<< preface

this blog is nina wenhart's collection of resources on the various histories of new media art. it consists mainly of non or very little edited material i found flaneuring on the net, sometimes with my own annotations and comments, sometimes it's also textparts i retyped from books that are out of print.

it is also meant to be an additional resource of information and recommended reading for my students of the prehystories of new media class that i teach at the school of the art institute of chicago in fall 2008.

the focus is on the time period from the beginning of the 20th century up to today.

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>> Brion Gysin, "Cut-Ups Self-Explained", 1970

from: http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~cantsin/permutations/gysin/cut-up.cgi
[Brion Gysin, Cut-Ups Self-Explained, in: William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, 1978]

Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painters' techniques to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage. Cut right through the pages of any book or newsprint... lengthwise, for example, and shuffle the columns of text. Put them together at hazard and read the newly constituted message. Do it for yourself. Use any system which suggests itself to you. Take your own words or the words said to be "the very own words" of anyone else living or dead. You'll soon see that words don't belong to anyone. Words have a vitality of their own and you or anybody else can make them gush into action.

The permutated poems set the words spinning off on their own; echoing out as the words of a potent phrase are permutated into an expanding ripple of meanings which they did not seem to be capable of when they were struck into that phrase.

The poets are supposed to liberate the words - not to chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing. Poets have no words "of their own." Writers don't own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody. "Your very own words," indeed! And who are you?


Writing is fifty yea rs behind painting. I propose to apply t
he painters' techniq ues to writing; thin gs as simple and imm
ediate as collage or montage. Cut right through the pages of
any book or newspri nt... lengthwise, fo r example, and shuff
le the columns of te xt. Put them togethe r at hazard and read
the newly constitut ed message. Do it fo r yourself. Use any
system which suggest s itself to you. Tak e your own words or
the words said to be "the very own words " of anyone else liv
ing or dead. You'll soon see that words don't belong to anyo
ne. Words have a vit ality of their own a nd you or anybody el
se can make them gus h into action. The p ermutated poems set
the words spinning o ff on their own; ech oing out as the word
s of a potent phrase are permutated into an expanding ripple
of meanings which t hey did not seem to be capable of when t
hey were struck into that phrase. The po ets are supposed to
liberate the words - not to chain them i n phrases. Who told
poets they were supp osed to think? Poets are meant to sing a
nd to make words sin g. Poets have no wor ds "of their own." W
riters don't own the ir words. Since when do words belong to
anybody. "Your very own words," indeed! And who are you?

Brion Gysin on the beginning of Cut Up technique:
"William Burroughs and I first went into techniques of writing, together, back in room No. 15 of the Beat Hotel during the cold Paris spring of 1958... Burroughs was more intent on Scotch-taping his photos together into one great continuum on the wall, where scenes faded and slipped into one another, than occupied with editing the monster manuscript... Naked Lunch appeared and Burroughs disappeared. He kicked his habit with apomorphine and flew off to London to see Dr Dent, who had first turned him on to the cure. While cutting a mount for a drawing in room No. 15, I sliced through a pile of newspapers with my Stanley blade and thought of what I had said to Burroughs some six months earlier about the necessity for turning painters' techniques directly into writing. I picked up the raw words and began to piece together texts that later appeared as "First Cut-Ups" in Minutes to Go."
(Brion Gysin, 'Cut-Ups: A Project for Disastrous Success' in A Williams Burroughs Reader, ed. John Calder (London: Picador, 1982), p. 272.)

- permutation poems, generator programmed by Ian Sommerville (1960)
- reammachine, built with Sommerville in 1961

Brion Gysin poems on ubuweb:

also from there:


Language is an abominable misunderstanding which makes up a part of matter. The painters and the physicists have treated matter pretty well. The poets have hardly touched it. In March 1958, when I was living at the Beat Hotel, I proposed to Burroughs to at least make available to literature the means that painters have been using for fifty years. Cut words into pieces and scramble them. You'll hear someone draw a bow-string. Who runs may read, To read better, practice your running. Speed is entirely up to us, since machines have delivered us from the horse. Henceforth the question is to deliver us from that other so-called superior animal, man. It's not worth it to chase out the merchants: their temple is dedicated to the unsuitable lie of the value of the Unique. The crime of separation gave birth to the idea of the Unique which would not be separate. In painting, matter has seen everything: from sand to stuffed goats. Disfigured more and more, the image has been geometrically multiplied to a dizzying degree. A snow of advertising could fall from the sky, and only collector babies and the chimpanzees who make abstract paintings would bother to pick one up." -Brion Gysin, 1963


Recorded in 1958 at the Beat Hotel, rue Git le Coeur, Paris, on a UHER 4400 reel-to-reel recording machine.

