Brion Gysin (January 19, 1916 - July 13, 1986) was a painter, writer, sound poet, and performance artist born outside of London, Taplow, Buckinghamshire.
He is best known for his discovery of the cut-up technique used by William S. Burroughs.
With Ian Somerville he invented the Dreamachine, a flicker device designed as an art object to be viewed with the eyes closed. It was in painting, however, that Gysin devoted his greatest efforts, creating calligraphic works inspired by Japanese and Arabic scripts. Burroughs later stated that "Brion Gysin was the only man I ever respected.
John Clifford Brian Gysin was born at Taplow House, England, a Canadian military hospital. His mother, Stella Margaret Martin, was a Canadian from Deseronto, Ontario. Leonard Gysin, a captain with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was killed in action eight months after his son's birth. Stella returned to Canada and settled in Edmonton
where her son became "the only Catholic day-boy at an Anglican boarding school. Graduating at fifteen, Gysin was sent to Downside in Bristol, England, a prestigious college known as "the Eton of Catholic public schools" run by the Benedictines.
In 1934, he moved to Paris to study La Civilisation Française
, an open course given at the Sorbonne
where he made literary and artistic contacts through Marie Berthe Aurauche, Max Ernst
's first wife. He joined the Surrealist Group and began associating with Valentine Hugo
, Leonor Fini
, Salvador Dalí
and Dora Maar
. A year later, he had his first exhibition at the Galerie Quatre Chemins
in Paris with Ernst, Picasso, Hans Arp
, Hans Bellmer
, Victor Brauner
, Giorgio de Chirico
, Dalí, Marcel Duchamp
, René Magritte
, Man Ray
and Yves Tanguy
. On the day of the preview, however, he was expelled from the Surrealist Group by André Breton
who ordered the poet Paul Eluard
to take down his pictures. Gysin was 19 years old. His biographer, John Geiger, suggests the arbitrary expulsion "had the effect of a curse. Years later, he blamed other failures on the Breton incident. It gave rise to conspiracy theories about the powerful interests who seek control of the art world. He gave various explanations for the expulsion, the more elaborate involving 'insubordination' or lèse majesté
After serving in the U.S. army during WWII, Gysin published a biography of Josiah "Uncle Tom" Henson titled, To Master a Long Goodnight: The History of Slavery in Canada
(1946). A gifted draughtsman, he took an 18-month course in Japanese language studies and calligraphy that would greatly influence his artwork. In 1949, he was among the first Fulbright Fellows. His goal: to research the history of slavery at the University of Bordeaux and in the Archivos de India in Seville, Spain, a project that he later abandoned. He moved to Tangier
, Morocco after visiting the city with novelist and composer Paul Bowles
Morocco and the Beat Hotel
In Tangier, Gysin co-founded with Mohamed Hamri
a restaurant called "The 1001 Nights" with the Master Musicians of Joujouka
from the village of Jajouka. The musicians performed there for an international clientèle that included William S. Burroughs
. Losing the business in 1958 , he returned to live in Paris, taking lodgings in a flophouse located at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur that would become famous as the Beat Hotel
. Working on a drawing, he discovered a Dada
technique by accident:
William Burroughs and I first went into techniques of writing, together, back in room No. 15 of the Beat Hotel during the cold Paris spring of 1958... Burroughs was more intent
on Scotch-taping his photos together into one great continuum on the wall, where scenes faded and slipped into one another, than occupied with editing the monster manuscript... Naked Lunch appeared and Burroughs disappeared. He kicked his habit with apomorphine and flew off to London to see Dr Dent, who had first turned him on to the cure. While cutting a mount for a drawing in room No. 15, I sliced through a pile of newspapers with my Stanley blade and thought of what I had said to Burroughs some six months earlier about the necessity for turning painters' techniques directly into writing. I picked up the raw words and began to piece together texts that later appeared as "First Cut-Ups" in Minutes to Go.
When Burroughs returned from London in September 1959, Gysin not only shared his discovery with his friend but the new techniques he had developed for it. Burroughs then put the techniques to use while completing Naked Lunch and the experiment dramatically changed the landscape of American literature. Gysin helped Burroughs with the editing of several of his novels including Interzone, and wrote a script for a film version of Naked Lunch which was never produced. The pair collaborated on a large manuscript for Grove Press titled The Third Mind but it was determined that it would be impractical to publish it as originally envisioned. The book later published under that title incorporates little of this material. Interviewed for The Guardian in 1997, Burroughs explained that Gysin was "the only man that I've ever respected in my life. I've admired people, I've liked them, but he's the only man I've ever respected." In 1969, Gysin completed his finest novel, The Process, a work judged by critic Robert Palmer as "a classic of 20th Century modernism.
