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Jay Murphy reflects on the photography of William S Burroughs

William S Burroughs wrote stunning and often experimental novels, including the initially banned Naked Lunch, 1959, followed by the scintillating Nova Trilogy, 1961-4—and had a mainline influence through alternative and pop culture, especially through music, that is difficult to match. A collaborator with Kurt Cobain, Laurie Anderson, Sonic Youth, Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV, Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, Ministry and others, Burroughs’ writing was a direct progenitor of David Bowie’s lyrics—the musician used his ‘cut-up’ method from time to time and at least one song on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street borrows the technique.

Already lauded in his lifetime as a counterculture éminence grise and godfather of punk, today Burroughs proves an even more formidable figure, only a little less likely to show up on Facebook timelines than Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot. Some of the challenges of Burroughs’ legacy, that ranges from philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s descriptions of the ‘societies of control’ to the songs of Bikini Kill, usefully haunt this collection of Burroughs’ photographs, most gathered from widely scattered collections and shown in public for the first time.

It is not that Burroughs was also a photographer in an independent sense— despite the fact he was already experimenting with the medium before he wrote his groundbreaking books, he did not use it in any classical aide-mémoire fashion, even as it extended to snapshots of lovers and made/unmade beds. Rather, for one whose ‘novels’ (frequently published in multiple versions, being rewritten or ‘unfinished’ in any normal sense) were so cinematic and reliant on jagged shifts of perception and consciousness, photography was a raw, worked material. For one who proclaimed ‘language is a virus’, image and words were a rift, a violent relation perhaps only superseded by hieroglyphic languages which merged them—hence Burroughs’ research into ancient Mayan codices and ‘discovery’ of the ‘cut-up’ method with his mercurial confidant Brion Gysin’s fortuitous slicing through a stack of newspapers, producing new image/text conjunctions, while preparing mounting for his paintings.

Inevitably, language in any form was to Burroughs a by-product of what he dubbed ‘Control’, an alien implant Burroughs not only conveyed but also believed in quite literally. As a counter to Control, the malevolent entity Burroughs credited with leading him to inadvertently shoot his wife Joan Volmer in 1951 in a game of William Tell gone wrong, writing for Burroughs was a vital means of survival. Indeed for any scribe who did not consider ‘writing his only salvation’, Burroughs once said, quoting St John Perse, ‘I trust him little in the commerce of the soul’. Photography became a key resource in Burroughs’ mission—derived through Gysin—of updating writing to keep pace with painting and the other plastic arts that had made use of assemblage and collage and indeterminacy for half a century already. This was a mission enmeshed in the technology of the time—photography, cinema, and most fruitfully for Burroughs and his collaborators for a time, the mixing and playback of tape recorders. While this constituted a kind of ‘intertextuality’ avant la lettre, or before continental post-structuralism had taken hold, the comparisons essayists make in the catalogue to Victor Burgin and Jacques Derrida are not the best guide. Burroughs’ survival code made writing an art of “making things happen”—art being restored to its premodern role as wielder and means of power and efficacious action—an attitude as common in traditional societies as it is rare in modernism and postmodernism. This ‘attitude’ continues in the occult, one of the most useful reference points for looking through Burroughs’ miscellany of photos.

Despite the formal qualities and allusions that can be taken from Burroughs’ images, (Patricia Allmer argues they ‘discussed open spaces’ and ‘invite tactile ways of looking’ from the perspective of both minor Western and non-Western cultural traditions), it is most usually their folding-in, their recombination sometimes into large kaleidoscopic experiments, that these often nondescript city scenes of peripheral vision take on their power. On his principle ‘You never photograph the present, you photograph the future’, these city scenes—snapshots the peripatetic Burroughs took in Panama City, Tangier, Lima, Gibraltar, or London, Paris, New York, St Louis—would wallpaper his room at the Beat Hotel in Paris. The Infinity series, variously assembled in Tangier 1964-5 and at the Beat Hotel in 1962, recombine photo-reductions, reaching a density that rivaled Brion Gysin’s paintings that seeks to produce a condition where ‘images take on magical forms’. They were an example, Burroughs wrote, of ‘collage of collage of collage to the Nth power’ that not only held promise to disperse all sorts of conditioning (Naked Lunch’ s ‘algebra of need’), but also to escape the space-time continuum altogether. ‘The photo-collage is a way to travel that must be used with skill and precision if we are to arrive.’

Just as the text cut-ups would lead to ‘a precise science of words… how certain word combinations produce certain effects on the human nervous system,’ these image cut-ups were a methodical experiment carried out over time. During the writing of Naked Lunch there were the ‘Space Collages’ set in the various locales of Burroughs’ travels and residences; ‘Time Collages’ that jumped from city to city, century to century, past to future, as in his late trilogy of novels Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands ; there were also the ‘Collage Concentrates’ that sometimes simply juxtaposed objects, world events, or his collaborator Ian Sommerville, in different settings. These different series were perhaps all preparations for the ‘Mood Concentrates’—photo-collages that carried actual power to affect people and events.

