into his own picture — the artist creates a pictorial world with “a life of its own,” and is consumed by it, but not before he’s led his followers into the captivating domain. In The Ticket That Exploded, prisoners hear the blue notes of the flute of Pan trickling down from a remote mountain village and they stream after it, hypnotized by the music, pursuing the siren call of the Little Blue Hills. Gysin liked to listen to Miles, Joujouka and great old Blues recordings as he worked, and those calligraphic, emblematic Gysinian strokes and flourishes are notes and runs on a grid of staves, a living score, to be seen and heard, played horizontally and vertically, on a tilted plane of reference, tangled up every which way, because seeing is hearing and feeling in our synaesthetic sensorium.
The sprayed silhouette of a homunculus appears on the verso of Burroughs’ double-sided red cut-out figure Crazy Man, 1988, exhibited in the final space at the ZKM. This has been described by one critic as an “alien and heartless” creature, but it may be read quite otherwise, as heralding the resurrection of the perfected human in alien form — the extraterrestial as the vehicle for the continuation of the alchemical project of the homunculus, following the eradication of the human species. Alien life forms manifest in Burroughs’ paintings, and “alien penetrations,” as in Four Celestial Babies of 1992, a painting about the babies created by aliens who abducted the crew of the Mary Celeste in 1872 — in My Education Burroughs describes how these creatures can shape-shift, becoming lemurs, cats, monkeys and flying foxes as well as fantastic unknown hybrid dream creatures. Burroughs says that they can “take any form that the Guardian can see” — the artist creates these creatures by seeing them, his vision protects the endangered species. No distinction is made between the lemur of Madagascar, the alien Crazy Man, the flying fox, and the Celestial Baby because the creatures of the human imagination, like those of the Amazon, are also under threat, in the process of being expunged or driven out. Creation is vision for Burroughs — as he said about his attitude to writing, “If you can’t see it, you can’t say it.” The eye sees, and the picture comes alive, it is activated, moving, full of potential, the not-yet-seen, flickering back and forth between figure and ground. Burroughs told me about his use of satellite photos in his pictures, the eye reading vast distances, defining the pictorial space as that of the universe, then closing in fast on a tiny surface detail in the painting. Creation does not stop when the painting is made, he said, because every time it’s looked at, it changes, revealing other scenes and unfolding vistas. . . The artist looks at his own pictures, but they are not “his own” — what he sees he did not consciously put there, how could he? Because the pictures unfold with an uncontainable “life of their own,” the metaphoric made literal — words on fire, the machinery of genetics, galactic spermatozoa, fungus spoor, a stricken buffalo, a behemoth in chains, the Devil at noon, a golden word in a blue spinning world, liquid nets, tombstones in a rain of scimitars, an avalanche of sheeps’ blood pouring down the red walls of Marrakech, a homunculus in an oubliette, black Christmas trees and silver will-o’-the-wisps . . . Burroughs is the artist as Guardian of this way of seeing, the protector of the lemur through the art of seeing the lemur. In a 1988 work, paint on paper, Ronald and Nancy Reagan appear upside down through a palimpsest of heavy black calligraphy — the media repro image is like a grinning death brand coming through the animal’s rippling, living fur. . . Burroughs was fascinated by accounts like Whitley Strieber’s 1987 book Communion, only complaining that he hadn’t been abducted himself, and Burroughs’ art was motivated by the desire for alien communion, to make contact with the other. Even if this is dismissed or explained as a synecdoche of the hostile unknown of his own psyche, it is actually an accurate description of Burroughs’ approach to painting — he sought to be transported, seduced by creations beyond his own determination, to see otherwise, to recognize that emergent other as alive, to be taken out of himself, captivated, immersed, transported by wonder, rapture and awe. And, not coincidentally, this was a cause which had to be fought for.
Images of Burroughs, photographed, drawn, painted and collaged, appear frequently on the front covers of his books — not only on editions of his essays, interviews, collections of experimental texts, but also on the covers of his fictions. Today celebrities appear on the covers of their ghosted trash, because that’s what they’re selling — their images on the jacket. But Burroughs was a celebrity of a different order, and no other writer, or celebrity, ever looked like that. . . The image of the author on the front jacket of a novel is not at all common, and is especially suggestive in Burroughs’ case. These cover images of Burroughs show either the writer’s inscrutable, photographic, screened veneer or air-brushed SF or expressionist illustrative versions of the Burroughs persona, attempts to evoke the hallucinatory psyche, the “multiple selves” and fictional extensions of William Burroughs / Inspector Lee of the Nova Mob. Artists have homaged Burroughs and used his image since the 1960s, but these book covers, by designers and illustrators and photographers, are also homages, and though cued to the promotion and selling of the books, they are a crucial part of the Burroughs iconography. The process began with the Calder 1964 Naked Lunch cover with the cut-out head of the cut-up writer, inset with collaged photos from the Gray Room, the eyes razored out and replaced with blazing red discs, the face blurry with the unreadable photo-scenes of Ian Sommerville’s infinity wall collage, images projected onto and through Burroughs’ face. . . It is a seminal image and the progenitor of a lineage of covers focusing on Burroughs’ haunted visage. Its relation to Gysin and Sommerville’s face and body projections would become clear, though Calder seems to have created the image intuitively, seeking an appropriate effect to convey the nightmare miasma of the book, combining the mask of the seer and the face of suffering. The gray photo-montage illustrates the disease of images ravaging and consuming the human image, which actually accords with the description of the pipe-smoking agent in Junky, a description which elsewhere merges into the changing faces of the junk-sick addict, skin crawling and burning up like a hive or attacked by rabies: “His face had not only aged, it had decayed. He had the look of a man suffering from a fatal illness.” Burroughs’ image here becomes a screen for fascinated projection, a transformed image of the “Definitive Bulletin” description of the Sender in Naked Lunch — “The Sender will be defined by negatives. A low pressure area, a sucking emptiness. He will be portentously anonymous, faceless, colorless. He will — probably — be born with smooth disks of skin instead of eyes. . . He doesn’t need eyes.” Burroughs’ own eyes are replaced with twin red suns, hot and explosive as the eyes of addiction in Junky — “Sparks exploded behind my eyes. . .” The image is genetically, generically allied to images of Ray Milland as Dr Xavier in the 1963 film The Man with X-Ray Eyes, directed by Roger Corman. Dr Xavier can see through ultraviolet and x-ray wavelengths and is pictured on the film poster with white disks for eyes (in the film, Miland wore special contact lenses) — he’s the literal visionary who can see to the very edge of the universe, who can see the “eye that sees us all.” But this transcendent vision proves to be a curse, at the expense of the good doctor’s humanity and sanity, and at the end of the film Dr Xavier blinds himself like Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. The Calder image is of alien vision, the eyes of a seer whose vision transcends the limited range of human vision, but the gaze is possessed, demonic — the eyes looking out from the image bank, from the stricken psyche, millions of images passing in a miasma across the “grey screen always blanker and fainter,” and images “moving around under the skin…” The image seems connected, in part, to a passage in Junky, rather than Naked Lunch, in which Bill Lee sees an Oriental face eaten away by a disease, the face melting “into an amoeboid mass in which the eyes floated. . . a new face formed around the eyes. A series of faces, hieroglyphs, distorted and leading to the final place where the human road ends, where the human form can no longer contain the crustacean horror that has grown inside it.” Those red eyes glaring through the gray mask are the same red as the typography of the two words “BURROUGHS” and “NAKED,” flashing out from the otherwise black lettering — Burroughs. . . . Naked. . .
Mutant Heads / Subject to Endless Possession
The Calder cover may be seen as the progenitor of a Science Fiction / Horror lineage in Burroughs’ visualized iconography, a fantasy illustration mode in which Burroughs’ image morphs into “The Voracious Aliens,” creatures with staring eyes and shaved heads, including the airbrushed mutant heads of the Corgi editions of Burroughs’ novels in the 1970s and Mark Foreman’s late ’80s screaming demon on the cover of the Paladin edition of Naked Lunch, while we project Burroughs’ eyes looking through the blue mask on the Flamingo edition of The Soft Machine, the staring eyes beneath the helmet and through the gas mask on the Paladin edition of The Ticket That Exploded. . . There are thirty examples of book cover images featuring Burroughs in the ZKM exhibition, and these are extended by their genetic, and generic, transformations. They are reminders of how rare it is for a writer of fiction to appear so frequently in this way, over so many decades, as the image incarnate of his own texts — images of the writer shape-shifting into alien representatives of his own scenarios, like Charles Burns’ drawing of Burroughs morphing into an alien creature on the jacket of the 1995 Paladin edition of My Education<. “The name is Burroughs” — and the image is Burroughs too, with hat, gun, syringe and cigarette props, back-dropped with sets collaged from the books, from the meat rack to lunar ruins, his persona subject to endless possession and mutation. Elsewhere in the show, there are portrait photographs of Burroughs by Ginsberg and other photographers, but these have been strategically juxtaposed with quite different, though telling photographs which evoke Burroughs’ writing. Ginsberg’s 1953 photos of Burroughs in front of a sphinx, Burroughs expounding to Kerouac, and reading Saint-John Perse, hang in the same space as images by Weegee — the nightlife of the city, a police arrest, a transvestite, a drugs sign and a gun sign, these mordant black-and-whites segue into Ginsberg’s ’53 photos of Burroughs and Kerouac acting out a scenario and Huncke strung out in the Hotel Elite. . .
Burroughs in and out of Time
Gerard Malanga’s b/w photograph of Burroughs outside 8 Duke Street in London features on the cover of Le Job: entretiens avec Daniel Odier, and there’s a blue / orange screened photo on the front of the Grove edition of The Job, and an illustration of Burroughs on the Jonathan Cape version, while Burroughs gazes out from the cover of the Academy Series published by Emergency Rip-Off Press. . . Naturally, Burroughs is on the front of Charles Gatewood’s photo portfolio 23, but he’s also on the front of Les Garçons Sauvages: un livre des morts, and Interzone, both published by Christian Bourgois editions. The photo on that 1991 Interzone is a shot of the elderly Burroughs by celebrity portrait photographer Renaud Monfourny. The figure, features entirely hidden, a black shrouded form, is nevertheless instantly recognizable — the silhouette of the hat brim, the raincoat epaulets, the stooped figure advancing with cane through shadows and light. . . A haunting image, but the way these things go, it is entirely out-of-sync with the text, like the front cover of the Picador 1993 hardback of The Letters of William Burroughs — 1945 to 1959, edited by Oliver Harris, with its photo of Burroughs by Alastair Thain — a good portrait of the elderly writer, but three decades out of time. Supposedly, according to a publisher’s assistant at the time, the younger generation of Burroughs’ admirers would not have recognized an image from the 1940s or 50s, even though the guy’s name was on the book. . . I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. Burroughs’ appearance is more temporally appropriate on the cover of the 10/18 paperback cover of Nova Express, cropped from a Gysin photo taken in Paris, and likewise in a detail from Charles Henri Ford’s famous fairground photo of Burroughs, screened in deep black and white contrast, which makes a classic cover for the Grove paperback of The Soft Machine — that man, that hat, the glasses and overcoat, the way he holds his cigarette. . . It’s the signatory style, the dress code de rigueur, and walking through the ZKM you can see it and track its variations — William Burroughs, in his true role of writer, his expression unreadable, remote, or scrutinising, submitting to the image machine, the one he analyzes and deconstructs in the books — “millions of images of me.” But that “me” would remain inscrutable, unknowable, fascinating. This image of the writer, the style of the presentation and performance of “self,” recall the private investigator and the Cold War operative, the author in the guise of his own character, Inspector Lee — the double agent, the secret service man, the man on a mission travelling through space-time in hat and raincoat like Lemmy Caution in Godard’s Alphaville — “I’d like to telecommunicate. . . I’m on a JOURNEY TO THE END OF NIGHT. . .”
These Are Not Straight Accounts
Lemmy Caution blows his fake cover, admitting, “I’m not really a journalist.” The role of journalist is also one of Burroughs’ “cover stories,” as it is for Lee in Naked Lunch — the agent as reporter, the reporter as spy. Burroughs would write for Rolling Stone and Esquire, as well as a column for Crawdaddy and “Bulletins” for Mayfair — texts in which he sometimes parodically, ironically plays upon his journalistic role while his copy puts a freak spin on the news story and current affairs article. As a Mayfair sub-editor noted in 1968 of Burroughs’ coverage of the Chicago Democratic Convention, “The reports he brought back are not straight accounts. . . They are warnings. . . in the savage style of The Naked Lunch. . .” Burroughs’ media contributions were, in fact, often drawn from works in progress, and his current, related concerns, while his polemical “journalism” fed back into the writing of fictions, the autodidact intertwined with the writer of fictions. . . This is clear in the cut-up publications, in which polemic and fiction alternate and merge. Naked Scientology of 1978 brought together Burroughs’ 1970 article in the Los Angeles Free Press, his Open Letter published in The East Village Other, and his book review and letter which appeared in Rolling Stone in 1972. These texts are followed by Burroughs’ story “Ali’s Smile,” which had appeared in the 1973 collection of stories (marketed as a novel) Exterminator! This heterogeneity and recycling of material would characterise Burroughs’ media contributions, mixing and splicing the “How To” mode, the radical critique, the ostensible “report,” and scenarios in progress. Burroughs played out the role of reporter, and editor of the Cold Spring News and The Last Post, with a certain relish and irony, reminiscent of Gay Talese’s description of the old-time journalist as a member of “a tough profession. . . smitten by the flamboyant spirit of the ‘Front Page’,” his style paying homage to those “reporters who talked like big-city detectives.” But Burroughs’ journalistic function and practice were quite otherwise.