A consummate innovator, Gysin altered the cut-up technique to produce what he called permutation poems in which a single phrase was repeated several times with the words rearranged in a different order with each reiteration. An example of this is "I don't dig work, man/Man, work I don't dig." Many of these permutations were derived using a random sequence generator in an early computer program written by Ian Sommerville. Commissioned by the BBC in 1960 to produce material for broadcast, Gysin's results included "Pistol Poem", which was created by recording a gun firing at different distances and then splicing the sounds. That year, the piece was subsequently used as a theme for the Paris performance of Le Domaine Poetique, a showcase for experimental works by people like Gysin, François Dufrêne, Bernard Heidsieck, and Henri Chopin.
With Sommerville, he built the Dreamachine in 1961. Described as "the first art object to be seen with the eyes closed," the flicker device uses alpha waves in the 8-16 Hz range to produce a change of consciousness in receptive viewers.
He also worked extensively with noted jazz
soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy
As a joke, Gysin contributed a recipe for marijuana fudge to a cookbook by Alice B. Toklas; it was unintentionally included for publication, becoming famous under the name Alice B. Toklas brownies.
A heavily edited version of his novel, The Last Museum, was published posthumously in 1986 by Faber & Faber (London) and by Grove Press (New York).
Made an American Commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters in 1985, Gysin died a year later of lung cancer on July 13, 1986. An obituary by Robert Palmer published in the New York Times fittingly described him as a man who "threw off the sort of ideas that ordinary artists would parlay into a lifetime career, great clumps of ideas, as casually as a locomotive throws off sparks."
Burroughs on the Gysin Cut-up
In a 1966 interview by Conrad Knickerbocker for The Paris Review
, William S. Burroughs explained that Brion Gysin was, to his knowledge, "the first to create cut-ups."
INTERVIEWER: How did you become interested in the cut-up technique?
BURROUGHS: A friend, Brion Gysin, an American poet and painter, who has lived in Europe for thirty years, was, as far as I know, the first to create cut-ups. His cut-up poem, Minutes to Go, was broadcast by the BBC and later published in a pamphlet. I was in Paris in the summer of 1960; this was after the publication there of Naked Lunch. I became interested in the possibilities of this technique, and I began experimenting myself. Of course, when you think of it, The Waste Land was the first great cut-up collage, and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines. Dos Passos used the same idea in 'The Camera Eye' sequences in USA. I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done.
Gysin's wide range of radical ideas became a source of inspiration for Beat Generation
artists and their successors such as David Bowie
, Keith Haring
, Brian Jones
, Mick Jagger
, Genesis P. Orridge
, Iggy Pop
, and Laurie Anderson
- : "Writing is fifty years behind painting."
- : "I enjoy inventing things out of fun. After all, life is a game, not a career."
- : "I view life as a fortuitous collaboration ascribable to the fact that one finds oneself at the right place at the same time.
- : "The Way Is Nor This Nor That."
- : "Writers don't own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody? 'Your very own words,' indeed! And who are you?"
- - 'Cut-Ups Self-Explained' in Brion Gysin Let the Mice In
- : "I may write only what I know in space: I am that I am."
- - Notes on Painting
- : "He covered tons of paper with his words and made them his very own words... he branded them like cattle he rustled out there on the free ranges of Literature... Used by another writer who was attempting cut-ups, one single word of Burroughs vocabulary could ruin a whole barrel of good everyday words, run the literary rot right through them. One sniff of that prose and you'd say, 'Why, that's a Burroughs."
- - on the prose of William S. Burroughs in Here to Go: Planet R-101 (Interviews with Terry Wilson)
- : "Of course the sands of Present Time are running out from under our feet. And why not? The Great Conundrum: 'What are we here for?' is all that ever held us here in the first place. Fear. The answer to the Riddle of the Ages has actually been out in the street since the First Step in Space. Who runs may read but few people run fast enough. What are we here for? Does the great metaphysical nut revolve around that? Well, I'll crack it for you, right now. What are we here for? We are here to go!"
