Magazine article Art Monthly

Dead Fingers Talk: The Tape Experiments of William S Burroughs

Magazine article Art Monthly

Dead Fingers Talk: The Tape Experiments of William S Burroughs

Article excerpt

Dead Fingers Talk: The Tape Experiments of William s Burroughs

IMT Gallery London 28 May to 18 July

The centrepiece of this exquisitely staged show is two unpublished tape experiments by William Burroughs, made in the 1960s and 70s with his British assistant Ian Sommerville. Twenty-three artists, musicians, writers and curators were invited to respond to the tapes and the results are dense, rewarding and thoughtful. The highlight must be Burroughs's piece Her Primrose Laundry, 1966, a 22-minute two-channel experiment that opens with the smaltzy grandeur of Delibes ballet Coppdia, the story of a doctor who invents a life-size dancing doll. Much like the cut-up technique Burroughs pioneered in fiction (Dead Fingers Talk was his fifth novel, published in 1963, that recycled material from three previous books), this experiment cuts between dialogue from a TV series called 'Amos Burke--Secret Agent', concerning the search for an atomic bomb hidden inside a sculpture, and a dislocated exchange between Burroughs and Sommerville. Amid the dramatic countdown to nuclear annihilation, as the frenzied scientist works to defuse the bomb, Burroughs's voice from the other speaker is trying out tonal ranges as he repeats 'hello . yes . hello' in his round, resonant voice, over and over. If we use tone as the device to smuggle emotional meaning into the spoken word, here Burroughs sounds bored, excited, weary, faint, seductive, shocked, impatient or amused, with Sommerville imitating him, countering his tone, until they both begin to laugh and Burroughs says: 'Stop. OK.' The TV investigation builds a violin-scored tension while the intimacy between the two men is hinted at in their colloquy that reveals the neophyte's admiration and awe. The final soundclip of the TV drama discloses that one of the characters, having survived the nuclear threat, is still unable to invite a Mexican woman into her home and is castigated by the hero for being prejudiced.

Humour and tenderness are not usually associated with Burroughs and are really only picked up by one of the few women in the show--Cathy Lane. In her sound piece In Combat With.., 2010, two or possibly three women, who sound like family members, talk animatedly over each other about the task of trying to record one's thoughts while preparing food. It veers from colloquial fun--'What are you going to have the mushrooms on if you don't have a bit of toast? …

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