Christof Kohlhofer / Other Level Processes
In the ZKM show there are several paintings and mixed media works by Christof Kohlhofer, including his ever-circling skeletal dance, Pearls before Swine of 1982. Kohlhofer has made a number of extraordinary re-picturings and bricolages of Burroughs’ image — Burroughs morphing into weird literary and artistic progenitors, staged “historic encounters” like Dolphin Starkist Presents William S. Burroughs As Vincent Van Gogh in Little Red Riding Hood, of 1991, a mixed media work on paper with running lights. In these delirious, yet wonderfully apposite meldings, the mythic and the quotidian are played off in a parody of Courbet — Good Evening, Mr Burroughs. Images are visually intercut, abridged in diffuse painterly styles, creating funny, macabre, twisted scenarios. In a quite different mode, Kohlhofer’s 1984 painting, Uncle Bill as a Young Man, is a minimal but painterly silhouette portrait, a single line of yellow paint miraculously conjuring the likeness and the look of the melancholy, contemplative Burroughs. This silhouette directly references Duchamp’s profile cut-out, and relates to Jasper Johns and Sturtevant’s homages to the Duchamp work, but it transcends these takes — this is quite simply a great portrait of Burroughs, beautifully achieved, and it shows just how little, and exactly how much, is required to communicate Burroughs’ image. For me, this was a standout work in the ZKM show, seamlessly combining in a conceptual and painterly form both a true homage and a comment on media identity. This image is reproduced in a 4-page Burroughs spread in VOGUE INTERZONE — SPECIAL SIMULATED EDITION, a brilliant glossy 206 page détournement of Vogue Magazine by Kohlhofer — the reproduced image has the title of Burroughs’ text, “The Humane Thing To Do,” superimposed and is followed by Burroughs’ one-page text on the abuse of animals (“Cats are being boiled alive in Korea as food”), a photograph of a grinning female butcher’s assistant sawing through a joint of meat, her face in the photo strategically smeared with red blood/paint, and a black and white blurred image made by pulling an image of Burroughs through a photostat machine. This image, Ruby Ray’s photo of Burroughs with a gun, William S. Burroughs in a San Franciso Garden, is transformed by Kohlhofer’s manipulated Photostat, creating a multiple image of Burroughs including the figure turning its back, as if the reproduction and transmission of the original image had made it rotate, revealing the image’s other side. . . This literal spin on the repro of Burroughs’ image would be used as the basis for Kohlofer’s W.S. Burroughs and G.I.S at the Persian Gulf Getting Ready for Take-Off, News of the Day: Mark Twain’s Lost Manuscript Found, a 1991 mixed media work on shopping bags. In these ways the iconography of Burroughs’ photographic iconography is usurped, challenged, played with, remade, and put through mechanical and reproductive processes, manipulated by hand, elegantly drawn and viscerally painted, politically as well as aesthetically redeployed. Kohlhofer’s work is unmistakable, special and individual, but it nevertheless exemplifies the ways in which many artists in the ZKM show engage with the Burroughs mythos, but also with his cut and transpositional processes, shattering and twisting the usurped image. Visual artists have been influenced by the cut-up texts, but also by Burroughs and Gysin’s processing of material — roller grid on scrapbook page, insert images and texts, use as source material for written text, cut-up the text, insert on scrapbook pages, cut up the pages, move, delete, overlay, recompose. . . Speak on tape, rewind, cut in, playback, transcribe, cut-up, transpose. . . It was this sense of inspired, indefatigable processing, the production of material through a synesthesia of reaction and effect through media systems which has influenced many artists. The art in the ZKM show recodes its electronic, media sources, its cybernetic cultural data, and layers its meanings through material transpositions of media signifiers, celebrating the intervention of the hand — I kept seeing analogue processes brought to bear on the digital, the hand and the gesture and the prima materia of paint used in the transformation of electronic media images and texts, making materially manifest the semiotic ghosts of the new digital ether, pushing technology into the creation of Burroughs’ “other-level experience.” Kohlhofer’s satiric and liberated processing of Burroughs’ mythos and image, and his wild, pantomimic art historical connectivity, are revealing of Burroughs’ own aesthetic disregard and bravura effects — Kohlhofer’s takes are not illustrative or hagiographic, but irreverent, hilarious acts of radical sympathetic magic.
Doolie Junk Eye
Neil Stuart’s design for the 1977 cover of the Penguin Junky has an extreme, cropped close-up of a human eye, the dark iris almost eclipsed by the black dilated pupil — the aperture is open, hypnotically drawing the viewer in. . . This dark gaze, in which a tiny window of light is reflected, shadowed by the eye’s lashes, is inscrutable, insatiable, the eye as black hole, sucking funnel, all-consuming void. . . We read it, helplessly, as Burroughs’ eye, the eye of the author of Naked Lunch, the addict who could look “at the end of my shoe for eight hours,” giving a whole new meaning to the term “persistence of vision.” It’s the ineluctably observing eye of the addicted writer, and it’s the mercenary, utterly immoral eye of Doolie in Junky — “You could feel him walk right into your psyche and look around to see if anything was there he could make use of.” The Doolie junk eye is a criminal psychic reader — piecing together the odds on visceral pleasure, theft, supply and demand, the lowdown on the real dope, and it is unremitting in its predatory surveillance, serving a chilling, voracious appetite, expunging whatever it has no use for as the image world passes silently through the dark glass of the now fixed, now swivelling optical apparatus. The injunction to see in Naked Lunch is the emergency antidote to this cold regard, turning uninflected, meaningless receptivity into galvanic recognition of significance, making the world come alive, and yet this photographic Junky eye could also have been used as a cover for Naked Lunch, showing the unflinching eye which sees “what is on the end of that long newspaper spoon,” seeing it all cold and clear and clean, seeing through the junk condition of unfeeling separation. That Junky look recurs in Burroughs’ writing, indifference and knowingness hardly differentiable, like the eye of the junk procurer and retailer in Nova Express which has an iris “shiny black like broken coal,” an uninflected black mirror swallowing light. It is quite unlike the eyes of the beautiful, gentle Lemur People in that book, their “liquid black eye screens swept by virginal emotions.” “Virginal”? “Emotions?” This Junky eye is beyond pity, beyond all care, except when demonic visions break through the junk immunity screen — in Junky the phantasmagoric invades the forensic, the hallucinatory and the fearful leak through the laconically descriptive, and even if these are described as if “watching a movie,” they bring with them a mortal trepidation. Junky‘s ostensibly flat, noir style is shot through with nightmare picture shows which Naked Lunch would enter and inhabit, escalating those images and sets into transporting overdrive. There are kicking nightmare visions in Junky: “One afternoon, I closed my eyes and saw New York in ruins. Huge centipedes and scorpions crawled in and out of empty bars and cafeterias and drugstores on Forty-second Street. . .” Or the hallucinatory hit is evoked — “I lay down and closed my eyes. A series of pictures passed like watching a movie: A huge neon-lighted cocktail bar that got larger and larger until streets, traffic, and street repairs were included in it; a waitress carrying a skull on a tray; stars in the clear sky. The physical impact of the fear of death; the shutting off of breath; the stopping of blood.” Significantly, in his writing Burroughs evokes heroin addiction and withdrawal in visual terms — withdrawal “takes on a hellish glow of menace and evil drifting out of neon-lit coctail bars” while junk “blunts emotional reactions to the vanishing point,” it “telescopes down.”
See With The Mouth And The Hand
Burroughs’ writing is supremely visual, and what is seen is often described as a series of unfolding scenes which are tactile, olfactory, auditory, synaesthetic, while the image moves, unfolds, shape-shifts, becomes a little movie which is then spliced with other footage. . . In My Education Burroughs recalled — “As a child of three I thought that one saw with one’s mouth. My brother then told me to close my eyes and open my mouth and I got the idea that I couldn’t see with my mouth. . . but people do feast with their eyes.” (Burroughs note: Did I ever tell you about the boy who thought his mouth could see? He became a very great artist.) There is a mysterious, poignant connection here, the orifice of spoken words as the instrument of vision, language transformed into sight — the silent open mouth of the writer who sees. In Painting and Guns, 1992, it is the hand which sees, Burroughs writing that “In painting I see with my hands, and I do not know what my hands have done until I look at it afterwards. It is when I look at the completed canvas that I know what the painting is about.” Cut-up was a “hands-on process” and machine processes were hand-manipulated and hand-screwed-up — the hand that sees in Burroughs’ paintings is an extension of the visionary hand of the Third Mind, making use of, and making otherwise, the hand put to work, moving heterogenous materials through diverse processes. In his artwork Burroughs used acrylic, spray paint, ink, letterpress, newsprint, woodblock and serigraph, housepaint, roller, gelatin-silver prints, glass windows, graph paper, stencils, crayon, typescript, collage, burn marks, offset litho, shotgun holes, pistol holes, canvas, plywood, handmade paper, suction cups, ink-jet prints, wooden doors and objects. Synesthesia and transposition crucially determine this exploration and combination of mediums and processes — Third Mind adventures in transcending materiality, which ironically, yet ferociously, put the human subject and the physical body back into the symbol systems and abstract analyzes of computer coded cognitive psychology.
Homunculus in Hell
In a painting by Burroughs at the ZKM, Death By Lethal Injection, 1990, the Gysinian grid mutates into the bars of a death cell, while the homunculus, the little man symbolic of rebirth and new life, made by spraying around an artist’s mannequin, is here cast as victim awaiting execution. The homunculus appears in Burroughs’ work with arms outstretched, rising from a red inferno, pleading for mercy, while in an untitled painting in the show, a red gunshot picture on wood, homunculi appear through the smoke of gun blasts, while others lie prone, in suspension, waiting to be born, or frozen forever underground. The image of the homunculus was clearly important for Burroughs — the man-created, not God-created model of human perfectibility, it represents his lifelong struggle to “recruit a real existence,” to change his consciousness and become truly aware. In this sense, the creature stands for Burroughs himself, as well as the dream of self-creation and immortality. The homunculus certainly connected with an early memory which he describes in Junky: “I was subject to hallucinations as a child. Once I woke up in the early morning light and saw little men playing in a block house I had made. I felt no fear, only a feeling of stillness and wonder.” The homunculus symbolizes the passage from abnegation and despair to integration and enlightenment — the creature passes through torments, tears himself with his teeth, vomits his own flesh, his eyes spill blood, he must endure terrors and despair in order to become the opposite of himself, breaking through his own conditioning and nature in order to achieve true self-creation and freedom, testing his own will and being to the absolute limits, achieving an alchemical, spiritual transformation. In the paintings we see the homunculus and his brother homunculi as they pass through stages of earthly hell, while scenes of terror, torture and murder continually emerge from Burroughs’ painted palimpsests — the blood red cages of an animal research unit, the bandaged screaming heads of a burns unit, while Jack is back in town in The Ripper Strikes Again of 1990, complete with a couple of bumbling booby Bobbies in the top left hand corner. . . Burroughs’ reds are bloody as blood-soaked cottons and smeared sunsets, suppurating mouth-wounds and squirted syringes, blood oranges and the saturation of red neon signs, the pictures splattered and drenched and explosive in their earthly uproar and anguish, the antithesis of the beauty and poignancy of his erotic utopian space paintings. Space is blue in Burroughs’ paintings as in his writing, while earth is a control planet on permanent emergency countdown — CONDITION RED. Burroughs paints the blue of the planet’s vanishing wilderness skies in his 1988 Brightness Falls from the Air, a picture of a monkey leaping through the trees, the title referencing Thomas Nashe’s lines — “Brightness falls from the air. . . I am sick, I must die: / Lord have mercy on us.” On the verso of this picture there is a dancing homunculus caught in the burned-out planet’s golden afterglow. Farewell, flying monkey. Goodbye forever, little man.
A head shot, taken from a Gysin 1959 Paris photograph of Burroughs in a doorway, is reduced and simplified to an image less than an inch high on the cover of the L’Herne edition of Les Lettres du Yage, a button badge image, instantly recognizable — that’s all it takes. This image, in larger format, was used by sound poet Henri Chopin for an edition of 30 prints in which the head is reproduced twice, the lower image superimposed with Burroughs’ text “a man of letters un poème moderne.” At the ZKM this print is displayed in a vitrine along with a Chopin OU revue-disque featuring Brion Gysin’s poems, Bernard Heidsieck and Chopin himself. The vitrine also includes an EP of Gysin’s “Junk,” performed by Gysin, Ramuntcho Matta, Frederick Cousseau and Yahr Lekker, alongside a photograph of Gysin and images of the Dreamachine. In this way, Burroughs’ image, and his cut-up “poem” text, take their place in the context of Poésie Sonore, performance art, music and mixed media. A variant treatment of the Burroughs image appears on the cover of the December 1967 issue of La Quinzaine and it’s clear that this Gysin picture, along with another Gysin Paris photo of Burroughs, from the same period, this time wearing glasses, posed in front of two wine drinkers on a bench, exerted a strong fascination, in part because of the way Burroughs stands, cigarette in hand, regarding the camera, posed but coolly remote. Udo Breger used the doorway image as the frontispiece photo for the 1976 e.m.e. edition of Die elektronische Revolution, and combined the reversed image of the head with a TV set flickering static for the 69′d frontispiece to the accompanying English version — an effective photo-montage inserting the Burroughs’ Broadcast into electronic media, the cut-up writer cutting through the static. Those running bands of interference, which may be procured by looking at the Dreamachine, would mutate into Gysin’s psychedelic Dreamachine paintings, themselves the beneficiaries of Gysin’s earlier desert paintings, the horizontal ribbons of color in the latter transformed into Gysin’s colored ink and airbrush picture, Untitled (Dreamachine) of 1963, in which the desert mirage becomes the interiorized alpha / theta scanning zone of the Third Mind, manifesting as a brilliant art work on paper. This was, this is the process of synesthetic, multimedia transference and transposition.
My Name Is Not Yours to Use
The Paris wine bench photo was included by Burroughs and Gysin in a scrapbook collage for The Third Mind, circa 1965, the page identified as “W.R. Hearst Jr.” The collage includes a newspaper image of William Randolph Hearst, Jr. and typescript by Burroughs, both with burned edges — these may be read as charred fragments from the blast of the S.S. America described in the cut-out Burroughs text which directly connects Burroughs’ image with Hearst’s image: “BLOOOMMM / Explosion splits the boat –” It’s an extract from “Twilight’s Last Gleamings,” written by Burroughs and Kells Elvins in 1938. Hearst was editor-in-chief of Hearst Newspapers and chairman of the executive committee of the Hearst Corporation, and he’d received the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in the mid ’50s. Burroughs hated the power of the Hearst Corp. and the “yellow journalism” employed and developed by Hearst’s father — the phony pictures, distortions and smears, fake interviews, ruined reputations and sensationalised copy consumed by a rabid readership. The term “yellow journalism” derived from the character The Yellow Kid, who first appeared in the comic strip “Hogan’s Alley” which ran in the New York World and New York Journal, while Burroughs would write about Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, the great con man whose moniker derived from the strip. Crucially, the burned Burroughs typescript in the Third Mind collage is a text dealing with “Hurst” [sic] and “you Board Members, vulgar stupid Americans you will regret calling in the Mayan Aztec Gods. . .Get out of the game and take it to Cut City. . . Give my name back. You have not paid. My name is not yours to use.” The collage is a spell against Hearst Corp. and expresses regret that Burroughs and Gysin had submitted themselves to the Life routine, the Old Gold gimmick. The Third Mind employed scrapbooks and tapes as transmitters of curses, and Burroughs would create a number of curse paintings, designed to “make the image happen” — after all, if the art was alive, if it was a “living image,” then it could produce an intended effect. For Burroughs, curse images were a logical extension of his view of art as animistic. Burroughs believed that anything you look at can come alive through the act of seeing — vision is the bestowal of recognition and connection, what you see comes alive in you.
