Genesis Breyer P‑Orridge’s Brion Gysin: His Name Was Masterby Nick Bennett
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Brion Gysin: His Name Was Master
(Trapart Books, 2018)
In 1971, performance artist and musician Genesis P-Orridge was flipping through a copy of FILE Magazine, published by the Toronto and New York City-based art collective General Idea, when s/he1 came across a request from William S. Burroughs for images of “camouflage for 1984.” Curious, P-Orridge wrote to Burroughs and was soon invited to London to meet him. Their meeting led P-Orridge to Paris, where s/he would meet one of the most influential people in h/er life, the artist, poet, and polymath Brion Gysin (1916 – 1986). This sets the scene for the conversations in Brion Gysin: His Name Was Master, in his Parisian apartment directly opposite the Pompidou Museum filled with Moroccan wall hangings, the sounds of drums from Marrakesh, and the smells of mint tea and copious exhalations of hash.
His Name Was Master is a collection of five texts by P-Orridge from 1977 – 2017, including a “C.I.A. File” biography s/he wrote about Gysin’s career for h/er 1977 book Contemporary Artists (Gysin’s response: “Even the C.I.A. don’t know this much about me!”), a text written upon Gysin’s death in 1986, and others detailing the “magickal” processes and methods of Burroughs and Gysin. The two conversations—which occupy the majority of this book—take place in Paris between Gysin, P-Orridge, and musician Peter Christopherson on April 12 – 14, 1980 and Gysin and writer Jon Savage on October 28 – 29, 1980. As the title of the book suggests, Gysin is poised as a shaman-teacher, and talk ranges from Surrealism to Scientology, from Russia to Tangiers. The tone is conversational, but much like a teacher, he does most of the talking and his guests listen and ask questions intermittently. Gysin’s intellect and wit are captured in these transcriptions—at times you can almost hear his humorous, queeny voice, in one instance recalling the influx of European artists during World War II: “One RAN to New York—what do you m-e-a-n…? 1939, 1940…! One didn’t want to be anywhere ELSE! E-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y came to New York.”
Between P-Orridge’s texts and the transcribed conversations, the leitmotif throughout is control—the control society asserts over the individual and the control the individual claims within one’s self to navigate this territory. For Gysin, one way to play with this sense of programmed control was through the cut-up. Developed with Burroughs, Gysin experimented with cutting up and rearranging newspaper texts, pages of books, and audio recordings to create a reimagined version of these preexisting objects and works. Gysin explains in his conversation with P-Orridge and Christopherson, “‘In the beginning was the word…’ Well the whole thing was about words, how do you run it with words? […] let’s cut right into it, and destroy it if necessary, to find out what its essence is… what its message is.” The cut-up was a means to recalibrate the inconspicuous control of societal rules. Gysin discusses his cut-up publications Minutes to Go (1960), The Process (1969), and The Third Mind (1977) made with collaborators like Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Sinclair Beiles, and many others.
As a “student” of Gysin, one can see how the cut-up appears in P-Orridge’s practice as a means to radically re-imagine the body, gender, and unconditional love in h/er Pandrogyne Project. Undertaken with partner Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge in the ‘90s, the couple underwent multiple surgeries to try to become an identical being. From uses in text, poetry, sound, and body and gender expression, it proves itself a technique by which anything “could be taken apart and reassembled without end,” as P-Orridge writes in one of the introductory texts.
With an oeuvre beginning with his association with the Surrealists in 1935, Gysin was a prolific visual artist. His abstract paintings and drawings resemble scrolls of unmapped calligraphic language and gridded compositions that verge on densely-populated cityscapes (Burroughs described them as “painting from the viewpoint of timeless space”). Part of this artistic output is a device he called the Dreamachine, which Gysin describes as “a new use of light, where, instead of opening your eyes to this light, you close your eyes to it like that, and you see all of your interior store.” It consists of a light source within a spinning turbine, where cut-out patterns flicker light between eight and thirteen flashes per second. When one approaches the whirling device with eyes closed, alpha waves are stimulated in the brain in a similar way the brain reacts to dreams or hallucinogenic drugs. Another collaboration with his artistic and romantic partner, Ian Sommerville, he envisioned it as “the drugless turn-on, it should have been the hit of the decade.” A promise similar to the transcendental nature of psychedelics born out of the Beat generation, Gysin reasons that it never took off for the masses because “it deals with that area of ‘interior’ vision, which has never been tapped before.” This meditative means explores the dynamics of control between inner self and outer influences (and vice versa), and may have just been too ahead of its time.
The conversations trail to tangents, humorous asides, and passionate insights, making them difficult to excerpt or fully capture in transcriptions. Instances of Gysin’s humor reveal problematic views, some particularly flirtatious with misogyny. He outwardly admits to misogynist views when asked by P-Orridge about his “attitude to women,” even suggesting he contributed to some of Burroughs’s more problematic stances towards women, “No, he was not a complete misogynist before he met me… [laughter].” This presents a male homosexual disregard for women that is (for the most part, yet not fully) properly outdated; Gysin’s view is that of a different time and context and is hard to reconcile with his other accomplishments, particularly his important scholarship of Japanese language and calligraphy (an important aspect visible in his paintings), his contributions to the history of slavery in Canada, and his award of a Fulbright Fellowship in 1949.
His Name Was Master contains the profound connection of a master and student—the dynamic that is the thread of all artistic lineages leading the past to us here, now. The many curiosities that steered Gysin’s travels, studies, and artistic output were all born of an interest to re-present a version of the world seen through his eyes, and despite his misgivings, his art and the endless possibilities of the cut-up are some of the most valuable contributions to the 20th century. P-Orridge, a shaman-teacher h/erself, shares h/er lineage in this book. As Gysin once told P-Orridge, “Wisdom can only be passed on by the touching of hands.”
- P-Orridge identifies as third gender and s/he, h/er, h/erself are P-Orridge’s pronouns.
Nick Bennett is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.