The cut-up technique (or découpé in French) is an aleatory literary technique in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. The concept can be traced to at least the Dadaists of the 1920s, but was popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by writer William S. Burroughs, and has since been used in a wide variety of contexts.
The cut-up and the closely associated fold-in are the two main techniques:
- Cut-up is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text and cutting it in pieces with a few or single words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged into a new text, such as in poems by Tristan Tzara as described in his short text, TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM.
- Fold-in is the technique of taking two sheets of linear text (with the same linespacing), folding each sheet in half vertically and combining with the other, then reading across the resulting page, such as in The Third Mind. It is Burroughs and Gysin's joint development.
History in literature
A precedent of the technique occurred during a Dadaist rally in the 1920s in which Tristan Tzara offered to create a poem on the spot by pulling words at random from a hat. Collage, which was popularized roughly contemporaneously with the Surrealist movement, sometimes incorporated texts such as newspapers or brochures. Prior to this event, the technique had been published in an issue of 391 in the poem by Tzara, dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love under the sub-title, TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM.
Also in the 1950s, painter and writer Brion Gysin more fully developed the cut-up method after accidentally re-discovering it. He had placed layers of newspapers as a mat to protect a tabletop from being scratched while he cut papers with a razor blade. Upon cutting through the newspapers, Gysin noticed that the sliced layers offered interesting juxtapositions of text and image. He began deliberately cutting newspaper articles into sections, which he randomly rearranged. The book Minutes to Go resulted from his initial cut-up experiment: unedited and unchanged cut-ups which emerged as coherent and meaningful prose. South African poet Sinclair Beiles also used this technique and co-authored Minutes To Go.
Gysin introduced Burroughs to the technique at the Beat Hotel. The pair later applied the technique to printed media and audio recordings in an effort to decode the material's implicit content, hypothesizing that such a technique could be used to discover the true meaning of a given text. Burroughs also suggested cut-ups may be effective as a form of divination saying, "When you cut into the present the future leaks out." Burroughs also further developed the "fold-in" technique. In 1977, Burroughs and Gysin published The Third Mind, a collection of cut-up writings and essays on the form. Jeff Nuttall's publication My Own Mag was another important outlet for the then-radical technique.
In an interview, Alan Burns noted that for Europe After The Rain (1965) and subsequent novels he used a version of cut-ups: "I did not actually use scissors, but I folded pages, read across columns, and so on, discovering for myself many of the techniques Burroughs and Gysin describe".
In 1969, poets Howard W. Bergerson and J. A. Lindon developed a cut-up technique known as vocabularyclept poetry, in which a poem is formed by taking all the words of an existing poem and rearranging them, often preserving the metre and stanza lengths.
A drama scripted for five voices by performance poet Hedwig Gorski in 1977 originated the idea of creating poetry only for performance instead of for print publication. The “neo-verse drama” titled Booby, Mama! written for "guerilla theater" performances in public places used a combination of newspaper cut-ups that were edited and choreographed for a troupe of non-professional street actors.
Kathy Acker, a literary and intermedia artist, sampled external sources and reconfigured them into the creation of shifting versions of her own constructed identity. In her novel Blood and Guts in High School, Acker explored literary cut-up and appropriation as an integral part of her method.
History in film
Antony Balch and Burroughs created a collaboration film, The Cut-Ups that opened in London in 1967. This was part of an abandoned project called Guerrilla Conditions meant as a documentary on Burroughs and filmed throughout 1961-1965. Inspired by Burroughs' and Gysin's technique of cutting up text and rearranging it in random order, Balch had an editor cut his footage for the documentary into little pieces and impose no control over its reassembly. The film opened at Oxford Street’s Cinephone cinema and had a disturbing reaction. Many audience members claimed the film made them ill, others demanded their money back, while some just stumbled out of the cinema ranting "it's disgusting". Other cut-up films include Ghost at n°9 (Paris) (1963–72), a posthumously released short film compiled from reels found at Balch’s office after his death, and William Buys a Parrott (1982), Bill and Tony (1972), Towers Open Fire (1963) and The Junky's Christmas (1966).
From the early 1970s, David Bowie used cut-ups to create some of his lyrics. This technique influenced Kurt Cobain's songwriting. Thom Yorke applied a similar method in Radiohead's Kid A (2000) album, writing single lines, putting them into a hat, and drawing them out at random while the band rehearsed the songs. Perhaps indicative of Thom Yorke's influences, instructions for "How to make a Dada poem" appeared on Radiohead's website at this time.
Burroughs taught the cut-up technique to musician Genesis P-Orridge in 1971 as a method for "altering reality". H/er explanation was that everything is recorded, and if it is recorded, then it can be edited (P-Orridge, 2003).
Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire reported to Inpress magazine's Andrez Bergen that "I do think the manipulation of sound in our early days – the physical act of cutting up tapes, creating tape loops and all that – has a strong reference to Burroughs and Gysin."
Recorded speech can also be cut-up. With skill, the cut-up speech maintains a natural cadence. Satirists like to cut-up politicians speeches to make them say silly things. Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris did frequently in their radio news satire On The Hour. Cassetteboy have done this to many politician's speeches as well as popular TV such as The Apprentice.
This was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast in 2015 Cutting up the cut-up.
- Dissociated press
- Surrealist techniques
- Assemblage (composition)
- Vocabularyclept poetry
- Found poetry
- "manifestos: dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love by tristan tzara, 12th december 1920". 391. 1920-12-12. Retrieved 2011-06-27.
- Laura Caruso. William Burroughs, the infinite groundbreaker. Buenos Aires Herald. buenosairesherald.com.
- Break Through in Grey Room
- David W. Madden. "A Conversation with Alan Burns". Retrieved 2013-06-05.
- Rogers, Ben (February 1969). "Some Neglected Ways of Words". Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Greenwood Periodicals. 2 (1): 14–19.
- Lindon, J. A. (May 1969). "The Vocabularyclept Poem, № 1". Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Greenwood Periodicals. 2 (2): 85–89.
- Bishop, Yvonne M.; Fienberg, Stephen E.; Holland, Paul W. (2007). Discrete Multivariate Analysis: Theory and Applications. Springer. pp. 340–342. ISBN 978-0-387-72805-6.
- Intoxication: Heathcliff on Powell Street, Slough Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0615271033
- "A complete “disorientation of the senses: WILLIAM BURROUGHS’ & ANTONY BALCH’S ‘CUT UPS’" Dangerous Minds
- Rob Bridgett, "An Appraisal of the Films of William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and Anthony Balch in terms of Recent Avant Garde Theory", Bright Lights Film Journal
- William S. Burroughs: The Cut-Up Films
- See the notes for The "Priest" They Called Him, a 1993 collaboration between Burroughs and Cobain, released by Tim/Kerr records.
- "Radiohead - Everything In Its Right Place". radiohead1.tripod.com. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
- "Vintage Cab Sav," Andrez Bergen. Inpress, 1996.
- UbuWeb: William S. Burroughs featuring a cut-up, K-9 Was in Combat with the Alien Mind-Screens (1965), made with Ian Sommerville
- the ultimate cut-up machine a free digital version of the cut-up technique
- The Tristan Tzara Arcade is a collection of Cut-up pieces composed from text found in the public domain. These pieces can be further arranged by the reader using an automated (jQuery script) reTypesetting function (which illustrates how possible variant compositions can be achieved using the Cut-up technique).