- - The Process
- : "Language is an abominable misunderstanding which makes up a part of matter. The painters and the physicists have treated matter pretty well. The poets have hardly touched it. In March 1958, when I was living at the Beat Hotel, I proposed to Burroughs to at least make available to literature the means that painters have been using for fifty years. Cut words into pieces and scramble them. You'll hear someone draw a bow-string. Who runs may read, To read better, practice your running. Speed is entirely up to us, since machines have delivered us from the horse. Henceforth the question is to deliver us from that other so-called superior animal, man. It's not worth it to chase out the merchants: their temple is dedicated to the unsuitable lie of the value of the Unique. The crime of separation gave birth to the idea of the Unique which would not be separate. In painting, matter has seen everything: from sand to stuffed goats. Disfigured more and more, the image has been geometrically multiplied to a dizzying degree. A snow of advertising could fall from the sky, and only collector babies and the chimpanzees who make abstract paintings would bother to pick one up."
- - Cut-Ups: A Project for Disastrous Success
Gysin is the subject of John Geiger's acclaimed biography, Nothing Is True Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin
, and features in Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light and the Dream Machine
, also by Geiger. Man From Nowhere: Storming the Citadels of Enlightenment with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin
, a biographical study of Burroughs and Gysin with a collection of homages to Gysin, was authored by Joe Ambrose, Frank Rynne
, and Terry Wilson with contributions by Marianne Faithfull
, John Cale
, William S. Burroughs
, John Giorno
, Stanley Booth
, Bill Laswell
, Mohamed Hamri
, Keith Haring
and Paul Bowles
. A monograph on Gysin was published in 2003 by Thames and Hudson.
- To Master A Long Goodnight: The History of Slavery in Canada (1946)
- Minutes to Go (1960)
- The Exterminator (1960)
- The Process (1969)
- Brion Gysin Let The Mice In (1973)
- The Third Mind (1978)
- Here To Go: Planet R-101 (first published 1982)
- Stories (1984)
- The Last Museum (1985)
- Pistol Poem (1960)
- Permutations (1960)
- I Am (1960)
- No Poets (1962)
- Junk is No Good Baby (1962)
- Les deux faux interlocuteurs, Gradiva Rediviva Zoe Bertgang, and Signe dans le paysage (Surrealist ink drawings, 1935)
- Sahara Sand (1958)
- The Songs of Marrakech (1959)
- Unit II pink, Unit III yellow, Unit IV orange, Unit V blue ((1961)
- Francis in the Beat Hotel (1962)
- For a Stained-Glass Window in Rheims (1963)
- Roller Poem (1971)
- Calligraffiti of Fire (1986)
- Gysin, Brion. To Master A Long Goodnight: The History of Slavery in Canada. New York: Creative Age Press, 1946.
- —. Minutes to Go (with William S. Burroughs). Paris: Two Cities Editions, 1960.
- —. The Exterminator (with William S. Burroughs) San Francisco: Auerhahn Press, 1960.
- —. The Process. New York: Doubleday, 1969. New York: Overlook Press, 1987.
- —. Brion Gysin Let The Mice In (with William S. Burroughs & Ian Sommerville). Ed. Jan Herman. Vermont: Something Else Press, 1973.
- —. The Third Mind (with William S. Burroughs). New York: Viking, 1978.
- —. Here To Go: Planet R-101. Interviews with Terry Wilson. London: Quartet Books, 1982. London: Creation Books, 2003.
- —. Stories. Oakland: Inkblot Publications, 1984.
- —. The Last Museum. New York: Grove Press , 1986.
- —. Who Runs May Read. Oakland/Brisbane: Inkblot/Xochi, 2000.
- —. Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader. Ed. Jason Weiss. Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
- Kuri, José Férez, ed. Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003. ISBN 0-500-28438-5
- Geiger, John. Nothing Is True Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin. Disinformation Company, 2005. ISBN 1932857125
- Geiger, John. Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light and the Dream Machine. Soft Skull Press, 2003.
- Ambrose, Joe, Frank Rynne, and Terry Wilson. Man From Nowhere: Storming the Citadels of Enlightenment with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Williamsburg: Autonomedia, 1992
- Vale, V. William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Throbbing Gristle. San Francisco: V/Search, 1982. ISBN 09650469-1-5