Abstract Notions
Editor Christian Williams explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality.

William S. Burroughs: His Final Years and Lasting Legacy

William S. Burroughs art

Lawrence, Kansas commemorates the 100th birthday of a counterculture icon.

When I tell people that I live in Kansas, I’m quick to follow that I live in Lawrence, Kansas, which tempers an initial reaction that’s usually rife with references to farms and flat land.

If they’re a college basketball fan, they’ll recognize Lawrence as the home of the Kansas Jayhawks—one of the sport's most successful programs. If they’re a history buff, they’ll recall Lawrence’s role in the Bleeding Kansas days preceding the Civil War. And if they’re someone in love with literature, Lawrence usually brings two names to mind: Langston Hughes and William S. Burroughs.

While Hughes spent his earliest years in Lawrence, Burroughs made it his home for the final 16, and finished some of his most popular works there, among them the Red Night trilogy. His presence in Lawrence made the city an essential destination for a who’s who of late 20th century counterculture, and most longtime locals have a fun story to share about running into Burroughs in unlikely places, such as the cat food aisle of his neighborhood grocery store.

Thanks to the savvy advice of his caretaker and companion, James Grauerholz, Burroughs spent his years in Lawrence collaborating with contemporary musicians like Kurt Cobain, filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, and artists like Keith Haring, effectively gaining a new generation of fans. One could argue that if Burroughs’ years before Lawrence were spent establishing himself as a visionary writer, thinker, and artist, his years in Lawrence were spent ensuring that no one soon forget who he was or what he did (and continued to do) thanks to Grauerholz's guidance.

Considering the integral role Lawrence played in Burroughs’ life, it’s been great to see all of the various ways the city is celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday this month. The epicenter of the celebration is the Lawrence Arts Center, which has put together an outstanding exhibit of the visual art that comprised the majority of his creative output in his final years. Featuring a variety of paintings and mixed media pieces from spray-painted doors to bullet-ridden wooden planks, it’s clear by looking at his art that his sharp wit, deadpan humor, and satirical nature weren’t just characteristics of his unique writing style.

The topic of Burroughs’ relevance was the focus of a panel discussion I recently attended at the Arts Center featuring Grauerholz, Burroughs’ biographer Barry Miles, and Ira Silverberg, one of Burroughs’ literary agents. Over the course of the discussion and audience Q&A, it became clear to me that the attention still bestowed upon Burroughs is indicative of the lasting impact he’s had on our culture. From breaking down the walls of censorship through the publication of Naked Lunch to constantly challenging his readers to question authority, the panel pointed to multiple examples of how Burroughs’ influence has spread far beyond his well-known association with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the other Beats. “Burroughs was one of the first to attack control systems and challenge you to find out where your information is coming from,” said Miles. “Unlike other Beats, he’s the only one that remains truly relevant.”

Aside from the role Lawrence played in Burroughs’ life, the panel also spoke at length about the growing international interest in his work, which has made it possible to continue printing new editions of his books (Grauerholz mentioned that Burroughs’ books have been translated into at least 30 different languages), as well as comprehensive biographies such as Miles’ latest: Call Me Burroughs: A Life (Twelve Books, 2014). At more than 600 pages, Miles’ book is an incredibly detailed but fascinating look at the circumstances and events that shaped Burroughs’ world view and provided the framework for his work.

As Burroughs’ work continues to find new audiences, it’s important to recognize the role that those who knew him personally continue to serve in keeping his work alive and accessible. “Today, we are rebuilding the audience for Burroughs,” said Silverberg. “If there aren’t people maintaining the legacy, there isn’t one.” To take Silverberg’s point a step further, when an artist is no longer living and their output ceases, it’s the responsibility of those who hold their work in high regard to pass it on and keep it alive—an obvious, but oft forgotten notion. To that end, Grauerholz recently donated Burroughs’ last journals, edited manuscripts, and other notes and letters to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas—a move that not only ensures future academic study of Burroughs, but one that perpetuates Lawrence’s role as an essential destination for those with an interest in discovering the man and his work. “William spent his last years, wrote his last books, painted his (first and) last paintings and jotted-down his last words in Lawrence, Kansas,” Grauerholz said in the KU news release announcing the donation. “So the city of Lawrence, and the University of Kansas which is the heart of our community, deserve to have the last word on Burroughs’ life and works.”