There are Burroughs CDs in a vitrine — radio interviews, live readings, Spare Ass Annie, The Priest They Called Him, Break Through in Grey Room, beneath photos of Burroughs with Jimmy Page. . . In this space many albums are displayed, including Burroughs’ classic Dead City Radio. The importance of the spoken word for the Beats is clear — Kerouac and Steve Allen’s Poetry For The Beat Generation, Kerouac’s Blues and Haikus, featuring Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Ginsberg’s First Blues. Groups from the ’60s onwards inspired by Burroughs’ work, from rock to punk and beyond, are represented, including, of course, Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy, albums by Soft Machine, and Seven Souls by Material, as well as Bowie’s seminal pre-punk prophetic Diamond Dogs. . . And there are specific homages to Gysin and Burroughs like The Hafler Trio and The Temple Ov Psychick [sic] Youth Present: Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine, Manapsara Presents Queer: a Soundtrack to the Novel by William S. Burroughs, as well as Burroughs’ Nothing Here Now But the Recordings, the soundtrack to Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman, Laurie Anderson’s Mr Heartbreak. . . In another space the Long Players of John Giorno’s Dial-A-Poem Poets series are exhibited — Life Is a Killer, Better an Old Demon Than a New God, Totally Corrupt. . . Album cover images from the pre-digital age, memories of the spoken word in rock culture before the rap of post-rock, Burroughs as performer, as recording artist. . . This is the archive as a record of recordings, the importance of the transmission of the sound of Burroughs’ voice, the tape experiments, the broadcast routines, music world and world music collaborations and homages, the soundtracks to Burroughs’ image, and to his work, on audio tape and vinyl and disc. A computer in the sound section provides access to RealityStudio — part of the new system for the dissemination of Burroughs and his work, and the transposition of his analogue history through digital processes, the bootleg cassette replaced, for the moment, by the download.
The Gysin Room / And More Besides
A Gysin wall cabinet includes Soft Need 17 (the Brion Gysin special issue) and the 1987 Galerie de France publication on Gysin, as well as The Cat Inside, an unfolded Calligraffiti of Fire makemono, the T.O.P.Y. document Dreamachine Plans and Die Traummaschinen — Plane (Bohmeier Verlag). Also the Guillaume Gallozzi catalogue of Gysin’s 1994 New York show, and Sphinx Magazine 5 featuring the Dreamachine and “Le Colloque de Tanger” in Kontexts 8, along with copies of Here to Go, Brion Gysin Let The Mice In, The Last Museum, Living with Islam, Désert Dévorant, and copies of The Process, including the Jonathan Cape edition with the great Hamri cover, so superior to the American antiquated typo aesthetic. . . To Master a Long Goodnight, and the beautiful Légendes de Brion Gysin traduit par Brice Matthieussent (gris banal, editeur). . . All this gives an idea of the range of Gysin’s complex, often frustrated career as a writer, while his recordings are displayed in a separate cabinet — Steve Lacy/ Brion Gysin: Songs, Gysin’s Poem of Poems and Orgy Boys, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at JouJouka, and Ramuntcho Matta Presents: Brion Gysin. There’s a nine-foot high enlargement of a photo by Udo Breger of Gysin looking out over his balcony opposite the Pompidou, the artist in a djellaba and Moroccan slippers, framed against the latticed architecture which he had prophesied in his work and which he would recreate in his late photo grids. Although his face is turned away, it’s clear that he is looking down at the street life below, the city flow, the passing traffic of the City of Light. . . The ZKM has some gorgeous Gysin paintings on view — calligraphic, rollered, photo-inset and written over, revealing the variety and ingenuity of Gysin’s use of the grid format and his electrifying graffiti. The torn and ripped blue collage grid Guerrilla Conditions is written over, horizontally and vertically, and physically lacerated, the lower part including a torn hole — “NON CREATION. . . THE AREA OF POETRY THEY CREATED. . . GUERILLA CONDITIONS. . .” It’s a ripped-up picture, a validation of, and testament to the violence of cut-up and the vision of The Third Mind, a “restoration” which recalls the mutilated art works of Gysin’s late ’50s and early ’60s performances with Burroughs and Sommerville. Next to this is a delicate linear grid, vertical stripes of scintillating pinks and reds, overlaid with semi-transparent oranges and pale yellows and reds in checkerboard squares — it’s a conjuration of the Dreamachine in motion, the evanescent whirl of blurred, melding layers of color shot through with points and lozenges of light. . . The overlaid, broken grid has been rollered horizontally, against the vertical flow, creating a flickering synthesis, an optical pulsation. . . As with the Dreamachine cylinder which seems to slow, reverse, then speed up, this picture fluctuates and shimmers and dazzles. . . In the 1974 roller ink grid called Burroughs in Tangier, two very small color contact prints of Burroughs with friends, one taken on the beach, are inserted into a blue yellow green orange grid of 12 rollered vertical strips. The pictures play upon the idea of the film strip or contact strip, while the crescent arches made by the roller suggest Moorish doorways and entranceways, passages into and through the picture space. This bright picture with its lightness of touch and empty spaces evokes the city and windy, open skies, memories of gone days, old photos in painted vistas, time images held in fragile suspension. There are pictures at the ZKM from the Naked Lunch grid series, with Gysin’s written quotations from the book in capital letters, laid over and within the rollered grids. In one picture Gysin has made a mistake, and quite artlessly corrected it, changing his misremembered “I CAN FEEL THE HEAT MOVING IN. . .” to “I CAN FEEL THE HEAT CLOSING IN. . .” The great passage from Naked Lunch about crossing the border into Mexico is written in red ink through a blue grid, conjuring “the sound of running water” and that “warm misty place.” These works testify to Gysin’s admiration for Burroughs’ masterpiece, and to his work on the screenplay, and they also combine the abstract system of the grid and literary quotation, image and text, pictorial calligraphy and handwritten language. . . Gysin was filmed by Antony Balch as he worked on these rollered “storyboards” and we can see Gysin’s hand-lettered capitals cut in with newspaper headlines, as superimpositions merge vertical and horizontal written texts, and Gysin moving the image around and the camera revolving. . . These Gysin pictures are visual homages to the textual dynamics of Naked Lunch, Burroughs’ words transferred to rollered strips which may be seen as akin to rolls of film, the literally “visual script” treated as units of a certain length, material cut into the pictorial format. The creative friendship of the two men is embodied through the act and processes of transposition, and looking at these works I think of the cover of The Three Minds by Francois Lagarde (Images Nuit Blanche) in the ZKM show with the intertwining of the two men’s names on the cover — “W.S. Burroughs Brion Gysin / W.S.B. Gysin / W.S.B.G. / Brion Burroughs / Brion Gysin W.S. Burroughs.” . . The bright orange ink painting Sweet Dream Song of 1963 homages Pantopon Rose in German — “WAS KUMMERT SIE SICH UM ATOMBOMBE SUSSE TRAUME PANTOPON ROSE.” The ink is bleached, transparent in places as if eaten away by acid, the ink dried around the edges of brushstrokes. . . “Grid” suggests fixed, but Gysin’s grids shift through superimpositions, they’re fluctuating, unstable, they shake and rock. There are two ink on paper Plans of 1961 and in the most striking, an orange and yellow roller grid has been overlaid with two blocks of mauve grid lines at a 45-degree angle. Rotation, a key principle of Islamic geometric art, here creates a vertiginous, flashing superimposition. . . A vitrine encases a Gysin Brayer roller and a Stanley knife, and in the vitrine next to it there’s a Burroughs typewriter. I look up from these “tools of the trade” and see the open gallery spaces around the central courtyard of the ZKM, the brilliant artworks and the cabinets of books and publications, and then I look back at the typewriter, the roller, the knife — all from this, and more besides.
One of the great delights of the Gysin room, and of the ZKM show, is the work of Rolf-Gunter Dienst, who as a young man visited Gysin in Paris, while Burroughs, learning about Dienst and his work from Gysin, would take the train and visit Dienst in Germany — the young man’s mother noticed when Burroughs arrived that a button was dangling from his overcoat and she immediately took his coat, got a needle and thread, and fixed the button. . . The show includes a collaborative work from 1962, Schriftgarten (Ubermalung durch Brion Gysin), and several beautiful small paintings from ’62/’63, the Momentetagebuch. These employ variations of a complex, spidery, chrysanthemum-like ideogram, alternating between red and orange, or red and green, or red and black on green grounds. Looked at from a few feet, the characters recede and the interleaved lines of the green ground move forward, shimmering, and an instant later, the red characters blur into vertical, pulsating stripes. . . The effect of these apparitional paintings transcends optical art and the “purely” retinal — Dienst’s ideograms seem to rotate concentrically, and the colors flash and fluctuate, producing a disturbance in the circuitry of the nervous system, a disorienting, dizzying psychic buzz.
American Flag Porch Sunset
There are photographs in the exhibition of Burroughs with the tools of his trade and significant props. There’s the writer with his wire manuscript trays on the front of Harold Chapman’s Beat Hotel. And he’s pictured on the cover of the Sans Soleil edition of Last Words, the author writing, pen in hand — it’s the performance of the act of writing, the very image of the writer’s vocation, the literal signature shot. And there are images of Burroughs with typewriter and with gun — Burroughs as dedicated writer and enthusiastic shootist, reminders that the gun was in the art before the art came out of the gun. Burroughs is a writer of Westerns, and a painter of Western shoot-outs in space — the painter as shootist, for real. Bowles recalled Burroughs in Tangier in the ’50s, and his room in the Medina — “One wall of the room, his shooting gallery, was pock-marked with bullet holes. Another wall was completely covered with snapshots, most of which he’d taken on a trip to the headwaters of the Amazon.” Thirty years later, the image wall and the gunshot wall would coalesce. Shoot through the image wall, and make an image of the shooting wall — see the door to the room as an image and blow it off its hinges. Here’s a photo of Burroughs playing out the character of the old writer on his porch with a shotgun in his lap, on the Penguin cover of The Job — a serendipitous reenactment of Kerouac’s memory of Burroughs in Texas, sitting on his porch with a gun across his lap as the sun was slowly sinking into the blood-red earth. . . An image reminiscent of William Burroughs Jr.’s account of Burroughs on the rooftop in Tangier, watching the sun go down, “right hand holding the perpetual cigarette, lips parting to the sun. . .” Then the rush to the typewriter, to the dark room illuminated by a haunting painting of the moon by Brion Gysin. . . These are moments of illumination, memorable visualizations of Burroughs as witness to the light fading out, the impermanence of all things, like Hokusai’s famous image, Nakamaro Gazing at the Moon From a Terrace — Nakamaro who went to China to discover the measure of time, and was imprisoned on a roof terrace, condemned to watch the moon rise and fall, until his last moon rose and fell. . . Burroughs’ proposed anthology of outstanding passages from literature would have covered love, solitude, old age and death, and would have been illustrated with “panoramas of sunsets and sunrises. . .,” and Burroughs watching the sun go down, the sun setting north or south of due west, is a synecdoche of Spengler’s The Decline of the West, an epoch extinguished like the life of a man at the end of The Place of Dead Roads — “. . . the sky darkens and goes out.” In American music, literature and art, the porch is the site of reminiscence and quiescence, both serenity and acceptance of the ending of a life — the view of the lawn, the garden, the street, passers-by, the old familiar neighbourhood, the gold light of evening leaving and the night coming on, and you can see it all ending. It’s the sunset porch, epitomised by James Agee and Samuel Barber’s 1947 elegiac, transcendent Knoxville Summer of 1915, for soprano and orchestra, the illuminated moment out of time, the world of childhood remembered towards the end of a life, recalling “that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street. . .” And here are photographs of Burroughs in old age, walking away, taking his leave, or with his eyes closed, head tilted back to receive the sun’s rays, an old guy on a torn davenport in a back yard, and the yard went on forever. Agee’s words evoke the vanished time which Burroughs would write of in Cobblestone Gardens, the elegiac mode which breaks through in his writing in bittersweet, unattended moments of nostalgia. . . In Knoxville, Agee recalls the blue dew and morning glories of a gone childhood, the long lawns and the tramcar spark running like a sprite down the wire, quiet talk on porches, the evening light falling and night coming on, and the mystery of “who I am” which remains, and the beauty and sadness of existence — “By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth. . .” Burroughs’ memories, in the prologue to Junky, of the Midwest world of 1914, are akin to Agee’s elegy to the Tennessee of 1915 — the front lawn and the gas streetlights and the shiny Lincoln and the fish pond: “All the props of a safe comfortable way of life that is now gone forever.” The porch is a set in Western movie-lore as well as in representations of American suburbia from the turn of the century through to 1950s and ’60s Cheever Land and beyond, and images of Burroughs combine the two strands — shots of an old shootist, the retired frontiersman, his battles behind him but the gun still loaded, just minding his own business as blue shadows fall, but prepared to defend his suburban plot, his bit of paradise, should deluded trespassers or suicidal intruders call. . . I remember Ginsberg’s “porch haikus,” as he dubbed them — the direct perception of mortality, moments of fleeting existence caught on the wing, spontaneous soul transmission, views of the passing parade and the breeze through the leaves, first thought best thought and maybe last thought too, the poet with pen and page on the lap, at porch time. In fact, Agee’s original Knoxville text, written in 1935, was the spontaneous prosody of the porch, an improvisation, a stream of memory associations, and it was written and completed in just 90 minutes, a process prophetic of the writing of Jack Kerouac. . . As ever with Burroughs, there’s a corkscrew twist, an aberrant take on his own relationship with the American porch, despite those long hours spent reading the newspaper in the rocker in Algiers in 1949 — and so we CUT to Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1938 and “a small frame house on a quiet tree-lined street beyond the Commodore Hotel.” . . Burroughs and Kells Elvins are acting out improvised scenarios in the Hammett / Chandler mold and researching the sinking of the Titanic and the Morro Castle disaster. . . “On a screened porch we started work on a story called ‘Twilight’s Last Gleamings’ which was later used verbatim in Nova Express. . .” Here the porch becomes the site of story telling as the desecration of patriotism and heroism and manly virtue, while “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the National Anthem, is cut up and mocked on that leafy suburban street, along with the flag displayed on even the poorest porches of America. (Burroughs Note: A porch flag pole, metal, “with a wood grain coating for appearance,” and accompanying mounting bracket, is available from Wal-Mart for $24.75, while the flag comes in at a pretty reasonable $13.97). In Gus Van Sant’s 1990 film of Burroughs reading A Thanksgiving Prayer, the American flag ripples through Burroughs’ face as he says, “soak it in heroin and I’ll suck it” — while on the jacket of the 1985 John Calder edition of The Adding Machine, Thomi Wroblewski collages the American flag behind a photograph of Burroughs saluting — the flag emphasises the irony implicit in Burroughs’ salute, a civilian gesture, and one from a performer to his audience, which subverts the formal paying of respect of the armed services, while on another level we recognise it as a signal of recognition, a mark of true respect, directed at those who share his attitude towards the military and, by extension, the flag: “Last flag flaps when the yankee summons me with synthetic time synthetic life. . .” The porch and the flag evoke scenes and signs of tradition, memory and reminiscence in American life, and of disruption and overthrow in underground culture. The site returns in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino as the territory to be defended by the Republican with a gun, in the name of individual freedom — in fact, it is in this film that the porch becomes the paramount last bastion, the final ethical and ethnical defence of a beleagured notion of the old, white American dream: My porch — My America. But there are other, more hedonistic porches in the American iconography. John Leonard wrote of Hunter S. Thompson — “It is nice to think of him, naked on his porch in Colorado, drinking Wild Turkey and shooting at rocks.” While Thompson would remember street fighters and militants and a motorcycle gang attacking a flag pole in Washington, D.C. in 1969, screaming, “Tear the damn thing down!” The porch would return to Burroughs in dreams at the end of his life, as the site of desuetude and decrepitude, old abandoned sets and no one in the streets or leafy avenues — “Houses boarded up, others have an air of being semi-occupied. On a porch a rusting bicycle is overgrown with morning glory vines.” Burroughs escaped New York and it’s significant that his ecological art issued from the reversion to a form of the rural, the mind-your-own business Johnson neighborly ethics of “porch philosophy” in Kansas. . . The lemurs had been there from Naked Lunch on, but it was in tranquility that they reemerged in a rustle of leaves, a flickering of shadow and light. . .
