On Gysin’s work & influence

Q&A with Andrew M. McKenzie, editor of the recently republished book Brion Gysin: His Name Was Master.

On Brion Gysin’s work and influence >>


About Brion Gysin

Multi-media artist Brion Gysin produced pioneering paintings, drawings, collage, sound, literature, music, performance and kinetic art.

The cut-up method

Upon cutting through the newspapers, Gysin noticed that the sliced layers offered interesting juxtapositions of text and image.

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“Take your own words or the words said to be “the very own words” of anyone else living or dead. You’ll soon see that words don’t belong to anyone. Words have a vitality of their own and you or anybody else can make them gush into action.”

Brion Gysin

Brion Gysin

Early life and education

Brion Gysin (1916-1986) was a British-Canadian painter, writer, sound poet, performance artist, and inventor. He played a significant role in the development of the cut-up technique and influenced many artists and writers of his time, including the Beat Generation and beyond. Born John Clifford Brian Gysin on January 19, 1916, in Taplow, England, Gysin was raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, after his father’s death during World War I. Gysin attended the prestigious Downside School, a Catholic boarding school in England, where he developed an interest in art and literature. Despite his Catholic education, he became an atheist.

In 1934, Gysin moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. He joined the Surrealist Group and began associating with renowned artists, including Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Max Ernst. In 1935 he was expelled from the group by André Breton.

World War II and post-war years

After serving in the U.S. army during World War II, Gysin focused on writing and art. He published a biography of Josiah “Uncle Tom” Henson, titled “To Master, a Long Goodnight: The History of Slavery in Canada” (1946), and took an 18-month course on the Japanese language and calligraphy. In 1949, he became one of the first Fulbright Fellows, researching the history of slavery.

Morocco and the Beat Hotel

In the early 1950s, Gysin moved to Tangier, Morocco, where he opened a restaurant called The 1001 Nights. The restaurant featured performances by the Master Musicians of Jajouka, as well as acrobats and fire-eaters. It was in Tangier that Gysin met novelist William S. Burroughs, beginning their lifelong friendship and collaboration.

In 1958, Gysin returned to Paris and lived at the infamous Beat Hotel. It was during this time that he discovered the cut-up technique, which he later shared with Burroughs. The technique would become a significant aspect of Burroughs’ work and influence American literature.

Inventions and innovations

Gysin was a prolific innovator, creating permutation poems and working with early computer programs to generate random sequences. He also collaborated with engineer Ian Sommerville to build the Dreamachine in 1961, an art object designed to induce altered states of consciousness when viewed with closed eyes.

Later years and death

Gysin battled colon cancer in the mid-1970s, undergoing several surgeries and struggling with depression. Despite his health challenges, he continued to create art and collaborate with musicians such as Steve Lacy and Ramuntcho Matta. In 1985, Gysin was honored as an American Commander of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Brion Gysin passed away from lung cancer on July 13, 1986. His ashes were scattered at the Caves of Hercules in Morocco. Gysin’s work and ideas continue to influence and inspire generations of artists, writers, and musicians. His legacy is evident in various fields, including visual art, experimental literature, and sound poetry.

Legacy and influence

Brion Gysin’s life and work have had a lasting impact on the art world and beyond. His innovative cut-up technique has been adopted and adapted by various artists, musicians, and writers. The Dreamachine, which he co-invented with Ian Sommerville, continues to intrigue researchers interested in altered states of consciousness and the nature of creativity. Gysin’s calligraphic paintings and visual art also continue to be exhibited and admired worldwide.