Illustration by Christiaan Tonnis ("William S. Burroughs" / Video / Laserprint / 2006), licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.  He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.

Listening and Seeing with James Benning

james benning

American independent filmmaker reconnects us with life in the moment.

My first experience with independent filmmaker James Benning was a short clip from his film 13 Lakes (2005). Shot on 16mm film—Benning’s medium of choice for the first 40 years of his career—13 Lakes is just what the title suggests: 13, ten-minute scenes shot with a stationary camera near 13 different lakes.

For the first three minutes or so, I found myself fidgeting and wondering if there was going to be any “action.” But then, I gradually relaxed and focused on the sound of the water lapping a rocky shore. Then I noticed the clouds slowly shifting from one side of the frame to the other, their reflections dancing on the surface of the water. Eventually, I realized that what first appeared to be a static scene was actually constantly moving, and I was mesmerized. Without all of the effects, dialogue, and direction I’ve become accustomed to seeing in film, Benning’s documentaries require a different kind of attention—the kind that offers us that rare opportunity to slow down and experience life in the moment.

It’s an opportunity that I remember having quite a bit as a kid. Whether it was reclining in the grass to make pictures out of the clouds, being fascinated by the snaking plumes of smoke and steam that seemed to punctuate every drive through the parts of Milwaukee and Chicago where I grew up, or people-watching in the mall while waiting for my mom on a bench, there always seemed to be ample time to allow myself to become fixated with the little details and fleeting thoughts that I hardly find time to notice these days. Benning’s films remind me that it’s still possible.

On first viewing, Benning’s films bring to mind the experimental films of Andy Warhol, specifically, the epic test of patience that is Empire (1964), which celebrated its 50th anniversary in July 2014. Compared to Warhol’s eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building at night, Benning’s films seem like a Michael Bay blockbuster. But the similarity I see between Empire and Benning’s work is that the filmmaker is asking the viewer to not only focus on slight changes and subtle details, but to let the mind wander; to use the films as a springboard for daydreaming. Still, the fact that they require patience and a different level of attention has attracted the criticism that they’re slow. In a recent interview with Nick Bradshaw of British film magazine Sight & Sound (October 2013), Benning directly challenges that critique: 

“I always believe that any learning comes through concentration and patience, and that you have to train yourself to have that patience and to perceive. That isn’t slow to me, that’s hard work. It may be slow in the movement of things but it isn’t slow in the stuff that’s going on in your mind when you watch something for a long time and you see very minimal changes: you start to learn from that.”

A quick search for “James Benning” on YouTube will yield plenty to whet your appetite. While I only found a short clip of 13 Lakes, Benning’s fascinating Ten Skies (2005) is available in full. Like 13 Lakes, Ten Skies rewards the viewer with that rare opportunity to step off the carousel of modern life and find majesty in the mundane:

If the small sampling of his work on YouTube piques your interest, the Austrian Film Museum is planning on releasing his entire body of 16mm films on DVD—an essential project that will not only preserve Benning’s early work, but make it available to a much wider audience. While those DVDs are currently only available in non-U.S. format, increased demand for them in the States could eventually change that and introduce Benning to an audience outside of the film students and documentary buffs that already hold his films in high regard.

Photo by Manfred Werner, licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.  He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.

See It Soon: City Lights - Criterion Collection

City Lights

Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece of pantomime gets the much-deserved “Criterion treatment.”

In 1928, while the rest of Hollywood was scrambling to incorporate speech into motion pictures after the immediate success of The Jazz Singer, Charlie Chaplin was busy making yet another silent film: City Lights.

Fully aware that technology and audience preference were about to make his particular craft obsolete, Chaplin focused his tireless nature on creating a film that served as both his final ode to the art of pantomime as well as a thumb to the nose for anyone who thought talking would make film more entertaining. The end result is a masterpiece of filmmaking that is just as effective at drawing laughs and tears as it was when it premiered in 1931.

