A Trip from Here to There (Gysin Homage Two)

Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the Institut D’Art Contemporain Villeurbanne / Rhone-Alpes. 16 October — 28 November 2010.

by Ian MacFadyen

Gysin Homage Two: The Great Transducer, Uher / Iki Ga Nagai — Iki Ga Mijikai / Kireji / Chod, 23 Code, The Biologic Film / Scratching Like Lye, Painted Morocco / Under the Sign of Isis, Pulsation / Chansons / Stella Brooks, Ghosts At No. 44, This Is Sam Francis / Magical Circle, Behind The Soft Machine, Get Out Of The Blue Frigidaire And Live, Strata / Sets, City Sets / Medina Mazes, The Concierge’s Plan, Psychic Graffiti, Recapitulation, A Series Of Neural Patterns, Time Rolls On, BeaubourG Bardo, No Success Like Failure, Self-Torment / Limit Experiences, Envoi From Mirror City

The Great Transducer

Dreammachine Flattened on Computer MonitorGysin’s use of the term “transducer” is crucial, as he equates himself as an artist with a device for transforming one type of energy into another, in his case converting drug / interior / psychic states into art / exterior forms. In fact, he claims he is superior to the mechanism — “I am better than Transducer for I show your own Interior Space.” Mechanical examples of transducers would include the microphone and the photoelectric cell — the latter as a solid state device sensitive to varying levels of light, used to generate and to control an electric current, as in an exposure meter. Gysin employs the term both metaphorically and as absolutely literal — what else is he, the artist, if not a generator and a converter and a transmitter, and one who is hooked up to machine technology? Here Gysin employs a machinistic image as analogic to shamanic, creative processes, reminding us of the ways in which he would use technology against itself, perversely, to “summon spirits.” Significantly, transduction is also the biological conversion of energy through the rods and cones of the eye and the transfer of genetic material, so to transduce meant, for Gysin, to make appear, to convert from one state or realm to another, as in the conversion of stimuli in receptor cells that are then transported by the nervous system, turning waves into nerve impulses — “Transducer for Eye show.” There is no doubt that this evinces Gysin’s desire to have a physiological and psychic effect through his work. Typically, Gysin pits himself here against an actual machine — the television — as he promises that the viewer will become “your own show,” and suggests the artist as cybernetic shamanic transmitter whose messages will change forever the inner “you” and/or “I.” He was true to his word — the Dreamachine did not replace the cathode ray tube, but it triggered archetypal images in the psyche… In fact, the first model of the Dreamachine was made by Ian Sommerville in Cambridge in February 1960, though Gysin wouldn’t experience its effects for several weeks, and so it predates the performance of “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In” by several months. Despite the element of hyperbole in “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In”, which is itself quite knowing and strategic, an ironic play on the art manifesto and on Surrealism in particular, there is no doubt that this is how Gysin saw his own function as an artist — psychic, hallucinatory experiences are conveyed through the work so as to have an actual effect on the viewer’s psyche. Gysin’s intention was to affect the interior space of the audience — he will “have an audience,” while the artist, he repeatedly assures us, will disappear, the transduction of the altered state of consciousness will run from his psyche to yours and then pass to another. This is the desired spell, the contact and contract of his mesmeric art of psychic transmission. This is why he expressed his contempt for the use of the word “energy” by sixties hippies and ’70s heads — he knew about entropy, and he knew that the energy of the artist BG had nothing to do with what they were talking about. Gysin may, quite unconsciously, have been thinking of André Breton’s Les Vases Communicants which was published in Paris in 1932, and which Gysin almost certainly read in 1934. In that essential surrealist text Breton uses an analogy for the surrealist project — the joining of two vessels by a tube, the liquid passing through the tube creating equal levels of liquid in the two vessels. One vessel is sleep, the other the waking state, and the artist passes between these “fluid” states, is in effect equated with the tube which Breton called “a conduction wire.” Likewise the Transducer was a word processor and the Third Mind may be seen as a deconstruction of the burgeoning 1960s intercommunications systems being developed and marketed by corporations like Philips with their computers, stroboscopes, transmitters, tape duplicators, radio-relays, closed circuits and multichannel recorders which would change the world, and the nervous system, utterly. But the mechanization within the Third Mind process should not be taken to imply a dismissal of the artist’s powers — on the contrary, for Gysin it was precisely shamanic prowess within the technological domain that was essential, the artist as conduit, channelling and bypassing the intentionality of the self through the exploration / exploitation of machine systems… Machines as flickering, rotating, radiating models and approximations of the Great Being Wheel, the continuum as experienced on LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and ayahuasca. . . Burroughs and Gysin were turning techno processes against the machines and against themselves, breaking both down, rerouting their “swell purpose” and function — they were both fascinated by and contemptuous of those image repertoires, the systems and psyches both, and their interconnection… Likewise, Gysin exploits and subverts notions of the grid, of painterliness, of machine art, of op art, in a takeover operation and bravura display of détourned modern art styles and visual problematics, while at another level summoning the spirits, using action painting for the writing of spells and invocations, turning formalistic modern art aesthetics into a cover, but also a vehicle, for a hermetic art practice, the visionary coded manifestation hidden in plain sight. These games of illusion and deception were played for real — they were cooking up something psychically hot in the devil’s kitchen of the Beat Hotel. Material processes, the technology of tape machines and projectors and cameras was employed against itself, to confute the mental and physical, the subjective and objective, the natural and supernatural… They would become spirit-seers, and steal the ghosts from those machines — they’d make them their own slave servos. Their great project was simultaneously a demystification of media power with its ideological conditioning and an investigation into the ineffable and transcendent, the occult. To recruit a new way of being in the world — beyond all literature, all artworks, and to become liberated from all ideology and belief. Terry Wilson has written that what Gysin taught “was not accessible to ordinary consciousness. The only way to reach him is to follow him there.” Terry connects such a process of spiritual recreation with Charles Fort’s injunction in Book of the Damned, to “attempt to become real, or to generate for or recruit a real existence.” The machine was both the target and the way out of “art” and “self” — to disappear through the machine, like the mechanics of projection turning Gysin’s writing into white light. Viewers at the retrospective, as they passed through the slide projection space, reflected Gysin’s scratched-out words and calligraphy on their clothes, faces and hands — Gysin’s signs, his marks, flashed and rippled on their skin, a manifestation of the transmission of his work, a revealing image of the process of dematerialized but transcendent signification.

Uher / Iki Ga Nagai — Iki Ga Mijikai / Kireji / Chod  

Brion Gysin, ProjectionGysin’s work is profoundly transcultural and historically polymathic in its philosophical and aesthetic influences, but this was not at all a magpie, maverick approach — all the diverse elements of his immense learning are synthesized in his own personal cosmogony. Gysin’s thinking was an intellectual and intuitive process of syncretism through which he discovered surprising connections between quite different media, genres, subjects and philosophies. But this was only the beginning of the process — he then proceeded through a series of steps or actions to extend and combine the possibilities, sometimes mixing the ingredients and chopping them up, sometimes carefully laying them out and rearranging them like data on a spreadsheet. It was curiosity in action, making the latent visible, procuring the unexpected, delightful result, not the sought-for outcome of logically deterministic cause-and-effect . . . He looks at the German manufacturer’s name on his tape recorder — “UHER.” Suddenly he sees, and hears, “(YO)U/HER,” and these two pronouns generate “I,” “THOU,” “HE,” “SHE,” “IT,” “WE,” “YOU(FEM.),” “YOU(MASC.),” “THEY,” providing the conceptual framework of his 1969 novel The Process, at the centre of which is the tape recorder, the “UHER that both records and wipes out the words” — the “YOU/HER” words of those speaking subjects who exist as subject pronouns, both created through language and then erased by it, for despite the tape transcriptions, “from the book alone, nothing emerges.” Gysin is both deadly serious and wonderfully playful in the ways in which he exploits and expands and puns upon the linguistic possibilities of this theme — the tape machine is both a metaphor for, and the literal embodiment of, the circulation of language, the telling of tales in an alpha-omega loop, equated with the twin reels of the tape recorder and the ouroboros smoke rings of kif. Gysin transposes and syncretizes linguistic usage, treating figures of speech as literal and taking the literal as representational. Likewise, he recognized “Word symbols turning back into visual symbols” in the form of magnetic particles on tape, and made calligraphic “pictures to be read,” while translating permutated poems into abstract symbols and then into drawings . . . His work exemplifies the synesthesia of all media and the transference and translation of experience through all the senses — it is the quintessence of Rimbaud’s program in his 1871 letter and his “Alchemy of the Word,” and the expression of Gysin’s hallucinogenic experiences as well as his multiple artistic gifts. In The Process, Hassan has a box of matches and the matches actually speak — he holds them to his ear and hears “a rattling Arab word.” These matches are the literary descendants of the talking matches in the story “The Flying Trunk” by Hans Christian Andersen, in which Andersen puns upon the matches’ illuminating ancestry — “These Matches were very proud of their high descent. Their genealogical tree, that is to say, the great fir tree of which each of them was a splinter . . .” The matches “burst out into flame” and are proud of the brilliant fire they make — though they burn out in lighting it, taking all their pride with them. In The Process Hassan asks, “What was it the matches used to say before they learned the latest: ‘Burn, baby, burn’?” The fairy tale matches of Andersen are insistently physical matches in The Process — bought by Hassan in Tanja, “each match is a neat twist of brown paper like a stick dipped in wax, with a helmet-shaped tourquoise head made to strike on the miniature Sahara of sandpaper slapped onto the side of the box.” But these matches not only talk, they enlighten in two senses — they animistically speak / spark the zikr, the mystic bond of the initiated desert Brotherhood, and they light Hassan’s kif pipe, playing their instrumental part in the in-breath and out-breath of the smoker’s inspired art. “I grasp the match firmly and strike it, exploding its head . . . Exhaling, I breathe: ‘That’s the truth!'” The truth is the land of dreams accessed by kif, where “all truth is a tale I am telling myself” — a fairy tale, no less, so that Gysin’s take on Andersen turns full circle, the matches of the story travelling across the Sahara and back and igniting Hassan’s own queer “fairy story,” while intersecting with other circular tales running around and through The Process, taking its combinatory place in a limitless kif mosaic, a literary Venn diagram of revolving historical tales from Herodotus to Burroughs. Gysin’s extraordinary knowledge of historical and literary arcana is revealing in this regard — listening to him talk on tape or reading Terry Wilson’s transcripts in Here To Go, we can track how he brings history alive through fabulous and scurrilous stories and anecdotes, developing a thesis through multiple interwoven strands, making huge detours and switching back and forth as all history becomes a tale he is telling himself through linguistic recursion, the infinite re-looping of phrases revealing the “discrete infinity” of language. He worked through felt connections and intuited correspondences, through accidental phonetic associations, scorning received wisdom — there was nothing so common as common sense, and he short-circuited the fuse box of logic whilst protesting the absolutely indisputable reasonableness of his pitch . . . He went along with Aristotle’s dictum, always preferring a plausible impossibility to an unconvincing possibility — a jump of a thousand years was nothing for Gysin and he could move instantly from Cro-Magnon man to Yves Saint-Laurent, from a Paris garrett to the Ionosphere, and every conclusion was a launching pad . . . At the same time he also valued and practiced silence, and he listened carefully to other people — he never imposed himself, and if he knew or intuited that someone wasn’t interested in a subject, then he wouldn’t speak about it. As he told Miles, “I only tell people about the things they want to hear. There is absolutely no point in talking to William about working with the Teamsters Union.” It was truly terrible that the great raconteur and multilingual player with language should develop emphysema and have to fight for each breath, gasping for air, pulling the oxygen mask to his mouth — staying alive demanded a new kind of consciousness of breathing, a consciousness created by not breathing… Breathing was a metaphor used by Gysin in his philosophy of art — it signified the in-breath of inspiration and the out-breath of creation. But consciousness of breathing and control of the breath were also the literal truth of his art, essential in both his calligraphy and his spoken delivery. In The Process he describes the desert Brotherhood singing “AL-lah . . . AL-lah . . . AL-lah . . .” and he comments on this, “Exhale on the first syllable, inhale on the second . . . It becomes . . . the cyclical, rattling word of our zikr, a pair of unvoiced aspirates, our Key and our Link . . .” He recognized the significance of controlled and ecstatically liberated breath among Moroccan adepts, and connected the singing of the zikr with the inhalation and exhalation of kif smoke, but his invocation to the art of breathing in “Brion Gysin Let The Mice In,” and the practice of breath measure in his own art are both indebted to Japanese philosophy and calligraphy — in fact, this was perhaps the most important of all his cultural influences because of what it made possible for his art. In calligraphy the brush is dipped in ink and isn’t re-dipped in the ink until it has run out — the ink left by the stroke of the brush on the paper therefore become lighter as the ink thins in quantity and density. Japanese calligraphers think of this in terms of breathing — iki ga nagai means a long breath, and refers to the ink stroke during which the ink has left the brush slowly, whereas iki ga mijikai signifies a short breath, during which the ink has been used up quickly. Further, the brush is understood as exhaling as it travels over the paper, the ink stroke becoming lighter until the ink on the brush is used up, while the brush is inhaling when it is re-dipped in the ink. This way of thinking is almost certainly bound up with the physical and mental demands which the art places upon its practitioners, including the limited time period given for the execution of the work — the calligrapher must be relaxed yet concentrated, in control and yet able to move fluidly with fingers, wrist and arm, and breathing is absolutely central to this performance. The brush mark must be transmitted directly without shaking or hesitating, without falling short or overreaching, and so breathing must be calm, rhythmic, and sustained, while consciousness of the process of breathing out as the ink stroke is made and breathing in as the brush is reloaded with ink, must itself give way to relaxed forgetfulness of the discipline required. For Gysin this “calligraphic breathing” would become effortless, and through it he pursued guzen, the exercise of procured chance, the controlled accident unfolding within fixed parameters, which can only be accomplished when brush, hand and mind are in perfect harmony. But if the calligraphic act itself became an unself-conscious transmission, Gysin’s theorizing on his creative role would very self-consciously employ this breathing process as a metaphor. His famous statement, “I Am the Artist when I Am Open. When I am closed I am Brion Gysin,” is actually a variation on iki ga naga / iki ga majika — in effect, “I Am the Artist when my Brush is Full. When my Brush is empty I am Brion Gysin. To Breathe In is Inspiration / Inhalation. To Breathe Out is Creation / Exhalation.” Gysin was familiar with Haiku through his study of calligraphy and would have known the importance of kireji, or “cut-words” in this poetic art. Examples of such “cut-words” are kana, which marks the end of a haiku, suggesting a sigh or a feeling like “Ah!” or “Oh!,” ya, which divides a haiku into two, drawing attention to the relationship of the two parts, or questioning this relationship, and keri, which signifies a pause or a stop. These particles are usually left out of English translations of haiku — they have no precise, literal meaning but indicate a space for an emotional response, or a perceptual insight, though the emotion or the meaning is not identified and must come empathetically from the reader of the poem. Examples: “Bloodstained snow / razor thrown away / Violets kana,” “Girls laugh ya / Painted paper lanterns / in the Spring rain.,” “A late blue / butterfly glides keri / Mist mountains.” Gysin reacted with hilarity to the initial effects of the cut-up technique — the concatenation and the run-on of phrases at first glance privileged comical juxtaposition and hysterical incongruity. But his own later use, and that of Burroughs’, clearly reveal their recognition of the significance of the spaces between phrases — marked by diagonal slashes or horizontal dashes, by ellipses or by asterisks, by blank spaces of varying lengths or by vertical placement, these devices signal not only a juxtaposition, but a gap, an absence, a caesura, where the reader pauses, questions and resolves the link or the contrast between severed phrases . . . These cut-marks function in ways akin to Japanese “cut-words” — they are particles which both reveal the process of textual creation and signal those rhythmic breaks, those spaces which the reader must fill and resolve, through emotional empathy and semantic divination. Gysin never mentioned the possible connection between cut-ups and the “cut-words” of haiku, but the comparison is instructive — kireji are features of a linguistic technique which, like the cut-up technique, challenges passivity and highlights the inadequacy of language, literally cutting through words and provoking self-awareness and the necessity of feeling deeply whilst observing one’s own reactions. At the same time, this awareness is paradoxically aimed at liberating the reader from attachment — brief as the few words of the haiku which incarnates it, a moment is caught on the wing, then gone forever. Reading haiku is a form of meditation in which the reader must face the fleeting, transitory nature of all life, and in its cutting through language it seems related, like the cut-up technique, to the discipline of Chod — techniques which may be used to sever the duality of mind, with its imprisoning hopes and fears. The connection between Chod and cut-up, the latter understood as the “strong black medicine” which was given by Gysin to Burroughs, the scissor technique as therapeutic tool, is made by Terry Wilson in his book DAYS LANE (2009):

