'We're living in the Burroughs century' 

click to enlarge Photo of William S. Burroughs taken in front of the Theatre Odeon in Paris in October 1959 by Byron Gysin. - COURTESY OF BARRY MILES.
  • Photo of William S. Burroughs taken in front of the Theatre Odeon in Paris in October 1959 by Byron Gysin.
  • Courtesy of Barry Miles.

He was born in St. Louis and traveled (and shot up, and cut up) widely, stopping in Mexico City, London, Paris and New York, before spending his final years in Lawrence, Ka. But one place where William S. Burroughs didn't spend much time was Bloomington; he likely visited there only once while a public figure, doing a reading at the Bluebird with sound poet John Giorno in 1981. So why is the city hosting an unprecedented celebration of his work 100 years after his birth?

Well, why not? The Burroughs Century organizer Charles Cannon had been toying with the idea of such an event for a few years, and last spring, he says, "For whatever reason, I just went for it." A sci-fi writer working outside of academia who looks to the dystopian triumvirate of Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard for inspiration, Cannon had done little more than outline a possible festival when he put in a cold call to William Burroughs Communications, ostensibly the keeper of all things Burroughs, based out of Lawrence.

"I thought, somebody's going to answer the phone - 'Yes, this is William Burroughs Communications' - an intern, maybe," Cannon - rather tall, warm and studious - told me over a burger at Workingman's Friend. (Is meeting the guy putting on a Burroughs festival at a diner a little like doing business with David Lynch in a booth at Bob's Big Boy?) "The phone rings and rings, an older man answers, very pleasant voice. I said, 'Is this William Burroughs Communications?' He said, 'Well, who's this?'"

From that slightly suspicious beginning - perhaps in a tone keeping with Burroughs' often paranoid work - Cannon launched himself (or was launched) into a network of friends, scholars and artists devoted to Burroughs' work. The guy who answered the phone was James Grauerholz, the executor of the Burroughs' estate and the writer's personal assistant and companion during the final 25 years of his life. Grauerholz gave his blessing and then passed Cannon along to Yuri Zupancic, the art curator for the Burroughs' estate. Zupancic agreed to personally bring some of Burroughs' visual art to IU's Grunwald Gallery.

"And it just kept growing," according to Cannon, as one contact put him in touch with another. A friend from Wisconsin told him to call Ohio State University, which houses a Burroughs' archive and eventually agreed to loan material to the Lilly Library for its show of Burroughs books, correspondence and ephemera. A meeting with Indiana University Cinema head Jon Vickers led to the development of a film festival element. "Getting Jon on board really gave us momentum," Cannon said. "There's territorialism on campus, and I'm not affiliated with the university, but that gave us legitimacy in the eyes of a lot of other people."

click to enlarge William S. Burroughs, Untitled, 1992c, Ink on file folder, part of William S. Burroughs: Paintings at the Grunwald Gallery. - COURTESY OF THE ESTATE OF WILLIAM BURROUGHS.
  • William S. Burroughs, Untitled, 1992c, Ink on file folder, part of William S. Burroughs: Paintings at the Grunwald Gallery.
  • Courtesy of the Estate of William Burroughs.

And then came more yesses, both solicited and not. Oliver Harris - who edited the definitive version of Burroughs' Junky, The Yage Letters and the "cut-up" trilogy," and was called by Burroughs scholarship site realitystudio.com "the most eminent living scholar of William Burroughs and his works" aside from Grauerholz - is the keynote speaker for a Burroughs symposium. And Cannon managed to interest some big names in the world of subversive art: punk poet Lydia Lunch, who will perform a night of poetry and song inspired Burroughs; Mark Hosler, long-time member of culture jamming media collective Negativland, who will bring his brain-warping sound collages to The Bishop.

Which still doesn't answer the question of "Why Burroughs?" - even if it is a pretty inspiring case study for anyone who wants to put on a show and cultivate a community without a whole lot of money or experience. Here's Cannon's best case: "It's kind of a play on words, the name The Burroughs Century. He was born a 100 years ago - but we feel that we're living in the Burroughs century, with his concerns with control, addictions, the war on drugs, the prurient morality of America; the way that we delight in the things that we find scandalous. We live in a very Burroughsian world where we're addicted to the very things that we're offended by."

