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Brion Gysin
Brion Gysin.jpg
Born John Clifford Brian Gysin
19 January 1916
Taplow, England
Died 13 July 1986(1986-07-13) (aged 70)
Paris, France
  • Painter
  • writer
  • poet
Nationality British/Canadian
Education Sorbonne, Downside School
Literary movement Beat, Postmodern, Asemic writing

Brion Gysin (19 January 1916 – 13 July 1986) was a British-Canadian painter, writer, sound poet, performance artist and inventor of experimental devices.

He is best known for his use of the cut-up technique, alongside his close friend, the novelist William S. Burroughs. With the engineer Ian Sommerville he also invented the Dreamachine, a flicker device designed as an art object to be viewed with the eyes closed. It was in painting and drawing, however, that Gysin devoted his greatest efforts, creating calligraphic works inspired by cursive Japanese "grass" script and Arabic script. Burroughs later stated that "Brion Gysin was the only man I ever respected."


Early years

John Clifford Brian Gysin was born at the Canadian military hospital in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, England. His mother, Stella Margaret Martin, was a Canadian from Deseronto, Ontario. His father, Leonard Gysin, a captain with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was killed in action eight months after his son's birth. Stella returned to Canada and settled in Edmonton, Alberta where her son became "the only Catholic day-boy at an Anglican boarding school". Graduating at fifteen, Gysin was sent to Downside School in Stratton-on-the-Fosse, near Bath, Somerset in England, a prestigious college run by the Benedictines and known as "the Eton of Catholic public schools". Despite, or because of, attending a Catholic school, Gysin became an atheist.


In 1934, he moved to Paris to study La Civilisation Française, an open course given at the Sorbonne where he made literary and artistic contacts through Marie Berthe Aurenche, Max Ernst's second wife. He joined the Surrealist Group and began associating with Valentine Hugo, Leonor Fini, Salvador Dalí, Picasso and Dora Maar. A year later, he had his first exhibition at the Galérie Quatre Chemins in Paris with Ernst, Picasso, Hans Arp, Hans Bellmer, Victor Brauner, Giorgio de Chirico, Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy. On the day of the preview, however, he was expelled from the Surrealist Group by André Breton, who ordered the poet Paul Éluard to take down his pictures. Gysin was 19 years old. His biographer, John Geiger, suggests the arbitrary expulsion "had the effect of a curse. Years later, he blamed other failures on the Breton incident. It gave rise to conspiracy theories about the powerful interests who seek control of the art world. He gave various explanations for the expulsion, the more elaborate involving 'insubordination' or lèse majesté towards Breton".

After World War II

After serving in the U.S. army during World War II, Gysin published a biography of Josiah "Uncle Tom" Henson titled, To Master, a Long Goodnight: The History of Slavery in Canada (1946). A gifted draughtsman, he took an 18-month course learning the Japanese language (including calligraphy) that would greatly influence his artwork. In 1949, he was among the first Fulbright Fellows. His goal was to research, at the University of Bordeaux and in the Archivo de Indias in Seville, Spain, the history of slavery, a project that he later abandoned. He moved to Tangier, Morocco, after visiting the city with novelist and composer Paul Bowles in 1950. In 1952/3 he met the travel writer Anne Cumming and they remained friends until his death.

Morocco and the Beat Hotel

Rue Gît-le-Cœur, Paris; site of Beat Hotel
Plaque commemorating site of Beat Hotel

In 1954 in Tangier, Gysin opened a restaurant called The 1001 Nights, with his friend Mohamed Hamri, who was the cook. Gysin hired the Master Musicians of Jajouka from the village of Jajouka to perform alongside entertainment that included acrobats, a dancing boy and fire eaters. The musicians performed there for an international clientele that included William S. Burroughs. Gysin lost the business in 1958, and the restaurant closed permanently. That same year, Gysin returned to Paris, taking lodgings in a flophouse located at 9 rue Gît-le-Cœur that would become famous as the Beat Hotel. Working on a drawing, he discovered a Dada technique by accident.

In September 1959, Gysin not only shared his discovery with Burroughs but the new techniques he had developed for it. Burroughs then put the techniques to use. Gysin helped Burroughs with the editing of several of his novels including Interzone. The pair collaborated on a large manuscript for Grove Press titled The Third Mind but it was determined that it would be impractical to publish it as originally envisioned. The book later published under that title incorporates little of this material. Interviewed for The Guardian in 1997, Burroughs explained that Gysin was "the only man that I've ever respected in my life. I've admired people, I've liked them, but he's the only man I've ever respected." In 1969, Gysin completed his finest novel, The Process, a work judged by critic Robert Palmer as "a classic of 20th century modernism".

Gysin altered the cut-up technique to produce what he called permutation poems in which a single phrase was repeated several times with the words rearranged in a different order with each reiteration. An example of this is "I don't dig work, man/Man, work I don't dig." Many of these permutations were derived using a random sequence generator in an early computer program written by Ian Sommerville. Commissioned by the BBC in 1960 to produce material for broadcast, Gysin's results included "Pistol Poem", which was created by recording a gun firing at different distances and then splicing the sounds. That year, the piece was subsequently used as a theme for the Paris performance of Le Domaine Poetique, a showcase for experimental works by people like Gysin, François Dufrêne, Bernard Heidsieck, and Henri Chopin.

With Sommerville, he built the Dreamachine in 1961. Described as "the first art object to be seen with the eyes closed", the flicker device uses alpha waves in the 8–16 Hz range to produce a change of consciousness in receptive viewers.

D. Woodard and W. S. Burroughs with Dreamachine, 1997
David Woodard and William S. Burroughs stand behind Dreamachine, circa 1997

Later years

In April 1974, while sitting at a social engagement, Gysin had a very noticeable rectal bleeding. In May he wrote to Burroughs complaining he was not feeling well. A short time later he was diagnosed with colon cancer and began to receive cobalt treatment. Between December 1974 and April 1975, Gysin had to undergo several surgeries, among them a very traumatic colostomy, that drove him to extreme depression. Later, in Fire: Words by Day – Images by Night (1975), a crudely lucid text, he would describe the horrendous ordeal he went through.

In 1985 Gysin was made an American Commander of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He'd begun to work extensively with noted jazz soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. They recorded an album in 1986 with French musician Ramuntcho Matta, featuring Gysin singing/rapping his own texts, with performances by Lacy, Don Cherry, Elli Medeiros, Lizzy Mercier Descloux and more. The album was reissued on CD in 1993 by Crammed Discs, under the title Self-Portrait Jumping.


On 13 July 1986 Brion Gysin died of lung cancer. Anne Cumming arranged his funeral and for his ashes to be scattered at the Caves of Hercules in Morocco. An obituary by Robert Palmer published in The New York Times described him as a man who "threw off the sort of ideas that ordinary artists would parlay into a lifetime career, great clumps of ideas, as casually as a locomotive throws off sparks". Later that year a heavily edited version of his novel, The Last Museum, was published posthumously by Faber & Faber (London) and by Grove Press (New York).


According to José Férez Kuri, author of Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age (2003) and co-curator of a major retrospective of the artist's work at The Edmonton Art Gallery in 1998, Gysin's wide range of "radical ideas would become a source of inspiration for artists of the Beat Generation, as well as for their successors (among them David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Keith Haring, and Laurie Anderson)". Other artists include Genesis P-Orridge, John Zorn (as displayed on the 2013's Dreamachines album) and Brian Jones.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Brion Gysin para niños

  • Asemic writing
  • Brian Jones Presents The Pipes Of Pan at Jajouka
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