Taking Shots: the Photography of William S. Burroughs – Exhibition, The Photographers’ Gallery, London (7th Jan – 30th Mar 2014)
Beyond the Cut-up: William S. Burroughs and the Image – Conference, The Photographers’ Gallery, London (15th Feb 2014)
‘the way things are assembled is what makes them interesting’
The Photographer’s Gallery in London, tucked away in an unassuming alley off Oxford Street, is currently showing a fascinating selection of William Burroughs’ photographs. On February 15th, the Gallery hosted a conference in conjunction with the exhibition, entitled Beyond the Cut-Up: William S. Burroughs and the Image. Although the rather dry and formulaic conference format seemed to jar slightly with the placement of Burroughs as an experimental, artistic figure, the ideas explored throughout the day were nonetheless interesting and often important in the context of Burroughs studies, performance art, photography, curatorial practices, and archival research. Significantly, the conference took place on the floor below the exhibition, enabling delegates to enjoy the rare opportunity to view Burroughs’ photographical exploits not just in the context of his written work but also against the intellectual backdrop of a range of recent scholarship.
It is, of course, well-known that cut-ups and collage were an experimental infatuation for Burroughs, occupying his time and his thinking for long periods, particularly during the 1960s. In addition to cut-up texts, he also experimented extensively with photography and with photo-collages, or ‘collage concentrates’. These, in his view, were the logical – and, indeed, requisite – extension of the Surrealist collages of the 1920s, which, he felt, had not developed the formula far enough. Burroughs’ photo-collages are energetic, sometimes sinister, and often effective – and although they are rarely as ‘spectacular’ as he enthusiastically promised Brion Gysin they would be, they are certainly fascinating, particularly, as noted above, when viewed in relation to his writing. He acknowledged that he applied to his writing the techniques he used to make the photo-collages, and, in more than just the obvious ways, this assertion is borne out by his written explorations of time travel, his understanding of the word as image, and in what he called his ‘mood concentrates’, which feature particularly in certain of the more ethereal passages in The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded.
The exhibition features a selection of small-scale photo-collages, a couple of which, made with Ian Sommerville in Tangier in 1964, intriguingly evoke Carlo Carrà’s 1914 collage-painting Interventionist Manifesto. In addition to the collages are photographic portraits of friends including Ginsberg, Kerouac, Barry Miles and John Brady; a series of pictures taken in the aftermath of a car accident in New York; photos of pylons against the Gibraltar landscape; a dispiriting-looking St. Louis captured during a visit in 1964; a series of images showing a pre- and post-coital red-quilted bed; a series of photos also taken in Tangier in 1964 featuring kitchen utensils, a cup of tea, an alarm clock and a compass (entitled ‘Real English Tea Made Here’); and several photographs taken in London, including a couple of the Moka Bar, upon which Burroughs famously launched a ‘multimedia attack’ – apparently out of vengeance for its ‘outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake’ – photographing and recording footage of the cafe until it went out of business. One of the exhibition’s many triumphs is its success in conveying a genuine sense of Burroughs as a person – rather than specifically as a writer or even a photographer. By contrast, the concurrent exhibitions of photographs by the equally charismatic David Lynch and Andy Warhol feel rather flat, adding little to what we as viewers feel we may or may not know about them already. Burroughs’ keen sense of humour (which is often overlooked by readers sombrely mining his texts for meaning) is very much in evidence in many of the photographs selected for the exhibition, as is his desire to materially engage with things that many people would view abstractly. The photographs also indicate his intellectual curiosity and leftfield approach to living, as well as his tendency to obsessively re-examine (here, to re-photograph) particular fragments of his own life, ever-attuned to possible conspiracies or paranormal phenomena. Also featured in the exhibition is a selection of related ephemera, amongst which the most noteworthy is Burroughs’ 1965 Time cut-up, a copy of his 1963 essay ‘The Photo Collage’, and a couple of his mother Laura Lee Burroughs’ books on flower arranging, published during the early 1940s. The inclusion of the latter items, from which the quotation at the start of this piece is taken, subtly indicate a fascinating contiguity with his mother’s own work, in the sense that both relied upon the skilful combination of creative impulse and mathematical precision. Furthermore, the deliberate inclusion of Laura’s books in the exhibition also serves to remind viewers that, to borrow from the Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan, Burroughs was very much ‘his mother’s son’. In other words, his bourgeois origins remained significant to his work, both in spite and because of his distaste for them.