Great God! It’s The Chod!The Strong Black! — the complete cutting rites of exorcism-initiation ordeals translated as cutting-up or off — or outdead — cut to pieces — heads, leg, feet, inevitable elbows . . . The act of cutting is the exorcism, cutting the ‘Aggregates’ is cutting attachment to self and to any phenomena whatsoever . . .

Chod requires the definitive removal, the chopping off of our belief in our own existence, while the cut-up technique is one method of physically and psychically cutting up that belief in self by removing its continual reinforcement through the referentiality and linearity of language. In Wilson’s account of the appearance of the cut-up technique, Gysin does not invent the technique at all — Wilson doesn’t buy the famous story of the way Gysin miraculously happened to come up with the technique just before Burroughs returned from lunch with Dixie Snell and Loomis Dean from Life magazine. After all, though Gysin would say that he and Burroughs were aware that “a well-timed article with photos in a slick rag like LIFE could burn the place down overnight,” turning the Beat Hotel into a tourist trap, he also confessed that “we were living on borrowed time as well as borrowed money and very little of it” — they had to come up with something, and quick, and Gysin duly obliged, though he seems to have been taken aback by Burroughs’ immediate recognition of the potential power of the technique, which Gysin had presented, perhaps in dissimulating fashion, as an amusing piece of sleight-of-hand. Rather, Wilson insists upon Gysin’s knowledge of the cut-up initiatives of occult progenitors of the technique dating back to ancient Greece, and believes he adopted / adapted his own version from the esoteric philosophy of Chod, whilst aware that crucial elements were pre-Buddhist —

the venerable shamanistic pre-Buddhist Bon spirit-possession-exorcism aspects of the Tibetan Chod . . . he had to name it to claim it, by translating Chod as cutting-up instead of down or out or anywhere else . . .He staked his claim, thereby incorporating into his repertoire what was in effect an updated feminine-derived tantric-male Chod a method of direct transmission and empowerment to which, by the way — do stop me if you’ve heard this one before — he gave the complete title (partly from the Tibetan): Cutting-Up: The Practice of Severing Due Stations and Opening the Gates of Space . . .”

Those Gates of Space are like the ones Wu Tao-tzu stepped through, only in this case it is the art of cut-up which allows the practitioner to disappear through the wall of illusion, the language screen — nothing here now but bits of cut paper . . . It is entirely appropriate that the cut-up technique was originated and/or developed by an artist, a master of illusion who yet felt trapped in his own problematic self, suffering a lifelong identity crisis, who recognized the potential of cutting up words in order to cut right through the root illusions of ego.

23 Code

William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Third Mind Collage, 1965Gysin studied and played with his own name, its intertwined forms and meanings, and divined and developed its esoteric significance. Gysin’s calligraphic “BG” moniker is transposed from the oral to the tactile to the visual — the letters of BeinG and BreathinG, the BeginninG “B(e)” and endinG “G” of Brion Gysin’s existence, the two “out breaths” of his spoken name — two pulses performatively, calligraphically hand transcribed and seen as the interlocked alpha-omega of his own existence. “BG,” reversed and reflected, mimics “23,” the mystical number reiterated throughout the Third Mind scrapbooks — the two loops of the “B” become “3,” while the loop and horizontal stroke of “G” (reversed) become “2,” and this can be seen in Gysin’s calligraphic script, a numerical significance almost hidden in the letter flow. Human beings have 46 chromosomes in 23 matched pairs, an egg or sperm each having 23 single chromosomes, so that “BG” / “23” in its calligraphic egg, or vessel, or cell nucleus form, is not the sign of the living, 46-chromosome Brion Gysin, rather it stands for the virility of the artist before conception and signifies the process of fertilising and conceiving within the pictures — the active creative force at work and at play in his drawings and paintings, his secret, genetically coded name budding and shooting and flowering in sprays, seeking a new form of existence on another plane. A fecund art, capable of producing many different, highly imaginative versions from the original “DNA” of “BG.” In this context the grid is the scientific and social framework that immediately attempts to seize and contain the new-born sign of life, but the BioloGical “BG” script erupts and pours over and through the grids — frenzied, ecstatic, inchoate letters and soundings of other emergent life forms, discharged in proliferation through ejaculations of paint and ink. Here “semen” morphs into “sememe” — the meaning that a morpheme, the smallest unit of spoken / written language, has in a linguistic system. “BG” is not the mark of the one who has made the image, it incarnates the process of self-creation — the artist who only exists in the process of appearing otherwise, seeking not conception and another existence, but radical, homosexual dispersal. One other numerical significance to note in Gysin’s name is that “I” in “BRION” is a “ONE,” while the “O” is a “ZERO,” so that the “computer poet” Brion Gysin had a zero and a one in his name — “BR-10-N,” representing the numbers of the binary system, the 1 and 0 used in all computer systems. He would have appreciated the fact that this binary code has its origins in the counting of long and short syllables in the meters of Indian literature, and seen it as the measure of breath pulsating inside every Apple.  

The Biologic Film / Scratching Like Lye

Len Lye, Rainbow Dance, 1936A series of paintings from 1961 take the form of long horizontal strips, sequences of running frames mimicking film footage, in which calligraphic sigils emerge and hatch from eggs or seed pods, reminding us of Gysin’s chosen “seed pod” script, but also the “biologic film,” in Burroughs’ phrase, the image sequence that is the trip of life itself from birth to death, but also before and beyond, from creation to chaos. Artaud wrote of Tibetan poetry and of the poems of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, that their shared metaphysics “grapples with the cycle of human life, which it traces from the prenatal state and makes bold to follow beyond death… the spiritual downfall of a soul that has allowed itself to be lured into the snare of reincarnation.” Gysin’s final manuscript, Beat Hotel / BardoMuseum, is an example of this lineage and conveys Gysin’s desire never to be reborn, to never live again. These blue, red and orange acrylic and watercolour film strips are edited footage from the biological film of “BG” — sequences taken from the signature calligraphic conception reel of the artist’s life, punning on the film script and the life script. They are beautiful outtakes, frozen fragments of little home movies of psychic optics and chemical becoming — the egg embryo forms rotate and permutate in an endless unfolding like miniature, organic versions of Islamic tile mosaics, the spatial sequences to be read back and forth, right to left and back again, and through and across their different levels… In the beginning was the Word, the Name, and Gysin writes and paints its gestation through temporal sequences of DNA, the Word as primordial life form mutating and unfolding, trying to be born, to be uttered, only to be cut out, stopped in its film tracks. It’s the continuity film of birth-life-death which must be literally cut up, as Burroughs puts it in The Ticket That Exploded — “Shift tilt STOP the GOD film. Frame by frame… ” These works, a few inches high and around three feet long, seem related to the Dreamachine cylinders in their sectional unfolding, and they play on the mechanical permutation of the biologically organic. They are connected, too, with the use of photo strips or film footage as an extension of the grid format, and with the sequencing of Gysin’s scratched and painted 35 mm slides, which deal with the projected rebirth of the artist through stages of non-biological self-recreation. Laura Hoptman says that these works of scratching and double exposure and superimposition relate to Stan Brakhage (whose work was certainly appreciated by both Gysin and Antony Balch), and to “films by Man Ray, Dziga Vertov, Maya Deren, and Robert Beer,” but the key influence was almost certainly Len Lye. My friend, the late Donald Harris, had known Lye — they were fellow expat New Zealanders in London — and Donald told me much about this extraordinary man. Lye would doodle and create “energy signs,” triggering, he believed, receptivity in the “old brain.” In 1922, in Sydney, Lye became fascinated by the projection of scratches on the leaders at the beginning and end of film footage, and began scratching and doodling on film and viewing the results. In 1934 in London he began painting as well as scratching onto film fragments given him by friends, using stencils and a range of inventive printing methods, and applying lacquer paint directly onto celluloid. Colour Box, 1935, Rainbow Dance, 1936, and Trade Tattoo, 1937, were the brilliant results. Lye’s films became the most widely shown avant-garde short films in British cinema history and were bought by the Disney studios where they were studied during the development of Fantasia. In the 1950s Lye made scratched patterns on film to accompany the great jazz guitarist Tal “The Octopus” Farlow and his work is allied to Gysin’s through his interest in the relation between visual form and musical rhythm as well as through film scratching — in his 1957 film Rhythm, Lye edited speeded-up footage of a car being assembled in a factory, and matched it with African drum music, turning conveyor belt production into the manifestation of a magical machine, the capitalist commodity manifesting through a ghost dance, a reclaimed potlatch ceremony. Gysin’s own scratched and calligraphically painted slides may have arisen from Gysin’s interest in the scratched leaders he noticed when Balch projected rough cuts of his own films — if so, Balch would almost certainly have talked to Gysin about Lye’s work, which he knew well. When Balch first met Terry Wilson, and was informed by Gysin that Terry had worked for the GPO as a postman, Balch quipped, “Oh, another postman.” The other postman in question may have been Lye who had indeed been employed by the General Post Office — but the appellation “postman” was actually a joke because Lye worked for the GPO Film Unit, run by director and producer John Grierson, who was known by Balch in the 1960s in his capacity as film distributor and producer. Interestingly, Lye was also fascinated by the idea of perpetual motion machines and he constructed his own moving sculptures — this was allied to his interest in producing archetypal imagery in the psyche and recovering holistic experiences through the “Gene-Deep-Myth.” Like Gysin, Lye was a polymath and described himself as “switching from motion film to painting, to writing as prose art, to writing as philosophy, to 3D figures of motion, to art theorizing, to personal analytic delving… ” As with Gysin, it was thought that Lye “did too many things,” and again like Gysin, he had an original mind and no patience with academe, which was counted against him. His prophetic, beautiful multimedia work remains. 

Painted Morocco / Under the Sign of Isis

Brion Gysin, Word Flow (Detail)John Elderfield has compared the whiteness of the buildings of Tangier to a canvas “waiting to receive color,” absorbing the blue and pinkish beige of clouds, the green and blue of foliage, the lavender of tree trunks, and the cool green of shadows. The sublime effects of Moroccan light and color radiate and shimmer through Gysin’s paintings and find their apogee in the series of eight dazzling acrylic paintings he made in 1961, with their olive and sage green, apricot, violet, cobalt blue and tangerine swathes of color flickering with gray and yellow and blue calligraphy. In his Matisse in Morocco: An Interpretive Guide (1990), Elderfield analyzes the special qualities of Moroccan light:

Surfaces both of light and shade appear to vibrate, not only at their meeting . . . but also internally, as if the suddenly sprung radiance of color had loosened the very structure of the existing substance, intermingling with it in a self-tremoring suspension. More even than the hue itself, this effect of color as if suspended in some almost lacteal medium is the marvel produced . . . The effect of pearlescent light that I am describing is dramatized when the sun’s beams are low, as at dawn or in the late afternoon.

