Take a film you’ve created and cut it into four sections, equal in length, and spool those sections on four different film reels. Then, hire someone to splice them back together, taking one foot from each roll, in succession, in a 1-2-3-4 pattern, repeated mechanically, for 20 minutes.
This was the method used to create Anthony Balch and William S. Burroughs’ film The Cut Ups (1966).
As I watch this I wonder, could something like this be created digitally?
Technically, yes. One could divide their video into 4 subclips, equal in length, and then piece together 1.67 second shots from each subclip, in succession, in a 1-2-3-4 pattern, repeated mechanically, for 20 minutes. But is this still a cut-up? Are scissors and glue required?
Cut-ups have their roots in the collage practices of early 20th century avant-gardists. The most frequently cited example is of Dadaist Tristan Tzara pulling random words from a hat to spontaneously compose a poem at a 1920 Dada event. But in later iterations of cut-ups, we can also see the influences of Dada photocollage, Surrealist automatic poetry, and perhaps even the early Man Ray films Le Retour à la Raison (1923) and Emak Bakia (1926).
When artist Brion Gysin revived the technique in his own work in the late 1950s, he split newspaper pages into sections, cutting through the middle of the text, and pieced them back together at random. A sentence would start from one page and continue from an entirely different page. Incidentally, according to Rob Bridgett, Brion Gysin “was in fact expelled from the Surrealist group in Paris by Andrew Breton when he was only nineteen years old.” Despite his bitter split with Surrealism, some of its techniques continued to impact Gysin’s artistic process.
However, it seems Burroughs didn’t necessarily have much faith in the Surrealists’ automatic writing techniques. In his essay, “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin,” he laments that before the cut-up, writers “had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity.” For Burroughs, the cut-up must be a mechanical process. “You can not will spontaneity,” he writes. “But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.”
Which brings me back to my question. Do digital scissors – the in and out points marking the limits of a digital clip – introduce “the unpredictable spontaneous factor?” Does it matter if I hold a pair of metal scissors in my right hand and a roll of 16mm film in my left? The cinephile in me says “Of course!” But if we’re to follow William S. Burroughs, the answer must be “Not in the slightest.” For evidence, we need look no further than his extensive experiments with a tape recorder.
Burroughs and his collaborator Ian Sommerville (scientist and mathematician) utilized the tape recorder to create sound cut-ups “of music, street noise, voices, as well as attempts to record sub-vocal speech and the physical manipulation of the tape during recording, playback and re-recording,” according to Jack Sargeant in his book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema. They wanted to weaponize the tape recorder and sought to find its absolute limits as a machine. Sargeant explains: “The tape recorder experiments and other projects such as the development of the dreamachine should not be understood purely in aesthetic terms, but also as scientific explorations analogical to Dr Wilhelm Reich’s orgone accumulator and the Church of Scientology’s E-Meter.”
Which is to say, Burroughs was not interested in medium specificity or in tactile artistic methods. He was interested in the total disruption of perception and enthusiastically explored the variety of technical methods available that would help him achieve “a complete disorientation of the senses.” At the time he was creating art, this included scissors, film strips, typed manuscripts, and tape recorders. If he were making art today, perhaps it would include algorithms and Adobe’s Creative Suite.
Still, I hold on to my attachment to the film strip. And I hold on to my scissors.
Please enjoy Anthony Balch and William S. Burroughs’ The Cut Ups:
The Cut Ups was previously screened at the IU Cinema in February 2014 as part of The Burroughs Century festival. The Burroughs Century has continued as a local arts non-profit hosting experimental media events.
This week, The Burroughs Century and its partners present Wounded Galaxies: 1968, which features several film screenings curated by film critic J. Hoberman. See the full schedule of Wounded Galaxies events here, and check out the screenings hosted by the IU Cinema here.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.