At the time of reading Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and writing The Western Lands, the Egyptian underworld was again paramount in Burroughs’ work, and the color blue in his work becomes night-blue, moonlight-on-water-blue, the Duad Blue of the Egyptian Underworld. Jung analyzed Picasso’s Blue Period as a descent into hell, the blue of the nekia, the artist dying through his work, entering the Land of the Dead. For Burroughs, this is a journey through a starry otherworld, a dream domain with narrow passageways and darkened galleries and chambers populated by fiends and terrors. On this journey the jackal-headed mortuary god Anubis acts as guide. Creatures appear out of the desert of death, like the jackal described by Kafka in “Jackals and Arabs,” “a jackal came trotting up, from one of whose corner-teeth there dangled a small pair of sewing scissors, covered in ancient rust” — cut-up scissor relics carried by the hated, hunted animal, the pariah dog destined to be the soul companion on that final trip across the Western Lands. In Burroughs’ work, the unspeakable must be spoken, fears confronted, the unimaginable brought forth from the depths of the psyche, life lived through an unremitting consciousness of death. Wittgenstein said that death is not an experience of life because it is not “lived through.” Nothing could be further from Burroughs’ recognition of mortality — it is the imprimatur of his writing, the death’s head seal on the codex of his cosmogony, the living truth of his death trip from St Louis to the Duad.
There is something haunting and melancholy in Burroughs’ image, but also an intense fixity of regard, as well as a look of appraisal and self-protection. . . At the ZKM I kept thinking of Kerouac’s famous evocation of Burroughs’ “mad bony skull with its strange youthfulness — a Kansas minister with exotic, phenomenal fires and mysteries.” Kerouac described Burroughs as “gray, non-descript-looking” until “you looked closer” and discovered, beneath the seemingly anonymous façade, the visionary, the esoteric teacher. This view is twisted onto a different plane of reference in Naked Lunch where fires burn through the addicted Lee, and the interior illumination is drug-fuelled self-combustion. . . Photography would reproduce Burroughs’ professional front, whilst providing glimpses of those “phenomenal fires” within, even though the subject, photographed so often over decades, accrues an armored regard against the intrusion and searching examination of the camera. Burroughs’ innate conservatism and shyness are inseparable from this strategy of concealment, but the secret life still comes through, or we read it so, or think we must see it so, breaking through the impassivity to penetrate the enigma. There’s a combination of iciness and dreaminess in Burroughs’ remote gaze, in the pensive and stoic appeal of those eyes which have seen so much and which seem to look out guardedly at a world as perennially sad as it is hostile. They are eyes which Victor Bockris would describe, in his transcript of the interview “The Captain’s Cocktail Party,” strategically echoing Burroughs’ own words, as “unbluffed, unreadable.” . . It’s the Burroughs gaze which Ginsberg characterized as a look of “benevolent indifferent attention,” or “attentive indifference.” So it’s startling, bizarre, a real shock, to see a photo of Burroughs actually laughing on the front of Edition Isele’s Portrait 4 — like seeing the impassive mask of Buster Keaton suddenly, incredibly, inexplicably breaking into a grin. Burroughs had his mask, and if, like Keaton, many subtle, tender, wondrous expressions pass over that mask, an irreducible, sorrowful look remains, the mask in place, caught on film, in the black and white which filmmaker and photographer Robert Frank considered the true dialectic of photography — the twin poles of hope and despair, materially embodied in the medium. It is in black and white that Burroughs and Keaton mutely personify the tragic Pierrot, the bloodless masker, the mortal mime of la condition humaine. At the ZKM I was reminded of Robert Benayoun’s critique of the genius of Keaton — “Keaton may have smiled on screen upon occasion (contrary to legend) — but his look never did.” Antony Balch told Terry Wilson that Burroughs “could look like many things,” but that special, haunted and haunting look remains — down all the years, beyond all laughter, beyond words. When Burroughs directly confronts the camera, the look pierces and penetrates the viewer — the transmission through time of an unaccountable sense of loss, the bleak apprehension of mortality and the expression of something secret, unimaginable, never to be disclosed, something beautiful and terrible which cannot be said, which nevertheless we feel driven to decode, because it addresses us, it mesmerizes us. André Breton: “Yet you see into a pair of eyes and know not what you see in those eyes / Since they see you.”
Camera Immorata / Peter Hujar
The ZKM show includes 80 prints from Burroughs’ original negatives, from the collection of Barry Miles, reminders that Burroughs was a photographer who investigated this medium with characteristic individuality and rigor. Burroughs was clearly drawn to the nostalgic and melancholy power of photography, as evinced by his scrapbooks and notebooks, but his own photographic works explore the illusionistic power of the photographic image through systems-based operations, questioning and subverting invested belief in the image as a record of a moment in time — like his black and white photographs, taken from his window in Duke Street, London, which appeared to document the hours of a day, but each image was actually taken on a different day, though the viewer would see, and so believe, otherwise. Burroughs photographed ruins, buildings in decay, a London which was being transformed, but too late for him — “They are rebuilding the City.” / “Yes. . . Always. . .” There are some lovely b/w portraits by Burroughs — of Terry Wilson, for example, a rarely seen image — but Burroughs’ photographs have a prosaic, sometimes forensic and even desolate effect — the distanced, bleak recording of a disappearing world, and street views as empty as in an Atget, but without the proto-surrealist strangeness and charm. Peter Hujar’s portrait of Burroughs, taken in 1975, was part of a project in which sitters were asked by Hujar to contemplate their own mortality, their own future deaths, as they gazed at the camera and waited for the photographer to get that “final” shot. The book, Portraits in Life and Death, published in 1975, included images taken by Hujar of the Catacombs in Palermo, juxtaposing the dead in waiting and the underground remains. . . Burroughs’ own deathly gaze, unlike that of some of Hujar’s other sitters, is reminiscent of his look in photographs by other photographers — it is as if that mortal recognition was innate, had been fixed in Burroughs’ look many years before, and he gazes back at Hujar’s camera with a long practiced, resigned, sad regard. One turns with a certain relief to the photographs of Burroughs by Udo Breger, a trusted friend who was able to capture Burroughs when he was relaxed, his guard down, living the kind of life that was being lived, forgetful of what that immortal lens signified and threatened.
Amber Bead / Mirror Ball / Glass of Mint Tea
Images move in the mind, behind closed eyes: “I closed my eyes and saw cliffs on the outskirts of a town with houses on top of them, and a China blue sky, and white linen snapping in a cold spring wind.” Or the haunting images appear in dreams, as in this 1956 note — “I just fell asleep for a moment and had a flash of a dream: a policeman on a bicycle, screaming with shrill lust, following a boy down a long, dusty road in Mexico. In the distance a river with trees growing along the banks, and on the other side of the river a town.” In Paris in 1959, Burroughs sees the apparition of the face of his character Fats Terminal “in an amber bead Brion Gysin showed me from magic, Arab necklace. . . (Monster virus forms frozen in amber, looking for a way out and in you might say.)” Gysin and Burroughs also practiced crystal gazing and mirror scrying in the Beat Hotel, using a mirror ball which Burroughs had purchased, watching the images appear and vanish. November 1955, Tangier: “Watching a glass of mint tea on a bamboo mat in the sun, the steam blown back into the glass top like smoke from a chimney. It seemed to have some special significance like an object spotted in a movie.” This tea glass in the sun manifests its magic courtesy of the influence of “Miss Green.” Throughout his writing Burroughs describes scenes becalmed in time, moments out of time — autumn leaves, scraps of silver paper, clouds and vacant lots on a windy September day and it’s getting late already, there’s a silver crescent moon like the set of a distant school play, and flickering silver titles fade out on a movie screen. These images, related to those images falling “slow and silent like snow” which he experienced through ayahuasca, had a recurrent, melancholy, uncanny power for Burroughs, their meaning just out of reach, with a significance which, he confessed, eluded him. They were evocations of loss, and have often been read as expressions of nostalgia, but they are also moments which seem to promise fulfilment and rapture, access to a magical domain. . . “In Interzone it might or might not be a dream, and which way it falls might be in the balance while I watch this tea glass in the sun. . . The meaning of Interzone, its space-time location is at a point where three-dimensional fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into the real world. . .” The glass of tea is not Proustian, it does not return Burroughs to the past, but heralds a dream life to come — a radically new existence is immanent in the glass of mint tea in the sunlight, and there is a feeling of transcendence as the vapor condenses in the air . . . Crucially, for Burroughs, this revelatory experience is not the involuntary return of memory, and the tea does not require tasting as in Proust — “the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate. . . The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it.” Rather it is seeing the glass of tea in sunlight which is transfiguring for Burroughs, and which procures a sense of something crucial about to happen, an eruption which will transform “the real world.” The glass of tea has “some special significance” which is revealed through vision, a meaning which is held “in the balance” between the glass’s factuality and its strangeness and intangibility. Burroughs sees both quotidian object and dream image — the two are equivocal, suspended in a timeless moment in which he feels the possibility of the eruption of the dream into the so-called “real world.” . . The little episode of Miss Green’s Mint Tea is one glimpse of a way of seeing which would profoundly influence Burroughs’ writing and painting — the coexistence of “three-dimensional fact” and the object invested with “special significance,” and no way of knowing “which way it falls.” . . Vision holds a precarious “balance” between fact and dream, between steam in a glass and smoke from a factory chimney, between an object “right in front of you” on a bamboo mat and an image glimpsed on a movie screen. That sense of imminent breakthrough, and the feelings of wonder and elation and fear induced, would run throughout Burroughs’ work, privileging the visual and the gift of second sight. As with Nabokov, what is seen is supreme, but the true pattern of the “fabric of life” is revealed through the superimposition of the apparent design and what lies beneath — the fabric’s other side. As in Burroughs’ fold-in method, and as with a number of his artworks, the recto has its verso. Although the madeleine experience is determined by taste, Proust is a great visual artist, and Léon Daudet’s comment on Proust applies to Burroughs: “Not seeing what other people see, he saw things that no one else saw.”