In Gysin’s work such layering, suspension and vibration are inextricably linked with psychedelic phenomena, creating a correspondence between the transformation of the city through shifting, trembling effects of color and light and the “interior light show” of psychic hallucination transmitted calligraphically. This correspondence blurs and melds into an undifferentiated synthesis of internal and external visual responses, as in one of the 1961 paintings, Words Seeded over Cities in the Sand (Unit IV), in which Gysin’s bright yellow calligraphy streams and flickers over broken teetering city grids, now absorbed into the desert ground, now rising above it — incarnating the dynamic, layered equivalence of visionary consciousness and the fabulous optical effects of the natural world. The “word seeds” of Gysin’s “bean sprout” calligraphy are meshed with the external shifting color effects he’d studied with delight and astonishment in Morocco — inner and outer vision, nervous system and city, are equally unstable and undifferentiated in their layered, lacteal vibrations, their “self-tremoring suspension.” Gysin travelled throughout Morocco and in small towns and villages he saw buildings painted with vivid washes of color and adorned with symbols and rhythmically repeated designs — he understood that this kind of painting was more than home decoration, or physical protection against sand and wind and rain, or a sign of ownership, it was paint as magical protection, protecting the House of Man in the profoundest sense, and as the talismans and curtains of color were eroded from the mud brick and plaster walls by the weather, they were continually restored, their vibrancy and potency renewed . . . It was a visual celebration, and the recognition of splendour in the quotidian, and a measure of the passing seasons, but also an act of faith and psychic necessity — colors and forms imbued with power, which required no words or elucidation, the matter-of-fact Moroccan magic which Gysin adored but which in the West could only take the interpretable, specialized form of “art.” The crescent-shaped arches in Gysin’s roller works reference both the guillotine and the arched doorways of Morocco — in fact, the form of these arches derives from the crescent moon depicted over the head of Isis, the Egyptian fertility deity. The crescent is one example of those ancient pagan symbols which have survived the strictures of Islam, and the crescent-shaped lunettes which Gysin cut in his Dreamachine cylinders pay homage to Isis, Goddess of Magic — they symbolize the entrance to her magical realm. Gysin knew that the iron horseshoes on Moroccan doorways also reference the crescent moon of Isis — iron is a material believed to dispel demons, and the crescent moon is a talisman, warding off el-Ain, the Evil Eye. Gysin’s use of symbols is part of his hermetic philosophy and in one of the paintings from the 1961 series, entitled Star of the Dreamachine (Unit VIII), there is a double cross, or Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the Free French Forces in World War Two, but for Gysin it also signified the cross of the Knights Templar and the emblem of Renaissance alchemists, representing the conjunction of earth and spirit — “As above, so below.” Crucially, this symbol is an actual visual manifestation of the Dreamachine — as the cylinder spins, light through individual apertures coalesces to create persistent horizontal bands while the light source inside the cylinder produces a vertical negative bar. This is only one example of the vocabulary of visual figures created by the machine, stars and daggers, wheels and diamonds, spirals and triangles, and yes, crescent moons too — abstract forms of the optical unconscious and templates of the Jungian collective unconscious, symbols which Gysin saw everywhere in Morocco, painted on doors and walls, embroidered on cloth and tattooed on human skin. Likewise, when we look at Gysin’s 1961 drawing of a Dreamachine cylinder, it’s important to understand that this is not a purely geometric drawing on graph paper, a blueprint on a grid, a plan for a machine, but an evocation of the doorways of Morocco whose very form incarnates magical power and supernatural protection, Isis promising fertility and preventing all harm. The apertures drawn by Gysin in this work are columns, each one topped by a crescent, and in several cases this arch is reflected and completed within the column, creating a circle — this is then extended by a lower arch within the column, forming a cylinder, so that within each aperture there is an implicit, projected Dreamachine, the device emerging from a Moroccan doorway under the sign of Isis, signifying the Dreamachine as an entrance to the temple of occult knowledge. Gysin’s notations on this drawing, indicating the proposed colors of the different levels of the cylinder — “Deep Red and Orange,” “Yellow and Blue,” “Blue and Yellow Green and Green” — could describe the painting of houses in Moroccan villages which run with bands of bright color, the human habitations brushed with all the colors of Morocco, a palette of Persian blue, poppy-crimson, madder rose, pistachio, indigo, emerald, lemon yellow, saffron, ice-mint-green . . . The brilliant colors of Gysin’s paintings and the rhythmic play of his calligraphy homage not only the effects of drugs, but the beauty of painted Morocco, the house a work of art you can actually live in, an everyday masterpiece signed with the talismanic blood-red or sky-blue imprint of a human hand.

Pulsation / Chansons / Stella Brooks

William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Third Mind Collage, 1965Transduction was understood by Gysin as a form of breathing — “I demonstrate Thee, the Out-Word in words that breathe you IN.” He believed that “IN / SPIRATION” was literally “what you breathe in,” while “the Out-Word” was the released breath of manifestation, expelled in the creative act. In this he was following the lessons of his own Moroccan Brotherhood, who also taught him the switching physical rhythms of the dance-trance, the galvanic transmission which catches up every Brother in a collective frenzy. His concept of breath was also influenced by the Taoist Ch’i — the vital, cosmic spirit exhaled by all nature and by man. Taoists believed that this magical breath could be stimulated and delivered in order to cast spells, and in Gysin’s case this “breathing spell” was transmitted through his calligraphy which requires rigorous yet easeful control of the in-breath and out-breath, and he wanted his images to provoke this breath of awareness in the viewer. Hence Gysin’s “Out breathe In” — what is given out is taken back in, and the inspiration of creation returns through the created work, penetrating the viewer, and inciting the “in-breath” of excitement and awe — this was the response Gysin desired to actually inculcate in his audience. The inspiration that propelled the creative act would be transmitted from the created work to the viewer, provoking a breathtaking response, as physiologically and psychically inspired as the process of the image’s own making. Breathing was rhythm in the creative act, and it was a pulsation experienced in the flicker of the Dreamachine, in his repeated calligraphic glyphs, in the permutated lines of a scrolled computer poem, in the sectional beats of the rolled grid structures… It’s a signal repeated at regular intervals, a pulsation which connects the visual and sound works and runs like the initials “BG” through his work — speak the syllabic beat of the name, draw in breath, write it again, permutate it, breathing out. It’s the throb, the drum beat, the heartbeat at between 60 and 80 beats per minute, the pulsation of the body through all media, the pulsation of John Dee’s magical mirror, his mystic speculum, in the British Museum… The pulse of the spoken word was vital for Gysin and his recorded performances reveal his declamatory, syllabic stresses, as was also the case with Artaud. In the clinic at Ivry between 1946 and 1947, Artaud dictated his work to Luciane Abiet, and at one point he spoke of “the syllables of this vocable: AR-TAU.” For Artaud, the sounding of his name was not the expression of an individual ego, it was an unconscious force, the heart’s liberation before nothingness. In Gysin’s case, this double vocable was itself doubled — “BRI-ON” / “GY-SIN” — and his splitting and stressing of these syllables seems related to Artaud’s philosophy of the transpersonal speech act, “BRION” / “GYSIN” as an invocation and a cry, syllabic utterance as a declaration of existence, knowingly futile, rising up in all those who address the abyss with their mortal name. . . Significantly for Gysin, the inveterate player with language, his “PULSE” was also an edible seed, the bean sprout from which his script derives — one example of how Gysin’s art and thought are beautifully connected in all their parts through a constant verbal and visual interplay. This physiological pulsation is importantly connected with Gysin’s love of music. A gray and black Indian ink and watercolour work from 1962, from the series of pictures titled “Les Chansons de Marrakesh,” is a visual evocation of the music and rhythms of Morocco which inspired Gysin and which he often listened to on tape while he worked — this is, in effect, a “soundtrack drawing,” a counterpart to Gysin’s “painted films.” Gysin was a great music lover and while living at the Beat Hotel he would go to the nearby jazz clubs and caves, like Le Chat Qui Peche on rue du Hachette, and Le Chameleon on rue Saint André des Arts. With his friend Roger Knoebber, he saw Art Farmer, Philly Joe Jones, Mose Allison, and Ray Brown, and Bud Powell — Knoebber was a friend of Powell and the two played chess while Powell and his wife Buttercup were residing at the Louisiane on rue du Seine. Gysin liked to toke up before hitting the smoke-filled, teeming, noisy clubs, which he loved — that ambience was “just the way it oughta be.” It’s worth emphasising that the tapes Gysin listened to were often of singers and musicians he’d actually seen perform, from Billie Holiday in New York to Bill Evans in Paris, to the Musicians of Joujouka. He felt the performative aspect of music profoundly, just as he valued it in visual art — the fingers around the brush or on the keys, the physical body moving in rhythm behind a run of notes or a series of calligraphic paint strokes. He saw Billie Holiday sing many times in Harlem and he heard blues music at rent parties as well as in small clubs in Harlem. Of course, he was a performer himself, in private and in public — he performed his painting in public, he gave readings, and his recitatives of his “word songs” with Ramuntcho Matta and Steve Lacy were a delight for him. Gysin understood music as a powerful force, both healing and controlling — it was dangerous, part of the war machine, inciting military and patriotic fervour, but it was also liberation through the direct expression of soul. He liked the sexual innuendo of the blues, and the way it was also used as a cover for social protest — it was sexy, dirty, and melancholy too, it made you tingle, it lacerated you, and then it drifted through you… Gysin’s visual art is bound up with script and words, and it must be that as well as the rhythms of the music he listened to while working, the words and vocals of the songs were important, too — word music, word art, coming through. The blues was true to the feeling of life, it got down the sex and the sadness, the desire and regret, and he listened on his UHER to tapes of Lula Reed, Big Joe Turner, Champion Jack Dupree, T. Bone Harris, Esther Phillips, B.B. King, Jimmy Witherspoon — both when he was relaxing and when he worked. He recalled, “It was poetry, man — the real McCoy. Now I think I perceived the blues as a musical Cut Up with its own mysterious jargon — a sophisticated anarchy based on mutual cognition.” Gysin’s favourite Blues song was “Buzzard Luck,” sung by Champion Jack Dupree. Dupree, like Gysin, was a brilliant raconteur who turned his stories and improvisations into songs — a technique that Gysin would pursue himself. Gysin loved Dupree’s most famous album, Blues From The Gutter, 1959, and this connected him musically with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones — it was this album, with Larry Dale on guitar, that inspired Jones to become a musician. There are song lines, too, as Gysin knew, which demarcate impossible desire and unbearable loss, and emotions which can be conveyed not through the words alone but through the grain of the voice. In Paris at the Beat Hotel, Gysin and Roger Knoebber discovered that they had a mutual friend in the admired American jazz singer Stella Brooks. Brooks was mercurial, sharp as a razor and a drinking companion of Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, and Truman Capote, to give some idea. She was known as “the white Billie Holiday” and like Holiday she’d had an appalling, deprived childhood. Gysin admired Brooks (“Stella” was, of course, his mother’s name too) and loved her smoky voice and brilliant technique and her quick-witted engagement with the audience — at the end of each performance the crowd would chant “Stella! Stella!” and there has been amusing speculation that these nightly calls for one more encore influenced Stanley’s wounded cries at the end of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. In Paris, Knoebber found an old monaural recording of Brooks singing her most famous song, “A Little Piece of Leather,” which appeared on her album, Songs of the 1940s — the song reveals the impossibility of all desire for someone who has been cut out of existence from birth, who only owns her own skin, a skin that is a processed hide rather than a magical talisman — “I’m just a little piece of leather, trimmed from the skin of life!” Like Gysin, Brooks would have radical surgery for colon cancer, and Gysin found it unbearable at the end of his life to listen to her brilliant rendition of a song he had once loved to hear her sing — “I’ll Never Be The Same.”

