Brion Gysin (January 19, 1916 – July 13, 1986) was a painter, writer, sound poet, and performance artist born in 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. His father, 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, Alberta 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 frequenting Valentine Hugo, Leonor Fini, Salvador Dalí, Picasso 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 Éluard 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 towards Breton.”
After serving in the U.S. army during World War II, 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 in 1950.
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.”
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, Laurie Anderson, Malay Roy Choudhury, and Into A Circle.