Photographers Unknown, Thirteen Men Who Traveled Here
An unemployed machinist
who travelled here
from Georgia 10 days ago
10 days ago
and could not find
and could not find a job
into a police station
walking into a police station
yesterday and said
of being scared
I’m tired of being scared.”
—John Giorno, An Unemployed Machinist, Balling Buddha, 1970
Born in New York City in December of 1936, John Giorno was a poet and performance artist. Raised in both Brooklyn and Roslyn Heights, Long Island, he graduated from New York’s Columbia University in 1958. In his early life, Giorno was a muse to and entered into romantic relationships with other artists, among them Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, whom he met in 1963 during Warhol’s first solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York City. Giorno starred in Warhol’s 1963 four-minute film entitled “John Washing” and also appeared in Warhol’s eight-hour 1964 silent film, “Sleep”, the plot of which entailed Giorno sleeping on camera.
Inspired by his associations with Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Jasper Johns, Giorno began to appropriate found textual imagery to his poetry. An example of this can be found in the1964 poem “The American Book of the Dead”. Portions of this poem were used in works contained in Giorno’s first full collection “Poems”, published in 1967. Later meetings with sound poet and performance artist Brion Gysin and writer William S. Burroughs led to Giorno applying cut-up and montage techniques to found texts, and, influenced by the work of Gysin, the recording of his first audio poem pieces.
Established as an active presence in New York’s art scene, John Giorno collaborated with Brion Gysin on “Subway Sound” in 1965, and with Robert Rauschenberg in 1966 on “Nine Evenings of Theater and Engineering”. From 1967 to 1969, John Giorno presented his “Electronic Sensory Poetry Environments”, a series produced in collaboration with synthesizer creator Robert Moog and other artists. These psychedelic happenings and poetry installations were shown at St. Marks Church in Manhattan. In 1965, Giorno founded Giorno Poetry Systems, a non-profit production company that connected new audiences to poetry by the use of new technologies, engaged in political organizing, and created new artworks.
Giorno organized the first Dial-A-Poem event in 1968 at the non-profit Architectural League of New York. This poetic event was repeated at the Museum of Modern Art from 1969 to 1970, and resulted in a series of long-playing records issued by Giorno Poetry Systems. Poets who participated in these events included Patti Smith, William Burroughs, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale. John Giorno was unapologetic in his use of politically-charged and sexually salacious content; he used his work to draw attention to his own status as a gay man, police violence in America, and the countless deaths caused by the war in Vietnam.
In the late 1960s, John Giorno’s work evolved to include the appropriation of entire texts from newspapers, the development of double-column poems, montages of diverse and often radically different texts, and the extensive use of repetition both across and down the page.This use of repetitive words and phrases reproduced textually the echos and distortions which occurred in Giorno’s vocal performances. Several of these poems were included in his 1970 “Balling Buddha”.
After traveling to India in 1971 and meeting His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, Giorno became one of the early Western students of Tibetan Buddhism, a practice in which he participated for several decades. His early poetic works occasionally reflect Asian religious themes; but those after the 1970 collection, “Cancer in My Left Ball”, are a mixture of Buddhist and Western practices and poetic techniques seen through Giorno’s original interpretation. For instance in his 1970-72 poem “Guru Rinpoche”, Giorno mixed pop imagery with sacred sutras and portrayed gay eroticism as a form of spiritual devotion.
In 1972, John Giorno began releasing compilation records under the newly incorporated Giorno Poetry Systems media label. Presented through cassettes, long-playing records and compact discs, these audio works included new wave and punk music, and an assortment of vocal artists, musicians, and poets. Giorno Poetry Systems expanded in 1984 with the establishment of the AIDS Treatment Project, an emergency response to the impacts of the epidemic on artists’ lives. This project provided funds for artists living with AIDS through the early 2000s, when it was officially transformed into the Poets and Artists Fund.
Retired from performing in 2017, Giorno spent the last two years of his life in meditation, composing his poetry, and editing his memoir “Great Demon Kings”. John Giorno died of a heart attack at age eighty-two in October of 2019 at his home in Lower Manhattan. At the time of his death, he was married to Swiss-born Ugo Rondinone, a mixed-media artist known for his paintings and large-scale land-art sculptures.
The john Giorno Foundation can be found at: https://www.giornofoundation.org/the-foundation
There are two interesting reads for those interested in John Giorno and his work. The first is an interview between journalist and essayist Marcus Boon and John Giorno, which is presented by Bomb Magazine, It can be found at: https://bombmagazine.org/articles/john-giorno-1/
The second is an article, written in 1994, by journalist and author Robert Coe and entitled “Becoming Buddha: John Giorno”. This more extensive biographical piece can be found at The Buddhist Review, Tricycle, located at: https://tricycle.org/magazine/becoming-buddha/