By R.U. Sirius
“People will say, “I feel like a woman trapped in a manâ€™s body’â€¦ And I say, ‘I feel like Iâ€™m trapped in a body.’ ”
While heâ€™s best known as the musician who helped start both the industrial music and the acid house music subcultures, Genesis P-Orridge is foremost a hero of the post-punk counterculture, a true mutant, an experimental artist, and an androgyne (â€œI prefer pandrogyne where â€˜pâ€™ is for positive/power/potent/precious.â€) If you donâ€™t know about Mr. P-Orridgeâ€™s oeuvre, you havenâ€™t just missed a career, youâ€™ve missed an entire dimension of hyperreality.
His pornographic postcards earned perhaps his first serious public attention (from the law, of course. Beat luminaries and collaborators William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin aided in his defense.) His performance/art group COUM Transmissions involved physically challenging, graphically sexual and upsetting presentations executed to the accompaniment of assaultive sound collages just before hippie gave way to punk. With Throbbing Gristle, the first industrial rock group, P-Orridge became something of a punk pop star.
Most of us would be content to live out that role for a decade or so but P-Orridge moved on. As an expression of his interest in magickal practices â€”particularly as prescribed by the eccentric Englishman Austin Osman Spare, he started Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth; an â€œanti-religionâ€ dedicated to novel forms of magickal invocation frequently involving the transference of sexual secretions through the mail. And then, back to music: with Psychic TV, P-Orridge proselytized for the Acid House movement, which he helped to import from Detroit to England. Todayâ€™s rave culture is its (mostly rather pallid) successor.
In the early â€˜90s, chased out of England by Scotland Yard for obscure fictive reasons, P-Orridge settled in the USA where he became a close friend with Timothy Leary and continued to perform with variations of his Psychic TV lineup. In the early 200s, P-Orridge messed with his own gender identity, dressing continually in womenâ€™s clothes and then getting breast implants. He and his wife, Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, who passed on in 2007, were transforming their physical appearances to be as similar as possible. Since her death, Genesis has been incorporating her into everything he does, referring to himself as “us,” and insisting that “SHE IS (STILL) HER/E”
P-Orridge is an unusual mix: heâ€™s taken punk provocateurism to its outer limits but his manner is that of an androgynous British pop star. And beyond all the pop culture referents is a serious, almost classical explorer of consciousness and what it is to be a human being.
I interviewed him for The Thresher in 2003, after the release of Painful but Fabulous: The Lives & Art of Genesis P. Orridge, published by Shortwave/Soft Skull Press.
Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about a number of elements of this interview, particularly Genesis’s idea that he is resisting his DNA. I decided to revisit and re-edit this conversation for Acceler8or.
RU SIRIUS: Your book is sort of an autobiographical scrapbook. Could you describe your life in one breath?
GENESIS BREYER P-ORRIDGE: One breath?
RUS:Well, two or three.
GBPO: Let me answer that in two parts. The book was intended to be entirely autobiographical, but focusing for a change on the fact that Iâ€™ve viewed myself as an artist. I even state categorically that Iâ€™ve never said that Iâ€™m a musician. But Iâ€™m known more for music. All the different strategies and manifestations that they might associate with me make a lot more sense when you view them from a post-Dada, post-Fluxus art perspective. When I was asked to put a book together I thought I was actually going to assemble it. But I found it impossible to edit myself in terms of significance. I didnâ€™t have the capability or drive or motivation to do it in that form. So I started to ask people like Douglas Rushkoff if they were interested in giving me commentaries that would help me figure out what the book should be like. And as people started to give me essays or remind me of interviews Iâ€™d given that they thought summed up some aspect of my work, suddenly that became the book. And itâ€™s a jigsaw. What I discovered was that I really had this incredible consistency in terms of my work ethic; one principle being putting my body where my mouth is. Iâ€™m prepared and feel a sense of duty to actually experiment on myself â€” my own physical self, as well as my own mental and psychological self â€” and report back. So I retrieve information and then present it to the public rather than just theorize. So by example, I try to contribute to the psychosexual heart of the alternative culture.
The other bit in this is identity. That is the bit that really surprised me. When I really looked back at the pictures and the writing â€” and this was only an instinctive thing â€” my obsession was very much with who creates identity. Who creates the character, the software that we give the name thatâ€™s on a passport of an ID card? Who is a person? Who is me? Who made me and how was I created? And all these folks whoâ€™ve been around me: who are they? And who was it saying that when I was saying something a couple of years ago? All of this has something to do with the character Iâ€™ve been playing in the story of life.
RUS: When you changed your name to the character of Genesis P-Orridge, was this a complete break or is there a fluidity between Neil Megson (his original name) and Genesis. In other words, is there a coherence there or is it more jagged and abrupt?