And when it comes to Burroughs, says Cannon, there's no separating the tale from its teller; no way or need to pussyfoot around the darkness in the author's biography (he was convicted of manslaughter in the death of his second wife and struggled with addiction until his death). And thus it makes all the more sense, at least to this reporter, to consider the totality of Burroughs' work, from correspondence to published texts, from casual brushstrokes on file folders and 16mm home movies to rehearsed statements of hard-won truths.

"In every single one of his novels, at some point he, himself, addresses the reader," Cannon said. "In the atrophied preface to Naked Lunch, he says, 'Now I, William Burroughs, will open my word horde.' Burroughs is not interested in outrage for itself, not interested in offending the bourgeoisie. He was reaching toward a battle with capital-C Control, with those 'powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours; to sell the ground from unborn feet forever.' That's a direct quote from his journal Last Words. He calls out those men to do battle, and for him it's necessary to deconstruct language and literature, take it apart and put it together again in order to fight that battle because these are the systems by which people are controlled."

click to enlarge A still from Burroughs: The Movie, making its Midwest premiere Feb. 6 at IU Cinema.
  • A still from Burroughs: The Movie, making its Midwest premiere Feb. 6 at IU Cinema.

Key events

William S. Burroughs: Paintings
Though Feb. 6 at Grunwald Gallery, free
As much a visual artist as a writer during the last two decades of his life, Burroughs is best known for his "shotgun paintings," created by setting up cans of spray paint in front of plywood boards and then blowing the hell out of them. But not all his work was so spectacular. We quote from a catalogue issued by the auction house Bonham's: "Burroughs began painting on file folders by accident. Since he always had an abundance on hand, he had been using them as palettes to mix colors for his paintings. Eventually he observed the artistic merit in the folders themselves." The Grunwald Gallery is offering a rare opportunity to see more than 50 of Burroughs' file folders, plus other work, including a few "shotgun paintings."

Everything Is Permitted: The Life and Work of William S. Burroughs
Through Feb. 10 at Lilly Library, free
Indiana University's home for rare books and manuscripts is showing off some Burroughs collectors' items in its archives - including first editions of Junkie and Naked Lunch and materials from the archives of his British publishers - as well as other key items on loan, such as the original scroll of Kerouac's On the Road (the character Old Bull Lee, said to stand in for Burroughs, is described by Dean Moriarty/Kerouac as "a gray, nondescript-looking fellow you wouldn't notice on the street, unless you looked closer and saw his mad, bony skull with its strange youthfulness - a Kansas minister with exotic, phenomenal fires and mysteries").

Burroughs Film Series
Feb. 6-9 at IU Cinema, most screenings $3
A new restoration of the documentary Burroughs: The Movie, premiered in 1983 and rarely seen since then, is kicking off a film series featuring features and shorts that involve Burroughs as actor, director and/or subject. Howard Brookner began shooting Burroughs: The Movie in 1978 as his senior thesis, then expanded it to a feature five years later; he had access to and traveled with the writer during those years, and spoke with several of his friends, including Allen Ginsberg and Francis Bacon. Brookner's nephew (the director died from AIDS complications in 1989) raised money via Kickstarter for the restoration, which opened last month in New York and will make its Midwest premiere in Bloomington. That's only one of the rarities in the series: Also screening is a shorts program featuring films made by Burroughs and his friend Anthony Balch, most of which are rarely shown in 16mm.

"In the beginning was the word..." Lydia Lunch reads William S. Burroughs
Feb. 7, 9 p.m., at The Bishop, $12
Lydia Lunch: "I thought it was important to insert myself in the Burroughs Century is because we talk a lot about the same things. We both talk about need a lot; he talks about the 'algebra of need.' ... I thought it would be interesting instead of using his cut-up technique to see what happens to cut-in Burroughs work to mine. That's basically what I'll be doing at the performance at the Bishop." (Read the rest of Kyle Long's interview with Lunch in this week's NUVO).

Speaking of...

  • Lydia Lunch reads William S. Burroughs
  • Lydia Lunch reads William S. Burroughs

    "He was just such an odd creature who had an incredible style. It was everything he represented, a lack of conventionality and complete rebellion. Burroughs was so unapologetic about what he did."
    • Feb 5, 2014
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