There would be images from the ’80s of Burroughs happy and smiling with Corso, Leary, Bockris, Laurie Anderson, John Giorno, James Grauerholz, and others — and camaraderie and pleasure in company is there in the shots of Burroughs playacting with Kerouac and Ansen, in the 40s and early ’50s, but somehow, in the 1960s and 70s, the latter were not at all central, recalled or called upon, and not widely reproduced. No, it was the image of the writer as secret agent, the spectral observer, the apocalyptic dystopian which presided, which was required, during the years of the cut-up and the Third Mind. There is the myth as public dream, and the dream as private myth, and Joseph Campbell’s distinction is enfolded in the Burroughs image. The cover of The Burroughs File, 1982, shows Burroughs in the jungle, and this becomes an image of the writer as explorer, as well as placing the taking of Yage in relation to cut-up and Burroughs’ experimental writing. A cover may of course be constructed at hazard as well as over-developed, but the result is always fixed, a template of its time, a clue to the reading of the text within, and the different ways in which Burroughs’ covers function is both complex and revealing. Which covers did Burroughs himself like? Well, Burroughs told Terry Wilson how much he liked the Calder & Boyars 1972 edition of The Wild Boys, designed by John Sewell, with its parade of clay-colored faceless silhouette figures brandishing black guns, knives and whips — we don’t know why he liked it, but the fact that he did so may make us look at it in a special way. . . There are, too, some really bad Burroughs covers, like the 2010 American 25th-Anniversary Penguin edition of Queer with its chopped in half drawing of a skeleton in a suit sitting on a stool — an awful piece of poshlost. The figure is apparently to be read as the dead author still rattling around in his bones — well it’s not every skeleton that can pose for its own portrait, I guess, but the artist has entirely failed to correctly sit the deceased down on that damned stool. There are desperate, fraudulent attempts here to travel into another dimension of time — simulating the olive green of the Olympia Press (which of course did not publish Queer) and employing antique decorative letter blocks to signify the folky exotic culture of Mexico in the 1950s. This is a case of over-determination — the attempt to mark the significance of the book’s anniversary is pushed too literally and too far, and in all the wrong, heterogenous directions, while the idiotic depiction of the deceased author can’t in any way be justified as appropriately “Burroughsian,” or as a Charles Adams-style take on “the living dead,” or as a graphic twist on the Mexican Day of the Dead, or a trash aesthetic nod to ’60s underground comics, or a homage to George Olsen’s 1929 foxtrot “‘Taint No Sin (to Dance Around in Your Bones)” which Burroughs knew so well. . . No, it just won’t wash. “Queer” is spelled out on the front cover, but Burroughs’ Queer is absolutely nowhere here to be seen and the reader turns the book over and sees with relief the photograph of Burroughs and Marker on the back cover. . . The photograph of a young man by Ian Teh, on the front cover of the edition published in Great Britain, is far better, and at least encodes something of the desire and heat of the book — though the name of this brilliant, acclaimed photographer is spelled incorrectly on the back cover. The most famous cover of Queer is the reproduction of the painting Orangenesser X , 1981, by Georg Baselitz, on both the front and back of the jacket of the 1985 Viking edition — a powerful image chosen by Andrew Wylie. Baselitz may have exhibited his paintings upside down in order to draw attention to composition and painterly qualities, but the Orange Eaters series works quite otherwise and the pictures in the series have often been read as strung up, gagged torture victims, images of suffering. This is partly the way Orangenesser X works in relation to Queer — read as analogous to Lee’s distress, and to his routines which stand the world on its head, though this oral consumer has his mouth full of fruit. Baselitz’s “neo-expressionist” painting, though he has denied that the term applies to him, may be equated with Lee’s delirious possession, but not with the book’s third person, scrupulous, precise, unflinching but also tender and melancholic tone. . . Burroughs made his first shotgun pictures in 1982 but between 1983 and 1985 he concentrated upon the writing of The Western Lands, turning increasingly to his visual art in 1986, following the death of Brion Gysin. By 1990 his visual career was well under way with 18 solo exhibitions of his work. His own art would appear inside and on the outside of his books, like Creation of the Homunculus II, used as the frontispiece to My Education, and a detail of the Space Door painting of 1987 gracing the front cover of the Penguin 1990 Interzone. Unfortunately, incredibly, ironically, the latter image has been reproduced upside down — and not in the manner of Baselitz, though I guess it’s just possible that the image was manipulated to make the door handle appear on the right of the cover, above the Penguin logo, for “design reasons.” . . Well, I don’t want to believe it, and probably I don’t.
The title of the show, “Expanded media,” contains a reference to the German publishers Expanded Media Editions, in which one of the curators of the ZKM show, Udo Breger, was vitally involved. e.m.e. published significant works by Burroughs in German translation and English during the 1970s, including Electronic Revolution, Ali’s Smile / Naked Scientology, and the magazine Soft Need, including a significant Brion Gysin special issue. The term Expanded Media also refers to the connections and extensions of mediums of representation and transmission, connoting different kinds of data storage on computers and the transference and reprocessing of material. Our human memory is now inextricably plugged into the art, literature, culture and history data files of media storage, just as our knowledge is inseparable from the electronic processes through which data is retrieved, analyzed, edited, rearranged, reprocessed, re-presented. “Expanded media” is an appropriate theme for the ZKM which is an important center for the study of the potential of New Media in the arts — digital networks, creative participation, interactive feedback, technology as tools for social change, including the interfaces and transitions between analogue and digital processes. The frequency of usage, and the number of applications and meanings of the term “expanded media” have changed enormously since Udo Breger employed it in the 1970s, and this is also true of the related term “multimedia” as used in the title of José Férez Kuri’s book, Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age in 2003. The term “Multi Media” originated in the mid-1960s as a description of visual-and-sound performances and was used in the ’70s to describe multiple slide projector shows using a soundtrack — in fact, Gysin had already performed with Burroughs and Ian Sommerville in both these “multimedia” areas in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and if he was prophetically “tuning in” to the multimedia age, then he was broadcasting with his colleagues and collaborators from their very own Third Mind station, as well as sounding a warning about machine control and the apparatus of art as spectacle. By the ’90s, the term multimedia, like expanded media, primarily denoted the storage, retrieval and processing of different media, including the interaction of text, image, sound, film and animation via computer, an interactive process now known as hypermedia. Gysin and Sommerville used computers to create the Permutated Poems, but it is in a larger sense that Gysin and Burroughs’ work was prophetic of the multimedia / expanded media age, because they did not simply create in a number of different media, such as painting, writing, and sound, or combine / alternate these different media — rather, they created technical processes which moved through as well as between media, processes of transposition and translation and transference which transliterated sound, text and image. These processes depended upon sabotage and feedback, appropriation and manipulation, continual re-transcription and reprocessing, multiple layering, erasure and reiteration. Although “multimedia” has been used to describe “static” content such as a nonlinear text with pictures, Burroughs and Gysin’s scrapbooks and notebooks were not simply “word and text” creations, while their tape and projection works were more than sound and image performances — they were works in process, moving through media, analogical and aleatory, created through accretion and erasure, words becoming numerals and symbols, juxtaposed images transformed into written scenarios, the stroboscope hybridized with calligraphy, the computer printout treated as an oral recitation to be literally played back into the system. It’s in this sense that Burroughs and Gysin’s work was prophetic of the mixing of processes and the translation and transformation of material via computer. Cut-up and the tape experiments were part of “Operation Open Bank,” Burroughs and Gysin providing methodological and technical explications, urging readers to become writers, a democratization which would become the key participatory mode of social media. They accessed computers with the technical assistance of Ian Sommerville and their work was prophetic of the key characteristics of digital New Media — the manipulation of processes, interactivity and creative participation, the use of feedback as a generative tool, the democratization of creation, publishing and distribution, the creation of alternative markets of exchange rather than consumption. Gysin and Burroughs’ layering of analog material was prophetic of the compression of digital data, and though it’s true that they were mostly confined to the exploration of pre-digital formats of paper-based processes and film, as Antony Balch noted, the Third Mind scrapbooks were extended by the scrapbook system of IBM computer operators Willy Deiches and Brenda Dunks, working ostensibly through a Seattle IBM computer setup, according to mathematically precise coordinate points. Burroughs and Gysin treated the scrapbook as an archive in motion, the image-text volumes moving through time and space — the material (re)sources were continually accruing and re-made, the interconnectivity of the parts of the system exponentially radiating on multiple levels, it was the paper-based model of the digital interactive word-image data bank. But if later artists used “data compression” to omit “redundant” information and increase the quality of transmission, Burroughs and Gysin were actually interested in precisely the distortion and so-called redundancy in the systems they worked with, and on. The verification of accuracy, the “correction mode” — they didn’t want any of that. Rather, they pursued the corruption and infection at the interface of human and machine communication — theirs was the fearful study of possessed machine technology. Burroughs and Gysin did not subscribe to the idea that machine technology was neutral, and they treated recording and transmission as processes which transformed the “human” message, both revealing and negating it. Burroughs wrote in The Ticket That Exploded: “The words were smudged together. They snarled and whined and barked. It was as if the words themselves were called in question and forced to give up their hidden meanings.” Inching the magnetic tape back and forth, switching record on at very short intervals, those “hidden meanings” were “brought forth” and what emerged, as Burroughs heard it, was the machine production of self-referential consciousness, the Voice Inside — “Listen carefully and you will hear words that were not in the original text: ‘do it — do it — do it. . . yes I will will will do it do it do it. . . really really really do it do it do it. . . neck neck neck. . . oh yes oh yes oh yes. . .’” This biofeedback process was regarded by Burroughs and Gysin as the externalization of the human psyche — they would probe, analyze, record, reprogram, and reinstall it, according to their own “total resistance” design, before the cyber technicians of the burgeoning techno corporations plugged their own models of the Soft Machine in the world marketplace, and into millions of minds. Well, that was the heady, paranoid, and prophetic plan in that distant doomed decade, before it all came down. “I will create a system of my own or be enslav’d by another man’s.” — William Blake
Summoned by the Creatures of Childhood Wonder
It seems like the logical outcome of a lifetime analyzing and challenging conventional notions of perception and so-called “reality,” but magical contact with alien life, both the abjured, exploited animal world and the ridiculed idea of extraterrestial life, the sense of the living other, had been there throughout Burroughs’ entire life, from his childhood on — as a child he had “a recurrent hallucination or nightmare” about “animals in the wall.” Those hallucinated animals would break through the wall, the screen, the picture plane, the text, like the “animals of dreams” referred to in The Wild Boys, coming in and going out. They would appeare in Burroughs’ dreams, as recorded in My Education — “From one house drifts a heavy odor of flowers and the musky smell of impossible animals — long, sinuous ferretlike creatures that peer out through bushes and vines with enormous eyes.” Animals become Burroughs’ precognitive familiars, they are “beautiful creatures,” they fascinate him and fill him with tenderness and pity — “Realize how I love animals. . . weasels and skunks and wolverines and seals and bush babies.” You can try to call them forth, but they do not have to answer or respond — like the creatures of childhood wonder, Burroughs’ animals are timid, secretive, they emerge into “the light of day” then retreat, shooting back into their primeval night habitat. . . Now you see them, now you don’t, and sometimes a glimpse is all you get, and for Burroughs, this was the lure of painting — it was an invocation, a conjuration, and not only to see but to be touched by the lemur’s paw, as if the viewer and the image could become co-existent, transcending all boundaries and sharing the same space and time. It’s a refusal to accept the screen between image and viewer, and as with Sommerville’s infinity montages, Burroughs wanted to step right through and inhabit those other worlds, to activate layered images, to feel himself moved through avenues and ports of passage into wild, uncharted demesnes, transported out of the self, the summoner becoming the summoned.
Multimedia Show on Mind Screens of the World
In his cut-up books Burroughs describes vision in motion, as images are projected and mutate, and the pre-history of cinema switches to the sci-fi technological spectacle of the future city, merging the Domaine Poétique projections and the Dreamachine with animated calligraphy. In Nova Express, “A magic lantern projected color writing on their bodies that looked like Japanese tattooing. . .” while “Projector towers sweep the city with color writing of The Painter. . .” A room in the Beat Hotel becomes the projection site for a melange of cities, while the Dreamachine multiplies and grows in size, becoming “vast revolving flicker lamps,” “flickering cylinders of colored neon” in multimedia art events and discotheques in which the spectators and dancers become translucent in the dazzle, whirling their neon hula hoops — those hoops have themselves mutated from the Dreamachine, while the dancers disappear like the body illusions of the Gysin/Sommerville slide projections, becoming ghosts of the Dreamachine, spectres of the spectacle. In Burroughs the “towers open fire” and searchlight towers repeatedly strafe and “sweep the city,” but this military policing apparatus is transformed into the spectacle of mass entertainment in which superego turns into id, and control becomes an embraced dissolution. In Nova Express, the Subliminal Kid and his agents of the id implement the terminal rapture, employing film and sound projections as weapons — the city is revealed as the site of mindless entertainment and illusion, art is a fairground attraction which may then be dissolved with the human images of the mindless, transparent punters. It’s the Maya Movie, cast on “vast reflector screens,” a “million drifting screens on the walls of his city.” The screens connect with Burroughs’ experience of ayahuasca, images falling like slow snow on the screens of the mind, and in the cut-up books these screens reveal the illusionary nature of material and physical existence and all is Madame Maya — “the city dissolved in light and people walked through each other. . .” Images are insubstantial, fleeting, in continual transformation, and so called “reality” dissipates — “the great globe itself. . . shall dissolve. . . this insubstantial pageant faded. . .” In Burroughs’ fictions, the screens which momentarily catch the sweeping image flux are themselves “drifting” through the city so that “the city moved in swirls and eddies and tornadoes of image. . .” It’s the Transubstantiation Light Show, and there’s nothing here now but the projections and playbacks, and then the color and music fading out to silence and word dust, bone meal and scraps of silver paper in Waste Land lots. . . End of the Greatest Show On Earth. . .
A Dreamachine spins at the ZKM, films of Burroughs and Bacon and John Giorno run on monitors, and Antony Balch’s seminal footage is shown. . . Filmmaker Aaron Brookner introduces Howard Brookner’s Burroughs: The Movie, Yoni Leyser shows A Man Within and Lars Movin his film Words of Advice and both directors talk about their work, while Carl Michael von Hausswolff introduces his film in progress on Alamout. . . There’s a thrilling, visceral performance by John Giorno of his poetry, and Terry Wilson gives a moving, spellbinding reading from Perilous Passage. . . Axel Heil, Peter Weibel and Udo Breger, the curators, talk about the show and the significance of Burroughs’ work, and Udo Breger pays personal testimony to Burroughs as a friend. . . There are critiques and celebrations at the ZKM as artists and writers, admirers and scholars and curators come together to discuss Burroughs’ work and to pay homage. . . The feeling is one of delight, fascination and camaraderie as we move through the work of a lifetime. . .
