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Untitled photo-collage (1953-56) by William Burroughs
Untitled photo-collage (1953-56) by William Burroughs

After you’ve read this article, grab a pair of scissors, cut it into pieces, then rearrange the scraps to create new paragraphs, sentences and meanings. If you are reading online, even better – just select chunks of text, copy and re-paste.

In a Paris hotel room in 1959, the writer William Burroughs was doing much the same thing with a stack of old newspapers when he switched to splicing lines of prose and poetry by Rimbaud and Shakespeare. Before long, the author of Naked Lunch was using what he called the “cut-up method” to write a trilogy of experimental novels. He also took his scissors to audio tape, photographs and film. Imagine the work and flesh wounds he could have avoided with today’s digital toolbox of apps, software and social media platforms that make cutting and recombining content as easy as right-clicking a mouse or tapping a touchscreen.

Burroughs’ pictorial cut-ups are one of the most striking features of a new exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London to mark next month’s centenary of his birth. Those familiar with Burroughs’ writing will recognise in his photography his ability to open up expanded planes of reality – a knack fuelled more by intellectual curiosity than by his infamous penchant for narcotics. (Norman Mailer once hailed him as “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius”.) But Burroughs’ experiments beyond the written word, with cameras and tape recorders, illustrate just how ambitious his cut-up project was – and also how prescient it has proved for a digital society in which the recombinant is often the norm. Widely regarded as the godfather of counterculture, one could argue Burroughs was also the godfather of today’s digital remix and mash-up cultures.

To test this idea, I visited the exhibition with Al Newman, who DJs and remixes under the name Al Fingers. As a mash-up artist, Newman combines pre-existing audio tracks to create something with more resonance than the sum of its parts. At its simplest – and often its most alchemic – this involves fusing the vocals from one track with the music from another. For example, one of Newman’s mash-ups blends Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” with roots reggae from Johnny Osbourne. Some DJs throw dozens of tracks into a mix. Others extend the practice to videos. Either way, mash-ups are one of the dominant digital art forms to have emerged out of online culture.

As we examine some of Burroughs’ photographic cut-ups and collages, we are stumped by their seeming randomness. Mash-ups, by contrast, require synchronicities of tempo and key. “If you just cut up songs and put them together randomly like that it wouldn’t work,” says Newman. “It would be more of a noise than a mash-up.”

Patricia Allmer, the show’s co-curator who is showing us around, says Burroughs’ juxtapositions are more deliberate than they first seem. Many images and motifs recur across different compositions – especially his photos of family and friends. He also used strategically placed mirrors to create simultaneous fragmentation and symmetry. As Burroughs himself explained to an interviewer, the assembly of cut-ups was a very deliberate process: “The selection and arrangement of materials is quite conscious but there is a random factor by which I obtain the material.”

This precision is partly what distinguishes both Burroughs’ cut-ups and modern-day digital mash-ups from the Dadaist and cubist collages that preceded them. Moreover, it was precision with intent: by rearranging different images, Burroughs sought to create new visual connections and establish new meanings. In an essay on display in the show, he wrote that the collage artists who came before him presented their work “as an art object – They did not develop the formula further . . . They did not see the collage as a silent language of juxtaposition.”

William Burroughs in Tangiers
William Burroughs in Tangiers by an unknown photographer

As with his literary cut-ups, Burroughs was searching for new truths that he believed could be unlocked in the rearrangement. “Shakespeare [and] Rimbaud live in their words,” he once wrote. “Cut the word lines and you will hear their voices. Cut ups often come through as code messages.”

This might sound like drug-induced mysticism, but there is a clear parallel with the mash-up DJ’s search for that which is latent in a song. “In a mash-up you can often hear things that you don’t hear in the original,” Newman explains. “Sometimes just the way a lyric is phrased – it might have been masked by a drumbeat in the original but becomes audible when you lay it over something more sparse.”

Other mash-up artists also stress the importance of awakening dormant elements. “Burroughs’ appeal for me personally was that he combined disparate elements through hidden similarities,” says Mark Vidler, the DJ behind “Rapture Riders”, which combines Blondie and The Doors and even cleared the barbed wire of copyright laws to secure an official release on EMI Records. Vidler, who is now part of a live audiovisual mash-up act called Addictive TV, adds: “It’s about discovering something special between two disparate elements that, when combined, make a unique third element.” Burroughs and his collaborator Brion Gysin named their 1977 treatise on the cut-up method The Third Mind.

Newman draws a comparison between mash-ups and the fortuitous accidents that resulted from Burroughs’ method. “Sometimes combining wildly different genres will somehow work. It’s often the things you’d least expect that turn out best,” he says. “You can see the similarity with what Burroughs was doing, but it’s a linkage rather than a direct influence.”

While mash-ups may owe more to hip-hop sampling and dance music remixes than they do to any art or literary movement, Burroughs’ impact on and involvement with pop culture generally suggests his foreshadowing of remixing and sampling was more than just a coincidence. As well as inspiring David Bowie’s cut-up lyrics, Burroughs’ many collaborations included a rap album with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

His collages incorporate pop culture, advertising and celebrities, but they also demonstrate his appreciation of what Allmer calls “the infinite reproduction of reproduction”. A display entitled “Infinity” comprises photographs of collages of photographs, forming what Burroughs described as a “collage of collage of collage to the Nth power”. Mash-ups of mash-ups, anyone? You heard it here first.

Mark Vidler with Graham Daniels in 2011
Mark Vidler with Graham Daniels in 2011

Burroughs also broke with earlier collagists by emphasising the democratising potential of recombinant art. “Any body can make cut ups,” he declared. Likewise, anybody armed with a computer can create a mash-up in their own bedroom. “It’s no coincidence that the appearance of mash-ups coincided with the advent of MP3, faster internet, illegal file-sharing and a general two-fingered salute to record companies and copyright issues,” says Vidler.

Kevin Allocca, head of culture and trends at YouTube, points out that hybrid user-consumers on social media platforms now demand the opportunity to engage with and transform bits of pop culture. “There’s no doubt that many of the best examples of mash-up work are natural successors to traditional collage and photomontage work,” he says. “But in this case, the artefacts are digital and they are imbued with the passion and life of the everyday people who shared them.”

But mash-up culture runs deeper than music remixes and YouTube videos. It is also a feature of the very technology that drives it: the programming and user interfaces that allow all of us to cut and share content between myriad social networks and apps – even if they are just photos of ourselves.

Today’s busy web pages have made us increasingly adept at registering, if not reading, different bits of text simultaneously – much as we would a photo collage. This illustrates a crucial point of departure between cut-ups and mash-ups. While the cut-up movement sought new meanings by exploding coherence and linear narratives, today’s digital mash-ups tie up the disparate noises and images on the web, forging connections and creating coherence. Indeed, one reason for their popularity is that mash-ups give listeners the hit of something familiar alongside something new. As Vidler puts it: “The listener is familiar with the source material but not the context of how they are hearing it in the mash-up.”

If Burroughs’ cut-ups presaged today’s digital remix culture, perhaps this is because mash-ups act as an antidote to an online reality that is already cut up into scraps – albeit with clicks instead of scissors.


‘Taking Shots: The Photography of William S Burroughs’, Photographers’ Gallery, London, to March 30. thephotographersgallery.org.uk
The associated book is published by Prestel

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