Genesis Breyer P-Orridge pioneered performance art with h/er group COUM Transmissions (1969–1976) and is considered the father of Industrial Music with h/er band Throbbing Gristle (1975– 981). In 1981, P-Orridge formed the influential band Psychic TV, and Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (T.O.P.Y.) as a magical network to advance alternative social ideas. In 1993, P-Orridge married Lady Jaye Breyer and the two commenced a series of surgeries to become a hybrid “pandrogyne” figure called BREYER P-ORRIDGE, a process documented in the acclaimed film The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye by Marie Losier (2011). With the pandrogyne project, BREYER P-ORRIDGE began to use s/he, h/er, and first-person plural pronouns exclusively. While long considered a living legend in the music world, h/er work is only recently included in the larger narrative of art history and performance, a reconsideration signaled by the acquisition of h/er archives by the Tate and a full scale retrospective currently on view at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (GENESIS P-ORRIDGE: S/HE IS HER/E up through September 15th). This month the French publisher First Third Books will bring out an expansive collection of photographs drawn from a half century of Breyer P-Orridge’s life as art, edited by the artist Leigha Mason and music journalist Mark Paytress. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge sat down with Jarrett Earnest in h/er Lower East Side apartment to discuss the relationship between language, sex, power, and the future of art.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): I want to start by considering what you were doing with COUM—naked performances that were both erotic and violent. It feels important to understand them in the context of postwar English life. How do you think the potential of sex as a transgressive social force has changed since then?
Breyer P-Orridge: In the 1950s or even the early 1960s in Britain there were no kinds of pornographic magazines at all. There were small label books like the Olympia Press, with titles like Deadly Virgin Streetwalkers and things like that, which was all written eroticism to try and make people masturbate. If you were lucky, and the person at the shop trusted you, you could ask them for “an envelope” and they would have these brown envelopes with photographic prints of people fucking. That was the only source of visual information as to what people did with each other, and very few adolescents or teenagers even knew that it existed or where to go to find it.
At the age of 11 we were singled out as precocious and intelligent and sent to the special private school that literally said, “We are here to build the leaders of the future of the country.” All anyone said about sex was “don’t get girls pregnant unless you’re married.” But with boys from the age of 9 to 11 it was circle jerks—we used to masturbate at the back of the class glancing to see who could have the first orgasm while our teacher was talking about Chaucer. So there was a weird dichotomy where these primarily straight boys, as they would become, were having these massively gay orgies of mutual masturbation, but girls were a completely mysterious other entity. You didn’t even know what a vagina looked like. Suddenly females became subject to predators and a vagina became valuable. That is how it was pressed upon people at that time in English society: girls protect their virginity because that is how they get a husband, who then takes care of them, and in return you give them babies, and the cycle happens again but it’s all secret and covert and guilt-ridden and its never about pleasure. It’s instead about what you are or are not allowed to get away with by some unseen invisible force in society.
If you think about it, if you have a child, it doesn’t matter what gender, they pee and shit and you clean it all up for them; it’s just a biological process. At some point there is enough consciousness happening that you can start saying, “It would be good if you didn’t shit yourself all the time and that you use a potty.” And then we get “potty training” and suddenly every time you sit on this plastic thing and shit or piss, everyone claps and says, “Yay—well done! That is fantastic!” But, as soon as you learn to do it on your own they say, “Do it in there with the door closed. Be ashamed. Don’t ever let me see you shit again, for the rest of your life.” Is that not going to screw with people’s heads? First, it’s “natural,” then it’s a public celebration, then it’s “guilt.” That process is basically repeated through Western culture with all different aspects of intimacy and sexuality.
England was, in that era, incredibly self-restricted and uncomfortable with erotic life. And that is such a different context and landscape from where people like you have grown up, where you can find everything instantly online. You can say: “I only get turned on when people crush cockroaches in high heels,” and there is a website. That sort of sudden influx of unlimited sexual information should have somehow evened out the game between control and freedom, but it seems like what it’s done is just adjust the game into a voluntary promiscuity that has no particular final goal. We’ve told you many times that in our life, probably from being old fashioned, we were looking for the “ultimate woman,” or “person”—it didn’t really matter if it was male or female—but it was a search for reconnection with divine balance. Somehow that has been degraded by unlimited access to unusual proclivities and the commercialization and commodification of every possible fetish.
If sensuality and sexuality are parts of the learning of wisdom, which we believe they have to be, and can be a functional form of the deconstruction and reconstruction of perceptions of reality, then they should be approached as an incredibly divine, potent, and essential aspect of our lives, not something that is just a thrilling moment or taboo. It’s holy work. Sex with someone you love—that is angelic working. It is saying you want to return to a divine state of inclusion, of balance, of no separation.
Rail: The intense sexualized body art performances of COUM and TG were about transgressing certain bodily and cultural boundaries. There has been a social change in the representation of the erotic, how do we attempt to open the same kind of social ruptures now?