Ghosts at Number 44

44 rue du BacWe walk down Rue du Bac and stop outside number 44 — this is where Gysin’s friend Denham Fouts lived in the 1930s, smoking opium through jewelled pipes with jade mouthpieces, turning day into night, life into pipe dreams. According to one of his lovers, the painter Michael Wishart, Fouts looked like a Mandarin prince, had extraordinarily beautiful feet, and white mice ran up and down his arms. He was, wrote Wishart, forty years later, in his captivating memoir High Diver, “committing suicide in slow motion.” Gysin first met Fouts at the Grande Bretagne in Athens and was fascinated by his style and taste and his combination of hauteur and dreaminess, and back in Paris he would visit Fouts in the high, dark rooms of number 44, where the long curtains were permanently closed, the walls hung with paintings by Picasso, Tchelitchew, de Chirico, Sir Francis Rose and Christian Bérard. The time Gysin spent with Fouts was a key part of his emotional, psychological and artistic Éducation Sentimentale — he was in his early twenties and he experienced that special kind of life where high society and bohemia meet and merge, and the disreputable is underwritten by style, wit, beauty and talent, artistic and otherwise — the “hieroglyphic world” of mannered appearances. That “grand bohemia,” peculiarly French, still exists today, though much diminished. On this Paris afternoon we look at the plaques commemorating those associated with the building, like André Malraux, though JG Bennett is not mentioned — one amongst a number of the illustrious unremembered. I try to imagine a plaque commemorating Fouts’ time here — “Denham Fouts — Opium Addict and Gigolo — ‘The most expensive male prostitute in the world’ — Resided Here.” In fact, Fouts, who died an early junkie death, left a not insignificant literary legacy, having inspired portraits in Isherwood’s Down There On A Visit, Gore Vidal’s The Judgement of Paris, Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, and Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. He became a semi-fictionalised, legendary character in his own lifetime, to which he was quite indifferent. Gysin knew the apparently living person, though Fouts was a beautiful revenant before the fact, a perfectly ghostly being. Standing on the Rue du Bac, I photograph the big black doors of number 44, sealed against prying eyes and all intrusion. Then a young woman opens the door and we get a brief glimpse of the interior passage and courtyard. That’s as far as we can see, as much as we can record — but does it matter that we can go no further? The demimonde of the 1930s has taken a permanent summer vacation to all points south, and we must imagine that gone world for ourselves — through the literary accounts and legendary anecdotes of those who have also departed. For example, it was elsewhere, in a hotel where Gysin was staying, that Fouts fired flaming arrows from a Tibetan bow from a window down the Champs Elysées, horrifying Paul Bowles who feared the arrival of the gendarmes. But Gysin, Bowles would recall, “was in favor of it.” Gysin would tell Terry Wilson that the incident was incredibly dangerous and totally irresponsible, in retrospect. At the time, he must have been struck by both its sheer craziness and its artistry, and perhaps it brought to mind the singing of “Jerusalem” at Downside in his youth and Blake’s words, “Bring me my Bow of burning gold / Bring me my Arrows of desire” — the visionary as a literal, epiphanic act, each arrow trailing its calligraffiti of fire… We walk off slowly down Rue du Bac. I’m thinking about Fouts’ friends and lovers, Olivier Larronde, Christian Berard, Jean-Pierre Lacloche, Cocteau, and Peter Watson who rented the apartment at number 44 from Comte Etienne de Beaumont for Fouts. Beaumont was the model for Radiguet’s masterpiece Le Bal du Comte D’Orgel, and like the writer Bruce Wagner, I suffered for a while from the compulsion to buy every single copy of the book I came across… That book, and number 44, are links between de Beaumont, Peter Watson, Fouts and Gysin, and ourselves — though we are entirely peripheral spectators, and still among the living. Though those spirits have gone, they linger on in our desire, they’re there in the opening and closing of those pages, and those heavy doors. It’s the Great Remembering, and when Gysin went to Paris for the first time in 1934, he too was in pursuit of artistic ghosts, the famous figures of the 1920s, some of whom were even still around in their earthly incarnations. But when Gysin walked down Rue du Bac in the 1960s and 1970s, en route to galleries, to see friends, he must have glanced at those black doors, that number 44, either pausing or hurrying past, and he must have remembered a ghost world gone forever. And now we’re here, and time concatenates and merges, as in The Last Museum, in which Madame Rachou of the old Beat Hotel remembers impossible times through the palimpsest of human memory: “‘L’immense et compliqué palimpseste de la mémoire,’ murmurs Madame Rachou. ‘M’sieu Baudelaire said that. He used to drop into my bistro for a glass of wormwood with Gérard de Nerval, as he called himself, and that nice little M’sieu Latouche: he was so witty and we all laughed, even M’sieu Baudelaire.” In dreams, in dying, in living memory, the 1850s and the 1940s coalesce, and the past we never knew returns as part of impossible memory, the great history of mythical lives, as truly fictional as our own. Gysin’s life and art were bound up with the Paris art and literary worlds, their mythic histories inevitably and continually invoked. Gysin wasn’t always so complimentary about this, even though he contributed to the ongoing homage and Proustian remembrance. He would sometimes speak of himself as an American artist and claim that French art was only for the French, a cultural and intellectual insularity he understood well enough, but contrasted with what saw as the openness and internationalism of American art and culture. Sometimes Paris just got him down — “Paris, it’s like lead, don’t you think?” He’d remember the Seine running with shit — and yes, those were the Good Old Days, the Golden Years. And here we are, in our own time, just passing through, walking those streets Gysin knew so well, passing places which were significant in his life and for his art, personal and professional locations, and the echoes are coming through, but on a new, distorted plane of reference . . Though the sites may still exist, and something maybe of the ambience, the participants have gone, and that great experimental zeitgeist is over — though its artefacts are now preserved in vitrines, art books, archives, private and public collections. As with the Anniversary Homage to Naked Lunch in Paris in 2009, I found myself asking, on these dérives — “What exactly are we looking for? What can we possibly hope to find?” Sometimes it feels like exploring a film set decades after the movie wrapped and finding only facades, illusory props — “Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air… Falling towers… Unreal . .” As Terry wrote about a visit to Paul Bowles in Tangier in 1990, and that helpless recognition of the persistence of nostalgia for a ghost realm — “The lights have blown but the names still hover.” “Paris Please Stay The Same,” Burroughs would croon, and so you search for what had once been, despite all evidence to the contrary. And then you turn away, but something other comes through — not what you expected, but it’s connected, and yet unaccountable, too. You already know what you’re going to do — you’re going to follow that clue, because it’s going to take you where you have to get to, one day, maybe. Because it’s fascination and desire, it’s the only route to the unknown. And besides, as Cendrars knew, Paris won’t ever let you go — “Et toutes les vitrines et toutes les rues / Et toutes les maisons et toutes les vies… ” 

This Is Sam Francis / Magical Circle

Sam Francis ExhibitWe go on to an exhibition of the work of Sam Francis at the Galerie Jean Fournier at 22 Rue du Bac. Gysin much admired Francis’ paintings and wrote the permutated tribute “This Is Sam Francis” for a catalogue of the artist’s work in 1972. Gysin responded to Francis’ dazzling colour palette and technique, the controlled splashes and splatters of his radiant paradise gardens and his cosmic tracery, his gestural calligraphy of brilliantly coloured drops of paint, executed in the air, often made without the brush touching the canvas or paper. The two painters were connected through their knowledge of both Japanese art and Tachisme. Francis lived in Paris for several years, beginning in 1950, and was a close friend of the Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, and his partner, the painter Joan Mitchell. Riopelle had been a member of the Automatistes in Canada and he had moved to Paris from Montreal in 1946. This was one of the few artistic circles with which Gysin felt a strong connection and it was a circle that radiated out and reconnected with Surrealists he’d known in Paris in the 1930s and then in New York in 1940 — Paalen, Dominguez, Brauner, Seligmann, Matta, and others — several of whom who had developed their ethnographic and magical interests in the States and South America before returning to post-war Paris and meeting Riopelle, Francis and the Tachistes… They were individuals with shared interests beyond the prison house of art historical “isms.” Riopelle met Breton, Miro, Chagall, Duchamp, and others whom Gysin had either once known or still knew — politesse was required on certain occasions, certainly, but there was a context of friendship and recognition in which Gysin and his work were connected to what was happening in Paris in those years. In particular, many of these artists shared Gysin’s belief in the magical power of art, ignored by critics and dealers at the time. Gysin’s art has a cultural context which has been largely removed from, or ignored in, accounts of his work — this is just one part of that nexus, connecting marginal surrealists, members of L’Ecole de Paris, and Tachistes. Sam Francis, according to formalist critics of the time, was primarily concerned with the integrity of the edges of the picture in relation to the integrity of the picture plane, and so on, and so forth. In fact, the central unpainted void in Francis’ paintings corresponds to… the void. Francis was a student of Buddhism, as well as Buddhist art, and his paintings express emptiness, and the dispersal of beauty and plenitude. At the Fournier show, the Francis prints are dark, layered grids, sealed labyrinths with slivers of light leaking through — death-haunted, they would perfectly complement Gysin’s The Last Museum. I take a picture — there we are, reflected, caught in glass and black ink. We go on to the Galerie Samy Kinge where Gysin exhibited his “Calligraffiti of Fire” in 1986. The gallery doesn’t seem big enough to have contained this large work, but Philippe was at the show and remembers that it was actually hung downstairs, in the basement space. We walk past Serge Gainsbourg’s house, a palimpsest of mediocre garish sprays and scribbled messages of eternal adulation, homage as permanent eye-sore, its anarchistic defacements quotidian, sentimental, adolescent, ugly. That joke just isn’t funny anymore. Gainsbourg was truly great, but this is tawdry — the pseudo iconoclasm of Pavlovian iconolatry. 

Behind the Soft Machine

BooksWhenever he was in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, Gysin would regularly visit the Julien Levy Gallery. Levy was the author of Surrealism, 1936, the first book on the subject to be published in America and his gallery was “a little piece of Paris” in the heart of New York and a rallying point for dispossessed, dispersed Surrealists during the Second World War. Levy was close to the poet Mina Loy, author of The Last Lunar Baedeker — she was actually Levy’s mother-in-law and she had been instrumental in helping him arrange the first exhibition of surrealist art in America at his gallery in 1932, and she was his Paris representative from 1931 to 1936. Loy was a friend of Man Ray and Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst and Leonor Fini, and other friends of Gysin, including Nicolas Calas whose book Confound The Wise, 1942, with a decalcomania cover by Gysin, would be the first critical work by a Paris surrealist to be published in the United States. Gysin and Loy were part of a similar set which mixed existing, marginal and ex-surrealists with literary and artistic and social figures quite removed from Breton’s circle, and this would actually expand in New York during the war when, for example, Gysin met Loy’s friend Charles Henri Ford. Loy was in fact suspicious of the surrealists — “there’s something fundamentally black-magicky about the surrealists,” she wrote, and she wasn’t wrong. Between 1932 and 1936 she had a love affair with the German artist Richard Oelze, who, like Gysin, was “temperamentally… an anti-surrealist surrealist… He was an outsider; he stood apart.” Oelze and Gysin certainly knew each other at this time — Oelze spoke no French at all, which is probably why he lasted so long as a Surrealist, but he could speak English. Secretive, a will-o-the-wisp, Oelze was an opium addict, and though he was a heterosexual who captivated many women, it’s possible that he had links, through the circle he shared with Gysin, with the opium connections of Fouts and Cocteau. Like Fouts’ slow-motion death, Loy writes that Oelze “seemed to have discovered a slow time that must result in eternity,” and he claimed he had “found the secret of perpetual motion,” a machine he could build if only he had the money, which would seem to be the perfectly circular opium dream of an addict in quest of perpetual slow time. Loy’s novel about her relationship with Oelze is called Insel, the name she gives to the character based on Oelze. “Insel” is German for “island,” and also plays on “tinsel,” insubstantial glitter, whilst coincidentally permuting and echoing “Listel,” Gysin’s adoptive, adaptive Swiss name in the 1930s, his society “calling card.” Loy describes Insel/Oelze as “the primordial soft-machine” — the image of the human organism which Burroughs would use many years later and which is now attributed to him. Loy sees this “soft-machine” as pathetically vulnerable to the iron structures of technologically mechanized society, the city with its “atrocious jaws” spitting out food rations “at fixed intervals” to the human hive drones, whilst consuming them. But there is some hope — the “soft-machine” is thrown against “this metal forest of coin-bearing machinery” which “will partially revert to the condition of nature preserved in him, and show patches of moss as if he had projected there some of the verdure rooted in him.” The human being is seen as a mechanised organism, socially and cybernetically hooked up to the technological-industrial machine world, the iron grid which is despoiled by the organic intrusion of the soft-machine as it sticks onto the steel of the “universal works” and runs and spreads and covers the structure — like Gysin’s scrapbook grids, this describes a process of extrusion in which human magma, the remaining organic material of the robotic body, is inserted into, squeezed through and dispersed across the systematic structures of a scientifically regulated society. Loy began writing the book in the 1930s and it passed through a number of drafts before it was rejected by a publisher in 1961 when Loy was 79 years old. Thirty years later, thanks to Elizabeth Arnold, the novel was finally published. We will never know if Gysin saw a manuscript of this work, either through Loy herself or via Levy or Callas, though that is possible. But the term was certainly used by her, and it may be that although, in Jagger’s line from “Memo From Turner,” it’s the “misbred gray executive” who is “the man who squats behind the man who works the Soft Machine,” the person historically “behind the Soft Machine,” that is, behind the literary use of the phrase and its significance, may not have been a man at all — it may have been Mina Loy. Word play is significant in the book and the transformation of a phrase produces a shock of recognition. Loy turns Insel/Oelze’s “Sterben — man muss” (“Die, one must”) into “Man muss reif sein” — (“One must be ripe”) and suddenly Insel sees “me for the first time.” Gysin would have appreciated that permuted linguistic epiphany and the artist’s shocked recognition of a previously unknown, unsuspected self. 

Get out of the Blue Frigidaire and Live

Urban Grid, ParisGysin’s grids are not regular, and their units are not evenly spaced — rather, they are shifting, unstable, skewed, spatially ambiguous. Even when the “blueprint” is seemingly, roughly symmetrical, the added elements are quite asymmetrical, while the black grid lines bleed and blot, and, though rollered, are simultaneously, declaredly hand-made — it’s the liquefying grid as Soft Machine, the interface of the biological and mechanical, the systematic and the intuitive. These grids are quite distinct from those of geometric minimalism and conceptual formalist art — they are paradoxical structures in which the photographic and calligraphic and printed elements are “dropped in” or strewn across the layered grid, to become free-floating signifiers in an emergent space — felt connections rather than fixed, defined, categorized. These grids may be “mechanically” rollered, but they are actually allied in their painterly effects to the calligraphic gesture — the intersecting lines are broken, tilted, blotted, blurred in superimposition. They invoke both the newspaper format and buildings under construction, or in ruins, which in the Beaubourg pictures is made quite specific, and yet the formal resemblance is continually undone, unmade, and spills over. As with Antony Balch’s superimposed modern building facades shaking out of alignment, and film of Gysin moving his roller-painted paper skyscraper city around, the building as material edifice of the New American France of the 1950s and ’60s becomes destabalized and dematerialized in Gysin’s grids. His description of his grids as “jungle gyms” suggests the multi-dimensonality and exuberance of the form, though they connote, too, the subversion of the philosophical and ideological systems serving capitalism — the grids of Structuralism. Gysin’s grids, permutations, and systems are antithetical to Structuralism — he plays with notions of regularity and closure, control and signification, only to open up and splinter and deface the system, encouraging and playing with the feedback, going with the chaos and flow, the movement and light which cannot be contained. Dreamachine cylinders are themselves grids with systematic patterns of cut apertures — it is literally the cutting-through of the grid, the grid rolled into 3 dimensions and set in motion, the grid disappearing before our eyes, the structure turned into flickering light, becoming the plenitude of images in the psyche. The concrete and glass and steel grids of the new dream “machine city” were going up in Paris as well as in Tangier — “They are rebuilding the City.” / “Yes… Always… ” The commodified, streamlined, Americanized culture of the New France was spreading along with the new cultural science of Structuralism which actually represented and embodied that technocratic culture whilst claiming quite otherwise. Kristin Ross, in her seminal guide to this period, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (1996), writes that

Structuralism was nothing more than the infusion of technocratic thought into the intellectual field… After all, structuralism’s concern was the ordering of objects, not the criticism of their function. The idea that society was composed of agentless structures helped reinforce people’s growing sense that the future was not in their control, or that it would play itself out as a kind of slow petrification, that their life was defined by lifeless, meaningless, and unchanging bureaucratic structures ruled by no one… Structuralism was the ideological handmaiden to the social caste or class represented by the jeune cadre: its ideological legitimation, its intellectual veneer.