"What to do with this all? Paste it to the wall with some photos and see what it looks like. Wait, paste these two pages together and cut in the middle. Paste it all together, end to end, and send it out like a big piano-roll. After all, it's not but matter. There's nothing sacred about words."


Brion Gysin lived an extraordinary life, constantly searching for the hidden. As painter, poet, novelist, inventor, historian, performer and catalyst, Gysin used simple techniques to enchant his works toward revealing unnoticed plaes of experinece within. Most often an art work would fuse two or more elements from his repertoire of acquired disciplines.

His necessity for experimentation with an overwhelming passion to "free the word" led to the invention of the cut-up method of writing. By treating segmented pages of text as collage material, the new arrangements created limitless possibilities of preose. A second seminal technique pursued by Gysin was of a more focused and elegant nature: the permutation. By taking a single phrase and running through all existing possibilities of order, whole realms of implied meanings became apparent.

From working on canvas and paper, Gysin took the obvious continuation of his ideas to audio tape. With the help of mathemetician Ian Sommerville, cut-up and permutated recordings demonstrated the true potential of those theories. Audio cut-ups presented the startling impact of linking words, sounds and time through juxtaposition. The development of the audio permutiation poem added variablility through spacing and inflection which provided characteristics that were impossible on the printed page.

In 1960, Gysin was asked to present sound works for broadcast on the BBC. Among those recorded for the event were "iam that i am," "recalling all active agents," and the "pistol poem" which differed by permutating recordings of a gun firing at varying distances.

Being consistently misunderstood throughout his career, Brion Gysin's Dream Machine went largely unnoticed. This spinning, flickering cylinder was designed to affect the alpha rhythms of the human brain, allowing access to one's inner visual capacities. The first object-kinetic sclpture to be viewed with your eyes closed. Gysin spoke of flashes of memory and 360 degree visions with the clarity of projected film after extended use.


Permutation is a technique commonly used by avant-gardes and above all, and systematically, by the American writer Gertrude Stein. It is possible to permute sentences, words within a sentence, syllables and phonemes within a word. Permutation is a typically modern device and considerable use was made of it in the plastic arts by the constructivists. In fact it permits the complete exhaustion of all the possible combinations within a given choice of material, without limit of number. The Englishman Brion Gysin, one of the founders of the beatnik movement and inventor of such new formulas as the collage-novel, has composed his phonic texts on this principle. "I am" is a classic of the genre. Composed exclusively of permutations of the biblical words "I am that I am", with ever more marked accelerations, he succeeds in rendering, from the initial nucleus, a crowd of "I am"s, the creation of the world in geometrical progression until it fades away in the sidereal silence. "Pistol-Poem" (1960), ermutation for voice and pistol shots, is based on a number of pistol shots fired one, two, three, four, five times simultaneously, while the author, in the typical tone of a sergeant-major, orders the shots as if on parade. "No, poets don't own words" and "Junk is no good baby", both composed in 1962, follow the same principle.

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... is a Media Art historian and independent researcher. She is currently writing on "speculative archiving && experimental preservation of Media Art" and graduated from Prof. Oliver Grau's Media Art Histories program at the Danube University in Krems, Austria with a Master Thesis on Descriptive Metadata for Media Arts. For many years, she has been working in the field of archiving/documenting Media Art, recently at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Media.Art.Research and before as the head of the Ars Electronica Futurelab's videostudio, where she created their archives and primarily worked with the archival material. She was teaching the Prehystories of New Media Class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and in the Media Art Histories program at the Danube University Krems.