Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
#5: The Moving Times Poster, Project Sigma (1965). An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles.
I have a dream. It is a sunny afternoon, June, in London. For whatever reason, the sun has been popping and glowing for the entire spring and early summer in dreary old England. I step out of the sunshine and down into the gloom of the Oxford Circus underground. I am heading back to my father’s firm near Embankment after loafing around, people-watching on Carnaby Street, during my lunch hour. London and its citizens have never looked like such bright, young, pretty things. There is actually some color in their pallid cheeks. Waiting for the tube, I see an incredible bird in full plumage standing in front of a large poster. She is reading intently. She has a little mag in her hand and her hair is perfect. She is getting the maximum out of her mini; her legs are far from quaint. And those boots. I walk up next to her and stand before the poster, nervous that she will walk away or, more likely, walk all over me.
As for the poster she is reading. Ah, yes. The Moving Times. Project Sigma. Alexander Trocchi. Jeff Nuttall. William Burroughs. I know them all from browsing at Better Books. I even rub shoulders with them as they stop to gossip at the shop. Never dared speak to them. Never dared actually attend a Project Sigma meeting in the Better Books basement, but I hover on the fringes of the scene like a stalker. I read and collect their literature and the Sigma portfolios. But best not to get too involved. Keep a safe distance. It was enough that I got my hands on two tickets to the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall on June 11th. That took courage and commitment. So I am not a complete day tripper. But Project Sigma is a just little too disorienting. Hell, it is French at heart. One cannot be fraternizing with the French. The Situationists seem to be going a bit too far. It is one thing to shake things up and to shake it in the discotheque, but full on fucking in the streets? That cannot happen here. Maybe in the States. After all, summer’s here and the time is right.
Well, yes, the time is right and it is now or never. All aboard, all aboard, all aboard for the night train. Maybe I will find someone. “You like Burroughs?” She lifts up the little magazine. Issue 11 of My Own Mag. “You pick that up at Better Books?” She nods. “I have not seen you around there before. You from around here?” “I am studying at the fashion school. I haven’t seen you either. Have you been to any Sigma meetings?” Thank god the train is coming. It is getting loud. Hopefully, she cannot hear my mumbled response. “What?” The train is pulling up. My opportunity is about to leave the station. “Would you like to go to the Royal Albert Hall reading? I have two tickets.” The train doors are opening. The crowd is moving forward. I move behind her on the platform. She turns to me and winks. “I can go anyway, anyhow, anywhere I choose.” I am stunned, the doors shut. She waves me goodbye. The train rumbles down the tracks. I walk back to the Moving Times poster to bide my time until the next one arrives. Martin’s Folly alright. No good, no bueno. She gave me no time. Looking over the poster, I think to myself there is something happening here that I just can’t explain.
The Moving Times poster flickers behind glass above my head over the couch as I sit in my media room at one in the morning, watching on YouTube on my laptop, old, jerky black and white videos of British Invasion bands, like The Who and The Stones, performing on Ready Steady Go or The T.A.M.I. show. Many a night I sit in the dark, drink my beers, listen to Mick or Roger sing and I slip into a dream. If the Sigma poster had a soundtrack it might be the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” not so much because Jagger was on a losing streak, but because he was being seduced by the power of advertising. Capitalism’s siren song. But what if the power of advertising and the persuasive tricks of the mass media could be used, not to sell cigarettes and laundry detergent, but to promote a revolution? That was the Situationist strategy; that was the concept that Jeff Nuttall and Alexander Trocchi tried to bring from Paris to London. The idea of The Moving Times poster was to pull the little mag and underground newspaper out of the postal network, beyond the isolation of the independent bookstore and solitary reader, and place them smack dab in the middle of a major transportation network. Let counterculture information flow with the hustle and bustle of daily commuters. These drudges will read anything put before them while they wait for the tube. Such a captive audience would never read Burroughs (“Martin’s Folly”), Trocchi (“The Barbecue”), a brief snippet of “The Theatre and its Double”, a Sigma manifesto, “The Real Climate” by Kenneth White, and advertisements for counterculture bookstores and publications, like My Own Mag, on their own. Maybe, just, maybe something day-glo might seep into the grey matter of all these grey flannel suits.