GBPO: The interview in the book that completely reveals this as a kind of epiphany is the actual chapter called â€œPainful but Fabulous.â€ It was an interview on the dematerialization of identity that I did with Carol Tessitore. It was one of those days when you feel like youâ€™re channeling, and the voice thatâ€™s coming through you is actually summing up and resolving all kinds of issues that your other states of consciousness have been disassembling and reassembling for decades. So what struck me was that Neil Megson thought back in 1966 that he was taking Andy Warholâ€™s idea of playing with the media and creating superstars and asking what happens if you actually invent a character as a work of art and inject that into the culture? So I viewed Genesis P-Orridge almost as a Warhol screenprint. I thought Neil Megson was the artist who made Genesis P-Orridge. But what seems to have occurred is that Genesis P-Orridge has dissolved all those boundaries so the question now for me is where is Neil Megson?
I would be hard pressed to say where Neil is located. If I could go back now to 1966 and ask Neil if he wanted to do Genesis, the artwork; he might not want to do that, knowing that he would be subsumed by the creation itself. Itâ€™s a strange sensation and I think quite unique really in terms of how totally Iâ€™ve allowed the creation to absorb the person. But thatâ€™s how I ended up with my current idea of becoming an androgyne. When you think about the source of this identity, you might think about the book of Genesis, which I was initially nicknamed after. I didnâ€™t pick Genesis. It was a nickname that I was given that I decided to use. So I thought about the Garden of Eden. Two things struck me. One is that itâ€™s the book of creation. Genesis isnâ€™t a person â€” itâ€™s a name for the creation. And that re-engaged my fascination with the idea that creativity is the nearest we get to a divine energy. Creativity is one of the most noble or honorable professions that a human being is capable of. It seems that in all of the very early paintings of the so-called Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are always portrayed as hermaphrodites. I found one of those pictures and â€” as you can imagine â€” the Holy Roman Empire and its cronies did a cleansing of the image and tried to destroy every image they could. There is only two or three left.
RUS: I always saw you as a deprogrammer or de-brainwasher in the lineage of Gurdjieff and Leary and Burroughs, but youâ€™re the one who really took the body as the site for the experiment. This is both a very ancient and a very contemporary sort of post-punk approach.
GBPO: Itâ€™s true. I think some people in intellectual circles too are finally coming around to see the body as an important part of the deprogramming process. If you could take what Burroughs and Gysin did with traditional writing and art, the idea of the cut-up, I asked: â€œCan you create cutups of identity and character? Can you create an open source for the self?â€ Is there a way to keep on chopping up behaviors, breaking up your own new patterns, waking up each day with the potential to change again?
In the book, I talk about the commune I was part of where we had this box of clothes. And whoever got the clothes would put on the outfit and become that character for the day. So youâ€™d behave the way that character would. So if you were an old lady, you would move like you thought an old lady would, and you might have outdated opinions and be sort of prudish. Then another day you might be a teenage schoolboy. We did that two, three, four days a week for three years! I feel as though no one has pushed it quite as far as I have. Not that I want to be overly egocentric, but itâ€™s just an observation.
RUS: While I was reading about your performances, I thought of the scene in the film Performance where the character played by Jagger says, â€œThe only performance that really makes it is the one that achieves madness.â€ But as I read further in the book, I thought that you werenâ€™t trying to achieve madness, you were trying to achieve sanity.
GBPO:The preface to that would be that I was fascinated by the Surrealists and the Dadaists. Not so much the objects, but their lives. The lives were more fascinating to me. So ultimately the process of self-analyses and exploration is really to see what itâ€™s about. And within that you make a deal with yourself. I remember very clearly in 1968 waking up in a hospital emergency ward and having been declared dead. There were two ways to go at that point: I could be scared for the rest of my life or I could view that as a liberating moment. You canâ€™t put off anything that you want to find out. You canâ€™t say, â€œWell, first Iâ€™ll put this nice buffer zone up and then Iâ€™ll think about the meaning of lifeâ€¦ or Iâ€™ll get there with degrees and qualifications.â€ So I very deeply experienced right at that point the sort of Buddhist state that each day is truly a blessing, without guarantee.
I feel duty bound to explore â€” as far as I can go mentally and physically â€” anything that seems to me fascinating or significant to the human condition, or has the potential to tell me what consciousness is or that can lead me toward comprehension of the mystery of physical life. Mortality became a very clear and crystallized
RUS: Do you ever read war reports or accounts of people with more mainstream sensibilities who push themselves, or get pushed into extreme situations involving physical mortality and disruption?
GBPO: I havenâ€™t really made a study of it. I do like to read biographies though. Iâ€™m fascinated with the tensions and conflicts around the way people choose to self-author their character as a story. I was born in 1950, so I remember all the bombed-out buildings. My father was in Dunkirk during the blitz. His job was to ride a motorbike while the bombs were dropping and deliver messages to the anti-aircraft people. So he was riding a motorbike at night with firebombs all around him. What was interesting when I talked to the people that went through that was that everybody took it for granted. No one got counseling then. No one got debriefed. No one got asked about whether they were traumatized. [laughs] And they would describe things in a very vivid way but also in a matter of fact way. Itâ€™s an area of fascination for me as to how much of our response to difficulties is how weâ€™re taught to react and how much is our actual reaction.
Thatâ€™s why I explore things like: Why does this particular idea embarrass me? Why would it embarrass me to masturbate in public, which I did in a performance? What is the reason I would find it embarrassing and should I?
