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Copyright the Burroughs Trust

Dead Fingers Talk

The IMT Gallery presents a mind-bending retrospective exhibition of William S Burroughs's overlooked investigations into sound

Dead Fingers Talk – The Tape Experiments of William S Burroughs is the latest exhibition in East London’s IMT Gallery. Burroughs was a key figure of the Beat Movement, and was renowned for his lifelong experimentation with sexuality, hard drugs, guns and destructive approach to literature – the ‘cut-up’ technique which he employed in his novels was later transferred to tape recorders, and resulted in these experiments. The exhibition lines up what is left of the experiments, most of which have been lost over time, with the work of artists who have made pieces specifically to go alongside Burroughs’ sonic innovations. Dazed Digital caught up with Mark Jackson, curator of Dead Fingers Talk, to explain what Burroughs was trying to achieve with the tapes.

Dazed Digital: What are the Tape Experiments?
Mark Jackson: When Burroughs and Brion Gysin were in Paris, during the 1950s, Gysin came up with the cut-up technique of tearing up and rearranging pages of text that Burroughs decided to use as a method of generating his literature. Gysin then suggested the tape recorder as a possible device to push the experiments further. Burroughs subsequently used tape recorders in a variety of ways not just to investigate ideas but also for pseudo-scientific experiments. Importantly, Burroughs saw the experiments not as an art proposition at all, but viewed the tape recorder as an extension of the human nervous system, and in many ways as analogous to the Scientology E-Meter – a device he was also using prolifically in the 60s and early 70s. Many of the tapes have been lost, and what we have ended up with are an extraordinary collection of recordings which, for me, have interesting ramifications for how we might talk about sound art as a fluid and undefined language of sound. 

DD: Why did Burroughs choose to do these recordings?
Mark Jackson: Some of the purposes we are aware of include magick: the tape recorder as a tool for paranormal alterations in reality; psychological analysis; and resolving conflict by running two contrasting arguments together on a single tape.  Burroughs has also written about the potential of the tape recorder as a weapon for revolution, taking manipulated recordings of the media back out on the streets, or playing riot noises in demonstrations.

DD: How did you choose the accompanying exhibition?
Mark Jackson: I was aware that, at least in popular music, there is an extraordinary resonance for Burroughs's ideas. I wanted to find artists, musicians, composers and writers who were still engaging with Burroughsian themes and techniques and see what they would do in reaction to the tape experiments specifically. Everyone involved either has acknowledged the direct influence of Burroughs, or demonstrated in their work something I had identified as unmistakably Burroughsian. I asked them to respond to a brief and would accept whatever they submitted. Burroughs himself asked that people try the experiments for themselves, so that they really become important as a practice rather than as objects left behind as a result of that practice, I hope the exhibition stands as a means of investigation rather than a collection of objects.

DD: What's the agenda for Rearrange the Word?
Mark Jackson: As the exhibition demonstrates people take so many different things from Burroughs.  David Toop currently has an exhibition on that he's co-curated called Blow Up: Exploding Sound And Noise (London-Brighton, 1959-69), a time period that partly coincides with when Burroughs was in London making some of these tapes. Toop is also incredibly knowledgeable on experimental sonic practices, and I felt these two things would add an important new take to the exhibition.  Anthony Joseph shall also be here for the talk; he has some spoken word work in the exhibition.
I invited him to the show as I'd previously heard him read extracts from his extraordinary book The African Origins of UFOs, which I felt developed Burroughsian concepts in a very radical way and this is important as there are aspects of Burroughs that really need to be updated.  That's what Rearrange the Word is about, discussing both how we can move his ideas forward and what needs to be left behind.

Dead Fingers Talk – the Tape Experiments of William S. Burroughs runs until 18th July and Rearrange the Word will take place on 10th July at the IMT Gallery. Unit2/210, Cambridge Heath Road,London, E2 9NQ UK