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‘Burroughs Century’ fest honors famed Beat writer

January 1, 2014

A five-day festival on the IU Bloomington campus and in the community will help kick off the centennial birthday celebration of William S. Burroughs, author, essayist, painter, and spoken-word performer.

The Burroughs Century,” Feb. 5 to 9, is a unique collaboration of the local academic, artistic and cultural communities to honor an artist who transcended boundaries between literature, painting, music, film and experimental art

A founding member of the Beat Generation, Burroughs first achieved fame as an iconoclastic writer whose work chronicled the American underground. In novels such as Naked Lunch and The Ticket That Exploded, he developed new experimental writing techniques to break up the conventions and meanings of traditional fiction. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Burroughs became a countercultural icon, both inside and outside the world of letters. Norman Mailer once proclaimed, “Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.”

Even co-organizer Charles Cannon says that although the festival celebrates Burroughs’ influence over the last 100 years, the festival is  will look forward, too.

“We are in the Burroughs century,” Cannon says. “His ideas, the concerns he expressed in his work are still completely valid today. Government overreach — if he were here today, he’d be talking about the NSA. Gay rights — he was an important gay man writing very out literature at a time when the topic wasn’t comfortable. The war on drugs — that was one of his chief concerns, and it continues today with discussions about the legalization of marijuana, among other issues. His work has not aged. In fact, I think the late Lou Reed said it best: ‘Without William, there is nothing.'”

Burroughs, born Feb. 5, 1914, also profoundly affected popular culture. He was pals with Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Susan Sontag, and Dennis Hopper. He appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ eighth studio album,”Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” made a cameo appearance at the end of U2’s music video, “Last Night on Earth,” and collaborated with the late Kurt Cobain, R.E.M., and the surviving members of The Doors, among others.

“Burroughs was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century,” says Joan Hawkins, event co-organizer and associate professor in the College of Arts and Science’s Department of Communication and Culture at IU Bloomington. “He speaks with an authentic American voice like no other writer I can think of. It’s a mark of how avant-garde his work still is that it knocks my students back on their heels when I assign it.”

Highlights of the centennial celebration include:

William S. Burroughs: Paintings,” Jan. 24 to Feb. 5, Grunwald Gallery of Art. This exhibit features one of his “shotgun paintings,” created by shooting cans of spray paint in front of a blank surface, and several of his “file-folder paintings,” compositions created using a mix of ink and gouache sometimes mixed with text.

“Everything Is Permitted: The Life and Work of William S. Burroughs,” opening Jan. 27, Lilly Library. This exhibit includes first editions of Burroughs’ novels Junkie and Naked Lunch; materials from the archives of the author’s British publishers; materials on loan from Ohio State University related to Burroughs’ 1981 visit to Bloomington, when he performed at The Bluebird with the band The Dancing Cigarettes; and the original scroll manuscript of fellow Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” on loan from Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.

“The Right to Read: Censorship and the Books of Grove Press,” opening Feb. 3, Kinsey Institute. Naked Lunch and other books published by Grove Press will be on display as well as documents related to censorship cases and a contemporary artwork inspired by Naked Lunch.

Mark Hosler, Feb. 5, The Bishop. Hosler, of the pioneering sound artist group Negativland, will perform.

“The Ticket That Exploded,” Feb. 6, Buskirk-Chumley Theater. An avant-garde opera based on the novel, presented in collaboration with The Holographic Ensemble.

The Burroughs Century Film Series,” Feb. 6 to 9, IU Cinema. The cinema will screen eight films about or featuring Burroughs, including the Midwest premiere of the newly restored documentary “Burroughs: The Movie,” with special guests in attendance.

The Burroughs Century Academic Symposium,” Feb. 6 to 8, IU Cinema and Lilly Library. The keynote speaker is Oliver Harris, an American literature professor at Keele University in England and one of the world’s pre-eminent Burroughs scholars. Other speakers include writer, editor, and Perth International Film Festival programmer Jack Sargeant; Tim Murphy with the University of Oklahoma, author of Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs; and Jorge Garcia-Robles, author of The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico. The symposium is open to the public for a fee.

“In the Beginning Was the Word: Lydia Lunch Reads William S. Burroughs,” Feb. 7, Buskirk-Chumley Theater. A live performance by famed punk poet and spoken-word artist Lydia Lunch.

“The Burroughs Century After-Party and Costume Ball,” Feb. 8, The Back Door.

A list of events and registration details for the academic symposium are available online, and further information is available by contacting or by following @BurroughsFest on Twitter. Additional press materials are also available online.

“The Burroughs Century” was planned by the Burroughs Century Steering Committee, which includes members of both IU and the greater Bloomington community. Support for events is provided by the Departments of English, Communication and Culture, Anthropology, American Studies, Comparative Literature, Germanic Studies, and International Studies; the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies; the Cultural Studies and Film and Media Studies programs; the College Arts and Humanities Institute; the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Vice President of International Affairs; the Lilly Library, Grunwald Gallery of Art and IU Cinema; and The Bishop Bar, Landlocked Music, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington Entertainment and Arts District, and the Bloomington Convention and Visitors Bureau.