We live in a world of systems, of structure. We are raised to believe that this is inevitable, the natural order of things. Science proves it is so. But what happens when we start to question this order, dare to challenge it? And what would happen if we break it down, disassemble it, cut it up?
“The first step in re-creation is to cut the old lines that hold you right where you are sitting now,” William S. Burroughs, The Third Mind (1978).
The cut-up method was first created by Tristan Tzara in the early 20th century. Tzara was a member of both the Dada and Surrealist movements. Historically, psychoanalysis has been associated with the Surrealists, as they openly acknowledged the impact of Sigmund Freud’s theories on their work. However, the processes explored within the Dada movement more accurately reflect unconscious processes illuminated in psychoanalysis. The most widely known Surrealist works are visual works of art that reflect the juxtaposition of content present within unconscious, similar to the manifest content apparent in dreams and fantasies. However, Surrealism grew out of Dada and the more process-oriented techniques later utilized by the Surrealists were actually adopted from the Dada movement.
Proponents of new ways of thinking about society and the place and function of art within it, the Dadas utilized new materials and methods including collage, montage, assemblage, ready-mades, the cut-up, performance, and chance. The Dadas championed methods that exemplify the workings of the dynamic unconscious such as automatic writing, which was later incorporated into the Surrealist literary movement. Similar to the process of free association, automatic writing allows the creator a glimpse into he/r own unconscious processes, attempting to bypass interference of the psychic censor as much as possible. Dada questioned society’s accepted values and consensus worldview, challenging them while embracing new ways of thinking and utilizing new materials and methods. Dada quickly shattered certain conceptions about the nature of art including the appropriate method and mode of creating, viewing and experiencing artwork. The Dadas valued cacophony, dreamwork and the violation of syntax as techniques for freeing the unconscious from the domination of reason and tradition. The Dadas felt that up to this point art had served civilization; their anti-art would challenge it. Based in several city centers across Europe and North America, spread as far as Japan, the Dadas made use of media that allowed for contact between persons across long distances. Letters, postcards, journals, and magazines not only provided important means of sharing ideas and images but were also incorporated into new forms of artwork.
The period of the First World War with its inherent fragmentation, destruction and reconstruction of both the physical world and of the psyche is reflected in the Dada methodology of the cut-up. Tzara introduces the process he used in creation of what he called “accidental poems” in his manifesto To Make a Dadaist Poem (1920), in which he instructs us to:
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you,
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility,even though unappreciated by the vulgar hand.
Marcel Duchamp played with the cut-up briefly, however, the cut-up method was not really developed further until Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’ experiments. In 1959, at the Beat Hotel in Paris, Gysin cut up and rearranged newspaper articles, discovering that even though these arrangements were seemingly performed at random, they created coherent and meaningful prose. This first cut-up experiment of Gysin’s resulted in “Minutes to Go” and was broadcast via BBC:
the hallucinated have come to tell you that yr utilities
are being shut off dreams monitored thought directed
sex is shutting down everywhere you are being sent
all words are taped agents everywhere
marking down the live ones to exterminate
they are turning out the lights
no they are not evil nor the devil but men
on a mission with a spot of work to do
this dear friends they intend to do on you
you have been offered a choice between liberty and
freedom and No! you cannot have both
the next step is everyone into space but it has been
a long dull wait since the last tower of babel
that first derisive visit of the paraclete
let’s not hear that noise again and again
that may well be the last word anywhere
this is not the beginning in the beginning was the word
the word has been in for a too long time
you in the word and the word in you
we are out
you are in
we have come to let you out
here and now we will show you what you can do
with and to
all the words
Pick a book any book cut it up
the book of moroni
the bhagavad gita
all the words
slice down the middle dice into sections
according to taste
chop in some bible pour on some Madison Avenue
shuffle like cards toss like confetti
taste it like piping hot alphabet soup
pass yr friends’ letters yr office carbons
through any such sieve as you may find or invent
you will soon see just what they really are
saying this is the terminal method for
finding the truth
piece together a masterpiece a week
use better materials more highly charged words
there is no longer a need to drum up a season of
geniuses be your own agent until we deliver
the machine in commercially reasonable quantities
we wish to announce that while we esteem
this to be truly the American Way
we have no commitments with any government
the writing machine is for everybody
do it yourself until the machine comes
here is the system according to us.
Click here to read a review of the event by Gabby Bess in The Vice