Switcheroo / 23 Skidoo
The magazines and newspapers at the ZKM reveal the vital part played by the interview in the transmission and dissemination of Burroughs’ ideas, from the visit of Life reporters Snell and Dean to the Beat Hotel in 1959 down through all the years. . . But if Burroughs was an interviewee, he was still getting his own copy out there, including the reproduction of his own texts as part of interview and article formats. More than a writer promoting his books, he appears in the media as a social commentator and radical theorist — the polemical address of writer to reader in Naked Lunch is extended through newsprint media, and through Burroughs’ projected autodidactic persona. From Naked Lunch onwards, different editions of key Burroughs’ fictions would be framed, contextualized and expanded by transplanted articles and essays, while the 1982 Calder edition of Naked Lunch would include the protracted “Ugh” correspondence of 1963 from the Times Literary Supplement as part of the “extended appendices.” This crucial “extra-literary” dimension of Burroughs’ writing is shown in the revised edition of The Job of 1974 in which Burroughs’ interviews with Daniel Odier, his explications of his ideas and his polemics are sometimes intercut with, or seem to spontaneously erupt into Burroughs’ fictional scenarios. These scenarios are read as illustrating or embodying the described technical procedures, theoretics and social critique, though they often wildly exceed his apparent portfolio — replying to a question on drug legislation, for example, Burroughs is galvanized by possible scenarios of what would happen if the police enforced anti-drugs laws to the letter, and so we cut to Hyde Park where six police dogs are doused with gasoline and set on fire “before a vast cheering crowd.” . . Revealingly, this ideological / fantastic dialectic is absolutely paradigmatic of Burroughs’ writing — the anti-ideology ideologue’s “illustrations” spiral out of control, moving at speed from a diatribe or technical explication into a series of crazed scenarios, in which he is caught up, galvanically and inventively driven. There is method in this madness — we might say, this is the method, and no madness. It isn’t a trope, it is a structural extension of the Burroughs routine — moving into an explanatory aside or explication or illustration which gathers momentum and further digressions and deparures from the subject at hand. It suggests that the original routines, fuelled by emotional and psychic stress and upheaval were themselves excessive versions of something intrinsic to Burroughs’ personality and style of communication — his combination of autodiacticism and fantastic invention, his strange, skewed, insistent pragmatism and his dreamy, floating, erotic escapes into bizarrerie . . . For example, “Experiments in Norway indicate the possibility of activating word patterns in the brain by tape-recorder techniques. The following story explores these possibilities. . .” — and the wild “23 SKIDOO” is strategically inserted into the interview response, a text published in 1960 which would be republished in 1984. . . The most famous early model of this fore and aft re-editing process is in Naked Lunch — the book begins with “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness,” Burroughs’ polemics modulated and integrated with a measured account of his drug history, but this is immediately followed by “Post Script. . . . Wouldn’t You?” which moves at speed into jump-cuts and hipster argot, as if the message in the first half of the intro had to be translated into Lunch mode in order to be properly sold to the reader, or listener, as a spoken rhetorical tirade — and Burroughs does just that, ventriloquizing the drug pusher as writer (and vica versa) in order to sell his own delirious “product,” a drug / book which is the means of transmission as well as the urgent message. What is striking is how the scenario so often relishes what has been polemically decried — the warning, admonishing Dante, reflected hell-flames glittering in his eyes, says, “This is Hell. . . and it’s hot,” before continuing on his infernal pilgrimage. . . The 1974 Grove edition of The Job would include versions of material which had previously appeared in Books And Bookmen, Harper’s, and Mayfair, as well as including the text of Electronic Revolution which had appeared in a limited edition in 1971. . . The ZKM exhibits news and media material not only because Burroughs’ image and work appear there, but because the relation between his books and his “extra-literary” writing was osmotic, generative, and crucial, the fictions both framed by explanations of his techniques and by his social critiques, whilst being infiltrated by these modes and feeding back into them. Burroughs thought that journalism, like history, was fiction, though that did not stop him quoting from news articles, either to decry them or to use them in support of his own arguments, and to use them in his own fictions . . . News is ephemeral as Kerouac’s newspaper blowing down Bleecker Street, but that newsprint media displayed in vitrines at the ZKM remains significant in the development of Burroughs’ writing, and some of the texts which Burroughs first published there would re-enter his fictions and become part of literature, “the news that stays news.” The polemical impetus of Burroughs’ letters, early routines and Naked Lunch itself would be channelled through the explications of Third Mind ideas, techniques and processes, including attacks on ideology, and it was this intertwining of the fictional and critical, the coupling and conjoining of dream scenarios and polemics, which was crucial — and to which print media contributed so much, providing outlets and opportunities for the publication of experimental, outré and often unaccountable, hybrid texts, mixing, as in Naked Lunch, the “How-To Book” and “Revelation and Prophecy,” the blueprint and the dream, and continuing Burroughs’ intertwined practice, on different levels, of noir-style cool and the phantasmagoric, control and disarray, existential removal and possession, critical distance and total immersion. No matter how cranky and odd and haphazard Burroughs’ contributions to the media may have been, and there were a few, he wasn’t a writer just hacking it or slumming it, he was engagé, and enragé, and that was because the use of cut-up and the related practices of the Third Mind were from the very beginning understood and treated as ideological, as technological weapons of media deconstruction, transformation and transposition — the cut-up fictions are political texts, engaged with non-literary issues and practices, while Burroughs’ media interventions are propelled and extended by his radical experimental literary practise, diverting critique and exposition into routines, scenarios and examples of his experimental writing. Importantly, if to a limited extent, Burroughs would employ cut-up in a journalistic context — the first newspaper cut-ups re-entering the media machine. Walking through the ZKM, looking again at magazines from the ’60s and ’70s, the fervor of those doomed decades came back to me, when Burroughs’ revolutionary explorations of consciousness and appeals for the overthrow of quotidian authority were so thrilling, incandescent, delirious — those days when he shattered the discourses, when his writing challenged the orthodoxies and broke the linguistic molds, and it really did feel like the dream breaking through.
The Wrong Archetypes / Swell Purpose
Burroughs appears entirely indifferent to the camera, inscrutable, remote, or his regard seems to directly challenge the taking of the image. His attention is often elsewhere, what he sees is off-frame, out of shot, or he’s abstracted, somewhere else entirely, lost in introspection — caught on film just before disappearing back into the netherworld, the margins, back into already mythic sets, his own scenarios, the streets of Paris and London. It’s the failed Man of the Crowd, the notorious Underground Man. The Burroughs image is continually re-made, remodelled, re-screened, repackaged, fuelling an endless fascination as we try to read through and decode the Burroughs front. The perpetually ambiguous Burroughs image remains — an image so straight it’s disconcerting, so declarative it’s weird, out of sync. . . There’s always a piece missing, and we search for it in vain. Burroughs was good at acting out his roles, and not only in Balch’s films, or in Chappaqua or Drugstore Cowboy, and one thinks of his stand-in Lee, who “goes around exuding his own archetypes.” In “Lee’s Journals,” the campy self-acclaimed composer tells his young Arab poet protégé: “A culture gets its special stamp — Mayan, Northwest Coast, North pacific — probably from one person or small group of people, who originally exuded these archetypes. After that, the archetypes are accepted unchanged for thousands of years. Well, Lee goes around exuding his own archetypes. It isn’t done anymore. Already the Interzone Café reeks of rotted, aborted, larval archetypes. . . Look, I am a success because I mesh with existing archetypes. If I accept, or even get to know, Lee’s archetypes. . . and his routines!!!” The composer and his companion, “Titmouse,” pack their bags posthaste and head off to meet Cole Porter in Capri. . . Burroughs and Lee, William Lee, “William Seward Lee Burroughs” as he inscribed his 1950s “Blind Mouth” self-portrait drawing, they dare to commit “the crime of separate identity” — they break the molds, they do what “isn’t done” and refuse to mesh, to court success, they don’t “exude” right with the right people. (Burroughs note: “exudation” results from a CUT through a membrane). Titmouse says, “You don’t have to see him.” The composer replies, “See him — I should think not.” Lee and Burroughs have a shared invisibility, and even when they dress the part, walking around in the suit-raincoat-hat combo, they’re refractory to assimilation, they fail the simulation test, and despite all the roles they play and act out for real, the Junky investigator, the reporter as remittance man, these are spectral, shifting speciality acts, with a tendency to dematerialize. . . At the ZKM, I see the Burroughs image as the perfect cover for the covert action of his stories. Something doesn’t quite fit, something’s always askew, but the disguise that is seen-though turns out to be exactly true — that guy really was an agent, a Rewrite Operative, an undercover investigator, hidden in plain view, though he wasn’t working for either Islam Incorporated or Esquire, and his work had nothing to do with what Terry Southern liked to call “the quality lit game.” No, his swell purpose was quite otherwise.
Images of Collage / The Syringe Becomes Generic
A book cover is a collage, the selection and arrangement of typographies, images, texts, colors and formats, though this collage process is determined by a pre-existing portfolio, by current stylistic orthodoxies and budgets. In the case of Burroughs’ book covers and jackets, there’s an attempt to parallel and embody both the nature of collage and the collage nature, as it was understood, of his cut-up texts — and this consistently backfires. The Grove Press paperback cover of The Ticket That Exploded cuts up and “explodes” the letters of the “Ticket,” while both the Grove and Calder hardbacks take a tasteful, too genteel approach, typographically paying homage to an outdated notion of collage which hardly approximates Burroughs’ methodology. Tasteful repros from a forgotten design award annual, these covers seem very weak compared with the photo wall montage by Ian Sommerville reproduced on the first edition of Ticket, in which it is the concatenation of images within images which expresses the cut-up and fold-in methodologies and Burroughs’ flickering, flashing “image track.” It’s instructive to see these examples of the aesthetic illustration of collage in the same wall cabinet as a number of tacky, determinedly sensational, illustrated covers. Two Tandem editions of Dead Fingers Talk have the syringe in the arm, a fish-eye photo setup on a fire escape and a pulp-style illustration, while a Star edition has a photo of syringe, foil and blood in the spread, dead-fingered hand of the Junky, like Blind Pew showing the Black Spot. This shock shlock continues with the Corgi cover of The Wild Boys with its blazing body and dribbles of blood in a heavy metal psychedelic rainbow style with absolutely none of the aesthetic principles and finesse of the designers of typographic belles-lettres. Good. Highly recommended. Those seem to have been the two main routes to go down — decorous signification of Burroughs’ presumed literary method, or the drug and homosexual angles selling the sensational product, leaving the buyer in no doubt about the even more degrading and lubricious content within. Well, one approach works, the other doesn’t come even close to making it, though the syringe would become emblematic and programmatic, axiomatic and generic in conveying Burroughs’ work. On the front of the 1968 Panther edition of Nova Express, the syringe turns into a rocket blasting off, the needle exactly bisecting the letter X, an illusionistic torn jacket cover effect (like a coffee cup ripping off the image) creating an illusion of lift-off fuel-burn. (Burroughs note: a hypoblast is the inner germ layer of an embryo which develops into the endoderm). It was practically inevitable that somewhere down the line “The Disembodied Art Gallery” would create their “Beatopoly” bag, “designed in close partnership with the ghost of Brion Gysin” — “A William Burroughs cut-up writing kit for all aspiring junkie novelists.” The kit consists of a folded half-A4 instruction card in a transparent bag with a plastic syringe. This package came Absolutely Free and is now a highly desired collector’s item, fetching fabulous prices on the international quality lit market and art curator scenes (or maybe, hopefully, not). At the ZKM you can see how Burroughs’ work put the syringe onto the book jacket, and along with published photos of writers like Philip Lamantia and Burroughs himself tying up and taking a shot, this foregrounding was in one sense in accord with the injunction of Naked Lunch, to see what is on the end of the fork, on the end of the long newspaper spoon — to put the terror mystique of the heroin ritual out there in plain view, for all to see, in Times Square, in Piccadilly, seeing right through the needle’s eye. At the same time, the image of the syringe would be re-contextualized and reconfigured, as with that rocket on the cover of the interplanetary, S.F.-sourced Nova Express — the book includes the section “PLAN DRUG ADDICTION” and there are a number of drug set-ups and references to hypodermics in the text including “yellow light quivered sharp as a hypo needle,” “the nurse charged in with a loaded hypo,” and “a hypo big as a bicycle pump. . .” The rocket-syringe has a dual function, though heroin as a method of transport into the liberation of Space is the antithesis of Burroughs’ message, and a rocket ship of junky cosmonauts might run into trouble somewhere around Crab Nebula. . . By the time of the 2003 50th Anniversary Edition of Junky, the hypo had surely lost its chic taboo, its talismanic power, but its image was still deployed in the form of a simplified, knowingly primitivist drawing, framed by handwritten lettering, with a dumb caricature in the syringe’s chamber — a miserable sad cartoon head to be read as a cipher of “Burroughs.” Again, it was inevitable that a representation of Burroughs would eventually appear inside the syringe, placing the image of the writer signified by the hypo-logo inside the signifier itself — a shot at the “Burroughs” shot. Ideally, this would be the terminal point in the lineage — needle withdrawal, the truly disposable syringe. But it doesn’t work that way, not in junk culture. The eye was in the needle before the needle was in the eye.
Typographica Non Implementa
Burroughs and Gysin analyzed the effects of word and image, and treated the word as image, but very few of the designers of their book covers tried to engage with Third Mind processes such as cut-up, fold-in, bisection, simultaneity, layering, splicing, reiteration, and transposition. It’s a reminder that with a few exceptions, most notably Burroughs’ Gysinian calligraphy for the Olympia Press Naked Lunch jacket, and Gysin’s calligraphy on the front of Exterminator, Burroughs and Gysin, like most writers, had little or no say in the design of their jackets, and if they tried, they were ignored. As Stanley Booth writes in the afterword to his seminal The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, many editors and publishers don’t give a damn what “their” writers think, they’re “frustrated writers themselves, desperate. . . to demonstrate what they sincerely believe to be their superior creativity. Young, unpublished writers should consider yourselves warned.” This extends to the design of the book jacket in which the publisher is so often determined to play a leading role. The covers of works by both Burroughs and Gysin published by the underground press and small publishers are the most likely to show the influence of Fluxus and more radical art practices, especially those of small independent design studios set up by art students in the 1960s. Sometimes the “Functional Typography” so prevalent in 1960s design, which emerged from the “elementary” and “international” styles, works well enough, combining asymmetrical composition with an unornamented, unemotional lucidity in the fonts of that time — Helvetica, Folio, Univers. What is signified is something cool and methodical, which might suggest something of Burroughs and Gysin’s techno-scientism, but the expressionistic and spontaneous aspects of their work are often in these cases entirely missing. Burroughs and Gysin were both systems artists and expressionists, they went for the raw and the cooked, the cool and the wild — computer permutation and calligraphy, the random splice and splatter and then the word held in tweezers, placed in its intuited and destined space-time location. First the razor, then the glue — cut through with a hand-operated guillotine, and then let the processor do all the wet work, moving from analogue to digital and all the way back again, from Philips to the Paleolithic, from Steve Jobs’ Apple to the Forbidden Fruit.
