Brion Gysin let the mice in


Brion Gysin—autoportrait (1935).

“A shaman to me is always a pansexual being,” says the gay Canadian filmmaker. “These guys all came out of that period where queer was really hardcore, it was part of their radical art — and of course it was illegal.” (more)

The filmmaker in question is Nik Sheehan discussing FLicKeR, his 2007 documentary about artist and writer Brion Gysin. Sheehan’s film is available for viewing at Ubuweb although I haven’t got round to watching it yet so I can’t say much about it. (Reality Studio has a review.) Gysin’s life and work is certainly worthy of study, however, his art and writing—which encompassed novels and experimental poetry—often having been overshadowed by his close association with William Burroughs. He gets a raw deal in Ted Morgan’s curiously bad-tempered biography of Burroughs, for example, despite having given his co-conspirator the cut-up technique, collaborated with him on The Third Mind, and so on. FLicKeR‘s title refers to Gysin’s Dreamachine, the first sculpture which needs to be experienced with the eyes closed, being a homemade hallucination engine which works by flickering light and shadow at a rapid rate on the closed eyelids. I made some Dreamachines of my own in the mid-1980s by carefully studying photos in RE/Search #4/5, and they certainly do work. It’s a shame that 78rpm record players are more difficult to find than they used to be since the original template devised by Gysin and Ian Sommerville needs a high speed in order to create the optimum flicker rate. As you might expect, various psychonauts have since created their own variations such as this one for a 45rpm player.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the New Museum in NYC is staging the first US retrospective of Gysin’s work, an exhibition which they happen to call Dream Machine, and which opens on July 7th. The New York Times ran a piece about Gysin in advance of that. Ubuweb has further Gysin materials, such as this Burroughs piece about Gysin’s invention of the cut-up method, and some recordings of the permutated poems. Finally, if you’re wondering about the title of the post, it’s a reference to this.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Burroughs: The Movie
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
Emil Cadoo
The Great God Pan
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

4 thoughts on “Brion Gysin let the mice in”

  1. I’ve always had peculiar good luck with Gysin books – we had an excellent remaindered bookshop in Northampton for a while in the 80s/90s whose magnificently bald owner used to make a point of stocking OOP Calder editions of WSB and whatever Crowley he could find, and he had big piles of The Last Museum and The Process for quite some time.

    Not long after I found those I stumbled across an anthology of concrete poetry in a second-hand bookshop (back in the heady days when we had such things). When I got it home I found Gysin and Ian Sommerville inside.

    Then years later I picked the nearest bookshop in Hay to get out of the rain and they had two lovely art books, one on WSB and one on Gysin (Tuning into the Multimedia Age). After only seeing the occasional Gysin reproduction in RE/Search and such for years, that was a genuine treat.

    I had to spend a chunk to get a copy of Minutes To Go, but that was balanced by the savings on everything else. And that’s more of a fetish object than anything else, if I’m honest.

    And that’s the fascinating story of how I bought most of my Gysin books. Back when I was first getting into WSB and his world, I couldn’t imagine owning or even finding any of them.

  2. I wonder how much Alan Moore’s presence was responsible for some of that stock?

    Our best shop in Manchester for Calder books, Picador titles and related matter was Percival’s which closed in the late 1980s. The Savoy shops when they were still going had all the RE/Search titles, fortunately. All that’s left now is two branches of Waterstone’s, one of which is so bland and hollowed out I wonder why HMV bother keeping it open.

  3. I’m sure Alan must have been in there but I remember him telling me around that time that he was getting his Burroughs fixes from one Iain Sinclair in London. That was particularly useful because I was able to trump my then-teacher’s recommendation of Hawksmoor with White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings.

    Definitely a golden age for the town as you could take a three-minute stroll from that place down to Occultique and blow your giro the day you got it.

    Our Waterstone’s is at least enlivened by Dodgem Logic, which they usually show off quite prominently. Haven’t checked for your cover around town yet, actually, but the town is having an expressive turn at the moment with our new fountain, flower displays and enormous hand-painted lions everywhere, so it ought to fit right in.

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