But The Moving Times posters never made it into the subway platform. The posters, which were well-designed and large, were too expensive to produce. With its meager finances, Project Sigma could only print a few copies of the full-size poster as well as some in a smaller handbill size. I like to believe that the failure to disseminate the posters was not primarily financial, but a planned obsolescence. What counted was not the realization of the project but the gesture. The poster was not a flipping of the bird or a pointing of the way, but a secret handshake. It was never really meant for the tube; it was strictly meant for the underground. Exact numbers are not known, but the poster in both formats is scarce. Printed copies may have found their way onto the walls of art college students at the time or they got rolled up into tubes, stored away, and forgotten. Years later collectors, like me, got a hold of them. The Situationist idea of selling the revolution through the mass media is re-detourned by the art market into a fetishized collectible. Whip out your Benjamin and you can probably unpack the full meaning of having The Moving Times poster hanging in my media room for yourself. The poster has become too much a part of my own parasitical rituals for me to untangle its larger meanings. In my makeshift media room, the revolution of the 1960s has gone from being televised to being recycled on YouTube for consumption on a computer or iPhone. This is the current version of Wallace Berman’s transistor radio, playing not My Generation from a pirate radio station in 1965, but from a bootlegged mp3 of The Who which was ripped from a VHS tape copied off of an old TV program.
As for Swinging London, I was not there. And let’s face it even if I was, I probably would not have been a part of it. I like to think I would have at least been on the fringes. Sadly, I am the type of guy who stands on the platform minding the gap while the train of current events rushes on by. I am a trainspotter. The Moving Times poster is what I think of when I think of London in the summer of 1965. And as a Burroughs trainspotter, I get a charge out of the fact that Burroughs was a participant in, even catalyst of, that moment. What I love about Burroughs is that he was a part of all the historical moments of the post-WWII era that I am most interested in. He would be a Zelig-like character except for the fact that Burroughs is front and center in a portrait of the age, not on the edges of the frame.
Collecting and logging ephemera, like The Moving Times poster and other programs, tickets, handbill, flyers, advertisements, announcements, even more than books and magazines, lets me handle and get handle on a past (and even present) that I could (and would) never experience personally. Scraps of paper capture a moment in a unique and special way, because like these moments, they are themselves fragmented, transitory, disposable. For a collector, such ephemera becomes the object of fantasy and desire possessed, unlike that winking girl, an angel of history, who took her ticket to ride and copy of My Own Mag downtown on to Charing Cross Road.
I often wonder: Is collecting escapist? Is the personal library a land of Lotus-Easters? Maybe so, maybe not. I consider myself an apolitical guy, but is there possibly something engaged about building a library or archive? Are you not trying to place order on the world? Are you not constructing an alternative universe? Is this a utopia? Or at least an alternative institution? Occupy the NYPL!!! Defy Googlization!!!
A manifesto, I saw written in a bathroom stall at the Special Collections of the Columbia University Library:
Get your head out of the Cloud and ground yourself with the material object. Do not trust the image banks to preserve intellectual and cultural capital. They would be bankrupt without leveraging those assets to the highest bidder. Hit the bookstores and record shops. Dig in the crates and crypts. Get those assets away from the banks. Put them under your mattress and into your bookshelves. Stockpile the ammunition necessary to load your scanners. A well-stocked personal library is the Digital Revolution’s fallout shelter. My Bunker is lined not with spam but with the magazines that armed an earlier revolution. Pry Yourself Loose and Listen: They will take my mimeos out of my cold, dead hands. Up against the bookshelves, motherfucker!!!