RUS: Have you thought about what the differences are between biological and cultural programming?
GBPO: Oh yeah! One of the very first things that Burroughs ever said to me back in 1971, we were talking about control, he was asking: â€œHow do you short circuit control? To what extent is it possible to break programming?â€ Thatâ€™s really where Iâ€™m at right now. You asked me before the interview if I was going to have a sex change. In a way, I think everybody had a sex change when we became binary. And so Iâ€™m interested in re-union. And I do find as I have gone through life that culture and consciousness isnâ€™t enough. There is this physicalâ€¦ biologicalâ€¦ what Grant Morrison has called a â€œspace-time suit.â€ Weâ€™re deep sea diving in linear space-time. And itâ€™s such a brutal environment, although rich in experience and sensual input, that the diving suit degrades and falls apart quite rapidlyâ€¦ within about 100 years.
What is the body? Timothy Leary used to suggest that it was the way the brain got around, and as the World Wide Web and transportation got more efficient than some of the functions of the biological brain mover were less important. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s really the story. I see that the human body is more like the coral reef. I used to think that DNA was the real life form and we were just arrogant clusters of matter that were tricked into perpetuating DNA. But it seems itâ€™s not that simple because DNA on its own doesnâ€™t do anything. It doesnâ€™t make eyes blue. It doesnâ€™t make brains bigger. It holds informationâ€¦ suggestions.
So what happens when you refuse to allow the physical body to unfold according to that information from DNA, which I consider an alien species? Is that going to explain some other things that happen in society and culture on a wide scale? So I use my body as a physical laboratory to actually see if any information can be gleaned.
RUS: Youâ€™re doing this in public, so besides learning about yourself, youâ€™re doing this as a challenge to people who are observing you. How has that interaction gone?
GBPO: [laughs] Itâ€™s worked so far. Itâ€™s been incredibly respectful and incredibly positive. I have not received a sarcastic or negative remark yet.
I’ve gone under a physical change by having breasts and living 24-7 androgynouslyâ€¦ I like to call it pandrogyny. And the hermaphrodite, the androgyne, I see as representing a very necessary evolutionary shift in the species. I think itâ€™s imperative.
RUS: We went through an androgynous period in pop culture in the â€™70s and to some extent the â€™80s, but the cultural trend has been more towards very machoâ€¦
GBPO: Well, I live in Brooklyn in a very unhip ghetto district. So here I am a white androgyne doing my daily test going back and forth and so far itâ€™s been fine. Of course the problem is that somebody might be embarrassed by me or confused by me. Iâ€™m very aware of that and I try never to knowingly make anyone feel uncomfortable because thatâ€™s not the issue.
RUS: Youâ€™ve exercised a great deal of discipline in your work. As a fairly undisciplined person, I find that when you push past all the programs say through psychedelic experience, there are still appetites. Thatâ€™s a danger â€” you can find yourself stripped down to nothing but appetite. So I think maybe the Buddhists had it right. You have to decondition the appetites first.
GBPO: Iâ€™ve thought about that a lot. And Iâ€™ve thought about celibacy as a sort of reverse sex magick. And certainly if you think about DNA, well maybe DNA is an alien virus and maybe we are a species programmed to build something. Is there anyway for us as creatures to fuck with the DNA program? [laughs] And could it be by refusing to replicate biologically? And I think thereâ€™s a very strong argument that says, â€œYes, ongoing unquestioning biological replication could be our downfall.â€ And I wonder why the Vatican church and so many people in power, why they all tend to want to control reproduction almost at any costâ€¦ like with stem cells. Now why is that? Itâ€™s so obvious that overpopulation is a primary problem. If we actually had a much-reduced population a lot of the territorial and resource problems would become secondary. So itâ€™s almost like saying if you donâ€™t want to be at war with Iraq, youâ€™re unpatrioticâ€¦ if you donâ€™t want biological replication youâ€™re not patriotic to humanity.
If you think, â€œHow can I confound this DNA with which I am riddled?â€ [laughs], one obvious way is to refuse to continue your species. And to that end I actually got a vasectomy as a symbolic act. Itâ€™s symbolic because I already have two children. Iâ€™m already implicated.
I honestly feel that, for all the cultist downside of the Raelians, thereâ€™s a really valid point in there. We should be free as a species to design ourselves. We should be looking at the most incredibly eccentric ideas about human genetic engineering and cloning and cyborgs. And we have an absolute right to become creatures rather than just human beings. And thatâ€™s something that â€” to get back to having breast implants â€” I am trying to symbolize by having my body not reflect the program that DNA intended. How can I confound and reveal the central issues around our relationship with DNA and the fact that it may or may not be benign? Itâ€™s not about becoming male or female. People will say to you, â€œI feel like a woman trapped in a manâ€™s bodyâ€ or â€œI feel like a man trapped in a womanâ€™s body.â€ And I say, â€œI feel like Iâ€™m trapped in a body.â€
I think thatâ€™s what it comes down to. Weâ€™re trapped in these bodies so how do we take away the boundaries and edges and frames.