As Professor Oliver Harris explained, during his characteristically erudite and entertaining plenary talk, Burroughs’ vitriolic counter-attack through cut-ups on the idea of the ‘American Century’ and Henry Luce’s media empire (Time, Life and Fortune) was rendered all the more powerful precisely because of his own establishment roots. Harris illustrated this key duality in Burroughs’ persona by exploring his famous proclivity for hats, suggesting that Burroughs’ hat of choice (typically a fedora or trilby) nodded simultaneously to criminal underworlds and conservative professions, evoking both gangsters and bankers, mean streets and manners. Harris acknowledged that many readers find it all too easy to mock the results of Burroughs’ experimentation with cut-ups as simplistic or even simple-minded. However, drawing on his recent archival research, Harris made clear that the vision behind Burroughs’ post-Naked Lunch project was essentially a strategic – almost ritualistic – act of revenge, and that contrary to popular assumption there was actually very little that was abstract or impulsive about the cut-ups. They were, rather, a deliberate attempt to undermine the prevailing imperialist and capitalist thinking of mid-century America, to which Burroughs was implacably opposed. Originally calling the cut-up method ‘newspeak poetry’, Harris revealed, Burroughs seems to have identified himself as an American Orwell – a Winston Smith figure, treating history as paper and cutting it up. The title Nova Express, for instance, particularly for British readers familiar with tabloids such as the Daily Express, clearly sets itself up as a form of alternative reportage or, indeed, news of a different reality.
The cut-up method was discovered, or invented, following Burroughs’ meeting with two Life journalists – as he returned to the Beat Hotel his collaborator and co-inventor of the technique, Brion Gysin, was already cutting through a pile of magazines and newspapers which included, of course, Life magazine. Harris explained that before Burroughs himself had ever taken the scissors or box-cutter to Life or Time, however, the magazines had themselves been cutting up and folding in the Beats, aggressively (it seemed to Burroughs) interrupting any coverage given to them with an abundance of garish and often pointed advertisements (cough medicine advertisements next to statements about Burroughs’ drug use for instance). The intention, Burroughs believed, was to use a strategy more insidious than mere verbal put-downs to mock, to ridicule, and to attempt to dominate Beat lifestyles and philosophies, and, further, to set a global standard in doing so. Whether or not this was the case, Burroughs felt that reality was produced through such juxtapositions, and consequently, as Harris expounded, the cut-up method was an attempt to force Luce’s hand, to bring the magazines’ strategy out into the open, and ultimately to compel him (and others like him, including Lord Beaverbrook and the Hearst family) to ‘pay it all back’.
The first panel focussed on the physicality of Burroughs’ work. Robert W. Jones, from the University of Leicester, took over from Harris with a spirited talk exploring ‘visceral communication’ in Burroughs. Drawing on the theories of Wilhelm Reich, Vladimir Gavreau, Alexander Korzybski and William Grey Walter, Jones considered the notion that Burroughs was a ‘philosopher of the body’, using it as a tool with which to identify and subvert control mechanisms. Luna Dolezal’s discussion of Breyer Genesis P-Orridge’s ‘Pandrogeny Project’ illustrated how these ideas can be followed to their literal conclusions, in the form of post-human performance art, whereby two people sought to create a third being by surgically modifying their own bodies. However, as Dolezal explained, the emancipatory potential of the cut-ups for both reader and author is necessarily constrained by the limits of gender, of performance, of identity, and of sheer physicality: identicalness, she concluded, cannot ultimately overcome separateness. Mark Jackson discussed the haptic qualities of his images in relation to the art of David Burrows. Of particular note was his analysis of Burroughs’ 1982 shotgun painting ‘Sore Shoulder’, in which he showed that the artwork’s distinctive features are deciphered physically. He observed that the piece is named after the effect on the artist of making it, rather than, as would be more logical, on the violent effects of the bullets on the wood. The ‘sore shoulder’ is itself missing from the display, enacting Burrows’ notion of the haptic as being ‘about the collapse of vision’.
