In Memoriam A Tribute to Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
In late August 2016, Leigha Mason and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge hopped into my dumpy Mitsubishi station wagon and we headed down south in search of communes and eccentric Americana. Among other things we ended up visiting: a life-size styrofoam recreation of Stonehenge in the Virginia countryside—Gen told us about once performing a pre-dawn sex ritual at the real site in Wiltshire; a small roadside museum dedicated to Tina Turner—s/he got a prized “NUTBUSH CITY LIMITS” mug—beside another museum for Sleepy John Estes—s/he was delighted by his homemade cigar box guitar; a quick stop for gender confusion at Short Mountain, the Radical Faerie sanctuary; a Madonna-themed drag night at a Tennessee gay bar called New Beginnings; a rural parade float museum; and the kitsch Mecca, Graceland, in Memphis—as soon as we pulled in s/he proclaimed “We hate Elvis!”
Our long hours of driving were filled with talk about art and ideas: the successes and failures s/he encountered with Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, and he/r ambitions to forge another context for communal living. I have hours of these languorous recordings, saved partly as ongoing reference material for the projects we were doing together, and research for the in-depth writing I always promised to do on he/r work. Because s/he believed life and art were inseparable, everything could be approached creatively, potentially metamorphosing into something else. S/he could find an interesting way into almost any situation, book, movie, or television show, enduring seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race with us, which s/he came to secretly enjoy despite he/r protests. It all provided occasion to push around new ideas and test the limits of everything s/he’d thought before.
From the start of our trip, a key destination was the long-running commune The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, founded by English professor turned hippie guru Stephen Gaskin in 1971. It held special interest because of how it spearheaded the modern home birth movement via Ina May Gaskins’s influential Spiritual Midwifery (1975), which Genesis found when the P-Orridge’s own children were born at their TOPY house in England. Leigha emailed ahead and was connected to an “original” resident who would rent us a guest house for a few nights. Near the entrance of The Farm was a small home turned “Welcome Center” filled with psychedelic and ecological memorabilia. Genesis stockpiled an array of pamphlets and self-published books containing oral histories and philosophies, complementing the original Stephen Gaskin texts Monday Night Class and The Caravan already in he/r archives, which we’d read aloud on the drive. We also bought campy tie-dyed t-shirts with peace signs and The Farm logos.
We were housed by an older couple who looked like run of the mill, middle-American suburbanites, belying that they’d arrived on the original 60 school bus caravan from Haight Ashbury in 1970. Over the intervening 40 years, The Farm had transitioned from a spiritual oasis without electricity or plumbing to an “intentional community” of privately owned houses on a shared land trust. Although Gen used all he/r charms asking about their experiences on the caravan—sharing he/r own memories from cross-country tours on he/r beloved converted school bus, “Bussy”—the couple were reluctant to divulge their hippie misadventures. However, they directed us to another long time resident, Doug, who had taken on the role of community historian and media spokesperson.
At Doug’s large wood and glass home, complete with New Age-y music playing in the background, Genesis introduced he/rself as an artist doing research on communes. He/r questions were mostly practical and human: what was the process of building an individual house?; How did you decide who lived where?; What was the system of group approval for those who wanted to join?; How were people asked to leave? “It’s been on our mind for years to try and put together a holistic version of an art commune,” S/he said. “We find that giving lectures at universities, we used to get 30 people wanting to hear about our alternative views. Now it’s 300 and they want to talk about community.”
For Gen, learning about different communes and cults—as microcosms of human relationships outside biological family units or inherited social institutions—allowed her to diagnose larger social structures. This research began at the Ho-Ho Funhouse in the 1960s, a squat Genesis describes as a 24/7 conceptual theatre project attempting to deconstruct all kinds of habitual behavior—down to not sleeping in the same space two nights in a row—and involved Gurdjieffian games where inhabitants challenged each other to find new ways of completing tasks, from dressing to cooking to walking. This ethos bled into the ongoing collaborative living situations of COUM Transmissions, Throbbing Gristle, and Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. For Gen, it even continued with Lady Jaye in the Ridgewood home, later named the Gates Institute. Until she moved to the Nest, Gen’s small apartment in the Lower East Side where s/he lived on he/r own after Jaye dropped her body in 2007, s/he had always cohabited with groups of people in porous extended families. To make up for her isolation, the Nest played host to a rotating cast of visitors and Gen often asked he/r close friends, (especially Roxy Farman, Leigha Mason and myself) to stay up with he/r talking and watching movies overnight. S/he’d always been an insomniac, but also said s/he was most comfortable when the people s/he loved were around. S/he longed to create another experimental artists’ sanctuary or “coum-unity”, and it was these ongoing conversations that ultimately encouraged us to hop in the car with h/er and continue the investigation.
