A small room above an interesting and brilliantly anachronistic pub in Somers Town, The Function Room is an excellent and fluid space of proceedings. Here therein is the setting for ‘A Man Called Burroughs’, a small collection of photographs and ephemera of Harriet Crowder’s previously unseen portraiture. It makes a perfect space for these items, a venue with a resonant and edge-lands feel at odds with the oddly corporate sounding name of the space, holding court to meetings of The International Necronautical Society and a weekly lecture by the Radical Anthropology Group, amongst others.
In the photograph ‘Man Standing at Bethel Square Lion Street, Brecon, Wales’ (1960), a man stands cast in bright sunlight with dark sharp shadows behind him from the arch of an architectural structure that reads ‘Bethel C.M Church: Calvinist Methodists’. That man is William Burroughs, revolutionary writer and cut-up artist of the 1960s. The knowledge of this identity makes the image all the more arresting and strange. Why is he standing at the entrance to a courtyard tunnel, blanched in sunlight, in Wales?
Another photo depicts the top half of Burroughs emerging from a shroud of darkness, ghostly contoured patterns playing over his features (‘Portrait Of A Man’ 1960). Bespectacled, wearing a hat and holding a cigarette, he stares into the lens. Behind him in the darkness is a blackboard, replete with chalk markings: tantalising glyphs disappearing into the blackness of the paper and into the moment.
How can you climb inside the image, to feel the materiality of that moment? This is the uncanny-ness of representation, especially when faced with photos of the deceased. It is a fractured time, alluding to Burroughs’ aleatory cut-up method itself. Roland Barthes spoke of this ineluctable haunting of an old photograph: the very essence of the photographic medium is the ghostly apparition of death in life, representing a moment in the past, the denouement of which is well known to us, but not the subject.
The image of Burroughs establishes a relationship between here and nowhere. The image is form without matter, a portal. The photographs underline the strangeness that is being taken from the realm of the real into an open-ended hidden outside-ness of the image. This is, for the philosopher Maurice Blanchot, the strange distancing of the image, where it appears as something already disappeared.
Another emergence is found within the vitrine, in which lie multifarious ephemera, tangential and supplementary. One item, the LP, ‘Call Me Burroughs’ (1965), depicts a faded version of the blackboard portrait, previously misappropriated but now joined in the room as two sides of one image through Jim Pennington’s discovery. The same photo also appears on a faded fragment of newspaper bearing a contemporary review of ‘Naked Lunch: On The End Of Every Fork’, from ‘The Guardian’, 20 November 1964, by none other than Anthony Burgess.
The same portrait appears again on the cover of a zine alongside hand written printed text, designed by Brion Gysin (‘Intrepid’ (1969)). This conjunction of photos and spiralling photocopied text is beautiful and tentative, set against an orange background. Both contemporaries and fellow Beat poets Burrough and Gysin experimented with the ‘Dream Machine’ in the 1960s, used to induce reality-shifting hallucinogenic experiences through the flickering of light effected by the spinning device, a fitting epithet for the light writing of photographs.
More spaces like the Function Room are necessary, places that hum with veracious energy. These condensations of Burroughs have this feeling, and there is the promise of yet more fragments in the silent but resonant LP record in the vitrine, in some way the genesis of the project. In the words of Burgess’ review, ‘It will make the rest of the offerings look remarkably lumpish or puny’.