The cut-up method is a literary technique in which a written text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. It can be traced back to at least the Dadaists of the 1920s.
In the 1950s Brion Gysin developed the cut-up method after, so the story goes, 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 then began deliberately cutting newspaper articles into sections, which he randomly rearranged.
Gysin introduced the author William 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.
‘First Cut-Ups,’ ‘Minutes to Go,’ and ‘Cut Me Up * Brion Gysin’ (1959–1960) were among Gysin’s first experiments with the cut-up technique of writing. The book Minutes to Go resulted from these initial works.
The short film, The Cut-Ups opened in London in 1967. It features cut up footage of Burroughs and Gysin. Cinematography by Antony Balch, screenplay by Burroughs.
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.
Cut ups still resonate today. They can be seen as an early visualization of the remixing and re-presentation of information in digital media, especially the web.