Everything that made Chaplin a delight to watch is on display in City Lights, from slapstick to sight gags to moments of incredible poignancy. And tying it all together was Chaplin’s remarkable ability to know just how to tug at the audience’s heart strings one moment, only to turn the action on a dime for a laugh.

I think a film that’s been out for 81 years eclipses the statute of limitations on “spoiler alerts,” but if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip past this paragraph. Otherwise, here’s a recap of the plot: Chaplin’s Tramp encounters, and quickly becomes smitten, with a blind flower girl who mistakes him for a wealthy man. Meanwhile, the Tramp saves an actual rich man from suicide, for which he is eternally grateful, but only when he’s drunk. The Tramp’s friendship with the drunk rich man helps perpetuate the illusion that he’s wealthy in the flower girl’s eyes, and the Tramp makes it his ultimate goal to help her solve her financial difficulties as well as regain her sight. Maintaining a friendship with the rich man proves difficult, but pays its dividends in the end when the man gives the Tramp enough money to help the flower girl financially, just before regaining sobriety and accusing the Tramp of burglary. After serving several months in jail, the Tramp—ragged as ever —happens upon the flower girl, who now has sight and her own flower shop. She’s been waiting for him to return, but has no idea about his real identity. What happens next is one of the most powerful moments in film history, and the perfect ending to a masterpiece:

Considering how well this film has stood the test of time, it’s only fitting that it has received the “Criterion treatment” in an expansive Blu-ray/DVD issue that features a magnificent digital restoration of the film and soundtrack, as well as numerous special features that shed more light on Chaplin’s state of mind as he crafted what many consider his magnum opus. I found the included documentary featuring Wallace and Gromit creator Peter Lord to be particularly enlightening, as he breaks down some of his favorite scenes and shares from a filmmaker’s perspective just how brilliant Chaplin was. This is essential viewing for any Chaplin aficionado, and well worth every penny.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.  He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.

Tune In: Dead Tenant

dead tenant

Andrew Amirzadeh aims to be known as the Andrés Segovia of electric guitar

If you’re familiar with classical music or if you play guitar, you’ve heard the otherworldly ability of Spanish guitar virtuoso Andrés Segovia. Considered by many to be the father of modern classical guitar, Segovia is still a touchstone for today’s guitar shredders-in-training, no matter what the genre.

I recently had a chance to meet and listen to one such student and admirer of Segovia—26-year-old Andrew Amirzadeh, who goes by the stage name Dead Tenant. Amirzadeh has taken master classes with several contemporary greats including Chick Corea, Bela Fleck, and Victor Wooten, and has synthesized that training into a unique playing style that blends the technicality of classical guitar composition with electric guitar.

On his new release, You Live to Live Without, Amirzadeh tackles four complex classical guitar compositions with only his Telecaster, his amp, and a pick—he didn’t use any effects pedals or multiple tracks. While he plays the compositions straight, the precise picking and reverb of his electric guitar add a transcendent quality to already beautiful music that rewards attentive listeners and ambient fans alike. Regarding the former, it’s impressive to hear Amirzadeh touch every note with precision; he’s fast, but more importantly, he’s accurate. And for those who like to work with music constantly playing in the background (like me), Amirzadeh’s playing creates an ideal backdrop for concentration and contemplation. You Live to Live Without is available through Bandcamp with the option to pay what you like, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly:

Technical proficiency aside, Amirzadeh’s playing packs a powerful emotional punch—one that I experienced first hand when he brought his unique style to a local venue I frequent in Lawrence, Kansas. Though he was sharing the bill with a couple of garage rock bands, and playing for an audience that wasn’t as attentive as the performance warranted, Amirzadeh floored those of us who managed to tune out the background noise and focus on his playing. Performing several of his own compositions along with an adaptation of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” Amirzadeh poured himself into his music, and the result was a memorable performance for the handful of us that paid attention:

Speaking with Amirzadeh before the show, I discovered a passionate person who takes his music very seriously, and values every opportunity he has to share it with others. Discussing the previous night’s show in Columbia, Missouri, he was still riding the emotional high from seeing someone moved to tears by his performance, and I got the sense that those types of experiences are extremely meaningful to him, especially when you consider his decision to play rock clubs and other unconventional spaces for this type of music. He’s aware that his decision can lead to disappointing experiences playing for inattentive and unappreciative audiences (as he’d find out later that night), but he’s determined to accomplish his goal of broadening appreciation for classical guitar technique and composition. Though Amirzadeh left Lawrence likely wondering if that particular show was worth his time, those of us who were moved by his performance would like to assure him that it certainly was.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.

