William S. Burroughs is most famous for his work as an author, specifically the author of Naked Lunch, one of the most controversial books of the 20th century. However, to remember him this way is to unfairly pigeonhole him, for he was an artist (and thinker) whose interests and talents went far beyond the written word.
Burroughs’ writing career began with the publication of Junkie in 1953 but it was only in the late fifties that he became more widely known. Thanks to the work of his Beat peers, Burroughs was already infamous in certain circles by the time Naked Lunch appeared in 1959, and this shocking novel – as well as excerpts of it that appeared in The Chicago Review and Big Table – caused a mixture of consternation, admiration, and disgust.
Yet before it had really made any impression, Burroughs had already moved on, delving into what he called “the cut-up method,” a process of artistic creation that he credited to his friend, the painter Brion Gysin.
Throughout the 1960s, Burroughs’ artistic explorations largely involved this technique, with which he was continually tinkering. Early efforts saw him branch out into poetry. Later, he wrote novels and essays and other tracts that were neither fiction nor poetry. As a writer, then, he had moved well beyond genres and into the realm of the outrageously original.
The cut-up method was never purely a literary form, though. It could be applied visually as well. Burroughs moved into photography and collage. He cut up pictures and even mixed them with words. Soon he was using audio cut-ups and even branched out into film with his friend, Anthony Balch. Fittingly, a lot of this concerned Scientology, which Burroughs had always viewed as being tied to the cut-up method.
Learn more about Burroughs’ efforts in filmmaking at Reality Studio.
Burroughs applied the cut-up method to audio recordings, too, in various ways. He would make recordings, then cut into them with new recordings, or would play certain audio out of context as a means of disrupting reality. Soon, a number of high-profile musicians – inspired by Burroughs’ books – began to incorporate the cut-up method into their work. This began as a means of inspiring creativity and creating unique lyrical compositions.
As a generation of musicians began to take his work and philosophies as inspiration, Burroughs occasionally collaborated with them, entering the world of the spoken word artist. In fact, he had been recording stories and ideas and routines for years, some of these released as albums. Even today, Burroughs’ voice is occasionally sampled and cut into songs, long after his death.
Listen to Burroughs’ audio recordings at UbuWeb Sound.
In the eighties, he moved over to painting. Or rather, he became more interested in painting, for he already had some experience thanks to his friendship with Brion Gysin. Burroughs had even produced the calligraphic design for the first edition of Naked Lunch. Living in Laurence, Kansas, he took up a paintbrush and explored the medium further, before experimenting with shotgun art. This could well be seen as a logical progression of his art, continuing earlier themes of chance, the paint scattered at random (if indeed anything is random) according to the distribution of shotgun pellets.
Here’s some footage of Burroughs doing his shotgun art:
Artists will always be known for their best work, or sometimes for their most controversial efforts, but the greatest of them leave behind a long legacy of experimentation. Burroughs’ genius was not merely confined to his wild prose; he was a truly multidisciplinary artist whose peculiar ideas and determination to break free of convention (or control) saw him adopt new media and new technologies with a refreshing eagerness.
This was the third instalment in our month-long celebration of Burroughs’ 110th birthday. See the full schedule here.