Brion Gysin

Cut ups

by CTS Ryan

The cut-up method is best-known as a literary technique in which a written text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. It can be traced back to at least the Dadaists of the 1920s.

In the 1950s, the artist Brion Gysin further explored and popularised the cut-up method. The origin story is: He was using layers of newspapers as a mat to protect a tabletop from being scratched while he cut other papers with a razor blade. Upon cutting through the newspapers, Gysin noticed that the sliced layers offered interesting juxtapositions of text and image. He then began deliberately cutting newspaper articles into sections, which he randomly rearranged.

Gysin: “It occurred because I had a number of sheets of newspaper, and I took a Stanley blade and cut through them, and little bits and pieces looked so amusing to me that I started jiggling them around as one would in a collage.”

Gysin introduced the author William Burroughs to the technique at the Beat Hotel. The pair later applied the technique to printed media, film and audio recordings in an effort to decode the material’s implicit content, hypothesizing that such a technique could be used to discover meaning.

In the 1950s United States, media was industrialised. As now, it often normalised consumerism and encouraged conformity. Cut ups offered a way in, a method Gysin and Burroughs could use to examine the mass media and the social norms it promoted.

‘First Cut-Ups,’ ‘Minutes to Go,’ and ‘Cut Me Up * Brion Gysin’ (1959–1960) were among Gysin’s first experiments with the cut-up technique of writing. The book Minutes to Go resulted from these initial works.

Cut-Ups Self-Explained from The Third Mind book 1978

Cut-Ups Self-Explained from The Third Mind book 1978

Cut up Open Letter to Life Magazine, from Minutes to Go

Cut up Open Letter to Life Magazine, from Minutes to Go

The short film, The Cut-Ups opened in London in 1967. It features cut up footage of Burroughs and Gysin. Cinematography by Antony Balch, screenplay by Burroughs.

When the film first premiered, reportedly, members of the audience said it made them feel ill.

The film is non-linear. But many would describe it as deranged. When narrative is absent, “madness” can be revealed. The power of Burroughs and Gysin’s cut up works are entangled with their cut-up lives, and the myths of their cut-up lives. It’s said they were using a lot of drugs. Cut-up people producing cut-up artefacts.


Burroughs also suggested cut-ups may be effective as a form of divination saying, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.” Burroughs also further developed the “fold-in” technique.

In 1977, Burroughs and Gysin published The Third Mind, a collection of cut-up writings and essays on the form.

A page from The Third Mind book of cut ups

A page from The Third Mind book of cut ups

The method has famously been adopted by musicians such as David Bowie when creating lyrics.

David Bowie: “What I’ve used it for more than anything else is igniting anything that might be in my imagination. And you can often come up with very interesting attitudes to look into.”

Musician Iggy Pop, from the Burroughs 101 radio documentary: “How different is the cut up method really from what they used to call the magic eight ball? Do you know what that is? Or a Ouija board. It’s a Ouija board for art people, is what it is. Language is a virus. Language is a virus. Virus is a language human scummery control is a virus.”

More recently, the cut-up has received some mainstream recognition as a brainstorming technique in the “creative industries”, although its history is often overlooked.

But more importantly, the cut up can also be interpreted as a response to the early tremors of the digital revolution, a visualisation of the remixing and re-presentation of information that’s now common in digital media, especially the web.

Cut ups still resonate today. Why? Because they’re all around us.

Brion Gysin


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