Doug told us that a shared spiritual mission brought everyone to The Farm at the beginning, but that now it was an ecological imperative that led young people there, and a section of the land had been turned into an “eco-village”. Genesis asked about “dethroning” their guru, Stephen Gaskin, who had died two years before. Since we’d arrived s/he’d tried in vain to find a gravesite or marker and noticed that he was greatly downplayed in the current language used by The Farm. “There was a disillusionment with his leadership,” Doug said. “At numerous times showed his humanity, his flaws…”. Later that night we laughed as Genesis speculated wildly about what really happened—was Gaskin discarded in an unmarked hole in the forest nearby? We discussed the innate simultaneous desires for, and resentment of, social hierarchies—particularly within “alternative” collectives—and ways that we might evade and undermine those dynamics.
We talked to some others there and visited the market in a large geodesic dome. Before leaving the three of us wandered out into the woods to find the rusting remains of that cross-country caravan, the buses converted into shelters for the first few years of The Farm. We put a camera on a stump and took silly pictures together in front of discarded ruins of Utopia past. S/he wasn’t nostalgic, but seemed rather delighted by the relic because it represented how a group of people changed their lives in an attempt to make a better world. Soon, s/he believed, humanity wouldn’t have any other choice.
Genesis was serious about history, though preferred to call it “a-story”, pointing to both its inevitable partiality and the agency we have in constructing the stories we need. For instance, one of the last things we were working on was making a complete record of he/r library—a collective portrait of the occult lineages, sexual practices, and art thinking gathered from a lifetime of assiduously sought sources. While Genesis had an encyclopedic knowledge of counter culture, she was also deeply interested in culture at large, and passionately studied, dissembled, and reinterpreted huge swaths of it. Once she was diagnosed with leukemia in 2017 and started writing her memoirs, s/he began revisiting a lot of the pop-culture that informed he/r growing up. Recently we watched a string of Sherlock Holmes films (the black and whites with Nigel Rathbone), documentaries on Liverpool comedian Ken Dodd and Irish drag star Danny La Rue, and the high-style English Mod shows The Prisoner and he/r beloved Avengers.
About a week before s/he dropped her body, I met her at the Nest to accompany he/r to the ER because he/r breathing was very bad. Despite the struggle, s/he was calm and upbeat as we packed her things over an ever-present vodka cran-raspberry. On a tangent s/he asked me to pull the series of Modesty Blaise books off her shelf so we could look at their glamorous illustrated covers. With titles like I, Lucifer, The Impossible Virgin, and Pieces of Modesty (s/he had multiple editions of some and was very fastidious about he/r collections), Gen explained that over the years s/he had gone through an obsession with this pulpier female James Bond. While gathering he/r clothes and toiletries to take to the hospital, s/he told me all the things that interested he/r about Modesty: how she was an assassin who suffered incredible abuse in her childhood and line of work, and speculated it was as though Modesty had taught herself to separate consciousness from her physical body, allowing her not only to endure but triumph in creative ways. She was smart, strong, sexy and silly—everything Gen loved. I slipped a DVD of the 1966 slapstick adaptation starring Monica Vitti into he/r bag for further hospital conversation. During the ambulance ride and into the ER, I took to calling her Immodesty Blaise. Each time she’d grin, baring her few remaining solid gold teeth, an extravagant dental modification inspired by Pierre Clémenti’s character in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. We later learned that one of he/r lungs was completely filled with fluid, while the other was only partially working, during he/r breezy disquisition on the virtues of Modesty.
Everything Genesis did was dense with layers of intention and association, available to random chance and accumulating coincidence, so that it formed a holograph—one of he/r recurring descriptions of meaningful artifacts. I remember talking with he/r about my favorite Psychic TV album, Dreams Less Sweet, recorded with “Holophonic technology”—which was supposedly sensitive enough to capture “atmospheres” according to its creator, Hugo Zuccarelli. To Gen’s mind this added the physical location of where the recordings were made to the palpable experience of the record. Some tracks were recorded in Claxton Hall where Aleister Crowley performed his Rites of Eleusis, while others were made in Christ Church Hampstead and The Hellfire Caves, each site contributing specific spatial and symbolic qualities to traditional audible information. This mingled with the use of Tibetan thigh bone trumpets and the sounds of he/r snarling German shepherd Tanith, and merged textual meaning with the Latin lines from Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis arranged as choral music, and transcriptions of Jim Jones’s “death tapes” turned into a dreamy Christmas song. Thinking like a historian, I asked Gen about disentangling this process and creating some kind of document to help future artists understand those nuances. S/he responded, “That’s unnecessary. It’s all already in there.”
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge lived so far in the future for so long. As access to he/r various projects increase, it will take decades before that dense thicket of ideas and interventions s/he seeded to become intelligible, and recognized as a fully integrated whole. Like everyone lucky enough to know he/r, I’m deeply saddened that s/he’s no longer physically here in the way we’ve come to depend. However, I am filled with immense gratitude when I think of all that remains for future generations who can simply open a book or put on an album and be challenged to change their lives in the most radical ways imaginable. He/r work and life is an extreme experiment—being different as an artistic, ethical, and spiritual imperative—as she once described to me: “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.”