brion gysin

︎Artist, Painting, Typography, Collage, Literature, Spirituality, Article  
︎ Ventral Is Golden

“Not knowing what is and is not knowing, I knew not.”

The renowned Beat Generation writer William Burroughs once said that Brion Gysin was the only man he ever respected.
After the two met in Tangier, Morocco, their artistic relationship burgeoned as their two practices of the visual arts and literature merged, creating the cut-up technique that popularised much of Burroughs’ writing. They would later publish a collaborative novel, The Third Mind (1977), that acted as a manifesto of the possibilities of cutting up ‘junk’, surplus, printed ephemera, and newspaper articles, in order to disassociate the words from their engrained meanings. Something that Gysin believed to be the fundamental role of the poet and musician - to liberate words from their sentences.

Gysin’s artistic output was vast and peripatetic, ranging from calligraphy, large scale floor paintings, sound poetry, video manipulation, creative writing to performance art and theatre.
From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Gysin’s style manifested itself in a series of calligraphic paintings and drawings that he produced in Morocco. Being fluent in written Japanese and Arabic, Gysin’s script-like canvases represented an attempt to fuse writing and painting into a single complex system of mark-making. His works were often constructed to impress the spatial enviornemt of the printed word, as well as the excesses of unnecessary speech patterns that permeate large urban environments.

He would also take this method into his sound poems, often called Permutation Poems, such as ‘Junk is No Good Baby’.
Much in the style of Gertrude Stein and Bob Dylan, he would stretch the limitations of word combinations, “embracing magnetic tape and computer technology, at a time when such practice was the preserve of scientists, Gysin equated his Permuations with those of a machine. He went on to perform these works around Europe, accompanied by music and handmade slide projections.

“This was the first piece of art meant to be viewed with eyes closed, and was Gysin’s (unsuccessful) intention to sell the machine to Panasonic in order to eventually replace the television.”

Music was also a defining interest in Gysin’s works and became an intriguing aspect of his artistic output and experiments with sound, ritual and altered states. First to note was Gysin’s association with Ian Sommerville, a mathematician who worked with The Beatles, on the fabrication of the Dream Machine.
The Dream Machine was a pioneering piece of hallucinatory kinetic art, constructed out of nothing more than a turntable that rotated at 78rpm, a cantilevered light and a cylinder with rounded parallelograms cut from its surface. The idea came to Gysin as he was falling asleep on a bus in Marseille. As the sun set amongst the trees, it created a flicker effect that induced a lucid dream. Later, with Sommerville, they would learn that the revolutions of the turntable could recreate this effect and correspond to the frequency of alpha waves emitted by the brain during deep sleep. It was dubbed as the first piece of art meant to be viewed with eyes closed, and was Gysin’s (unsuccessful) intention to sell the machine to Panasonic in order to eventually replace the television.

Secondly, Gysin played an important role in introducing the Master musicians of Joujouka to Brian Jones, who would later visit and record the group in the small Moroccan village on July 29th 1968. Having initially being entranced by the ritualistic sound of the folk music, Gysin, upon the invitation of Moroccan painter Mohamed Hamri, was able to view the ceremony that accompanied the music. The ceremony itself consisted of “dressing a young boy as Bou Jeloud, the Goat God, wearing the skin of a freshly slaughtered goat, running to "spread panic through the darkened village" as the musicians played with abandon. This led Gysin to view the ritual as an early origin of the ancient Greek god Pan, from which the album took inspiration for its name.


Gysin also partially believed that he was the reincarnation of the 11th century businessman, scholar, mystic, ascetic and political revolutionary of Iran. A man named Hassan-I-Sabbah.

Sabbah lived until the age of ninety and was widely known as The Old Man in the Mountain, where he strategically ruled from the Persian highlands by recruiting wonderers and gypsies into the fortress of Alamut, subduing them with vast amounts of hashish. Once the travellers had awoken from under the weight of their intoxication, Sabbah would recount their dream-like visions of his paradisical garden, hidden within the walls of Alamut, casting the illusion of his omnipotence. The effect of this initiation was so strong that Sabbah was able to rule large parts of Persia without ever having a military, instead creating one of the first known Orders of Hashshashins (the origin of the European word Assassin).

This process was of particular interest to both Gysin and Burroughs, as a kind of archetype of mind control, a process to be later cultivated in the West, through the intellectual propagandising of media corporations that became a dominat force in sculpting public opinon. For Burroughs, written language was always seen as an alien virus with an intent to corrupt the mind. He went on to write a brilliant prose poem called ‘The Last Words of Hassan-I-Sabbah’, where he condemns modern covert terrorist organisations, such as the public relations sectors of intelligence agencies like the C.I.A and F.B.I (as well as big businesses) for being dishonourable.

“Listen to my last words, anywhere!
Listen all you boards, governments, syndicates, nations of the world,
And you, powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory,
To take what is not yours,
To sell out your sons forever! To sell the ground from unborn feet
forever. For Eve - are.
Listen to my last words, any world!...”

The famous last words of Hassan-I-Sabbah, “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted”, were used as the title for the book on the life of Brion Gysin, written by John Geiger.

Further Reading ︎
The Third Mind, pdf, UBU Web.
The Idea Machine, The White Review, article.
Last Words of Hassan-i-Sabbah, William Burroughs, Poem recording

Flicker, Full Documentary on the Dream Machine and the art of Brion Gysin
Junk and Baboon from Gysin's album, ‘Self Portrait Jumping’.