Living in a city means seeing things get knocked down and seeing new things built up. I grew up watching the blocks of flats around the corner getting shredded. JCBs peeling the walls off, bits of the inside exposed to the outside. Doorways and fireplaces and kitchen fittings open to the elements and juxtaposed against the sky. Everything turned inside out.
In the 50s and 60s, people watched their own crowded homes in the centre of town get ripped down in a fit of progress. They were moved into flats like the ones I watched being torn down in the 90s.
In 2007, the artist Richard Wilson came to my city and cut an 8 metre diameter hole out of the walls and windows of a building opposite Moorfields station and made it rotate, outside in, inside out. He built a big rotating machine to upset the order of the city. And in doing so he took something derelict and let it be seen in a new way.
What I want to write about here are machines for upsetting order. Starting with a simple game with bits of paper…
The cut-up (popularised by writers like Byron Gysin and William Burroughs) is a machine of this type.
The written text presents us with reality in a concrete way. You read along the line, and then go onto the next line and so on and so on. And so text leads us by the hand in a neat, linear order. One word follows another follows another follows another, and so the linearity of the text reflects our experience of the linearity of time.
Text is representation. It neatens things, puts them in a linear order. But life isn’t like that at all; it’s not one thing after another. Life is juxtapositions. Everything going on right now at the same time, and so much that I never ever see. The train passing as I write this, the bird on the cable up there, the sticker on the bench over there, the dampness of the grass under me, the noise of the train at the same time as the sound of my breath and the singing of the bird and a bicycle and the shouting of the children coming up the path, and I’m paying attention to part of it but not all of it, and as I write it down I ignore most of it and list some of it. And I produce this text in which I list this small selection of things and make it appear that it’s happening in series, one thing after another. It’s not. It’s all happening, right now, and I’m happening too, right now.
And this leads us to the cut-up. The cut-up aims to mess up the neatness and linearity of the written text.
The first stage is to learn how to dismember. This takes a lot of practice. Take a page of text and have a go. What is the text? An old familiar friend that you’ve read over and over? A piece of your own writing? This text, fresh from the printer? A poem? A political speech? A letter?
Now, how would you like to do it? Do you rip it down the middle and then and then across?
Do you shred it into strips?
Do you rip it with your hands? What does that feel like – what is the sensation? How much resistance does the paper give as you start to tear? What is the sound? Do you go at the text with a weapon, like a pair of scissors or a scalpel? What about going at it with a potato peeler – would that even work?
Having learned how to disassemble the text, it’s time to piece things together again. Shuffle the ripped up pieces of paper around and push the words into different orders, then push them around again and again, exploring the different permutations. Re-read the text and see how the fragments line up. Read across things in a new order, find new connections between words that were previously held apart. Confuse the text and confuse the senses that have grown used to reading things in a linear fashion. Confusion? Yes, but also revelation. You are creating disorder from order and order from disorder, establishing new connections and expanding your awareness.
Learn to become like a child again, playing with pieces of lego.
Of course Christ the Lord would be a child. Who else but a child could play with the pieces and create a form of such beauty, then move the pieces again to make another shape, and another. Only a child’s imagination could give birth to endless millions of worlds.
Such beauty, then move imagination of worlds to another shape and endless millions could move the pieces again to make only a child’s birth. Be a child. Who else but pieces? Christ the Lord could play and create a form of a child, could play with the world, of course.
To endless millions such beauty could give imagination of world a shape, and another, then move. A child would of course play with the Christ the Lord. Create a child, who else. A child’s birth to make another. But only the pieces, and a form of the pieces again.
And already I’ve tidied things up too much and shut out the noise. Neatness and linearity are smirking at me. Try again…
The goal of the cut-up is to create a new door to reality, a new way in which forces us to pay attention. Try ripping two texts that you’ve become familiar with down the middle. Stick the texts together so that the words of one text read into the other. Find a new attentiveness for old words. See new word combinations pop up that demand attention and reinterpretation. See new words. See the texts speak to eachother and hear them speak like something new.
The principle can be extended beyond written texts. (It is, after all, an application of the principle of collage to the written text, as Byron Gysin noted back in the 60s.) Try it with a map. Rip up a map and stick together in a new order. Now attempt to navigate around your neighbourhood using the new map. See what you find. (This works on a literal and a metaphorical level.)
Let’s go in search of buried treasure!
In fact, the principle of the cut-up can be extended to the fabric of your everyday life. (This is conventionally called a “behavioural cut-up”.) Consider your daily routine; cut it up. Push the fragments around. Create chaos from order and order from chaos.
The goal is to pay new attention to the things we do by shifting our actions into a new order and letting those actions breathe in new places.
Think through what happened yesterday. Write it down if you need to. Cut it up so that each action and each location is a fragment. Throw all the fragments in a bowl, then mix them together.
Stick your hand in, pull out two fragments and read them together. Find new combinations of actions. Find new combinations of actions and places. Find new combinations of places. Find ways of living out these new combinations. Disturb your routine, make linear time less linear. Through variation, through learning to see the same things but in a different order, through becoming aware of juxtapositions, you are making mundane behaviours less mundane.
The purpose of all this? Allow me to explain…
Who wants to see the same cards dealt out in the same order again and again and again?
Cut the deck.
Don’t be afraid to give a helping hand to the process of division. Get stuck in and open up reality, like Moses parting the Red Sea.
To stare at the wall of water on the right. To look across and see the wall of water on the left. To walk across the bed of the sea and feel dry ground underfoot. A moment of silence before the walls collapse into one another.
Shuffle away. Use doubt where appropriate. Where am I?
Riffle. Weave. Create a new order.
Then disturb it again.
Then create again.
And I looked around and I thought: The landmarks have all moved. And I asked: So where am I now? And so I learned to feel my way around all over again.