Image Credit: New York Times
Trigger warnings: sexual references, violence, domestic abuse
In the early hours of March 14th, Genesis P-Orridge concluded h/er fantastical narrative, 70 years in the making, in the quiet dignity of h/er home on the Lower East Side. H/er daughters’ Genesse and Caresse released this statement: “It is with very heavy hearts that we announce the passing of our beloved father. S/he had been battling leukaemia for two and a half years and dropped he/r body early this morning.”
What other statement could suffice? To drop one's body implies a kind of nonchalance, an indifference to the ‘suitcase’ of the human form; a vessel to be picked up, unpacked and discarded on the road - the road to other destinations.
When it comes to the life and legacy of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, provocative British musician, writer and visual artist, language fails me. Genesis lived h/er life as a vanguard art project, questioning all those categories by which we understand self and body, experience and subjecthood. In a sensitive tribute to this complicated figure, The New York Times took a Bildungsroman approach: tracing the formative years of one Neil Andrew Megson, born February 22nd 1950 and describing the tortured passage of an individual set apart from his family and peers, never at peace with h/er body or gender.
However, the problems of following such a linear trajectory becomes apparent when we consider Gen in h/er own words: ‘I started to wonder what happened to Neil’, s/he revealed during a 2012 interview, ‘I have become an artwork with no author. In a sense, Neil destroyed himself by creating me.’ In other words, if we are to adhere to the story of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, we need to acquiesce in h/er mythology, to accept new temporal markers, the premature deaths, backwards births and Christ- like resurrections which pervade h/er life as art.
Neil’s ego death began with the formation of confrontational performance group COUM Transmissions which rocked the British art scene in 1976 with a controversial exhibition entitled “Prostitution”. The exhibition played with the politics of the inside/out, of the body exponentially extended and radically disfigured, ideas that would soon become a staple of the group’s performance art. “I did a performance where I was naked,” Gen explains to one reporter, “I gave myself enemas with blood, milk and urine [...] Then Cosey helped me lick [it] off the floor. And she was naked and trying to sever her vagina to her navel with a razor blade.”
Initially these descriptions read as senseless acts of gratuitous violence, crass shock and awe techniques by an irreverent group of artistic deviants. Indeed, the show had led one conservative MP to dub the group “wreckers of civilisation”. On the contrary, via these temporally bound acts of degradation and mutilation, COUM sought to expose how the boundaries of the body are constructed. It is via the violence of the everyday, the subtle violations we permit to play out on and in our bodies, that we submit to the discourse of power. COUM’s prerogative was to rip the mask from hegemonic forces, to reveal the full extent of the destruction which lies at the centre of identity, alerting spectators as they witness the savagery of socialisation at work.
Genesis’ fascination with the body found expression during COUM’s foray into the realms of music. In 1975 core members from the group morphed into Throbbing Gristle, an abrasive experimental band that coined the term “industrial music” to describe its repetitive, amelodic soundscapes. Armed with a factory floor aestheticism, the melody of the hard grind and working man’s oppression, TG recast the human body as a cog, a body in servitude, which could nonetheless grind against the smooth totalising projects of the neo-liberal machine.
Discipline is a particularly intense single, hailed as the signature to the band’s ragged, acid washed oeuvre. consisting of noise improvised over an electronic pulse the song mimics a martial rhythm which ushers in a sparse refrain: “we need some discipline in here”. The effect is hypnotic, it drums the listener into acquiescence, nudging him into line, bringing them in step with their fellow ravers.
Footage from the brutal Mission of Dead Souls tour suggest that the band was amassing an army, encouraging self-discipline amongst a disaffected and a-politicised youth lost in imperial futility, nuclear gridlock, AIDS related witch-hunts, environmental degradation, economic hell. But power cuts both ways, and the astute observer will recognise that Throbbing Gristle was promising liberation from one kind of oppressor in lieu of another. The Holocaust and Nazi imagery which haunts their album The First Annual Report concludes a scathing critique of the powers that be with a wry nod towards their own delusions of grandeur, of fascism transmuted into fame.
Here in lies some of the more difficult facets of P-Orridge’s messianic persona; the shadowy anecdotes which cannot be circumvented if we are to take full stock of this complex and often divisive figure of the underground music scene. In her 2017 autobiography Sex Art Music, guitarist of Throbbing Gristle, Fanni Tutti, details another side to the story; she describes how her own artistic expressions and bodily freedoms were oppressed by her then lover Gen. In one alleged incident P-Orridge threw a concrete block at her head from a balcony, apparently aiming to kill her and missed. She also depicts P-Orridge as a sexual tyrant, repeatedly pressuring Tutti into unsafe sexual practices and group sex situations.
