Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the New Museum in New York City is the first US retrospective show of the Beat multimedia pioneer. I have yet to see the show, so I’ll save a review of it until that time. For me, Gysin is a major figure in the history of the theory and practice of copying and it’s great to see him getting attention via this show, Nik Sheehan’s excellent documentary Flicker, and John Geiger’s recent biography, Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted and the collection Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age.
Most of Gysin’s work involves the exploration of the power of repetition – sound poems like “I Am What I Am”, the large paintings with their waves of script, the light loops of the Dream Machine. The cut up, which Gysin invented according to William S. Burroughs, is not just the act of cutting up a text, but the repeated attempt to reconfigure and rearrange the fragments through permutation into a new whole which speaks the hidden truth contained in the original.
While it’s clear that the cut up has a long history in art, Gysin, along with Burroughs, may well have been the first to explictly claim that this practice exposed the nature of reality itself: that reality is “nothing but the recordings”. Gysin claimed that the idea of the cut up came to him in Tangier, where he was running a nightclub and discovered one day that disgruntled employees had placed a spell on the restaurant in the form of an object with a text and various magical substances mixed together.
One of the core claims of In Praise of Copying is that all copies are “objects made out of fragments of other objects”, and since indeed all objects are “made of out of fragments of other objects”, everything is, in a specific sense, a copy. While I take this insight in the direction of Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy, which makes this argument in a very rigorous and disciplined way, I think I first became familiar with it from early Industrial musicians such as Cabaret Voltaire, writers such as Burroughs and John Giorno, the turntablist experiments of early hip-hop — and Gysin, who I saw in England in the early 1980s.
The aesthetic practice of collage, montage, cut up, has mostly been absorbed into the fabric of contemporary capitalism, where Dell’s post industrial assembly line will build you a computer that is a montage of Your Choices. But the fundamental emptiness of everything that Gysin and others intuited through the practice of the cut up (which is mistaken today for a fascination with “multimedia” — another reification) remains in some sense the political problem today. It raises the question for example of property including intellectual property. For a few years in the 1960s, the art object dematerialized (as Lucy Lippold puts it). But the commodity didn’t. We don’t know how to talk about emptiness, or how to live in a universe which is an assemblage of temporary fragments. Gysin, Burroughs, Giorno and those who worked through the cut up were trying to understand how best to relate to, align ourselves with this emptiness. That’s still a work in progress …