Cheryl Pagurek: Capturing the State of Flux

cheryl pagurek state of flux 12

Canadian photographer Cheryl Pagurek illustrates the impacts of urbanization through her hyper-real photographs.

As anyone who has spent any time sitting next to a river can attest to, there are revelatory qualities present in the natural movement of water. The most obvious is the sound: whether it’s rushing or trickling, it’s always hypnotic and inspiring.

Equally as mesmerizing is what the surface of a river can do as it reflects the objects around it, particularly when you zoom in and disconnect a reflection from its source. Canadian visual artist Cheryl Pagurek has done just that with her recent photographic series, “State of Flux,” which Michael Davidge profiled in the latest issue of Canadian art magazine Black Flash (September-December 2013). As Davidge writes:

“Pagurek has been dealing with themes of change, the passage of time, and the impact of an increasingly urbanized environment on the natural world through the exploration of images of flowing rivers. Pagurek’s choice of water imagery is intended to fluidly dissolve boundaries between opposed elements, blurring distinctions between natural and built environments, between abstraction and representation, nature and culture, even between photography and painting.”

Pagurek’s process is simple: she takes close-up photos of moving water and doesn’t do any heavy digital manipulation to the images. The final photographs, though, when developed to their exhibition size of 20 x 30 inches and larger, are remarkably complex in their varied presentations of color, shape, and texture. The compositions that emerge are sometimes pleasant and peaceful; other times they’re jagged and somewhat unsettling. They’re all, however, poignant reminders of just how beautiful nature can be, as well as recognition that human development is distorting that native beauty. This point is made even clearer through Pagurek’s Wave Patterns, a video work that complements the photographs of “State of Flux,” and combines tranquil clips of moving water with the sounds of human progress:

For me, Pagurek’s work in both “State of Flux” and Wave Patterns is a visually-stunning and thought-provoking commentary on the fine line humanity walks between development and conservation. While the images in “State of Flux” clearly illustrate the visible impact we’re already making on the environment, the inspiring beauty that emerges from the visual representation of that impact suggests to me that a harmonious relationship is still possible.

Above image:  State of Flux 12 (2012); Ultrachrome digital print on photo paper (25 x 37 1/2 inches).

Christian Williams is the editor in chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.

The Sublime Light Art of James Turrell

Gard Blue - 1968 - James Turrell

Nearly 50 years into his career, several major museum retrospectives introduced the pioneering light and space artist to a wider audience in 2013.

I first became familiar with the work of light and space artist James Turrell this past June when my wife and I were on a quick visit to New York. We happened to be in town on the only night of the year when the Guggenheim Museum is free, and the featured exhibit was a retrospective of Turrell that sounded fascinating. Unfortunately for us, a good portion of New York seemed to have the same idea, and the huge crowd and long lines meant the Guggenheim rotunda and Turrell’s latest work, Aten Reign, were off limits.

Ever since that trip, I’ve been seeing Turrell’s name pop up everywhere. Through a recent article by Lisa Gimmy in Landscape Architecture Magazine (September 2013), I learned that Turrell celebrated his 70th birthday on May 6, which explained to me why retrospectives of his near 50-year career have been so prevalent in museums across the globe in 2013. And as luck would have it, the Spencer Art Museum at the University of Kansas—just a five-minute drive from our house—is one of those museums, so my wife and I were finally able to experience his work firsthand earlier this month.

The Spencer exhibit includes a selection of Turrell’s interesting hologram art, but the centerpiece is Gard Blue (1968)—a pivotal early work that marked the beginning of Turrell’s experimentation with immersive light installations that have been called “perceptual cells.” A small dark room that’s bathed in the soft light produced by the glow of a bright blue triangle in the corner, Gard Blue is both a fascinating demonstration of how light manipulates perception, as well as an example of how we respond emotionally to specific light. As we stood just inside the doorway to the room, the combination of silence and calming blue glow invited contemplation and introspection. My wife summed it up well when she whispered to me, “It’s soothing. I could see myself sitting in here for a long time.”