While P-Orridge has denied the allegations, the very nature of Throbbing Gristle’s artistry might very have precipitated situations such as these. By Gen’s admission the band undertook a constant probing of their physical and mental boundaries in service to their work: ‘what would you let me do to you?’, ‘how far would you be willing to go?’ The surrender at the heart of their performance, to their audience, to themselves under extreme and unprecedented conditions inevitably lead to unforeseen vulnerabilities, imbalanced power dynamics, failing communication, and embittered recollections.
After achieving renown with Throbbing Gristle, Genesis found a broader rock audience in the 1980s with the mystical psychedelic band Psychic TV. Simultaneously, s/he organised her followers into a cult like network called Thee Temple of Psychick Youth. Preoccupied with magic and the occult, members were instructed to create “sigils”, magic runes, from blood, spit and sexual fluids, before mailing it to the TOPY World Headquarters. However, in true Genesis fashion, a paradox lies at the centre of this enterprise; give part of your body to me in return for mastery over yourself; surrender is figured at the gateway to dominance. In many ways, the cult was an extension of Genesis’ formal obsessions, a probing of the questions which structured h/er life and work: are we born into a state of embodiment or is it something we must earn? Are the boundaries of our bodies natural or are they constructed by outside pressures? Where are the borders between your body and mine?
Where are the borders between your body and mine? This question more than any other hangs over final years of Genesis P-Orridge’s extraordinary life. As the cult disintegrated around her, tainted by rumours of satanic worship, and under investigation by Scotland Yard, Genesis met the woman who would instigate the next stage in h/er art as life project. Self-exciled in New York, Genesis met Jacqueline Breyer, or Lady Jaye as she was then known, a conceptual artist and dominatrix. Their love was so consuming that they wanted to fuse into a single entity, a “pandorgyne” as they termed it. Described as the next stage in human evolution, this “positive-androgyne” sought to transcend biological destinies, to reformulate the limits of the body along the frontiers of personal choice and narrative fiction. Genesis and Lady Jaye underwent a series of surgical procedures, including breast implants, chin, cheek and eye augmentation, dental operations and facial tattooing, in an effort to inhabit identical bodies, discarding their former names and public identities in favour of a collective subjectivity.
The project was greatly inspired by Genesis’ friend and mentor William S. Burroughs. During the 1960s Burroughs and Brian Gysin pioneered the literary cut-up technique, seeking to blur the subjective limits of artistry, to confound a singular authorial presence, and to evoke a ‘Third Mind’, writing the spaces in between them. As Ge´rard Georges-Lemaire explains: ‘it is from this collusion that a new author emerges, an absent third person invisibly and beyond grasp, decoding the silence.’ Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s fleshy incarnation of the ‘Third Mind’ truly confounds attempted description, forcing us to reconsider the scholarly, curational and journalistic practices by which we interpret an artist’s life and work.
The threat posed to traditional unities of biography and subjectivity were consolidated in disturbing ways when Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge died, suddenly, of heart failure in 2007. Her death left Genesis alone, a Madonna of the Rocks, inscribed with the meaning of her twin in art, now lost to the sighted world. After Jaye’s death, Genesis adopted the plural first person pronoun ‘we’ continuing to cause semantic trouble by incorporating an irrevocable split into a performative unity which sustained h/er until her own passing. As s/he wished, Genesis will now be buried alongside her other half, or rather her estranged self, Lady Jaye.
As we now inevitably turn to the troubled rereading of Genesis P-Orridge’s life, (lives?), I find myself drawn to one of h/er early attempts at conceptual art, Beautiful Litter. The prot-COUM collective wrote an extended poem, torn it to shreds, and scattered it along sidewalks. Curious passers-by could collect the small snippets, carry them off, and incorporate these lost ideations into the poetics of their everyday lives. But the poem could never be read as a whole. As with Beautiful Litter, wholeness or certainty must be discarded in our attempts to read the body of fiction that is Genesis P-Orridge. So, I leave you instead with Gen’s own words; out of context, unmoored from the time of their utterance, and unceremoniously dropped like a ‘cheap suitcase’, or so many scraps of paper.
And then you want two
See if you could
Go right through
A thick brick wall.