Burroughs and Gysin employed structural processes and a quasi-scientism for their own subversive purposes, and their polemical pitch cannot be misunderstood. In Naked Lunch Burroughs had already parodied the mixmaster housewife, obsessed with gadgets, shrilling her super-cleanliness complex in her contaminated duplex, exemplar of Elsa Triolet’s The Age of Nylon. This techno-consumerism was inseperable from ideological brain washing, just as commodification fuelled the economics of war, and these are desecrated and ridiculed in the Third Mind scrapbooks, in which the Frigidaire “cold spot” in every dream home is replaced by the “hot spot” of the Dreamachine — the built-in obsolescece of White Goods replaced by the psychic continuum machine. The connections between Burroughs and Gysin and deconstruction are there in the 1960s, but Derrida’s reworking of the notion of presence in the sign takes us away from the Third Mind, not closer to it — they didn’t want to serve the state by analyzing its functions, and neither did they want to philosophize about philosophy, or debate absence and presence in the sign. Instead — “Blitzkreig the Citadel of Enlightenment!” They saw French philosophers and artists and critics as agents of capitalist domination, and their own machine processing was directed against the academies, the techno engineering class, the bourgeois family, the conveyor belt production of obsolescent junk, and the burgeoning electronic communications companies. They were esotericists as exoterrorists. Gysin and Burroughs distinguished themselves from the Situationists, despite Debord’s détournement of the film medium, by their use of computers, tape recorders, film and the Dreamachine to disrupt reception of media systems, to radically change consciousness, to physically sabotage this “smooth run thing” — they prophesied miniaturization and virtuality and warned of the dangers of the Illusion Machine, the technological Madame Maya inviting everyone to play along. “The means are our machines. These prime agents of the explosive force, Nova, are factors of geometric progression to the Count Down and we better catch up on their methods, but quick.” The Third Mind scrapbooks are blueprints for this strategic engagement, with images of modern urban architecture pasted in and rollered over, and the dream home of modern functionalism sliced up by Gysin’s shifting grids, while disaster pictures and images of death intrude upon the gleaming bourgeois kitchen, subjecting the mixmaster housewife to seismic “Guerilla Conditions” — the mess and dirt and blood of existence everywhere leaking in through the steel and glass. In Gysin’s grids, and throughout the scrapbooks, we can glimpse the ghost city of Dresden and the outskirts of Hiroshima, echoes from propaganda newsreels he’d seen, and these destroyed buildings would reappear in his Naked Lunch series of paintings in the early 1960s, in his rollered paper cities filmed by Antony Balch, in his black and white Electronic Revolution lithographs of 1970, and in his paintings of Sacre Coeur, the Tour Saint Jacques, Notre Dame de Paris, and the Beaubourg in the mid 1970s — Paris as a city of ruins in waiting, Europe après la pluie

Strata / Sets

Looking at Brion Gysin, Untitled (Naked Lunch)Gysin was a painter and writer of the desert and his closest antecedent was Eugene Fromentin, a gifted painter influenced by Delacroix and also the author of a number of books, including A Summer in the Sahara (1857), which inspired many French writers, including Gautier and Flaubert and Pierre Loti, to explore the African desert… Gysin’s work is part of the Orientalist tradition to which Fromentin belonged, and which included the adoption of indigenous dress and customs and language, and a fascination with the experience of the desert as void. Gysin mentions his forebear in The Process — “In the hours after midnight, we passed Laghouat, where the French painter Fromentin was the first White to spend a summer, more than a hundred years ago now… ” Crucially for Gysin, the desert raised a conundrum which would become vital for all his art — how to paint the infinite? It would be this problematic of conveying infinity which would lead to his permutations of language and the Dreamachine — the creation of models of the continuum, and plenitude out of emptiness. In 1958 Gysin painted his first images of the desert, playing on the paradox of capturing uncontainable vastness within a few inches. Sometimes there is a blurred horizon line, elsewhere an endless recession of strata of sand, the scenes rippling with heat distortions and air vibrations, flickering with apparitions of insubstantial life, the basic grid dividing sky and land lost in a sandstorm or disappearing beyond human vision. It’s the art of illusion at the service of the Great Mirage of the desert with its shifting, unfolding, streaming plateaux. Sven Lindquist notes in his book Desert Divers, 1990 — “The contrast between surface and depths, between what the eye sees up here and the real circumstances down there, are the fundamental experience of the desert.” It was something Gysin recognized in the Sahara and which he would take as a working method in his art in which surface effects signifying illusion dance and flicker over ambiguous grounds — hermetic spaces, concealed depths, glimpsed through the lattice. One work in the retrospective, “Untitled (Dreamachine),” 1963, a coloured ink and airbrush on paper, is a series of horizontal strips of brilliant blue, violet, pink, red, orange, yellow and white — the strata take the form of sprayed lengths of film footage simulating in two dimensions the continuously unfolding bands of the Dreamachine, the cylinder unrolled, but the apertures fusing in continuous, blurred lines of vision. It is an image which heralds the beginning of Gysin’s writing of The Process in 1965 — the psychedelic desert revealed through the dissolving rotations of the machine, equated with the triggering of “film sequences” in the brain. Gysin acknowledged that his own thinking and work would come to be understood, seen and interpreted as “psychedelic” and in the image, “Untitled (Naked Lunch),” a gouache on paper from 1964, a painted quotation from Burroughs’ book (the “squeezing my hand” episode ) floats in front of silvery blue-gray strata, a desert which also conjures rows of building blocks in a city grid, and lengths of film. A homage to Burroughs’ masterpiece, and genetically bound up with Gysin’s writing of the screenplay of Naked Lunch, this picture creates a visual condensation of the apocalyptic wasteland described in the book — a ghostly desert strewn with temporary, shifting habitations, illusory as film or tape, with Burroughs’ words written on paper-thin sets, on sand, on the wind. The image and the textual quotation are perfectly meshed: “FADED TAPE… A LANGUID GRAY AREA OF HIATUS MIASMIC WITH YAWNS AND GAPING GOOF HOLES… ” It’s the stripped-bare world of illusion, on the brink of disappearing — as Gysin had written four years before, “Magic spell instead of sand gives bow to the end of words.” As well as this mirage effect, Gysin’s deserts are haunted and haunting, they are bound up with a recognition of the void, the empty space within oneself, like the desert experience of Henri Bosco, described in his autobiographical Hyacinthe, in which the interior self is annihilated. . . “Once more emptiness stretched out inside me and I was a desert within a desert… My spirit had left me… The hidden desert that each one of us bears within himself, and to which the desert of sand and stone has penetrated… The infinite, uninhabited expanse that is desolation… ” Gysin would write that through psychedelics he was able to unlock the deep images of his own personal memory and that these seemed to him archetypal — he saw, deep inside himself, “chains of deserts ringing the planet.” These deserts were formidable and desirable, like those evoked in the essays of Albert Camus, and Gysin would have recognized a fellow initiate of the desert in Camus, someone tired of philosophizing, exhausted by the social whirl and its ennui, seeking instead solitude and space to breathe, and liberation from the self — “immense cauldrons of simmering air… Nothingness is no more in our grasp than is the absolute… an orange-colored glow upon the sand or on our eyes… we need other deserts, and other places with neither souls nor resting places… ”

City Grids / Medina Mazes

Brion Gysin, The Last Museum, 1977Gysin’s black and white grid works are visual correlates of the white stacked cubes of Tangier and those Sahara desert towns built in the Sudanese “Flamboyant” style — an architecture which seems to have accrued organically, a “piling up” which Gysin conjures through a system of rollered planes, including superimposed, tilted, tiered layers. Buildings are graphically suggested and evoked, not delineated, through white “building blocks,” square and rectangular, but broken or uneven at their edges, and with curved building arches made by the ink collected on Gysin’s roller as he lifted it from the paper. Glimpses of winding alleyways cut by shafts of light and dark apertures, houses connected by bridges over narrow streets, the streets labyrinthine and vanishing into black tunnels or white light. Burroughs would write, “Gysin is in charge of the mapping department… his roller grid plotted the route,” but it is not a topographics which Gysin creates, but something closer to Burroughs’ comment that he had “a whole Tangier of… words and pictures” and these words and images meshed in the grids would concatenate that “whole Tangier” — “a dream congealed in stone” becoming the dream that is “breaking through.” Gysin’s grids are condensations of that city — Burroughs’ and Gysin’s dream city flickering and mutating and pulsing with optical shifts as if experienced through kif, or rocking seismically with pictorial “quakes.” The organic architectonics of these medina-maze pictures contradicts notions of the “abstract” — doorways open onto blind alleys and stairways traverse multiple levels as we are lead into the reading of these ambiguous spaces… This is confirmed and encouraged by Gysin’s placement of images both in the scrapbooks and in the later Beaubourg works — figures glimpsed in rooms, jumping through doors and windows, the blocks of the grids opening up interior spaces and sets, the planar turned cubistic in a multi-perspective of simultaneous scenes and shifting scales and locales. This technique was used by Gysin in his later photo-collage pictures, in which “vertical strips of a black nude on a white bed become a voyeur’s nightscape of shabby Paris hotels.” In a number of cases in the scrapbooks, Gysin even includes diagonal lines penetrating the spatial layers and draws perspectival boxes indicating a number of vanishing points in order to penetrate parts of the grid with a knowing illusionism. He had first used versions of these linear devices in his decalcomania paintings in 1941, superimposing them on the organic compresses of canyons and mountains, a geometric mapping of the hallucinatory which actually signifies the impossibility of expressing infinity through Euclidean geometry — parallel lines may meet at a hypothetical point, but it is, precisely, a “vanishing point,” where vision runs out, but the continuum rolls on. In one of the scrapbook images, there are two perspective boxes, and the ceiling of one box, and the floor, side wall and end wall of another box, are covered with Gysin’s signature script so that his calligraphy itself is seen in multiple perspective — this is more than a play on illusion, it signifies travelling through time, the juxtaposition of foci subverting a single time-scale viewpoint, abolishing fixed focus and a single visual narrative. These perspectival calligraphies are prophetic of Gysin’s Calligraffiti of Fire, 1985 — the combined length of the panels of the painting is over 63 feet, which is so long that it cannot be seen or read fully in the plane, so that parts of the picture recede from the viewer in space, and are necessarily seen in perspective. “Who runs may read,” said Gysin, and here the calligraphy itself runs on, and moves us physically through space, exceeding our visual grasp and the desire for conceptual containment. Gysin’s inset perspectival boxes in the scrapbooks relate to Burroughs’ 1964 letter to Antony Balch in which he describes a photographic experiment he carried out with Ian Sommerville, fixing a photograph to a window so that it fitted seamlessly into the view from the window — a two-dimensional image which could not be differentiated from the so-called “real,” whilst the world in the window was itself revealed as a picture, a framed illusion. Such experiments derived from J. W. Dunne’s The Serial Universe (1934) in which he describes an artist painting a landscape, who realizes that something is missing from the picture — it’s himself. So he puts himself in the picture, but there’s still something missing — himself painting himself in the picture, and so on. The attempt to include one’s consciousness in the picture had intrigued Burroughs for years, and in Tangier he and Ian Sommerville made huge wall hangings of photographic images, fixed together with scotch tape and glue. They were not “collages,” that wasn’t the point — the object was to make a mosaic of images so large and filled with such potential cross-referencing and layered associations that the observer would lose himself in the act of looking, become immersed in the “neural pathways” of associational thinking, lost in the traversal of the image matrix. This procedure was developed by Gysin and Sommerville with the projection of collages through an epidiascope, the multiple images spilling across the ninety-degree angles of ceiling and walls — Gysin’s calligraphy on the walls and ceiling of the photo interior shots in the scrapbooks pays homage to this. In a related strategy of image immersion, Gysin insets pictures within pictures in receding perspectival boxes which suggest the projection of images through the grid, as if onto screens in hotel rooms, in which the occupants are immersed in the illusions of projection and broadcast technology — it’s like looking through a window and seeing someone watching television across the street, or it’s the image of a figure in a room which is projected on the window as if on a screen, or it’s projected through the window onto the opposite hotel room wall. Dreamachines spin in those rooms, and we are outside, looking in, as the Third Mind collaborators dismantle and scramble the illusion machine. Gysin includes images of himself and Sommerville with a Dreamachine, and pictures of Burroughs, inserting himself and the Third Mind collaborators into the grid of the Beat Hotel, courtesy of Madame Rachou, the ideal concierge. Here are the Deconstructors of Sound and Vision at work, in the very place where the images were made, where the newspapers and magazines were unmade, and the scrapbooks themselves assembled and reassembled. The scrapbooks document the Third Mind in action inside the Beat Hotel and as it radiates out into the city streets and we, too, are caught up in that process, looking at the lookers, projecting our gaze, and ourselves, within Number 9, rue Git-le-Coeur, which Gysin tantalizingly opens up for us like a bombed building with a missing wall… These “open sets” are reminders that Gysin worked on a number of stage musicals in New York in the early 1940s with Irene Sharaff, and knew a thing or two about theatrical staging. In The Last Museum, 1986, the room itself becomes a Dreamachine — “My narrow cell began to revolve like an old 78 rpm. Turntable and the bars of my window on the spiral stairs to spin past at between eight and thirteen flickers a second, the alpha rhythm of my soft old brainbox.” It’s possible, by alternating open- and closed-eye viewings of the Dreamachine, to procure an effect of the cylinder twisting and turning in on itself, the interior of the machine becoming the Chrysopeia of Cleopatra, the “One, All,” an Ouroboros, a Moebius strip. And this is a key feature of Gysin’s work — the use of loops which turn back on themselves, turning outside into inside, the art work as folded continuum. The two-sided surface appealed to Gysin’s mystical cosmogony, and his pleasure at playing Hide and Seek — what is hidden on the “other side” becomes apparent, while what had seemed clear disappears, elides the viewer. One of Gysin’s tricks, in art as in life, was to treat a magical manifestation as quite the most normal of occurrences, hardly worth mentioning, and he would surely have agreed with J.G. Bennett’s dictum — “Sometimes a thing is disguised by appearing to be exactly what it is.” On rue Git-le-Coeur I photograph a barred window, a three-dimensional Gysin grid, with horizontal and vertical intersections and layers, reminiscent of the very earliest collage bird boxes of Joseph Cornell which Gysin had seen at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York in the early 1940s and which played a part in the development of his own grids, the aviary transposed into a “jungle gym” — both are structures to flitter and flutter through. . . At the end of rue Git-le-Coeur I photograph the traffic speeding by, head lights and tail lights writing the city at night, a calligraphy of light, of permutated sigils like Gysin’s signature script, diamond flashes in the eyes, dancing through the physical grid of the city, seen and transduced by Brion Gysin, making the viewer aware of what Cornell described as the “rapid overflow of experience… ever opening paths leading ever further afield. Unbelievably rich cross-indexing. . . the ceaseless flow and interlacing of original experience.”  