As impressive as Gard Blue and Turrell’s other works are, though, the capstone of his accomplished career is still taking shape in Arizona’s Painted Desert. Since 1974, Turrell has been using the remnants of an extinct volcano called Roden Crater to build an intricate and awe-inspiring open-eye observatory. Everything about this project is epic, from the sheer scale of the piece to the complexity. As Gimmy writes in LAM:

“When complete, it will contain 20 chambers with different viewing experiences. Its complexity is on par with the most complicated landscape projects of any age. Turrell has accounted for the shifting of the planet in his calculations for the design. In 2,000 years, the project will no longer be precisely oriented to the astronomical events it seeks to capture.”

As 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of Turrell’s acquisition of Roden Crater and the project inches closer to completion, I’m sure there will be many more opportunities for people to discover the subtle yet powerful work of this pioneering light and space artist. I, for one, plan on taking advantage of Gard Blue’s presence in my own backyard many more times before the Spencer exhibit ends next May. 

If you’d like to learn more about Turrell or Roden Crater, there are plenty of great sources out there, but I think this PBS documentary from 2010 is as good a place as any to start:

Above image:  Gard Blue (1968), James Turrell. Photo by Christian Williams.

Christian Williams is the editor in chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

Creative Philanthropy

Number 1 (2013) Christian Williams

Finding creative ways to make a difference in our communities

Putting together a magazine like Utne Reader is, by far, the best job I’ve ever had. For the first time in my career, exploring my fascinations and interests is more than just an after-work activity; it’s one of my primary responsibilities as editor.

The process of curating articles for this kind of magazine also means daily exposure to new ideas, fresh perspectives, and highly-motivated agents of social change. When you’re constantly meeting people who are so interested in trying to make the world a better place, you start asking yourself what role you can play in that noble pursuit.

Some of us on staff have become involved in the local branch of Food Not Bombs (associate editor Sam Ross-Brown), while others are maintaining a permaculture-focused community garden that donates produce to local food banks (associate editor Suzanne Lindgren). In both of those examples, I realized that a personal passion is being put into action, and it got me thinking about activism and volunteering in a whole new light. In addition to our time and money, every one of us has a set of skills and talents that we can be using to better the communities we live in.

So when I thought a little harder about how I could contribute to the greater good, I considered my passion for creativity. I’ve been painting abstract pictures for a little over a year, and just recently started to display them in my office at work. One particular piece caught the eye of our publisher and editorial director, Bryan Welch, and he asked if he could buy one like it. My abstract pictures are spontaneously produced and never alike, so I decided to give him the piece that originally caught his eye (pictured above). As I finished the piece with a handmade frame, I realized I’d stumbled on a way to make a difference—a concept I’m calling “creative philanthropy.”  

I’ve come to believe that creativity is an essential human expression that can both allow us to revel in the beauty of our mysterious universe as well as teach us how to respond to and recover from the inevitable difficulties we face in our lives. My aim is to use my art to spread that message to young people whose access to creativity is limited by budget cuts in their schools, and to everyone—young and old—who has bought into the misconception that the only valid creative expressions are the ones that come out of formal education and training.  

I’m hoping that displaying my work publically will inspire others to pick up a paintbrush themselves, but I’m also aware that the simple act of looking at a piece of original art is enough to make a difference in one’s life. For that reason, I’m selling my work at an accessible price (the above piece was priced at $200). Most importantly, 100 percent of the proceeds are being donated to Van Go, Inc., a Lawrence, Kansas-based social service that provides job training for at-risk youth, and uses art as the vehicle for encouraging self-confidence and self-expression. Van Go does outstanding work in my community, and if you’re an artist or know one, I hope you’ll share this idea and support the organizations in your community that do similar work.  

I know I’ll be learning a lot through this project, and I’ll be documenting it all through this blog. I hope you’ll follow along as well as share the creative ways you’re trying to make a difference in your communities.

Image: Number 1 (2013) by Christian Williams, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. 

Christian Williams is editor in chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com, and follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.