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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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APRIL 2020 Issue
In Memoriam A Tribute to Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

Lia Gangitano

CHANGE THEE WAY TO PERCEIVE AND CHANGE ALL MEMORY

Photo: Martyn Thompson.

Around the time of the first exhibition of Breyer P-Orridge, CHANGE THEE WAY TO PERCEIVE AND CHANGE ALL MEMORY in 2005, Genesis said that “the most transgressive thing right now is intimacy.” This has become more true as years, months, and now each day passes. This exhibition, a particular manifestation of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge’s collaboration that began in the early ’90s, focused on a central concern of their merged identity: the fictional Self. “Considering the ‘I’ of our consciousness as a fictional assembly, a culturally imposed narrative, or collage that resides in the environment of the body,” they sought to transcend the limits of bodily gender or more specifically, having a body, through Pandrogyny. Deeply influenced by the cut-up techniques of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, Breyer P-Orridge transferred their use to identity, behavior, and gender. This application led to the substantially irreversible process of cutting up identity to produce a third whole, one that could potentially redesign a binary world. As they said, “Pandrogyny is not about defining differences, but about creating similarities; not about separation but about unification and resolution.”

Approaching the opening night of the exhibition, I witnessed this resolution through their spontaneous assembly of a complex work that had been described over the course of several months, but whose elements had lingered, unfinished, as disparate materials scattered around the gallery. This yet-to-be sigil, an object regarded by definition to be a functional sign considered magical, assembled essentially private investigations into the self in belief that “the future is open to subjective influence.” To affect that influence, their ritual maelstrom of gems, feathers, horns, sexual fluids, blood, and hair (Jaye’s ponytail) here came together with Polaroids staged and taken years prior, meticulously cut up in the moment and reconfigured to form precise, perfectly-fitted starbursts before my eyes, as if they had always existed, driven by some future-altering agency. Also included in the exhibition were Polaroid/ritual/surgical procedure works that elucidated the processes of reclaiming the body, through transformation, from its status as a “holographic doll constructed by external expectations.” These photographic works served not only to document the stages of physical change, but also to allow the intended visual ambiguity of the Pandrogyne to emerge.

This intimate transformation, perhaps, was a new form of deliverance for Genesis, whose body offered a direct visual manifestation of a range of performative actions and life experience spanning decades, encompassing physical endurance, ornamentation, collective and individual action. Pandrogyny added to this life work not only a representation but also an embodiment of the cut-up, a holistic image with present, past, and future merging as a literal collage of their body, perceptible to those they encountered. Theirs was a question: How can we change?

In an unpublished interview conducted in 2016, I asked Genesis to describe their visualizations of pandrogyny as part of a continuum with prior processes of transformation, body modification, cutting, tattooing, piercing and they recalled, “At certain key times, we would do new marks or have somebody else doing marks. So that was when, through Mr. Sebastian, we were able to get tattoos, to get piercings, and to start to expand our reclamation of ownership. And of course, also to realize it’s a tradition in art to do portraits of the human body. In a sense, this was just an extension outside the frame, off the canvas, and even outside sculpture, to actually just become a document and a canvas and an artwork, in and of itself… but, again, always with a holographic depth of meaning, because these things are like a diary or a journal. It means there’s more that you can discuss, there’s more that people can ask about and think about. It connects to then how they perceive something and change how they perceive something.”

Since Genesis had been experimenting with gender performance and role playing for some time, I asked how their relationship with Lady Jaye impacted the decision to make full-time gender modifications, and how these choices intersected with the already evolved state of their physical self. They continued, “Jaye had already been doing avant-garde performance work at Jackie 60 and with Black Lips Performance Cult. She didn’t realize who we were when she first met me. […] She just knew me as the artist that’s a friend of Terence Sellers. That was how she was introduced to me. […] And her work as a dominatrix—we were talking about it early on, we’d said we had a thought that maybe the women who become dominatrices have once been burned as witches in a previous life […] but now the roles have been switched… that it could be a reincarnation, the DNA message that reappears in certain people. But the dungeon is very much a performance space, as you know. And it’s also a place where really intense physical endurance and physical pain occurs. So there was an interesting overlap in terms of our environments when we were being created. She didn’t see domination as just a way to make money, or that it was fun to be the dominant one; she saw it very much more as a magical action too. So we talked about all of those things, and then we started to explore—first of all, we wanted to become each other, as you know, literally, physically. We wanted to think, how could we reprogram ourselves so deeply that after death, we can actually find each other? And then because we’ll be non-corporeal, we can then become one. So that’s the ultimate project for us still.”

Breyer P-Orridge, PHALLUS DEI, 2005. Mixed media on wood with acrylic, gold leaf, horns, hair, Polaroids, feathers and uncut rubies. Photo: Adam Reich.

Genesis’s early experiences of communal living and ritual performance reinforced, or instigated, a general inclination toward individual bodily expression as a means of connecting. With COUM Transmissions, the perception of "real" and "not real" was an important aspect of the work—delivered through marks, wounds, and scars on the body created through extreme physical tasks. It was clear perhaps even at this early stage that real and permanent transformation, not an image or representation of it, was the desired outcome. As Genesis noted of their merger with Jaye, “From about 2000 on, we started talking really seriously about genetics and DNA, and that DNA was really the controlling factor in everything for human beings. We both agreed we wanted to change the human species, or kick start it into its next evolutionary stage… So we started to consider surgeries. First, just as a denial of DNA. The first thing we did was get me a vasectomy because we decided we didn’t want to give the DNA that was present any chance to procreate its now flawed message. We wanted to stop that message, at least symbolically. […] So DNA became not quite an enemy, but it became the clearly the obstructive factor in the evolution of the species and the freeing up of options, because Jaye said she wanted to grow horns and fur and why couldn’t she? […] She actually had a lot more procedures than me. And it was very liberating, not just as a metaphor but very literally liberating for us both. It was like saying, I finally have control over my body completely, and no longer at the mercy of society, and no longer at the mercy of illness. I have finally made some gestures, some statements that liberate me. And now we can imagine being anything.” I asked if they identified with a particular gender, to which they answered it was not about gender at all, “it’s about breaking DNA, which we see as the image of control.”

Having participated in, and instigated, a variety of underground movements in their lifetime (many of which were physically manifested)—those stemming from literature, art, philosophy, cinema, music—I asked Genesis if they felt pressure to reinforce some hierarchy of medium to relay their message, to which they responded, “the overall point of it is to actually start working together to build literal communities, that are based on creation. And that attempting different ways to demonstrate alternatives of how to do things, to try and learn to do as much by barter as possible, because the economy and currency is going to die. We’ve been saying this for a few years. That constant growth and productivity are impossible—they go against the rules of nature. And we’re reaching the point where it doesn’t work. They’re all panicking, so they try to keep the old system going instead of reconsidering it. So we sat down and thought, who’s going to be best equipped to deal with it when we fall into anarchy and chaos, and money is worth nothing? […] And we thought it would be good to have our own extended tribe of people who look for ways to do something that is artistic and creative and evolutionary, and also practical in terms of building a network in advance of chaos. Yeah, artists building communities in advance of chaos.”

Contributor

Lia Gangitano

Lia Gangitano is director of PARTICIPANT INC, NY, a not-for-profit art space she founded in 2001. She has served as curator of Thread Waxing Space, NY, associate curator, The ICA, Boston, and curatorial advisor at MoMA PS1. She teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.

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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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