The Concierge’s Plan

Graffiti, ParisGysin’s calligraffiti and paste-on headlines are written on the walls of his city sets which recall the walls and milieus of Paris as well as Tangier, his rollered grids evoking the cascading staircases of old areas like Bélleville-Ménilmontau with their flights of broken steps and twisting, topsy-turvy levels and landings, their angular, leaning, leprous walls, scrawled and poster-plastered, run through by deep stairs and passages and black entryways, impasses… The Third Mind scrapbooks and other Gysin grids were created in a Paris with visible street counterparts, and with gallery homages to the streets — the torn poster art and lacerated décollage of Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé and Mimmo Rotella of Nouveau Réalisme. Gysin, too, picked up on the lettering of the streets — fading painted brick advertisements on cut-off streets, and café signs and shops whose signs suggested linguistic permutations and reworkings in regard to his own pursuits — Electricité, Impremerie, Laverie, Passementerie… A missing, cut-out letter could transform a word and Gysin, who synaesthetically appreciated the shapes and sounds of letter combinations, had read Aragon’s Paysan de Paris in the 1930s in which the word “ROUGE” (in the sign “MAISON ROUGE”) is seen from an angle and becomes “POLICE” — the word as physical sign which can be tilted in space to read quite otherwise, sinisterly. The tilting of planes, the experience of being askew, the mutability of the linguistic sign, the refutation of single-point perspective, the recognition of moving through one’s own perceptual field — these are street experiences, the vertiginous perspectives of the élan vital of seeing. A more particular resemblance came to mind on this Paris trip — one of those alphabetical plans of an apartment block, with its escaliers and floor-by-floor diagrammatic listing of tenants, that was once visible in the window or glass door of the Paris concierge’s loge, useful when Madame was out shopping for her cats or keeping les flics sweet — rows of square and rectangular rooms with parallel, columnar staircases, the resulting hand-drawn grid lettered by hand, and a key inspiration for Georges Perec’s La Vie Mode d’Emploi — a visual plan with the building façade and roof removed, “exploded,” so that one could see inside, as it were. Gysin populates his own exploded grid plans with photo-inset tenants and scenes of la vie bohème, flipping through partition walls from the Beat Hotel to Tangier to the Amazon, as in Burroughs’ famous letter to Ginsberg, and in Naked Lunch itself — this space-time coalescence was undoubtedly a principle working method of the Third Mind, a way of abolishing the laborious linear thinking process of “getting from here to there.” Instead, just jump right through the wall — it’s paper thin. 

Psychic Graffiti

Blue Graffiti, ParisAs we strolled the streets of Pigalle and the Latin Quarter, some of the graffiti and the writing on the wall transcended tags and slogans, shedding alphabetic form and signification, becoming free flourishes and arabesques, condensed gestural markers beyond semantic decoding. They appeared on walls, through railings and on the pavements and roads, written on the very ground beneath our feet, hermetically marking our dérives — they followed us and seemed to lead us on. These calligraphic expressions could be read as defacements, social protests of a kind, but they were something else besides — beautiful mementoes of passing through, irreducible personal signifiers of being alive in the city, taking the city as a canvas for the direct expression of existence. I began to recognize the individual styles of these graffitists — Loop Line, Yellow Spray, Through Bars, The Hex, The Black Marker, The Blue Coil, The Cosmic Diagram. The Third Mind project was more than the “precise intersection between text and drawing,” it explored the “psychic symbiosis” between the individual and the city, and the working images and texts of the Third Mind scrapbooks reveal the city as continually remade from its deconstructed, desecrated, ignored parts, and constituted by the transmission flow of degradable information. Gysin identified his own grids as being, in part, “police barriers,” and he wrote over and across them, breaking through the cordoned city to a new experience of place. What were we passing through and walking on but the markings of a disaffection which nevertheless recognized and drew attention to the city’s degraded, contingent, ignored surfaces, and anonymous, forgotten inhabitants. This is the essence of calligraphy: the testament of presence in absence. In Paris I talked with Stephen Vassilakos about painters we both admire — Brice Marden, Christopher Wool, Larry Poons — and immediately I began to catch phantom vestiges of those artists’ signature styles in sublimated graffiti form on the streets we walked through. There’s a “Martin Barre”… an “Arman” from 1959… another “Gysin”… These are not homages or copycat works, they’re entirely fortuitous correspondences, yet, nevertheless, it was impossible not to recognize those equivalent gestures made anonymously on another plane of reference, nor to grasp our dérives through the city as a visual drift in which these mysterious markings took on a great significance — they were writing the route, marking our way, signalling our passage through the city and through time. The Gysin pictures both prepared the way for this and procured them — otherwise we would have walked past without looking, without seeing. They triggered visual awareness, echoing and connecting the gallery art work and the sign of a fleeting presence in the world — projections from the artist travelling through the viewer’s psyche, remembered and recognized out there in the world, genetically expressive connections, a network of signs following variant visual tracks. . . I remember Burroughs, too, wasn’t averse to signing the city itself with a magic marker, writing “AH POOK IS HERE” on a subway wall — “And you a grown man!” But these undecodable markings eschew the alphabet and readability, however mysterious the message, just as they are indifferent to art display and status. Their power and significance lies, literally, in the elsewhere. And so I tracked these détourned markers — an endless, complex rewriting of space and place, a guide to the city and to memory and connectivity. It’s special imaging — marking points in a temporal topography of streets, a mapped sequence of trips from here to there, and those points are parts of linked, layered constellations. Tracking The Hex, we intersect with Loop Line, and must diverge or continue, or track back and pick up again with The Blue Coil… The routes we take, the rues we do not travel — it’s a model of the neural mapping of possible cities-within-the-city, created by an increased receptivity of the kind which Gysin and Burroughs tried to demonstrate in The Third Mind. Evan S. Connell: “I have agreed to paint a narrative on the city walls.” Plague markers, city ciphers running through the manifesting streets, passages through time, as exemplary as Gysin’s work in their rerouting and rewriting of the grid sets. 

Recapitulation

Philippe Baumont Films Terry WilsonWe look at the film Philippe shot in Peru when he and Terry went there some years ago to take ayahuasca. Neither Terry nor myself had seen the film in colour before, only excerpts in black and white, and this restored colour brings the jungle alive in a different dimension. Philippe wants Terry to record a voice-over for the film, which will later be edited and synchronized with certain filmed episodes. Rather than recording Terry’s voice alone, Philippe sets up his camera and films Terry reading a section from his book Perilous Passage, 2005, dedicated to Brion Gysin, an account of his apprenticeship to the “master shamanic practitioner.” I find the reading, the recording and the playback with Terry watching himself very moving, and remember the monitor at the Gysin retrospective showing a recording of Terry and Gysin filmed at the Final Academy in London in 1982. More than a quarter of a century has passed… Well, Terry has done more than anyone to keep the spirit of Gysin and Burroughs’ work alive and to take it elsewhere. Terry’s reading of the text makes a direct correspondence between Gysin and the Peruvian shaman, Don Roberto, and between the ritual magic of art and pychotropics. Terry chooses to read from the final section of the book, “THE UNIVERSE IN OTHER WORDS,” his account of taking ayahuasca — “Events could be written and the brain produce an elaborate message hidden in any writing divined by dream images in brilliant colour an expanded ripple of meanings statements in moving figures cut right through the pages.” Later, Philippe plays back the tape of Terry reading, inserted between repeated riot broadcast news on the TV, and then we look at sections of the Peru film — a time series that spontaneously cuts up and montages a window repeatedly smashed in Lyon, Terry reading from Perilous Passage, then the jungle outside Quitos years ago, Don Roberto playing with a snake, and back again to Lyon — which we left days ago, but then the footage they’re showing in present time is days old too. These loops and intersections exemplify certain Third Mind methods — putting oneself in the mediated image flow, learning to think and travel through time, not only recognizing but creating the unforeseen connections. It’s not an iPod collage, a scrambled compute, it’s self-creation cutting through and overriding the existing programmes, putting “in here” in the “out there.” It’s appropriate that just a few hours ago, Terry should have read a text about recapitulation, a text which he had never read aloud before, and to the reading of which Philippe’s suggestions contributed a special, mysterious influence — “Read very loud, but not loud.” And now we see and hear this reading in a reconfigured context, itself part of a sound and image process of juxtaposition and repetition, in which events in Peru, Lyon and Paris are cut-up and remade. Terry and Philippe look at their own past selves in Peru, and then Terry’s description and evocation is replayed, and takes its place in a new matrix, is recovered in another space and time, its significance both clear and yet uncanny, displaced — “Now I have seen infinity flashing donde termina el mundo in molecular imagery as the spirits of the jungle night light up spectrally… ” Those words belong to Peru, though they were written later, and we hear them now, though they were written years before, and then there’s sudden interference on the monitor, red and purple horizontal flickering bands — it’s Gysin’s “psychedelic desert,” his Dreamachine painting of 1963, coming through the static. The TV monitor buzzes and hisses with interference patterns through which we can see an insect preening and paying obeisance to a candle flame, it was years ago, a ghost creature signalling through the static from a vanishing Peru cut by Terry on playback — “We are flying through the clouds of Nowhere with a strange crew… ” Later, the TV news of the manifestations makes me think of Burroughs’ story, “From Here To Eternity” –“I was there. I saw it. I saw women thrown down on Fifth Avenue and raped in their mink coats… ” This is apparently “Mildred Pierce reporting,” Burroughs playing upon the noir melodrama and on the reporting of a riot. The style and tropes recur in an account by Christopher Gray of an LSD trip — “I saw Western metropolises turn into death traps… I saw crowds smashing and looting the supermarkets… ” The riots which Burroughs and Gysin both saw in Gysin’s pictures suggested to them actual riots in Tangier in the 1950s, and Paris in ’68, as well as the media projection of such scenes, and drug experiences. And they saw the rioting in themselves, as in Charles Jackson’s 1944 novel about alcoholism, The Lost Weekend, which Burroughs read for “research” — “The barometer of his emotional nature was set for a spell of riot.” Daniel Odier once asked Burroughs, “What is your stand on student rioting and violence?” Burroughs replied, “There should be more riots and more violence.” 

