Founded by the poet and artist John Giorno in the late 1960s, in the context of the civil rights movement and an increasingly divisive Vietnam War, Giorno Poetry Systems sought to create both new audiences and a new relevance for poetry. Giorno Poetry Systems distributed the work of poets through modern, accessible, everyday technologies, including the telephone (Dial-A-Poem) and vinyl recordings. The sleeve of the label’s first release, a double album featuring contributions by the Dial-A-Poem Poets— an expansive and eclectic group that included Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, William S. Burroughs, John Cage, Diane Di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, Taylor Mead, Frank O’Hara, Ed Sanders, Aram Saroyan, Bobby Seale, Anne Waldman, and Giorno himself, among many others—featured a manifesto-like declaration: “At this point, with the war and the repression and everything, we thought this was a good way for the Movement to reach people.”
Politically-minded from the outset, John Giorno’s ambitions for the label—which, over the next three decades, would eventually release more than fifty recordings on vinyl, cassette, CD and video formats, featuring a truly extraordinary range of poets, artists, performers, and musicians—had been inspired by his earlier exposure to the innovative practices of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and the members of the Judson Dance Theatre. About their approach, Giorno observed in his text accompanying The Best of William Burroughs: From Giorno Poetry Systems (1998) box set: “The use of modern mass media and technologies by these artists made me realize that poetry was 75 years behind painting and sculpture, dance and music. And I thought, if they can do it, why can’t I do it for poetry. Why not try to connect with an audience using all the entertainments of ordinary life: television, the telephone, record albums, etc.? It was the poet’s job to invent new venues and make fresh contact with the audience. This inspiration gave rise to Giorno Poetry Systems.”
In 2014, the New York–based Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone invited White Columns’ director Matthew Higgs to guest curate a “chapter” for the original manifestation of the exhibition Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno that was staged at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in October 2015. Higgs in turn invited two artists—Angela Bulloch and Anne Collier—to respond to the physical and recorded archives of Giorno Poetry Systems. Angela Bulloch’s hand-dyed Happy Sacks (1994–2015), oversized bean-bag-like sculptures, established a shared space where the audience could relax and listen to the entire Giorno Poetry Systems back- catalog via headphones and iPads. Anne Collier’s digital slide show documented, in an almost forensic manner, John Giorno’s personal copies of the vinyl albums, CDs, and tapes that were distributed by Giorno Poetry Systems between 1972 and 1998, featuring original photography and artwork by artists including Les Levine, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jimmy DeSana, Peter Hujar, and Keith Haring, among many others.
Through his unwavering support of other poets, artists, and musicians—of often radically different intentions—John Giorno established in Giorno Poetry Systems a radical and forward-thinking platform for expression. (Several hundred poets, artists, musicians and performers would eventually contribute to and participate in the project.) Privileging collaboration, and anticipating the democratic promise of social media, Giorno Poetry Systems remains a lasting and influential social and cultural experiment, one that helped to both demystify and open up the worlds of poetry, performance, and art.
At White Columns, for the 2017 New York iteration of Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno, the work of Giorno Poetry Systems will be presented in parallel to a group of portraits of Giorno made by his artist-friends and peers Phong Bui, Verne Dawson, Judith Eisler, Elizabeth Peyton, and Billy Sullivan. Alongside these reflective works will be a rare display of Giorno’s T-Shirt Poems, poems printed onto T-shirts, and intended to be worn in public space: a further democratic gesture that both underscores and amplifies Giorno’s ultimate desire to take poetry into the streets and directly to the people.