Visual artist, musician and ‘cultural engineer’, Genesis P-Orridge is an identity shifting prankster, poet and provocateur. Famously branded a “wrecker of civilisation” while performing with arts collective COUM Transmissions, s/he has been many things: founder of industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle, a progenitor of early rave with the band Psychic TV, creator of a quasi-occult magikal order, a veteran of commune living and self-imposed exile. Lauded by Larkin while studying at Hull University, s/he has enjoyed august friendships with visionaries such as Derek Jarman, William S Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Timothy Leary.
For the past two decades s/he has also been pursuing a characteristically uncompromising and all-consuming life/art project. In collaboration with fellow artist, and now sadly deceased partner Lady Jaye, they have attempted to create a third being, the “pandrogyne”, by undergoing multiple surgeries to physically resemble each other. It’s an extreme work about subverting gender, behaviour and ultimately the conjoining of two souls in love. S/he’s all and everything, a self-aggrandising agitator turned easy going alternative icon and alchemist of the flesh.
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Throbbing Gristle, ‘Discipline’ (live, 2004)
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As the years have passed this legacy has become ever clearer. But there’s been no resting on laurels or past accomplishments. It’s an exhausted but satisfied Gen who speaks with Clash. S/he currently has a cornucopia of creative projects on the go: there’s the Breyer P-Orridge retrospective at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, lectures and performances by Psychic TV, a poetry book produced for a French Museum, a remix for Trent Reznor and a newly published, limited-edition photographic journal intimately documenting his/her maverick life.
S/he acknowledges this “intelligent curiosity” as something of a renaissance and believes that the 2011 documentary The Ballad Of Genesis And Lady Jaye is in large part responsible for this.
“How come suddenly every time we give a lecture it’s packed, when it used to be 30 or 40 people?” Gen asks. “A lot of them don’t know anything about the music we’ve done or seen the art, so we think it’s that film. It humanised me. All people knew before was this stereotypical freak, a monster that the yellow press had created. Even though it was a fake icon of me, it stuck because what other information was there? And then they see you playing the keyboards with your bum and giggling.”
S/he hopes the book – through First Third (website) – will expand on this. “People will see weirdness, strange things, actions that might look scary to the average person. But also me playing with the children as they’re growing up, and eating sandwiches. It’s well rounded.”
Intellectual engagement with the idea of subverting systems and the perceived status quo has been something of a raison d’être for Gen. Utilising the body as a canvas or a plastic material is more immediate and visceral than language. It lends universality to a project, the ultimate goal of which is to manipulate the body in order to challenge and change behaviour, not only in themselves but others.
“The human body has always been the central, on-going theme in art. In the 1960s we had happenings such as Fluxus and The Factory. So actual people’s living bodies became part of the art. We decided a long time ago to explore that, as a challenge to hypocrisy. And also for our interests to ask, ‘Where are the boundaries?’ In some cultures you can have six wives and walk around naked, and in others you’ve to be covered head to toe if you’re a woman. It’s arbitrary. Who’s making those rules? People in power. How do they enforce it? Through intimidation and violence. So the body is important as a signifier of an attitude towards how we evolve.”
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Psychic TV, ‘Have Mercy’ (aka ‘Papal Breakdance’, 2008)
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Gen believes there’s too many cultural expectations placed upon us from birth: peer groups, the education system and social pressure. Even fashion.
“So we’ve always been saying, at some point, you should choose who you want to be. One of the great ways is to change your name and start creating your own narrative. You’re writing your life as a book, one that you would like to read at the end. Try to make every day important and in some way an improvement of the one before: no matter how tiny. There’s a lot involved. It’s a nexus of many themes.”
The core ideas of the recent art projects have been about acknowledging identity as a fluid thing. “That’s why we went physical. We realised that we had to make a make an impact in terms of getting people’s attention; saying it doesn’t have to be how it’s always been before. We’ve made a real commitment that says we’re really serious about this idea. We’re so serious that we’re prepared to donate our bodies to it. This isn’t about changing gender, which you’ve already realised. It’s about reclaiming your story.”
The cut-up method famously used by Burroughs and Gysin is obviously an important tool. The concept has just been expanded to the living body.
“Lady Jaye and I, we talked endlessly about what we were doing, did it really make sense. Was it gratuitous? What were the implications? When they did it with literature and writing they said, ‘This is no longer authored by us, this is created by random chance, by serendipity or whatever, but we don’t own it.’ They called that ‘the third mind’.
“For me, the cut-up is probably the most useful creative tool of the 20th century because you can break patterns, and that causes unlikely collisions and combinations that would happen no other way. Linear thinking is so ingrained in us that you need to break those patterns. Break the language, break the thought, even break the body. In order to find out how can we truly change as a species. It’s important because we’re dooming ourselves right now, through the reiteration of failed processes, failed institutions and failed economic systems.”
Throbbing Gristle have undergone a critical reappraisal of late, being re-considered as part of the contemporary classical tradition of symphonic music – closer to La Monte Young than Pink Floyd.
“It’s really rewarding to finally feel that all the bias and prejudice that was thrown at us by people who had a vested interest in trying to shut us up or alienate people from listening. That’s somehow drifted away. There are no preconceptions. People hear it or find it and they take it at its face value, and that’s wonderful. Who would have thought that by now there would be industrial music everywhere in the world? DJs, clubs, record labels?
“When we made that first album (1977’s ‘The Second Annual Report’) and there were 791 copies, we said, ‘It’s probably going to take a few years to sell these, because people aren’t going to get it.’ But then it just exploded. Right move at the right time. That’s providence, not something you can gift someone.”
Gen’s sagely advice for new musicians and artists is to be true to themselves. “The worst thing we could do is to self-censor. It’s all possible. You don’t need a big record deal, you don’t have to be rich; you don’t need anything but your belief in yourself and work hard at making it happen. Make it manifest. Change the means of perception and change the world!”
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Words: Anna Wilson
This article originally appeared in issue 90 of Clash magazine.