A Series of Neural Patterns

Terry Wilson and DreammachinePhilippe will edit the Peru film and add Terry’s voiceover — the possibilities are infinite, but the sounds and images will synchronize through time, Philippe will find that seamless fit which is recognition of just that form, and no other. It’s the art of juxtaposing and collating, the process of creating out of a chaotic mix. Terry quotes Burroughs from the end section of Perilous Passage, words also quoted in Here To Go

What you actually see at any given moment becomes only a part of a visual operation which involves an infinite series of images. This leads you along a certain path like a row or series of patterns… a series of neural patterns which already exist…

It was this sense of becoming conscious of mapping visually and psychically which extended from the Gysin show through the streets and media in the days that followed… Tracing these patterns in the world is to become conscious of what is already known, but suppressed or hidden in the psyche, discovering that the path you’ve taken already existed as a “row or series of patterns,” part of a great “recapitulation process” — tracing the paths which spread out through lived experience, and through certain works of art which visually concatenate parts of the patterns, to become aware that they “already exist” in the neural pathways of the brain — we are following ourselves, we are both the terrain and the mapping of that Terra Incognita. Recognition of this process is related to ayahuasca and this is why Burroughs would croon a brujo chant while cutting up and rerouting the map… The cut-up is famously prophetic, but that is not the point — the process opens up awareness of alternative pathways and routes of perception and action. We are not separate from the world we see — in fact, in order to see it, we must actually enter it, and it’s what you do with that flash of recognition, it’s making the next connection in the series, and moving somewhere else that counts. There is no doubt that Gysin thought very consciously of his art as a tracking process of this kind — different though it is in kind from the collaged Third Mind scrapbooks, each painting takes its place in a larger sequence which connects the pieces of the patterns, interconnecting those “neural pathways.” Gysin’s entire oeuvre is permutated in all its parts, through its combinatory visual and semantic operations, far beyond the idea of an artist making work in “series.” The conditions under which we experience the picture, the book, the film, are not there in the critiques and histories of art, in the commercial and intellectual discourses of the experts, and yet it is precisely those fortuitous encounters and strategies of détournement, these moving contexts and time-layered juxtapositions and transformations, of words and images and thought itself, which art effects, and which make art possible. Gysin’s was truly a “systems” art, but not in the way critics and art historians use the term. Gysin saw the transduction process as the art of transposition and mutation — each work was the strategic transfer of a segment of DNA to another chromosome, a self-created “BG” in a series of “visual operations” which traversed his life in art, as he mapped his art in life. In the most profound sense, his pictures created his own image, his words said what he could not. These trains of thought radiate multiple pasts and selves, described by Julio Cortazar as “meteor showers of streets, books, conversations… disturbing coincidences, confirmations, and parallels”… It’s how the art is really experienced, it’s how the language gets made, how it moves around with us, from a poem to the name of a bar (the Café Spleen which Terry and I discovered in a side street of Lyon, invoking Baudelaire but with Verlaine’s picture on the wall, the perfect small bar, with a door opening into an almost vanished culture and time), to a film of the desert in Palm Springs which Philippe and Stephen put on the monitor — film strips, desert strips, and Stephen’s horizontal stripe paintings flash with light like multiple desert horizons… Time speeds up, it coalesces, re-fragments. . . Stephen and Philippe shot film at the opening of the Gysin retrospective and when we look at the material back in Paris, the Dreamachine has been filmed with the camera on its side, turning the cylinder horizontal — “Gysin’s roller!” Terry and I exclaim, suddenly seeing something hidden in plain sight for all these years, like Gysin himself admitting, “It took me years to realize that the spool in my film is a roller.”… Watching Philippe in a sequence from the Peru film, taken after he’d experienced ayahuasca, and Philippe is looking through the camera, his face transformed, it’s Philippe and yet not Philippe, he was, he is there, and yet not there, dreaming with his eyes open, reminding me of Burroughs’ words from Yage — “fear is impossible.” . . Antoine says that there are really only two kinds of art — the surface art and the deep art, and the deep is too painful to go through year after year. An admirer of Pierre Tal-Coat and Wols, Tachistes, Antoine painted for many years, and still does so, but it’s so difficult… Best stop at the surface, he says… And then something happens — Antoine, who I’d always seen as very reserved and calm, talks passionately about his work and the problem of creation, and I take a number of photographs very quickly, hardly knowing what I’m getting… The pictures will show Antoine shapeshifting, leaving the body, his “other half” emerging, while he dematerializes, his arms wheeling in space — images from beneath “the surface art,” distortions revealing the “split Universe,” as Gysin called it, “run between the Image and the Real Thing… one is the mirror-image of the other but the point is to tell which is which… ” And then, of course, there is the Real Thing within the Image of the Real Thing — ghost manifestations, no doubt, of the Serial Illusionistic Universe… Charles Duthuit in dialogue with Samuel Beckett on the paintings of Tal Coat, said: “The tyranny of the discreet overthrown. The world a flux of movements partaking of living time, that of effort, creation, liberation, the painting, the painter. The fleeting instant of sensation given back, given forth, with context of the continuum it nourished.”  

Time Rolls On

Terry Wilson and Photo Rolls by Brion GysinSpools of black and white images are unrolled on the floor of the salon in Pigalle. The pictures were taken in the 1980s by Philippe who persuaded the photo-processors not to machine-cut the images out of the strips, but to give them to him in rolls. They are “Time Rolls,” the printed negatives of the past turned in on themselves, cylindrically mimicking the film rolls inside the camera all those years ago. Everything in Gysin’s work rolls — his customized roller, the Dreamachine, the permutated poems, the tape reels, the film spools, the ribbon reels of the typewiter… Everything rolls, unfurls, unwinds as miniaturised, mechanistic model versions of the Great Continuum. In a 1947 story Gysin wrote of a character who had “made great looping circles through the seemingly straight line of life,” while Francis Huxley, reviewing Gysin’s The Process, wrote that it seemed “to go around in circles that afterwards prove to be straight lines.” The ink lines and strips of Gysin’s grid works are permutated “run-ons,” conceptually folding back on themselves — here one thing appears to follow another in a durational order, but the sequence is just one part of a continuous, infinite series, and blends with other sequences on other strips so that it is impossible to know where one begins and another ends. The grids in some of Gysin’s later color paintings actually curve, while the unrolled Dreamachine cylinders were themselves framed and exhibited to reveal the two-dimensional grid plans which cannot be taken in or visually grasped in cylindrical form or during rotation. As I unwind the paper rolls and weight them at the ends so they don’t immediately rewind themselves, rolling back into their spiral shells, Terry watches, and he sees time itself unroll — the strips become train tracks of images on the floor, and suddenly Terry sees himself appear out of the past, walking along the platform of an unknown railway station, with a short haircut he’d forgotten until now, and the past is pulling in to the station. . . The photographs were taken by Philippe more than twenty years ago, and as Terry looks down at these running, parallel tracks with their image trains, he has no memory of ever seeing them before, the circumstances are forgotten, and then he begins to partially recall a few moments in time, the images triggering memories and associations which otherwise he would not be experiencing… “Philippe… Gwen… Gigi… Camille… ” he murmurs, a litany of names, an evocation of the gone world, recognizing the faces, and some of the places, as memories are called forth, and a different kind of sequencing takes place — the past returns as the selection and re-sequencing of particular images, assembled in accordance with the selectivity of memory which is not a chronological process. Time rolls on, but we do not experience its continuum — only the fragmented collages and combinations emerging through associations on neural pathways… “Yes, Gigi… And that place, I think, perhaps… No, I seem to remember… ” Burroughs and Gysin knew the nostalgia and melancholy and loss inherent in photography, with its images of a vanishing ghost life — the past was fiction, a poignant story continually remade, and its linearity and falsity and repetition had to be broken, likewise the associational “image tracks” which are culturally, socially, ideologically and perceptually inculcated in the way we see, react, and remember… In his Beaubourg works, Gysin cut up the original photo time sequences and “dropped” fragments into the grids, while Burroughs, for example, made a photo work which appears to show a sequence of pictures taken over the course of a single day, but each picture was actually taken on a different day, showing the illusion of photography not only in the images but in the automatic temporal reading of image sequences. Now, I wonder — looking at Terry looking at these image tracks from his own life, I see that time does that job of undoing chronology and fixity for us, while the associational tracking of one image to another and to another in memory is a process beyond our grasp and analysis… In a year’s time this time will be both discarnate and scripted, on permanent recall and fading out… There will be dissatisfaction with the master copy, and other versions will be reassembled, reedited, resynchronized, or abandoned on the cutting room floor. . . Only this writing, itself suspect and subject to future rewrites and edits, may one day remind me of how this time really felt, while it was happening. Terry looks at images of himself and Philippe and friends from the black and white world of the ’80s, some still around, some gone forever… Time is a roll, wrapped over and over on itself, layered, inaccessible to ordinary perception… These photo rolls, imitating the continuum, are beautiful, paper-thin imitations of life, unwound to provide a few glimpses — then I release the weights, and the images roll back on themselves, coil back into their pristine, hermetic cylinders. I remember Lawrence Lacina’s description of Gysin’s Goddess Kali performance at the Domaine Poétique — “His painting fell to the ground and started to curl into a roll again.” Gysin ripped the roll up, destroying the memory of time recorded in the artefact. Years later, he would piece together just such a work, restoring it, signifying the creation and destruction and recreation of art through time, the image a testament to its own history of damage and survival. Stephen shows us a wonderful book of photographs by his friend Mark Morrisroe, who died in 1989 at the age of thirty. And then a picture Morrisroe had taken of Stephen, which someone had crumpled up in a rage — Morrisroe had written an explanation and apology on the back. More than a perfect image taken at a moment in time, it is the spoiled, beautiful incarnation of memory itself. 

B-Eaubour-G Bardo

Brion Gysin, Beaubourg GridGysin’s apartment faced the Beauborg and as it was constructed it seemed to him to mirror his own vision — he recognized his own grid works in the exterior and turned that famous “inside out” facade back into his own creations. Sommerville and Burroughs had actually fixed an image on a window so that it merged seamlessly with the view. Gysin mentally placed his own layered grids upon the Beaubourg facade, and saw the building through his own superimposed systems. Dark grays and blues, or smeared rainbow colours, the overlaying horizontals and verticals are blotched and bleeding, and cut through with incised diagonals, the objective, systematized imprisoning grid transformed into a personal signature. Gysin called some of these works “The Last Museum,” and, like his novel of that name, these apparent homages are mortal meditations on art and posterity, his own long-felt exclusion from the art world and his knowledge of approaching death. He deconstructs the very image of the grand postmodern cultural institution and makes it his own — turns it back into his own original blueprints, his prophetic grids, while reviving and homaging Balch’s footage of shifting, superimposed building facades and his own rolled city skyscrapers from Towers Open Fire. Appropriately, delightfully, the Beaubourg began and ended with his initials — BeaubourG. He was there at its beginning, and he would be there at its end. He would paint its creation and his own termination in a symbiotic cultural and personal vanishing act. As he wrote of his mythical Museum built on the San Andreas fault: “When I go, it goes.” His name was already in it, and he would put his death in it, too. Like his novel, the images play with the levels of the Bardo Thodol, they are in effect brilliant summations of a life transposed through the stages of death — the techno art temple’s false facade is criss-crossed, hexed, sealed, becomes a mausoleum, every gallery a chamber of the dead. Gysin’s ambiguous homage is in effect the appropriation of this iconic symbol of art, and its deathly détournement. He himself had been turned “inside out,” in 1974, and had a plastic colostomy bag outside his own body, and an “ex ass,” but now, from 1975 -1977, he would turn a real trick — he’d paint the BeaubourG’s outside, and so get inside. He had painted Notre Dame and the Tour Saint-Jacques in 1974, but the Beaubourg works surpass these earlier architectonic scaffolding pictures. Something was released in him at this point, against all the odds, through physical and mental suffering he somehow found a new liberation in combining paint and photography in a sensual way, playing upon the surfaces of film and paint, and upon what each could do that the other could not, gaining a new freedom which the curator José Ferez Kuri would attribute to the fact that Gysin was “not afraid of beauty.” Gysin knew that to make the rising of the Beaubourg the subject of his pictures was inescapably to make a cultural and political comment, but he did so in ways which transcend his tirade to Terry Wilson in Here To Go about art institutions as piles of non-degradable rubbish. And this is revealing — these are works of splendor, despite their dark encroaching hues and their insistence upon the grand façade as a paper-thin set-piece. They are works which relish the play of illusion and materiality, and although Gysin would have agreed with Baudrillard’s comments about the Beaubourg in 1980, that it was “the sacred rubbish heap of stockpiled values,” Gysin knew all about the entropy, but he saw the beauty, too, and so he painted both. Uneasy for many years about the value and use of collage techniques in painting, Gysin finally employed them in his l974 photo grids, works related to the Beaubourg pictures in their use of small cut-out images. The experience of looking becomes one of travelling past and passing through, as if from a train window we glimpse a figure on a bed or a figure leaping from a window — flickering golden and black-and-white moments of rooms lived in, a Bardo dream of travelling through all the scenes and spaces of a life, the exploded and concatenated mergings of space-time. Gysin’s grids place images on “time tracks” — it is not a format of signifying correspondences but a dynamic of moving transpositions, life glimpsed on its passage through the image machine of time… Just as the Beaubourg was treated as a huge art machine for the consumption of images of human life, the photo-grid images utilize cut-out strips and images from contact sheets to create and pun upon image rooms and contact strip staircases and corridors, the grids becoming building structures in ways akin to the Third Mind scrapbooks, and in fact anticipated by works from 1962 in which he had experimented with contact sequences fixed onto a city grid. Gysin was still trying to recover, physically and psychologically, from his colostomy when he made these works, and he was often “disprarie,” caught between “despair” and “disappearance.” But working again gave him confidence and brought back past artistic admirations. His “Byzantine Golden Boys” and “Heavy Metal Kid” ink and photo-collage building grids of 1974, pay homage to Yves Klein’s repeated rectangular and square permutated “Monogolds” of 1961, just as his “Jump” series homages Philippe Halsman and his photographs of jumping celebrities, published in Life magazine in the 1950s. There is, too, a telling comparison to be made with Yves Klein whose friezes were installed in the Gelsenkirchen Music Theatre in 1959. Photographs of the opening of the building show figures framed and silhouetted in the building’s glass facade, cut through with diagonal staircases and the horizontal and vertical frames of the sections of glass — the art in the architecture, and the viewer in the building in the picture… The experience of making these collage works was exhilarating, a burst of inspired energy — “I never did anything more exciting in my life.” The Beaubourg pictures mirrored the creation of the building itself — “the construction brand new, paint still glistening wet.” But the intimate photo-grids revisit the old hotels and bohemian milieus he had known so well — life remembered, seen from a window at sunset, shortly before the hour of departure. If it was a death trip — “What other kind of trip are we on?” — the pictures are very tender, too, poignant reminders of the kind of life he had lead, bohemian scenes gone forever, but which he remembered, and chose to commemorate.  