Visualization / Crossing The Time Split
The picture as habitat is also a jungle to be explored, the world indifferent and resistant to the human presence. The black and white reproductions of Burroughs’ paintings in Ghost of Chance, first published in 1991 by the Library Fellows of the Whitney Museum of Art, perfectly complement the text, their liana swirls and dense convolutions of brush strokes and suction smears creating an at first impenetrable mass which the viewer penetrates through details and gaps, openings back through time into the “hidden wilderness” of the image, entering the lost domain of the natural animal world before it is invaded by “more and more devalued human stock” — it’s the Garden of Lost Chances before it is terminally buried by “human progress” beneath “A vast mud-slide of soulless sludge.” The images are not illustrations, and Burroughs’ text alongside the pictures provides not literal descriptions but topographies for ways of looking. A stone temple provides the opening to the biological garden, one of a number of “ports of entry,” as if the gaze must find a way through the layered paint strokes of this rain forest, through entangling vines and foliage, and penetrate the unfolding spaces, escaping “time and sequence and causality,” crossing over what Burroughs calls “the split” which separates “the wild, the timeless, the free” from “the tame, the time-bound, the tethered.” Burroughs’ pictures attempt to procure a visual experience akin to that described in the text — the viewer as explorer emerging from a labyrinthine tunnel into a clearing is suddenly transfixed, enraptured by “a moment of arrested motion.” The skittering, trembling lemurs appear, twitching their tails and then — “whisk” — they are gone, swinging through the trees and disappearing into the forest, vanishing back into their wild sanctuary, the pre-human spaces of their species, before the eradications of time, before the guns and diseases and experiments of Homo Superior, Homo Saps. The significance of Ghost of Chance is that it combines the experience of reading a text and the experience of looking at pictures in ways which together incarnate a special process of visualisation. Ecological content in the paintings, in the form of images of lemurs and monkeys and their either lush and dense foliage or torn, invaded, shattered and degraded habitats, and Burroughs’ own explications in interviews about his art, had made clear his motivation, but the book, a polemic against blind human destruction and an elegy for a lost visionary domain, equates and intertwines Burroughs’ narrative of exploration and time travel and the desire to visually penetrate and become immersed and lost in his painted palimpsests. Man’s blindness is corrected by a new art of learning how to see, the act of looking inseparable from wonder and a feeling of pity for doomed otherness, for those glimpses of beauty on the brink of being lost forever. In the text of Ghost of Chance, Burroughs uses visual reorientation as the instrument of raising ecological consciousness — the gilt-edged etchings in an old book, The Ghost Lemurs of Madagascar, come alive, while the crystals of the drug called indri, which means “look there,” are taken at dawn or twilight when the secret creatures emerge from the jungle, from the psyche. . . A black tunnel opens into a series of dioramas, the scene is like “a limpid frameless painting” which you step through, entering the dream domain. . . Mission can see “for miles in every direction,” and the visionary terra incognita opens beyond limited, blighted, quotidian human vision. . .
The Revenant without a Face
Burroughs’ paintings were inspired by his dreams, including the attempt to depict the fearful. In My Education Burroughs describes seeing a terrifying figure in a dream, wearing a black monk’s caul [sic], on the stairs in the house at Price Road. He was frightened, and tried to call his mother. . . “This is a figure that has appeared before in dreams, and always I am paralyzed with fear so that I cannot even cry out. . . Yesterday I painted a picture called Le Revenant, with just such a figure, in a robe that covered the head and only a black outline where the face would be.” The face in the picture, as in the dream, would not materialize, could not be realized in paint and would remain a fearful, spectral absence. Burroughs’ paintings are filled with masks and silhouettes — blank-eyed figures gaze out or turn aside, their features and expressions inscrutable, and the unreachable is paradoxically there in the paintings, as lacunae, black holes. Burroughs decries the limitations of human vision, the physiological and psychic blind-spot, and there is always the unseen in his pictures, that which cannot be seen, something hidden behind the picture surface — uncanny, tantalizing, hovering just out of vision’s reach and touch.
Dream Shifts / Kaleidoscope of Vistas
Burroughs wondered, “How are shifts made in a dream?” The fast cuts and slow transitions of dream travel would be approximated through cut-up and fold-in, while in his paintings, one image morphs into another through superimposed layers of paint, collaged images creating pictures-within-pictures — not a single fixed-viewpoint perspective in a coherent linear space, but multiple levels analogous to dream shifts. Images are seen in a succession of planes, hidden images unfolding through the depths of the picture space, moving through a succession of image screens, a process of emergent, apparitional visualization which Burroughs had experienced while looking at Gysin’s work. . . This pictorial approach is also related to the structural methodology and dynamic visual switches of Naked Lunch as described in Burroughs’ letter to Ginsberg, Oct. 28, 1957, Tanger — “In a sense the action occurs in a superimposed place which is South America, U.S.A., Tanger and Scaninavia, and the characters wander back and forth from one place to another. That is a Turkish Bath in Sweden may open into South American jungle. . . the historical novel form. . . is a three-dimensional chronology of events happening to someone already, for purposes of the novel, dead. That is the usual novel has happened. This novel is happening. . . . The only way I can write narrative is to get right outside my body and experience it. This can be exhausting and at times dangerous.” Out-of-body experience, immersion in the process of living creation, psychic risk . . .Burroughs’ methodology of topographic shifts arose from the practice and problematics of his writing in the 1950s, in which, as James Grauerholz has written, “the lines between ‘letters,’ ‘journals’ and ‘writings’ are blurred,” and the methodology appears in the osmotic city scenarios of Naked Lunch and other books — it’s the composite sprawl, the concatenation of spaces in which “All houses in the City are joined” and “a network of rooms and corridors” concertina and merge, creating a vast, fluid architecture which spills out “in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas,” the inhabitants sucked and popping through the viscous walls. . . Characters would fly and float through Burroughs’ mutating dream city, swimming through the ruined streets trailing colored bubbles and blue streamers — the City is not only a shifting melange but has its own anti-gravity atmosphere. . . In his aquatic decalcomanias and in his arrangement of images from different sets, Burroughs creates both fluid spaces and multiple viewing points, windows set in space, the viewer invited to move down a succession of corridors into a kaleidoscope of vistas, and through layered veils and swirls and drifts of paint. . . Burroughs questions his dreams but doesn’t analyze them, though they may trigger memories — their value for him is manifest not latent, and he seeks to do something with them. The dreams spilled over into waking “Daydreams,” the unrolling of “little films” in the mind’s eye, which Ira Cohen associated with the Akashic realm, and which Paul Bowles described as “God’s Home Movies.” Writing and painting channelled Burroughs’ daydreams, they were means of transport, allowing him to travel further and further through the torn alleys and brilliant vistas of the psyche, seeing, transcribing, evoking and entering the magical scenes as they unfolded. . .
Locked Out / Looked Out / Through Other Eyes
In Queer, Lee finds himself in Guayaquil in Ecuador, but he feels separated from the life of the place — “there was something going on here, some undercurrent of life that was hidden from him.” This feeling of alienation is experienced by Lee through the resistance of what is seen, its refutation of any identification or feeling on his part, other than disgust or bafflement — he looks at the passing faces, he looks into the doorways and windows of cheap hotels, as if seeing the place will allow him to penetrate its mysterious otherness and connect him to it. “An iron bedstead painted light pink, a shirt out to dry. . . scraps of life. Lee snapped at them hungrily, like a predatory fish cut off from his prey by a glass wall. He could not stop ramming his nose against the glass in the nightmare search of his dream. And at the end he was standing in a dusty room in the late afternoon sun, with an old shoe in his hand.” Lee looks at salt shakers and water pitchers and kitchen pots with obscene decorations, he sees a hunchback playing panpipes, he sees the centipede symbol everywhere, and the dirty yellow river and rusty battleships, he sees a group of boys playing in rubbish on the waterfront. . . Alone, silent, he can only look, but he is locked out from the world he sees. But then another kind of vision is triggered — “He focused on one boy, the image sharp and clear, as if seen through a telescope, with the other boys and the waterfront blacked out. The boy vibrated with life. . . Fragmentary memories. . . the smell of cocoa beans drying in the sun, bamboo tenements. . .” If, elsewhere in Burroughs’ writing, the telescopic signifies the narrowing down of emotional contact to “the vanishing point,” here the telescopic focus and fixation of vision breaks through the remote external world and shatters separate identity — “He could feel himself in the body of the boy.” Lee sees the boy and fuelled by “the tearing ache of limitless desire,” is transported into the skin and psyche and memory of the boy — through the desire for the other, and through the act of seeing him, Lee becomes the other, and sees the world without screens, through the boy’s eyes. Throughout Burroughs’ work, separation is registered and expressed in visual terms, through the blank indifferent regard of junkie eyes, through the glass walls of an aquarium, through an old shoe held in Lee’s hand in the late afternoon sun. . . But then vision becomes the powerful instrument of erotic, psychic connection, breaking the boundaries of ego, transcending limited human perception, as if to focus on someone and truly see them is an act which allows the seer an out-of-body experience, telepathic contact, the possibility of merging one’s personality with another’s. . . Burroughs moves continually between the lonely, hostile, meaningless, tormenting scenes of a life from which one feels terminally shut out, and those moments when the eye breaks through the image world, to inhabit physically and psychically the sheer rapturous otherness of being / seeing — the optical apparatus of the eye is transformed into an erotic projector of psychic communion through an act of intense, empathetic vision. In Burroughs’ work there is always the feared other, and the desired other — they promise both agonizing engulfment and annulment, and the blissful deliverance from self. The seminal dash of the cut-up is itself the sign of division, of continual splitting, the mark of an existential elision, foregrounding a continual state of separation from the self as well as urgent attempts to re-connect with the self, to “recruit a new existence.”
Flickering Message through Revolving Grids
The spaces opening up through layers in Gysin’s paintings are transposed through cut-up and fold-in in Burroughs’ writing — transparency, simultaneity and the rapid shuttle of images. The “action” of the cut-up fictions is created through the flickering and melding of intercut scenes, and the “flickering message” of Gysin’s “magnetic pencil” is itself significantly “passed back and forth, over and through shifting grills” in the section of The Ticket that Exploded called “writing machine,” in which Burroughs foregrounds mechanized processes of composition as fantastic extensions and equivalents of his own techniques. Beyond the juxtaposition of images, beyond collage, Burroughs describes scenes unfolding in depth, moving through layers, a profound element in “dreaming on the Gysin level” — images by the great artists move “past through each other,” are mixed as projections on screens, and the audience itself enters the screens, “permutating and moving” through the streaming images while “layers peel off” and reflections are glimpsed of “translucent tentative beings” moving into focus and fading out again. Significantly, the once radical technique of photomontage is itself fragmented and the broken pieces of the old avant-garde shimmer and flicker in new patterns — the composite picture of art and advertising is cut-up, set in continuous motion, pulsating and flickering like Gysin’s paintings and the Dreamachine.
If I Could Paint
In 1953 on Yage: “It was like possession by a blue spirit. (I could paint it if I could paint). Blue purple. . . a blue substance throughout my body. . .” Well, he would paint it. . . Later, in “Yage Notes,” he repeats this desire — “If I could only paint I could convey it all.” In this same passage he also refers to South Pacific and archaic “phylogenetic memory” which would be crucial in his approach to art. “Everything stirs with a peculiar furtive life like a Van Gogh painting,” but also further and further back, to the time when the money wasn’t on the art, like the image in Naked Lunch — “I see an archaic grinning face like South pacific mask. . . The face is blue purple splotched with gold. . .” This image becomes active, the room shakes and vibrates and that phylogenetic memory, that “blue substance” races through the body — “The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near east, India, races as yet unconceived and unborn, passes through the body. . .,” prophetic of the streams of faces seen in the Dreamachine, or, to put it another way, the Dreamachine accessed the Yage level. . . It was always a vision quest — “I was thinking like a book you read which also has pictures and accompanying music. Of course couldn’t approximate life itself which is seen, heard, felt, experienced on many different levels and dimensions. . .” The “Blind Mouth” drawn by Burroughs in the ’50s has its corresponding “Silent Eye” in Korzybski’s philosophy, his belief that creativity comes from seeing in silence. Burroughs: “Korzybski says the creative process takes place when you look at an object or a process in silence.” The mouth cannot see because it speaks, and so breaks the silence of looking. Burroughs wanted to look in silence, to bypass the Voice Inside and move through images without verbalizing the experience — he desired contact and recognition beyond speech and dialogue, that truly wordless communion which Nabokov described as “the silence of love.”
Burroughs’ actual experience of moving through cities informs his topographics of writing, as in “International Zone” — “Tangier seems to exist on several dimensions. You are always finding streets, squares, parks you never saw before. Here fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into the real world.” The walkways and bridges and fire escapes of his mosaic sets are linked in a spinning web — the radial osmotic city. . . But this isn’t the formulated, thoroughly mapped “other world” of fantasy fiction, it’s a perpetually shifting topography — Burroughs’ map is provisional, continually re-sketched. As Burroughs wrote in “Ginsberg Notes” — “This novel is a scenario for future action in the real world. . . an attempt to create my future. In a sense it is a guidebook, a map.” But the guidebook spills every which way like a broken concertina, the map is a palimpsest — the city becomes the melange of all cities as memories and associations break through the physical boundaries of place, and the writer is waiting in an empty Tangier street, he’s also passing through the sunshine and shadow of Mexico City, and feeling the evening warmth on his skin on a night in Madrid, and the wind off the mountains on Saturn, the dry heat of Minraud. . .