Breyer P-Orridge: The nature and relationship we have with ourselves as bodies is always politicized. For some reason, over the weekend, we were thinking of Emmeline Pankhurst who was the leader of the suffragettes in England. They did parades, marches, leaflets, interviews, chained themselves to Buckingham Palace and nobody listened. And then she decided to really push the envelope. There is a race called the Grand National sponsored by the royal family and she threw herself in front of the king’s horse and was killed, to say, “Enough.” So, basically, we’re saying that the strategies change. We think it’s hard for younger people to understand COUM because it’s hard for them to believe that there was a time when, for instance, you couldn’t get tattooed. When the British were empire building, of course, some guys decided it was bullshit and didn’t want to fight and would shoot themselves in the foot, so in the Victorian era they made it illegal to injure yourself, and of course then they had to define what an injury was, and decided on: “anything that breaks the skin is a wound.” So in 1991 they pulled out this law meant to prevent people from being “cowards,” and said that tattooing is breaking the skin, piercing is breaking the skin, and that those are criminal acts one level below manslaughter because you are deliberately wounding another human being. They went to our friend Mr. Sebastian, who pierced and tattooed us, and went to his studio one day and took his appointment book and took out at random 13 names as evidence that he was deliberately, maliciously wounding for money. They charged him with 13 counts of grievous bodily harm with a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. We got our first piercing from him in 1981 so between 1980 and 1985, there were maybe five people in Europe doing body piercing, if you can believe it.
Rail: Which also puts the performances you were doing in context, when you were cutting yourself publicly you saw it as an explicitly political act.
Breyer P-Orridge: Definitely. We asked, “Who owns my skin?” I have scars I have done myself and that other people have done, I have holes, I have tattoos—and as a result I am illegal. Where does that put me physically and politically? A lot of that first phase in COUM was even more focused in Throbbing Gristle, realizing this was serious stuff, asking, “Why am I not allowed to do this to my own body?” Then you realize that you are in union with women who are arguing for domain over their own body, though it was really difficult to get some feminists to understand that we were arguing the same thing.
Rail: You were trying to alter society by altering your relationship to your body, which later took the form of the cut-up surgeries of the pandrogyne. However you were also making similar interventions at the level of language. How did you first recognize the relationship between language and power?
Breyer P-Orridge: Through William Burroughs, absolutely, with Brion Gysin. To this day we believe their interpretation and/or rediscovery of the cut-up is the most important cultural tool we have from the 20th century because it can be applied to video, film, writing, talking, you name it. It is the way out of how language and culture entrap us. There is a book that everyone should read called The Third Mind that is Burroughs and Gysin’s experiments in breaking the linearity of so called “consensus reality” which we call “non-sensus reality” for obvious reasons. When we led a performance art intensive at PS1 we talked about ideas from that book. For instance we said:
While you are sitting here right now if someone rang you up you might say that you are in a workshop with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, but that would be untrue. What you are really experiencing is a massive data input in no particular logical order: tree creaking almost subliminal; floor hard on ass; need to shit soon; am I hungry; do you think that person still likes me; on and on and on. And we filter it. So, who builds the filters? That is the big question, who controls what does and doesn’t come through the filters, when, at any given minute there is this huge waterfall of information pouring in and our senses are picking it all up.
Then we had them do an exercise that was simply “write everything that happens for one minute,” and it took everyone several pages and was not linear and was some of the most beautiful poetry we’ve ever heard.
Our concept of what we interpret as “reality” is completely malleable. And if it’s malleable then anyone can sculpt it. A lot of our war has been to help others realize they can sculpt it themselves by using tools as simple as cut-ups to reveal the secret war in language, showing how easily we are being manipulated to become consumers. Western capitalism is almost a better product than heroin. In the Middle Ages, if you said to people, “We want you to wear the symbols of your enemy on your clothes and pay for it,” they would just say, “You idiot!” But now people can’t wait to wear corporate brands on their body—they brand themselves with their enemy and pay huge sums of money to reinforce this power system. So it’s a huge and very serious war.
Rail: Your writing and performances seem to have a lot to do with scriptures, or sermons, or chants—a kind of language that is meant to have power, to make something happen. You have always been interested in cult organization and yourself have been accused of being a cult leader, by the British government among others. How did your interest in cults as social organization begin, and how does it relate to language?
Breyer P-Orridge: We are not sure why the wiring of our nervous system in our brains is the way it is, but it seems to seek out patterns buried beneath the apparent camouflage of popular culture. As Burroughs would say, when you do a cut-up “what does it really say?” In collaging things you realize that there is no logic or pattern that is inviolate: everything is manipulatable.