No Success Like Failure

Gysin ProjectionHe so desperately wanted success and acclaim and yet, and yet… The breaks didn’t happen, nothing ever panned out right, it was always the wrong time or the wrong place, he felt the dice stacked against him, and it would become a melodrama and a self-fulfilling prophecy. He much appreciated the support of the October Gallery in London, the people there lifted his spirits and he knew there was an audience who wanted to see his pictures. But the great success he had dreamed of eluded him — and somehow, too, it must be said, he eluded it. Burroughs told me that he believed there was a step which Gysin just could not take — and there was certainly an aloofness, and a real disinclination to “go down the market place and trade.” It led to a hostility and antagonism towards the very thing he thought he had wanted — and outsider status was duly granted him as a testament to the perversity of his stance, his supposedly scurrilous gossiping, (learned of via the very process his critics criticized), and his too knowing brilliance. He became the Machine Artist raging against the Art Machine — a machine, as he saw it, for the exponential production of literal garbage. His tirade against the art world in Here To Go is nothing less than a splenetic outpouring of hurt and fury and incomprehension at his own untenable position, the years of loneliness and scraping the rent, despite access to the salons of the rich… His work was shown, he was not permanently “unhung,” but somehow these shows escaped the currents of art critical discourse — he could not throw off his reputation as a brilliant maverick. He had works in the Museum of Modern Art, Boston Fine Arts, the Pompidou, the Musée d’Art Moderne, he was a chevalier, but still, nevertheless, it was never ever nearly enough, and certainly not enough to pay the rent, and he felt he would be consigned to a Burroughs footnote, if that hadn’t happened already. In his final months his work seemed lost to him, scattered and dispersed in the world — “dream work” in all the wrong ways. Despite his friends and their support, recognition was in every sense beyond him — un-recuperable as lost time. Pas de chance… Still, he held on, for dear life, defying the prognostications of medical experts, and he had persistence of vision in every sense — in those final years there had been protracted negotiations with the people at the Beaubourg, who thought maybe a small semi-permanent display of some kind. . . But Gysin wanted the reproduction and installation of a room from the old Beat Hotel, with the bed and the sink and the worktable, the plug-in electric ring, a Dreamachine spinning round, his sketchbooks and journals and paintings, Miles playing Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud on the UHER, and a joint still smouldering in an ashtray, like he’d just popped out for a Herald Trib. . . The studios of Paolozzi and Bacon would later be installed in museums, but Gysin’s proposal was intended as more than historical recuperation or a memorial to the bohemian life, it was to be the incarnation of his essence as an artist — the fleabag hotel room seen for exactly what it was, small and humble and absolutely quotidian, but also a palace of dreams, a magical laboratory, a chamber of esoteric manifestations, the place where he’d loved and laughed and created and talked into the dawn, and where he’d confronted his demons in solitude, as if to say, “Just look at it! From this so much flowed, from here everything became possible, from terror to delight, and we would realise the unimaginable, and make the miraculous manifest… ” The Beaubourg room would have been a Third Mind scrapbook page of the Beat Hotel built in three dimensions, the Gysin set for real, a multimedia light-music-image environmental installation, yes, fine, but also, and above all, the place where he had lived and breathed, the room in the world which he had definitively left, as on his recording of “Dilaloo” — “Just put yourself up on the ceiling / And look down on what’s left on the bed / WHO’S LEFT IN THIS CELL?” The retrospectives in New York and Villeurbanne are bittersweet — they take their place in the old story of the artist for whom critical recognition, and financial security, always come way too late. And yet working from the margins had somehow always been his way — perhaps, instinctively, he needed that distance for his work, and deep down he knew it, even as he resented it. He needed the anger too, and the spleen, and dismay — they were essential parts of his complex and paradoxical nature. He could never renounce the iconoclastic essence at the core of his careful, considered and considerate character. He was always in command, elegant, sophisticated, cultured, and yet electric with rebellion, subterranean by design.  

Self-Torment / Limit Experiences

Self-TormentThe Third Mind explored the new communications technologies which were already instrumental in bombing, scorched earth, executions, massacres, genocide, Total War. Burroughs and Gysin recognized that our existing mental structures fail utterly to deal with the terror and the horror — no science, philosophy or religion, no guru or god can help us out of the psychic pit. One hundred and ten million “man-made” violent war deaths in the 20th century — count one second without cease for each of those deaths and it will take you four years and two months. As Burroughs wrote in Ah Pook Is Here, “I consider the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead, with their emphasis on ritual and knowing the right words, totally inadequate.” The Third Mind scrapbooks constituted a 20th Century Book of the Dead, exploring the taboo, reinstating the terror — recovering death from media and false consciouness. It was Burroughs and Gysin’s last-ditch attempt to create the means for a new way of thinking, a death consciousness that would save us from living the inhuman lie under cover of self-serving moralizing and deadly logic. Burroughs: “We don’t want to hear any more family talk, mother talk, father talk, cop talk, priest talk, country talk or party talk. To put it country simple, we have heard enough bullshit!” The attack on systematized so-called rational thought begins with a rallying call and a command — “Blitzkreig the Citadels of Enlightenment!” Get rid of everything that is taken as read, as natural, inevitable, reasonable, good and safe. Raze it all to the ground. The rhetoric of uproar was intentional — satirizing the war machine, turning the bombs and the guns on the national institutions of power, the seats of learning, the great museums, country, honor, decency, the flag, all of that. This iconoclasm was not “coherent” and had no “agenda” for good reason — any possibility of change depended on revolutionizing individual consciousness through radical experiences, learning to think in new ways, becoming aware of all that is hidden, decried, repressed, and possible within oneself. Cut up — don’t theorize, do it. Gysin’s art cannot be separated from these concerns — his riot script carries the fire of a world conflagration, and he projects images of that “other self,” the one he aspired to become, transcendence of la condition humaine as the essential first condition of the Third Mind. At the same time, both Gysin and Burroughs explored their own psychoses. Gysin admitted to Terry Wilson that throughout his life he had enjoyed being frightened, indeed, that he liked to make himself frightened. He shared this proclivity with Paul Bowles, another cautious, conservative man who yet contained within himself the desire to pursue extreme states — but Gysin went much further in the fear stakes, through drugs, occult practices, and limit-experiences. In the chapter on torture which he wrote as part of The Process, but which he removed from the manuscript before the book was published, Gysin unflinchingly detailed mental anguish and physical degradation and pain — it was an experiment in the writing of terror, declaring the non-human at work in the psyche, extracting that gnawing terror which is always hidden away and yet never sublimated. Bowles, in stories like “A Distant Episode” (1947) and “The Delicate Prey” (1950), seemed to have reached the limit point in this area of icy horror, but at some level Gysin was trying to go beyond even this. He had abandoned his earlier Moroccan stories out of a sense that Bowles had made the terrain inimitably and definitively his own, but perhaps in confronting the intolerable and writing the unbearable, he was attempting to prove himself as an even more fearless writer — even though beneath that design, it was his own fascination and fear that he was provoking. It was certainly more than a literary exercise, he wasn’t just confronting and detailing fear, but exacerbating it in order to frighten himself, as well as the imagined reader, challenging his own decency, his own moral and ethical limits, trying to experience the fear from both sides — the happy torturers, the agonized victim. Gysin could never forget certain violent episodes with both Hamri and Roger Knoebber, and these appalled him, and he could not forgive himself — he understood very well how love and anger can combine explosively, and he feared that derangement and total loss of control within himself, and the causing of hurt to others. He recognized that terrible potential in himself and instead of trying to suppress it, he rigorously explored it, pushing himself, hurting himself. Fritz Lang, whose film Morocco Gysin so loved, said “What do people believe? What are people fearing?” and he answered his own questions, “That is physical pain. And physical pain comes from violence.” But the violence is not just outside, it is within. In Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom, much admired by Antony Balch, even as it was savaged by the critics, the psychotic killer asks, “Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? It is fear.” Gysin’s own fascination with fear seems related to that of Georges Bataille who was obsessed with photographs of Lingchi, or “slow slicing,” the death by cuts of Fou Tchou-Li, taken in 1905. He looked at those “intolerable” images every day, and he understood the act of looking to be a repeated “transgression of prohibitions,” breaking the taboo of what should be seen, thought and felt. Bataille was struck by the apparent look of ecstacy on the victim’s face and it was his recognition of this “erotic” aspect which was unbearably, addictively fascinating to him. In Gysin’s case, too, it was a compulsion to push himself to the point of self-excoriation — to suffer self-torment, designing and administering the torture and debasement on both his character and himself. The writer only pretends to remain outside such imagined, projected scenes — the creator and authorial witness, paring his fingernails like a follower of Flaubert, is contaminated by this very stance of intellectual detachment and purpose, diffidence and scrupulousness. Gysin may well have cut the torture chapter because it detracted and distracted from the structure and plot of the book, or because the publishers had balked or almost certainly would have done so, but beyond that he must have recognized that readers would have been appalled, and would have viewed the writer as not only complicit but as the instigator of the torture, the perpetrator with a satanic imagination. This recurs in criticisms of Burroughs, but if a reiteration of torture and degradation and killing has an incontrovertible psychopathic core, Burroughs and Gysin recognized, addressed, explored and acknowledged it. This is why accusations of sadism against Burroughs miss the point — the relish of such violence in and through writing takes courage because it admits to that capacity for hatred and fantasy within oneself. The Third Mind was simultaneously a recognition of the evil within and an attempt to “think the impossible,” to follow the supposedly “unthinkable” through to the absolute limits of bearability, and to then live with it, in total awareness, in suffering submission to the truth — pursuing and risking those terrors out of a desire to feel them, against the grain of one’s own preferred view of oneself, to recognize them as an essential part of one’s own psychic life. Gysin wanted to make himself conscious of what was inside himself, but hidden — he would dig it out and hold it in view, he would suffer it and even delight in it, defying a perversity which unsettled and scared him, but was part of him nevertheless. In his text “Dilaloo”, Gysin wrote, “I had exercised for years / In the elaborate jungle gym / of my conscience / In nomine pater, kid / as Jimmy Cannon used to say” — Jimmy Cannon, the tough guy with a heart of gold, a Damon Runyon type character and a brilliant sportswriter and radio commentator, invoking God the Father after a bad decision on points — what else can you do? For Gysin, sickness and dying would seem like the consequences brought about by the perversity of self-torment, the price you pay for going too far into the psyche. And here the writing of self-torture returns — not as the projection of a torture chamber in the Sahara, with a victim destroyed methodically and with pleasure and satisfaction by his captors, but in a hospital, having his own stomach sliced away, and then hooked up to oxygen cylinders in his own “De-animation Room,” waiting for and dreading the end. “Fire” and Alarme are texts of anguish in which a bodily mortification is inseparable from self-mortification and the belief that one has gone too far. They are courageous reports from the terminal zone, but also despairing confessions — this pain, it must mean something. Well, Mektoub — it was written. But no, he must have brought it on himself. This torture, this hell — he must have written it. 

Envoi From Mirror City

Gysin Projection“All those years… All those years… ” Gysin’s lament for lost time was a self-lacerating threnody, a knowing “poor Brion” routine, profound despair masquerading as a piece of performance art. Like the Bedouin, Gysin would equate life with a journey across a great desert, the void corresponding to the chaos and fear of inner being and its certain annulment. Though it took a lifetime to cross that desert, the trip was so terribly brief — 24,920 days, maybe, and only ever a razor’s hair from here to there… But despite the “harrowing” in his magical pictures, despite the torments he suffered as he tried to transcend the limitations of human existence, Gysin created an art of great beauty, sensuality and intellectual and philosophical curiosity. He wanted to “make an audience,” and that audience would be the “Mirror that is you.” — viewers would not only reflect his art in their eyes, but he would enter and affect their psyches through his image-words, projecting his visions into the viewer’s “Interior Space.” If you could see through my eyes, and you will… Of the slide projections of the “Expanded Cinema” which he made with Ian Sommerville, Gysin would later write that “I wanted to get as far away as possible from ‘inspiration’. I wanted expiration instead, to breathe out rather than in.” It was electronics which allowed him to project outwards — but his formulation is a dissimulation since he had already written that the electronic transmission “Out” would galvanize and inhabit the viewer who would in turn breathe “In” the magical inspiration. The claims Gysin made on behalf of his own art of shamanic possession, turn out to be not metaphoric but literal expressions of the creative process as he understood and used it, his belief in the conjuring of images which would perceptually affect and even transform the psyche. For Gysin, the work of art was a manifestation of Will, in the magical sense, both a ritual act and a conscious decisive act of Homo Faber, Man the Maker. He also sought to lose himself in the creative act, to become immersed in the process, to be swept away. He considered himself an inventor and a channeler, a shaman and a skilled artisan, now one, now the other, and finally both, or neither — did any of it matter any more? Absolute belief and total denial — for Gysin and Burroughs, “contradiction was their method,” and then all strategy becomes the impossibility of ever really knowing what this trip though life is all about… “What can you do?” As Burroughs said to me, “Anyone who doesn’t have regrets must be an idiot.” The two men had shared the perils and delights of a great adventure, revolutionizing techniques and modes of communication while rigorously pursuing the destruction and recreation of the self. They wanted to experience, rather than “think about,” life and death, in radically new ways. Such was the Process, though like so many, they turned out, after all, to be mortal. But the Great Transducer BG is back, in fact he never left the sensorium, he’s plugged into the techno image flow in order to reach you, disrupting and rerouting vision so you will “love your vested interior further” — he will “brighten you,” he will “throw light on your hell.” In Scientology sessions, Burroughs was asked a question which recurs throughout Balch’s film The Cut-Ups: “Does this image seem to be persisting?” Yes, the image persists — radiating beyond the time of its creation, mutating in manifold minds, in aeternum. So the future shimmers through the past. 

“But, there it is.” — Ryan Adams

Very special thanks to Philippe Baumont and Stephen Vassilakos, and Big Kiss to Bouddha. Thanks to Gwenola Le Gars, Antoine Lefebvre, Jacky Ledevehat, Axel Heil, Udo Breger and Aki Lehman. Thanks to Keith Seward and Jed Birmingham at RealityStudio. Thanks to Phil Wood, Louise Landes Levi, Richard Livermore. Love to Alison. My great thanks to Terry Wilson who made the trip with me, and for answering a number of important questions during the writing of this piece, though all interpretations and inferences are entirely my own. Thanks from Ian and Terry to Di Vincent for her technical assistance, and to everyone at Synergetics and the October Gallery.

Written by Ian MacFadyen (Lyon-Paris-London, October 2010) and published by RealityStudio on 28 February 2011. Photographs of the Brion Gysin Retrospective in Villeurbanne, the Gysin Paris locations, and Spirit Manifestations by Ian MacFadyen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *