The cut-up is a literary technique that involves rearranging either printed or recorded content to create a new work. It’s been around since the Dada movement and was revived in the ’50s and ’60s when it caught a second wind with the beat generation. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin are most often associated with the form, and in more recent decades, multi-media artists like Negativland, People Like Us, Cassette Boy, and others have specialized in audio collages of the musical or linguistic variety. Out of this subversive tradition comes I Cut People.
Absurd, nihilistic, and thought provoking, I Cut People (icutpeople.com) creates audio cut-ups that seem to capture our complicated, anxiety ridden digital reality. I sent Nicholas Smith (I Cut People) some questions earlier this year following a trilogy of cut-up albums to try to gain some perspective on that reality and better understand him as an artist.
Matthew Ackerman (Rail): Who/what are your main influences?
Nicholas Smith: Cut-ups are more of a literary experience than a musical one. That being said, most of my influences include political activists, philosophers, poets, and authors. On my last three albums, I gained a lot of insight and inspiration from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Rail: What are some of the themes joining your latest trilogy of cut-up albums?
Smith: In Miserable Day (2015), the theme was hopelessness. It’s dark, bleak, suicidal and the most depressing in the series. I Quit (2016) was much more hopeful in that it represents a reawakening and a refusal to adopt social norms. Farewell, Reality or How to Philosophize with Nothing Left (2017) is an acceptance of the path my reality is on and ultimately where it’s headed.
Quitting and suicide are recurring themes across all three albums. By quitting, I mean removing myself both mentally and physically from the normal state of things. Technology is a big part of this and it is moving at such a rapid pace that we are already beginning to see the negative effects it is having on society. I don’t want to give the false impression that I’m a Luddite. I’m most certainly not, as I use computers to create my cut-ups. I see very positive outcomes from technologies that have furthered creativity exponentially. I’m instead more concerned with those of us who are easily controlled and consumed by it. This, I believe, is causing a cultural disturbance.
Suicide is used as a defense mechanism. In certain instances, it’s applied as comic relief, which may cause some listeners to cringe. In a world where the gap is growing larger between humans and how we interact with one another physically and emotionally, I believe that we are forced into what I would call unnecessary seclusion. Depression, chronic stress disorders, social anxiety, and hopelessness are byproducts of a society gone awry.
Something else that I touch on is isolation. Being alone has such a negative connotation attached to it, but it’s so incredibly important to the process of defining meaning as well as your core set of ideologies.
Rail: Is your work a snapshot of “our culture’s destructive mental environment,” as you put it on your site, or an expression of your own opinions, philosophy, etc.?
Smith: By sampling from sources that I consider to be destructive to our mental environment, I’m able to state my opinions in ways I find myself incapable of producing vocally. My cut-ups are very opinionated and honest; therefore, I’d label it as a snapshot that is turned upside down revealing the unsavory side of humanity.
Rail: There are a lot of Nietzsche quotes on your Bandcamp page (icutpeople.bandcamp.com). What role do nihilism, or other branches of philosophy, play in your work?
Smith: The Nietzsche fascination in these works is perhaps just a phase. He really was unlike any other philosopher in that he didn’t have a system; he contradicted himself often, and was both heavily dramatic and extremely honest in his writings. He fell in love with his philosophies the same way humans fall in love with each another. That’s a feeling I can relate to. I happened to be reading The Gay Science around the time I started these albums and was influenced by his thoughts on existence and the human spirit. Another philosopher who inspired me was Martin Heidegger. His terminology describing the different states of Being is something I found fascinating and in line with many of the portrayals of Being I criticize throughout my albums.
The role nihilism plays is fundamental since I struggle personally with it. I’ve learned over the years to see it in a more positive light, such as instead of accepting that our lives are devoid of meaning one must instead define meaning.
Rail: Some of the phrases from your cut-ups are hilarious, others somehow poignant or even disturbing. Are you a pessimist or an optimist? What role does humor play in that outlook?
Smith: Humor is very important. Sometimes I wonder if I should avoid it, but I believe that it keeps my work from turning into a dry intellectual game.
I came into this trilogy a pessimist and I came out both a pessimist and an optimist, although I tend to lean more towards pessimism when expressing myself because it usually is my initial reaction when confronted with a problem.
Rail: You also make collages, gifs, and video. Would you say your various artistic endeavors are an extension of the same ethos heard in your cut-ups?
Smith: Not completely. The anti-advertisement collages definitely mimic my cut-ups. Other forms of collage are more for visual appeal and technique rather than trying to convey a message.