Of course, we grew up in the 1960s and knew about Charlie Manson and that was fascinating, and because we were in England we knew about Scientology and the Process and saw this phenomenon parallel the traditional power structures. Through the underground press we were able to learn more about those things and started collecting every bit of information we could find and asking: “What is this?” “Why are people drawn to this?” “What makes this work?” We were looking to see if these cults are a microcosm of the macrocosm, because if they are, perhaps we can see the weaknesses easier. That is really where it began.
Of course all of this is born from the question: “Isn’t there another way to do this?” We like the idea of community and of essential loyalty: having a chosen tribe, a chosen family where there was enough in common to really support and embrace each other. If you do that, why not build recognition factors—symbols like the psychic cross—and then see how much further it could go. Maybe people are just like me and hungry for a new type of community, hungry for a new type of relationship with each other, something based on creation and generosity and kindness and productivity of the mind and imagination instead of careerism and greed. To me that is an easy choice, so how does it work? We used to say to Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (T.O.P.Y.) people: we all agree that we despise dogmatic, bureaucratic neo-Christianity (because its followers are not kind, loving people like Jesus) but that doesn’t mean they are not good at raising money, so how do they do it? Why don’t we do the same: take what works and throw it in their fucking faces. That is what T.O.P.Y. did. Charlie Manson is a thug but he said, “These are your children, you made them this way”—absolutely true, so you take it and move on and try and construct a jigsaw puzzle of what makes sense. And somehow it’s not a picture that you are losing focus of but that is becoming clearer, from some deeper place that you are trying to get back in focus.
Rail: Something you’ve talked about as the future of the pandrogyne project is the creation of a pandrogyne COUMunity, and I wonder what you see as the failure of T.O.P.Y. that could be done differently, were you to create this new social organization? What did you learn from T.O.P.Y. as an experiment?
Breyer P-Orridge: We learned that the kitchen and the bathroom are where people go to war. Those are the places where fights happen: people who don’t wash up, people who leave the bath dirty, people who use everyone’s shampoo. We learned that everybody needs privacy and the option of solitude, therefore we are not interested in the idea of a traditional commune but the idea of a village. There would be a large central building where the resources are—a library, hardware, laptops—there has to be a big kitchen and a great big room for communal meals because meals are one of the greatest bonding experiences on earth. This big room can be stripped so someone interesting coming through can give a talk. People can go away to their yurt and maybe not bother to talk to anyone for years on end but always have the right to every community event. It would be built around their interpretation of life as a creation, life as a creative force, life as art, the end of the separation of gender. We are talking about the building of a consciously driven tribe: Thee One True TOPI Tribe. To me that would be the most fabulous experiment to try and integrate all the threads so far. Let’s look at the failures and erase the stuff that doesn’t work and let’s try to extend it. Even if we are ridiculed or fail—financially or otherwise—what a gift to try and give to the species. And if we don’t change how we relate as a species we are doomed: we’d be lucky to be in Mad Max world.
Rail: Did you see the pandrogyne work you and Lady Jaye have done as an experiment for a larger project for shifting social relationships?
Breyer P-Orridge: It evolved because we were just so insanely in love. We actually meant it when we said, “I wish I could eat you up.” That was absolutely the truth, and that is where it started. The first day we met, Jaye dressed us in her clothes. It’s really important for people to understand that Jaye was not following us, it was the other way around. Even beyond Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, Jaye was the biggest influence on our life. She was superhumanly fearless, which is one of the qualities that we realized later made her so powerful. Our entire way of doing life was changed: we used to be angry, tried to make things break, to take them apart to see how they work. Now it’s all about trying to heal them and put them back together—and that is Jaye.
Rail: The editorial focus of this issue is “what is art?” So I wanted to put that question to you too.
Breyer P-Orridge: My answer to that is: life. We truly believe there is no separation between life and art. There is a Sufi saying: “Live every single day as if it’s the last day of your life and that one day is what you will be judged upon.” In other words, every single second is precious, you never get time back and you don’t know how much time you’ve got, so you should maximize your potential; and through your potential, your imagination; and through that, creation; and through that, change the fucking world.
Rail: What do you think the function of the artist is, as a social position? Can anyone be an artist?
Breyer P-Orridge: Everyone has a genius factor and only by letting go of the conditioning and imposition of pervading culture can the individual liberate their perception and imagination enough to know how they really are a genius. The artist is supposed to challenge the status quo, always. The artist is supposed to say, “Why?” Artists are the great question mark and it is our job to refute every assumption for the sake of refuting it in order to try and see the world anew, because if we don’t see the world anew, it cannot be created anew. And human beings, our species, created this environment. Brion Gysin said that the only other species who lives piled up on itself and shits and pisses on itself are rats—we are clever rats. But we could be much more, we could be so fabulous that we do move out into space and time and discover new dimensions, new universes, new ways of being and recreating. There is so much possibility we don’t realize we have access to or even that we have the right to access. So, to us, the artist is a signifier of the ability to short-circuit all those filters of social control we inherit, long enough for a new vision to come through.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.