One of these activations was Burroughs’ now notorious attack on London’s first espresso bar, the Moka Bar, on 29 Frith St. ‘I have frequently observed,’ Burroughs explained, ‘that this simple operation—making recordings and taking pictures of some location you wish to discommode or destroy, then playing recordings back and taking more pictures—will result in accidents, fires, removals, especially the last. The target moves.’ Burroughs began this sort of chaos magick/miniature-scale military assault on 3 August, 1972, goaded by ‘outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake.’ Visiting every few days, playing back recordings and taking more pictures, Burroughs viewed his mission as successful when on 30 October the bar closed. Burroughs’ first target had been the Scientology Centre off Fitzroy Square, which also, however coincidentally, moved within a few weeks of Burroughs’ hex, to 68 Tottenham Court Road, where it remained for more than 40 years. Burroughs had attempted to take what he described as ‘breaking down the automatic scanning patterns’ in his photography and writing to a new level, where the power of conditioning and control is not only dispersed, but reversed, captured and used as a tool of response or counter-sorcery.

Burroughs’ cutting of the ‘association lines’ was to accomplish nothing less than the production of new events, skewing the past and altering the future. This sort of autodestruction of materiality has a new relevance today, given what pharmaceutical activist and publisher Philippe Pignarre and philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers define as our current condition of ‘capitalist sorcery’, notwithstanding that the world economic system is without any sorcerers who see themselves as such. Similarly, the French collective Tiqqun decries ‘possession by a psychic economy’, that for Tiqqun is the only level on which the ‘economy is real and concrete’. The operations of the corporate capitalist economy therefore conjure realms of imagination and desire that shape Man into an economic creature, and without exaggeration functions as a kind of ‘black magic’. For all of Burroughs’ early assaults on the mass media and mass mind, it was rarely with a question of corporations or ‘capitalism’—Burroughs, whose politics ran from cranky libertarianism in the 50s to what sounded at least congenial to the radical left if not more anarchic forms of terrorism in the late ‘60s, would later describe ‘capitalism’ as one of the few systems open to perpetual change and self-innovation, especially compared to the ossified states of Cold War-era ‘socialism’. Having dedicated Cities of the Red Night, 1981, in part to ‘nameless gods of dispersal and emptiness’, Burroughs’ struggle was on a far more cosmological level. It was only at the very end of his life that he located ‘Control’ or ‘the Ugly Spirit’ in a precise image, via an Amerindian sweat lodge ceremony.

So the photographs remain as a kind of ‘evidence’, also found, as David Brittain partly suggests, in the spirit of dada or early surrealism (in the pages of Documents, for example, or La Révolution Surréaliste ), where they hold an extra or post-aesthetic status becoming more a dropbox of what is possible, or a manual of slicing vision. The most vigorous and far-reaching of the experiments, Burroughs’ scrapbooks, the processual photo-reductions, and the photos oftentimes the most disposable as ‘art photography’, coincide only obliquely with the institution of art, being at once an exacting time capsule and a visionary exploration far into the 21st century where what Leonardo da Vinci once quaintly called ‘learning how to see’ still retains a deadly serendipity.

Jay Murphy is a writer and independent curator currently living between New York and New Orleans.

Taking Shots: The Photography of William S Burroughs was curated by Patricia Allmer and John Sears, The Photographers’ Gallery, London, 17 Jan—30 Mar, 2014

Images (from left):

William Burroughs/Ian Sommerville, Infinity, (Beat Hotel), Paris, 1962, silver gelatin print on paper mounted on card; inscribed ‘Ian Summerville’, titled and dated by William Burroughs on the reverse, 17.5 × 26.3 cm. Courtesy private collection, London

Unknown Photographer, Burroughs in the Hotel Villa Mouniria Garden, Tangier, scan from negative, 5.6 × 5.8 cm. Courtesy of the William S. Burroughs Estate

William S Burroughs, Untitled, c1972, silver gelatin print, 19.2 × 12.9 cm. Courtesy the Henry W. And Albert A Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

William S Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Untitled, 1965, silver gelatin prints and ink on paper, 25.4 ×17.15 cm. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art

William S Burroughs, Untitled, 1953-56, photo-collage and ink on paper, 27 × 21 cm. Courtesy October Gallery, London

William S Burroughs, Untitled (Arrangement with Air Pistols), London, 1972, C-type print, 14.5 × 15.2cm. Courtesy the Barry Miles Archive

William S Burroughs, Untitled, Tangier, 1964, scan from negative. Courtesy the William S Burroughs Estate

William S Burroughs, Untitled (Assemblage), London, c1972-73, silver gelatin print, 15.3 × 15.1 cm. Courtesy the Barry Miles Archive

All images © Estate of William S Burroughs