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Cut-Ups, Cut-Ins, Cut-Outs: The Art of William S. Burroughs

The author in Vienna

Everybody who is familiar with the corpus of the controversial Beat Generation-icon William S. Burroughs would agree, that exhibiting his fine art works in a mainstream museum is an act of contradiction itself. For the main intentions of this notorious and excessive writer were to scramble and deconstruct the mechanisms of pure profit-oriented art institutions, which by now celebrate a rebirth of the freethinking American way of life. Although Burroughs’ innovative cut-ups, shotgun paintings and tape experiments cover a big diversity of different media, having influenced wide areas of pop culture, music, and techniques of digital sampling, it seems rather an act of economical opportunism to exhibit this radical thinker in the biggest continuous open-air museum areal of Europe, namely the Museumsquartier Wien (Vienna, Austria).

The exhibition, which goes by the name of Cut-ups, Cut-ins and Cut-outs. The Art of William S. Burroughs and which can be visited until the 15th of October in the Kunsthalle Wien – one of the numerous museum halls of the Museumsquartier-areal – presents a complex variety of fine art works, from his innovative shotgun paintings (The Curse of Bast, 1987; 45 Long Colt 5 Shots, 1992) and text-image collages (Untitled, 1956; Don’t Take Me for Dumber …, 1988) up to collaborative works with his life-long friend Brion Gysin (Danger, 1959). Walking through the exhibition halls feel like an act of consumer stress, for the linear walls and symmetrically arranged rooms remind one of an art supermarket rather than what Beat and Punk aficionados are used to.

In our present times of controlled societies and trash language-saturation it is more than ever before necessary to understand and implement the subversive mechanisms of cutting up medial information and rearranging them in an individual order, which allows the human mind to think and interact on a natural level of will and authenticity. Burroughs’ text-image-collages and photo montages exhibited in Vienna mirror this genuine operating procedure and make us believe in the creative energy of counteracting to the mainstream media information, which was best demonstrated by the recent web-guerilla networking of Anonymous, Occupy or Wikileaks. This experimental form of thought mutation and cross-breeding, which the unique presentation form of Newtopia Magazine also implies, allows thinkers, artists and activists to make use of new possibilities, theories, analysis and solutions, which were also elaborated by the revolutionary intellectual Burroughs some decades ago. The text and images which he intuitively strung together to form open associative narrative structures in order to expand the boundaries of language and describe the distorted human consciousness of the modern individual are a symbolic mirroring of the critical mind and genius of a thinker, who 42 years ago predicted the “Electronic Revolution” with all its major impacts on modern society. With the daily increasing information-flood, our perception has radically changed and is now pining for words, ideas and feelings that bring us back to a bedrock of immediacy and instinctiveness. Sometimes, art institutions peripherally or by chance touch this state of mind, and when done so it is a pure pleasure to create an autonomous space inside the encrusted structures of the art market. Maybe the times changed so radically, that even mainstream art criticism becomes interested in the former subversive movements from different areas of art, science and culture. Today’s curators and collectors seem to control most of the creative energies and independencies, which emerge in the underground retreats, pushing even the most independent artists and intellectuals into commercial exploitation. The result is mostly an eclectic disturbance of form and content, which even the most successful contemporaries can’t sell or exhibit as authentic or valuable. In the case of William S. Burroughs, it is more than likely to find patterns of representation and creative energies, which can only be defined as provocative and still up-to-date.

Maybe the role of the artist as critical thinker and counteracting revolutionary has finally declined into a featureless nexus, where the forms of representation and active marketing measures become more and more decisive in the process of artistic creation itself. Burroughs still fascinates the public after all these years mainly because of his image as an addicted to drugs who inadvertently shot his wife in a bizarre William Tell act, and because of his homosexuality and enthusiasm for firearms, rather than being the inventor of a new form of writing: the cut-up method.

Cut-ups, cut-ins or cut-outs – it’s probably cool to play by the rule, as long as you somehow fit into the patterns of the creative industries, which not only determine our taste and art consumption behavior, but also control the individual energies of our everyday life. But as Burroughs brilliantly suggested: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted!”

Article written by author, activist and filmmaker Tilman Otto Wagner


One thought on “Cut-Ups, Cut-Ins, Cut-Outs: The Art of William S. Burroughs

  1. Loved the column and am spreading it around. Just one footnote to add: “Nothing is permitted, everything is true” is a comment Burroughs got from Hassan ibn Sabbah, the original hash-assassin, fighting against the Seljuk Empire in 11th-century Iran, attributed to him in “Alamut,” a novel written in 1938 in Slovenian. The extensive use of the quote by Burroughs has definitely associated it more to him and his work, but when asked about it Burroughs would explain the source of the original quotation and credit Hassan ibn Sabbah.

    Posted by Randy Roark | October 15, 2012, 9:11 am

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