Vision was a central theme during the next three papers. David Brittain, from Manchester Metropolitan University, explored the premise that Burroughs treated photographs as components of a much wider picture (as opposed to the Modernists, for instance, who viewed them as wholly independent works of art). Discussing contemporary internet-based photography practices (which, he argued, owe much to Burroughs’ notion of the image as a causal link), he observed that the absence of discernible sequence compels the viewer to partake in a form of memory game. This is, of course, by now a familiar theory in the context of the cut-up texts, but it was interesting to see that it equally applies to photography – both Burroughs’ own and that of later artists. Rob Coley and Dean Lockwood, of the University of Lincoln, considered Burroughs the photographer as a vessel of communication, with Brion Gysin as a sort of shaman, drawing on Burroughs’ own suggestion that he had ‘no past life at all being a notorious plant or “intrusion” if you prefer the archaeological word for an “intruded” artefact’. Exploring the idea that photography enables intersection with an ‘inhuman outside’, they posited the notion that Burroughs weaponized himself as a medium. Diana Hamilton, finally, from Cornell University, grappled with concepts relating to Burroughs’ style and his ambivalent approach to image-making, visual or otherwise. Touching on a range of ideas and examples, most notably incidences of Eliot’s The Waste Land in Burroughs’ cut-up texts and the dashes that prevent separate phrases from coming together, Hamilton explored the ways in which writing relates to other media, suggesting a commonality rather than an interdependence.
The final panel saw Edward S. Robinson and Henry K. Miller discuss Burroughs’ 1970s multimedia experiments and Burroughs and Antony Balch’s place within British avant-garde film culture respectively. Robinson addressed the ‘minor’ (often collaborative) texts which bridged the significant phases of Burroughs’ career, including The Book of Breeething (1974, with Robert F. Gale) and Ah Pook is Here (1979, with Malcom Mc Neill), illustrating the importance of such works to our understanding of Burroughs’ developing theories around language and explaining the insurmountable difficulties he experienced when trying to publish multimedia texts. Nevertheless, these texts remain crucial developments in the cut-up technique, representing significant progress toward the comprehensive dismantling of the word. Miller concluded the session by recontextualizing the contribution of Burroughs and Balch within British underground film culture during the 1960s, illustrating the influence that their work had on seminal filmmakers of the period, including Peter Whitehead and Jeff Keen.
Allen Fisher, Emeritus Professor of Poetry and Art at Manchester Metropolitan University, drew proceedings to a close with a contemplative talk on the use of damage and repair in art, and in the processes of collage. Focussing on Burroughs’ newspaper-style cut-ups, he highlighted the importance of damage in conveying a sense of urgency, of rawness – of desire to get the message or idea out there. By way of example, he showed the audience before-and-after texts including APO-33, The Last Post, TIME, and The Dead Star, which, in their original state, often appeared damaged or constructively besmirched by last-minute corrections. Arguing that Burroughs used damage to reconstruct consciousness and to perpetuate a sense of urgency, Fisher demonstrated that reproductions of the original texts listed above often lose qualities of immediacy or spontaneity once the signifiers of damage and repair are removed.
As mentioned above, the traditional conference format feels unsuited to Burroughs as a radical artist and writer, but the contributors to this conference were nonetheless lively and knowledgeable, demonstrating a comprehensive flair for lateral thinking and creative scholarship, and engaging equally well with texts and with ideas. Perhaps the most important aspect of the conference was its demonstration of the sheer wealth of ideas that Burroughs’ work generates. Collectively, participants (including speakers and contributors from the floor) touched on an astonishingly wide range of subjects, including (among many other things) plastic surgery, curatorial methods, French, Japanese and American photography, British filmmaking, media practices, dress codes, Modernist poetry, 20th century politics, transcendence, time travel, and haptic imagery.
What this tells us is not that Burroughs was some kind of prophet, or even that he was a map-maker for the 20th and 21st centuries – it is, rather, an indication that he had a way of understanding and reporting on the world which remains accurate and incisive and relevant. The wealth of scholarship that his work continues to generate is testament to the difficulties inherent in deciphering it but also to its universal qualities – there is something in it for almost everyone.
Burroughs, Laura Lee. Flower Arranging: a Fascinating Hobby (Volume Three).The Coca-Cola Company, 1942.
Burroughs, William. Nova Express. London: Grove Press, 1964.
Harris, Oliver. The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959. New York: Viking Penguin, 1993.
Morgan, Bill. Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974. London: Penguin, 2012.
O’Hagan, Sean. ‘The Americans are Coming’. Guardian, 19 January 2014.
O’Neill, Paul. ‘Sad but Noisy Rebels’. Life, 30 November 1959.