Burroughs’ paintings evoke violent endings, terminal disappearing acts — the vanishing of animal species, Poe’s Red Death, fire victims, infernos, explosions, joy rider car wrecks, decapitated heads and bloody skulls, bleeding head holes and severed body parts, shootings, terminal drug psychosis, the Angel of Death and the phantom riders, icy black space and the evil river floating with guns and corpses, black Stetsons and copper’s narks in marl holes, momento mori and ex votos. Burroughs’ paintings were made in his final years — they are the Last Images to his Last Words. The pictures are beautiful, ravishing, vivid, but also damaged, torn, splintered, worn, degraded, bearing the marks of attack. There are yellowing stained snaps and cuttings on display at the ZKM, beautiful in their corrosion, but testaments still to aging, pictures of vanished epochs and the unquiet dead, while Burroughs’ paintings commemorate, memorialize and elegize even as they flash with energy and color, and Emerson’s words come to mind — “Alcohol, hashish, prussic acid, strychnine are weak dilutions. The surest poison is time.” Time’s accretions and erasures, its tears and wounds, are embodied in the scraped and blown textures of Burroughs’ pictures, while the act of painting accessed and combined scenes from Burroughs’ memory and from his writing in ways which he could not otherwise have procured. Painting was a divining tool and a reconfiguring process — the dead increasingly appeared to Burroughs in his dreams, as recorded in Last Words, the models of his own characters corpsing and communicating from their parallel worlds, glimpsed through the ether in their dream costume, and manifesting in swirls and slathers of paint. Burroughs’ dream records and his paintings are the written and visual counterparts of a process of psychic self-investigation — the dead manifest and demand recognition, they want to remember what it felt like, the rain on the pavements and rooftops and the passing show, checking out all the old addresses, planning a final moving-in operation. . . Burroughs saw those visitations and ghost faces “against the icy blackness of space” and they shimmer through his paintings, each panel or page a “gleaming empty sky” for the skried manifestation of spooks and shadows and the possessed return of the dear departed. Here they come again, the Electric Technician Ian Sommerville and doomed, impossible Mikey, and there’s Targuisti and Jane, the loved ones with a few old enemies brought on by the dream stage manager — and here come Pantopon Rose and Eric the Fag, Louis the Bellhop, George the Greek, Subway Mike and The Black Bastard. . . Even if Burroughs was not looking for them, they were evidently looking for him, materializing as images in his very own multimedia Book of the Dead. Burroughs’ painting is death research, like the paintings of so many artists whose late work seems to confront their mortality, but in Burroughs’ case his painting career, despite a lengthy apprenticeship, is all “Late Period.” He viewed death as a dangerous rite of passage, necessitating reconnaissance trips across the Duad, scouting out the delirious terrain between earthly existence and an unimaginable afterlife. . . Burroughs once said to Gysin and Terry Wilson of his death — “I expect to kick my habit in one concerted moment of excruciating withdrawal,” but the Last Words notebooks, his dream records, his paintings, The Western Lands, all testify to a profound preparation for the journey ahead. It was in the spirit of one of his favourite poems, Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” part of which was read at Burroughs’ funeral — “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Burroughs made his first shotgun paintings in 1982 while finishing The Place Of Dead Roads, published in 1984. In that book, “Kim observes that the doors and walls are compacted layers like plywood and that they have a malevolent life of their own, snapping open and shut, you can get lost in a maze of doors and corridors, steps going up to nowhere, steps going down to a dead end as a heavy door slams shut behind you.” Burroughs describes a narrow, almost two-dimensional space, in effect, the picture plane, in which houses appear, four feet deep — “They must slide around in there. . . nursery-rhyme magic. . .” He sees old women with spinning wheels “in tiny cottages of the plywood they use for building, compacted in layers like the cards animated by a malevolent sliding life, doors slide open, snap shut.” These visions have emerged from the plywood shotgun paintings and their connection with the layered transpositions and permutations of the Third Mind scrapbooks, the planar stacking of images in Gysin’s paintings, the attempts to think in “association blocks,” and the extra-dimensionality of the 2-D image, all of this is made clear in the form of the sinister Venusian card game which Kim intuits — “card magic associated with a special card deck. The cards are painted on a material like plastic that absorbs the colors to produce a three-dimensional impression. The cards move into combinations like animated cartoons. . .” The image cards open and shut like doors, inviting vision and locking it out, equivalents of the image panels juxtaposed and sprayed over by Burroughs in his door pictures of 1987, and the serial shuffled maze of the scrapbooks. Although Kim recognizes the game as alien in origin, it is nevertheless a form of “Kim’s Game.” Kim takes his name from Kipling’s great novel in which Kim plays the observation game with jewels and photographs and disparate objects, memorizing them as part of his training as a spy — in effect, what Kim is doing in The Place of Dead Roads — learning to see and remember, so the memory pictures can be laid out and called at will. . . Baden-Powell would précis Kipling’s Kim in Scouting For Boys, good prep for the service of King and Queen, as demonstrated by George Smiley in le Carré’s 1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in which the retired agent still scopes out the cars parked on his street, memorizes the names of shops on his route to the British Museum, and knows the exact number of stairs to his flat “and which way each of the twelve doors opened.” It’s “a test of memory, a private Kim’s game to preserve his mind from the atrophy. . .” The visualization and memory exercises of The Third Mind, color walking and street record-and-playback, and photographic reconstruction, were treated as strategies and field devices of an intelligence operation, as made clear by their technical explication and political contextualization in The Job, Exterminator, Minutes to Go and The Third Mind.
What He Was Looking for
In his writing Burroughs tried to find through cut-up words, through fractured sequences and the layering and overload of language, a method of discovering something which could not be consciously directed or said in any other way. . . Forcing language to give up its secret, to divine it in the flashes of connection and rupture which could only be signified by the dash or ellipsis, in the breakages and provisional reconnections of syntax and phrase. The text is eviscerated and moved around in a continual re-writing / re-reading, an endless exhumation, a project attempting to go deeper whilst pushing language through its analogical, combinatory, self-generating possibilities. . . Burroughs’ paintings take images in the plane, equivalent to the pages of text to be cut up, and subject this material to processes which despoil and shatter — it’s painting as creation through violent action. . . What was he looking for? The “place of broken origins,” before trauma, disassociation and the split — before it all came down. Burroughs’ art is often beautiful, with delicate effects of color and texture, but it is an art of ruins, made out of the broken pieces of culture and a strewn life — how careless Burroughs could be, leaving at a moment’s notice, abandoning his papers and effects to the winds of chance, and to the ministrations of Gysin and his archival locker. But how brilliant, how supreme his powers of recombination, the putting together of the fractured pieces.
The Falls of Art
Literature and art become bureaucratic, there’s a list of recognized writers and artists and “You’re just nobody if you’re not on the list.” The Inspector calls, he’s “a shabby gray inconspicuous man. He glances around the vernissage and yawns. . . The artist and the gallery owner stand there waiting. . . He shakes his head with a terrible smile. The List will grow into an institute with a research staff, a library, a museum and film archives. Bulletins will be issued and funds allotted to deserving projects.” Like the end of the section “Painting to Palaver to Polaroids’ in Here to Go, in which Gysin decries the proliferation of images and art tourism, art as entertainment, the chic disposability of “Deceptual Art,” so in “The Fall of Art,” Burroughs pictures art as a great potlatch, an economy of creation through destruction, and this is foregrounded in his own practice, while his literal projections of an apocalyptic art becoming a transcendental way of seeing are continually both validated and undercut by his contempt for art-as-art, for the art world and its economy — art falls into desuetude, is dumped in gray dusty basements, miles of aisles of forgotten, obsolete canvases are stacked to the rafters, the unwanted productions of artists who were not worth their salt.
A filmed conversation between Francis Bacon and William Burroughs is shown on a monitor as part of the exhibition, an extract from Howard Brookner’s Burroughs documentary — footage not included in the original film. Burroughs and Bacon talk about Tangier and people they have known, and how Bacon absolutely loathes Jasper Johns and his work. . . The drift of this encounter, the casual exchange and the shared memories are suddenly shot through with a surprising perception or declaration — their talk is a reminder of the quotidian, of happenstance, of the strange circuitous ways through which life influences art, crucially or subtly, insistently or illusively, how memory and taste, admiration and antipathy, political beliefs and personal tragedy, knowledge and humour inform the creative process, and how decisive are empathy, recognition and friendship, so often ignored in accounts of the genesis of literary and art works. The artworks at the ZKM show, including a brilliant spinning Dreamachine, alternate with documentary film and newspapers, magazines and books and exhibition catalogues, photographs and objects — the art work is contextualized in part by its written and photographed history, the sites and tools and the dialogues and disquisitions instrumental in its making. This is not “extraneous” material since it reveals, to greater or lesser degrees, how the polemic and praxis of Burroughs’ work was mediated, and how his own multimedia explorations were themselves disseminated, reproduced, re-made. The exhibition triggers intriguing connections and correspondences, in which the serendipitous as well as the programmatic, the casual remark in an interview as much as the declaration of intent in a manifesto, have their place in processes of creation. For Bacon, a chance meeting in Dean’s Bar, an envelope of photographs carried in a suitcase from Tangier to London, the memory of light over the landscape of Malabata — these are present in his paintings in ways which may be recognized or they may be intuited and pursued through tantalizing glimpses. The crucial significance and the incredible fragility of inspiration — without those photos, for example, a number of Bacon’s works would not exist in the form we know them, or they might not exist at all, and yet, as Bacon understood only too well, those photos might never have been taken, or might not have been given to him, and might not have resurfaced when the time was propitious from the detritus on his studio floor. . . Everything so easily might have been, would have been otherwise. . . Art makes happenstance immutable, but the very thought of that vital chance connection being missed can induce a special feeling of vertigo, of time out of alignment. Now critics celebrate Burroughs and Gysin’s use of chance in cut-up, that is, in texts, but the experience of chance in life, in every aspect of living, is present in this show — photos of encounters, trips taken, the provisional and possible turned into history, into artefacts of power and beauty. Recognition of the fortuitous in life became axiomatic for Burroughs and in his art, like Bacon, he put that chaotic chance encounter to brilliant use — playing with destiny, challenging fate, in the work and in life itself. But against all odds, against the grain, Burroughs believed that life had meaning, even if that lay in the transcendence of our mortal condition, while Bacon insisted that he had no faith and that life was meaningless. But there are, nevertheless, key resemblances between their approaches to making art. Bacon manipulated paint using corduroy or an old sweater or a squeegee roller, smearing and impressing and flicking oil paint, treating it as a seductive and volatile material — it was, he said, “mysterious and fluid.” Burroughs’ use of shotgun blasts, suction cups, aerosols and cut-outs and hand prints in what he described as “random procedures” is in the same spirit. Still, the cosmogony and the ethos behind, and through, those procedures are quite different. Gysin shared Bacon’s appreciation of paint as a vital substance which could be courted and pursued through chance procedures and the use of improvised extensions of the hand, lamenting to Terry Wilson the loss of “the matter, what the French critics used to call la matière, of painting.” Gysin felt that artists’ use of paint had become flat, illustrative, like a car body spray job or food tinted and lit for a glossy photo advertisement — plastic art for plastic money in the Plastic Age. Certainly Burroughs learned from Gysin’s attitude — a reverence for what paint could do, its inexhaustible possibilities, and esteem for the artist’s skill and control, but simultaneously he embraced a willing abandonment to the painting process and a recognition of the necessity of hazard, the seemingly gratuitous act, when pushing the possibilities of paint as far as he might. The courting of the possibilities of randomness was paradoxically determined, a ritual conjuration, like the calligraphic gesture of a master who must include the element of the unforeseen in the exercise of his disciplined art. Ginsberg would recall Bacon explaining in Tangier how he finished a painting — “He said he did it with a chance brushstroke that locked in the magic — a fortuitous thing that he couldn’t predict or orchestrate.” In Tangier in the late ’50s, Ginsberg had hoped that Bacon would paint “a big pornographic picture” of Peter Orlovsky and himself, and even suggested that he and Peter could pose for it. “That might be awkward, Allen,” said Bacon, “how long can you hold it?” But those Tangerine photographs which Ginsberg supplied, of himself and Orlovsky posed in bed, those black and white pictures, images soon to be creased and torn and ripped and paint-smeared in Bacon’s London studio, would be transformed on canvas and become iconic in late 20th century art — the lumpy, spilling, striped mattress, a lugubrious catafalque, becoming quintessential in Bacon’s immortal iconography of mortality.
For Gysin, the magic flying carpet was for real, its patterns were templates drawn from and acting upon the psyche, providing experiences of the ineffable, glimpses of infinity, forgetfulness of the so-called “self.” Entire visual systems unfold and permutate from those geometric designs, which in turn trigger changes in the consciousness of the viewer. Gysin was fascinated by the symbols triggered by the Dreamachine, by psilocybin, by Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala), by substances and manmade phenomena which give rise to geometrical patterns in the mind’s eye, and by the correspondences between Jungian archetypal symbols, hallucinatory states and Islamic patterns. For the Third Mind practitioners, art was research, it was the attempt to track image codes, to pursue methods of re-transmitting the deep source images — crucially, it was “art” as a sender / receiver loop, the “artist” was the one who found ways of re-creating moving scenes from his own “image bank” so that they could be studied and used to provoke alternate states of consciousness, and every result was itself a new starting point in a process without limit. Not the creation of a single scene but a series of images-within-images taking the creator / viewer deeper and deeper into the sensorium and continuum of the psyche — “Day-Dreaming” in the Tandric sense. Those “points of entry” stretching beyond the horizon and shattering all systems of perspective, merge the feeling of travelling and seeing in the exploration of space — “It is necessary to travel, it is not necessary to live,” as Burroughs quotes in The Job, and this precept underlies the visionary desert voyage of Gysin’s The Process with its circulating fabulations, its trips and tales going round on the reels, smoke rings and mirages vanishing into the blue, and the book dematerializes, and the recordings and paintings too, and whatever we thought we knew, we did not know.
This text is dedicated to the memory of Jan Pullman (1951-2012).
NOTE. This review was written at the time of the show’s opening in March 2012, and then developed as I thought about the exhibition in the weeks following. The writing was concluded at the exhibition’s finissage in August 2012. My text Codename Burroughs, published by fluid on the occasion of the ZKM show, appeared in both a German and an English edition. That text deals primarily with cut-up and other Third Mind techniques employing bisection as a governing procedure — the present text does not cover that ground but explores other aspects of visualization in Burroughs’ painting and writing and in his use of multimedia processes. The present tense, essential to the experience of seeing and responding to the show in situ, has been preserved.
Credits and Thanks
My thanks to Axel, Margrit, Udo, Helena, Peter, Christof, Margit, John, Yuri, Yoni, Barry, David, Shirin, Christian, Lukas, Sebastian, Michael, Kathelin, Jim, Annette, Aaron, Ramuntcho, Mikki, Lars, Terry, Phil, Eric, Philippe, Stephen, John G. and to everyone at the ZKM, especially Philipp and Andreas, for making my trips so special. My thanks to Alison, and to Keith and Jed.