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The Power of Cutting Up Your Idols, and Everything Else

At a talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, psychoanalyst Dr. Vanessa Sinclair and occult artist Katelan Foisy explained how their witchy version of the cut-up method can apply to daily life.
Occult artwork by Katelan Foisy
Photo courtesy of Katelan Foisy

Only at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus, Brooklyn, do the Dadaists, Freud, and witchcraft find common ground. There, the three topics converged for the first time in "The Cut in Creation," a multi-part series of talks led by Dr. Vanessa Sinclair, a psychoanalyst and practicing witch.

Based on the poems of Dadaist Tristan Tzara, which were created using pieces of text at random and described in Tzara's manifesto, the "cut-up" method was popularized in the 1950s by painter Brion Gysin and writer William S. Burroughs, who used the technique most notably in his non-linear novel Naked Lunch. Together, Gysin and Burroughs published a book, The Third Mind, both about and utilizing cut-ups. Writer Kathy Acker has also used the method, and David Bowie, to whom last night's talk was dedicated, often used cut-ups to write his lyrics.


While the technique can be utilized through different artistic expressions—snippets of conversation, re-used texts, sampled music, or reblogged Tumblr posts—Sinclair, along with the night's featured guest, occult artist Katelan Foisy, emphasizes "the cut" as essential and pervasive in daily life. Even during the lecture, after we were invited to anoint ourselves with an oil the two women crafted in honor of Burroughs and Gysin, the audience was encouraged to cut in whenever they wanted to add to the conversation or ask a question.

"Cut-ups establish new connections between images," Foisy said, reading from a cut-up of Burroughs' and her own thoughts on the practice. "Screenshots from films are cut-ups. Films themselves are cut-ups. Writing itself is a cut-up. Thought forms are cut-ups. Memories are cut-ups." Once you think in terms of cut-ups, nearly everything appears as one.

Someone in the audience cut in and described it as such: "[The cut-up] can be a way of looking at reality. The way we behave is based on splicing together things we've seen. You can purposefully or unconsciously cut different traits or speaking patterns into your personality. The physical practice of cut-ups forces you to see all your influences."

In Sinclair's practice as a psychoanalyst, she uses the concept to disrupt her patient's patterns by cutting their own words back to them. "It's assumed that most analysts are there to tell you your problems or tell you why you feel a certain way, but I think that's so violating," she said. "I actually try to get people to question and disrupt the narratives that they've constructed for themselves, to get them out of their day-to-day story."

Foisy's adaptation of the cut-up method can also function as a sort of supernatural lifehack. This is where it gets witchy: Cut in a snippet of your favorite author's work into your writing, she said, and they will appear in your life. A spellbound sigil, too, can be a type of cut: Take a phrase—like, "I live in Vegas," Sinclair's current fixation—strip it of its vowels and repeating letters, and use the remaining letters to make a symbol. Focus your intention on that symbol, and your Nevada dreams will manifest.

"Cut-ups have power," Foisy echoed to the audience. "There's some magic in it. What you're doing is taking someone else's words, cutting them in with your own, and creating a spell."

In less magical terms, Sinclair describes this as a way to visualize and achieve one's ego ideal, but she's open to an interpretation of the cut-up as magic or the cut-up as tool: "It's both. There's a tendency for people to reject magical thinking—especially amongst traditional analysts—but I don't see a reason to classify it as one way or another."