William Burroughs 100 – Nova Convention

Nova 1_0
Thurston Moore Curates William S. Burroughs Centennial Publication and Exhibition
Red Gallery, London
July 1st – July 13th, 2014

by Lewis Church

William S. Burroughs, the bespectacled countercultural icon that lived a life more extreme than you could possibly imagine, would be 100 years old this year. A wealth of tributes, reminiscences and events have been taking place across the world for the ‘Burroughs Centennial’, reflecting the writer’s continuing influence since his death in 1997. Into this wide sweep of Burroughs related phenomena, Sonic Youth founder and punk Renaissance man Thurston Moore has put together an exhibition displaying documentation from 1978’s Nova Convention, at the Red Gallery in the aching heart of hipster Shoreditch.

In his program note, Moore remembers how, at 19, he sat in the Entermedia Theatre in New York City to hear the poets and musicians gathered to pay tribute to the then 64-year old Burroughs: Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Brion Gysin, Ed Sanders and John Giorno, just a small selection of those inspired by his work. And what a night! Zappa reading the ‘Talking Asshole’ section from Naked Lunch, Giorno intoning his meditations of love and life, Patti Smith apparently wielding a clarinet for her performance and Eileen Myles causing a stir with her re-enactment of Burroughs’ fatal ‘William Tell’ shooting of his second wife in Mexico City. These moments are documented in the photographs and materials of the exhibition itself, with a spattering of examples of Burroughs’ work and, in a nice touch, recent work from Moore’s classes at Naropa University that is still influenced by Burroughs today.

The exhibition consists primarily of a wall of James Hamilton photographs that document the Nova Convention itself. Hamilton, then a staff photographer for the Village Voice roamed around backstage catching the performers and friends chatting, drinking and laughing in a police line-up of countercultural celebrities, from Allen Ginsberg to Terry Southern, John Cage and Phillip Glass. Goofing around and chatting, the legendary figures of the artistic underground look like nothing so much as good friends having a good time (as they were). Facing these photographs on the other wall are framed examples of Burroughs’ recorded output, the vinyl artwork of Call Me Burroughs and Elvis of Letters displayed proudly along the wall in LP frames. The clearest intersection of music and Burroughs’ writing, these records are the first point of contact with his work for many. In conversation Moore explained that he hoped to rotate the record sleeves during the exhibition’s run to give a broader sweep of the depth of Burroughs’ recorded output, which spanned from simple spoken word to the orchestral bombast of Dead City Radio.

The whole exhibition has the zine-ified, photocopied aesthetic that dominated New York’s late 70s downtown scene, where anybody with access to a Xerox machine had their own magazine, whether devoted to music, poetry, drugs, fashion or the street. A low table of merch offers a selection of modern zines and low-fi publications, some produced by Moore’s aforementioned Naropa summer school students. A Buddhist-inspired University in Boulder, Colorado, Naropa was a late Beat mecca that counted Burroughs, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Amiri Baraka amongst its rotating pool of lecturers and tutors. Moore returns each year to teach on the now legendary summer workshops, discussing the intersections between the worlds of music and poetry and encouraging the self-publication of student’s work. Much of the work in these zines bears the mark of Burroughs influence, and one of the magazines opens with a comprehensive list of his appearances of record, of the references to him in song and of band names inspired by his writing (Steely Dan, the MOR purveyors of west-coast jazz-rock are named after a dildo in The Wild Boys, just so you know). It’s a nice touch to see modern examples of not only Burroughs’ writing style, but also the small press magazines and self-published journals that he so often contributed his work to in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Altogether it’s a nice little exhibition, with interesting documentation of a now legendary event, put together by someone with an eyewitness account of the night in question. Red Gallery is a good space doing good things, and it’s certainly worth your time to go down to Shoreditch to see it. The most knowledgeable Burroughs fan might well be annoyed by some of those attracted just by the Burroughs cache, asymmetric haircuts who only know the writer as a cool figure from the alterna-past, but it seems likely there were a fair few of the same types at the ’78 Nova Convention as well. Spend some time reading through the zines, looking at the photographs and then go home and listen to the records. Read the novels, the essays and the biographies, and understand why Burroughs was as important to the development of rock and roll, literature and art as he was.

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