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Nothing is True Everything is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin
John Geiger
Disinformation HBK, $27.95

Marcus Boon

In recent years, Brion Gysin, best known as the inventor of the cut up, has begun to step out from the shadows of his co-conspirator William S. Burroughs. While Gysin’s ideas, originally conceived as Moroccan magical techniques applied to post World War II art, literature and music, can be recognized just about everywhere in contemporary culture, as the act of cutting, pasting and reconfiguring found materials becomes an almost universal gesture in all media, Gysin’s own work is being excavated and resurrected, in a retrospective show of his visual art projects mounted by the Edmonton Art Gallery, along with an accompanying book, Brion Gysin: Tuning In To the Multimedia Age, CDs of his sounds works on Sub Rosa and other labels, Back In No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader, edited by Jason Weiss, which gives a solid overview of Gysin’s writings, and now, finally, the impeccably researched, astute biography that Gysin’s life and work has long demanded, by John Geiger.

The book tracks Gysin’s line of flight from Edmonton, Alberta, to London, to New York, Paris and Morocco, where Gysin encountered the Master Musicians of Jajouka and started up a nightclub in Tangiers where they performed nightly. He was always on the make, but never quite making it, his list of friends and associates a who’s who of the post World War II international art scene — writing novels, producing sound poetry, an aborted film script for Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, paintings, performances, yet rarely receiving any real recognition for his work, aside from Burroughs’ enduring support. Although the cut up, which was popularized by Burroughs in books like Nova Express, was originally conceived as applying a montage technique from the visual arts to the written word, it became most influential in rock music, and it was finally in the rock world that Gysin got some recognition, as generations of rockers, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 1960s, to Iggy Pop and Bowie in the 1970s, to the industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, applied the cut up to song lyrics, and to looped recordings of voices, breaking apart received meanings in phrases in an attempt to “rub out the word”.

Geiger’s last book, Chapel of Extreme Experience, was a fascinating look at scientific and artistic experimentation with flicker and strobe effects in the 1950s and 60s, including Gysin’s dream machine, a revolving, trance inducing stroboscopic sculpture. Geiger’s other trade is writing biographies of explorers – and in a sense, this book continues that work, describing the life of one of the pioneers of the exploration of inner space, an explorer who, at the moment where the planet itself appeared to hold no more outer frontiers (think H Bomb experiments in the Pacific in the 1950s, or the Space Program), turned inwards. Drugs, trance inducing machines, games of chance, Islamic mysticism, sound as a universal principle: Gysin played with, and in some cases invented, the whole deck of cards of the post war avant garde. An untimely presence in his lifetime, perhaps we can finally hear and see his full stature today.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005.

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