GENESIS BREYER P-ORRIDGE
A Conversation with an Unparalleled Creative.
Photo by Drew Weidemann
This interview originally ran February 7, 2014 on BEDFORD+BOWERY
With the recent passing of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (1950 - 2020) I wanted to share the conversation we shared in 2014 as homage and inspiration. P-Orridge’s work spans mediums, genres, practices, and ideas, coalescing under the concept and mantra of pushing what art can be. At times it was quite literal—reimagining the idea of music and how it can impact an audience—and other times it drew and encapsulated complex themes that seemed deceptively simple, even playful at times, in order to continually expand an inner vision.
While the only “skate content” in this entry is buried at the end by way of Justin Henry’s part In Quasi’s Mother full-length (2018), in which he skates to Psychic TV’s most iconic track, “Godstar,” the conversation below speaks to art, not one style or focus. In that sense, the influence of P-Orridge’s ideas is as infinite as they are boundless and agnostic of medium.
To get more granular, the focus of our conversation was P-Orridge’s photographic autobiography which in many ways has direct ties to skateboarding. Bluntly stated, the documentation of skateboarding could be as literal and precise as a Primitive edit or as loose and ethereal as Memory Screen but neither is better as both are personal and reflect different intentions.
What is universal is a specific P-Orridge quote from our phone call:
Live a life that’s equal to the work you make, and what you make doesn’t matter.
With the utmost respect, admiration, and appreciation, I send my deepest condolences to the friends and family of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.
Throughout h/er entire career in art, music, film, and writing, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge has constantly evolved — no matter how non-linear that path may seem to outsiders. That life and journey have now been crystallized in a photographic autobiography, featuring over 350 candid and often previous unseen images from the artist’s personal archives.
With the help of New York artist Leigha Mason and music journalist Mark Paytress, the East Villager’s namesake book chronicles h/er often controversial output — with subversive art collective Coum Transmissions, Industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle, acid-house and psych-rock innovators Psychic TV — as well as a life’s journey from birth as Neil Andrew Megson in 1950, into pandrogyny with h/er partner, the late Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge.
“It’s a mini-retrospective exhibition of my life,” P-Orridge said of the book, released in both standard and deluxe editions by boutique press First Third.
What made you decide to not only do an autobiography but give such a personal view into your life?
Embossed in the cover it says “Genesis Breyer P-Orridge” in my special writing that I developed over the years, but it’s got a nickname through people who’ve reviewed it: “Intimate.” That’s how it’s coming across. People — at least how it seems to me in our society and culture — are really starting to seek some spiritual, positive healing and a new way of looking at this ever more complicated world that we live in. We’ve noticed that from lectures we do. We gave one at Yale and there were over 300 people there, people were actually standing outside the doorway to listen. The talks are like the book: a non-linear telling and description of a life spent seeking creativity and trying to find wisdom if that’s feasible, if at all. And looking to find the gifts that others may have.
I think that touched Fabrice, the publisher at First Third. He said, “You’ve never done an autobiography and no one’s ever written a biography. Why is that?” We said, “Well, it might sound a bit eccentric, but Brian Dyson said to me, “Don’t try to write a serious book about your life until you’re 60 years old, because you haven’t lived yet.” So, it came that we’ve reached 60 and Fabrice said he wanted to do a book — a photographic journey — from this eccentric schoolboy in Birmingham, England, to New York’s Lower East Side and retrospectives at the Andy Warhol Museum, and how it happened and all the things in between that effected that.
We’ve always believed that art and life are truly inseparable. Just as being a priest or a doctor or brain surgeon, or even a farmer… anything of that nature that’s a calling. It’s something that forces your heart and mind to go in a particular direction. We feel that art is a calling, it’s a divine activity. When people say, “What do you mean?” we usually say, “What’s the first book of the Bible?” and they say, Genesis. And what does God do before anything else? Create. It’s the book of creation. It’s the first dynamic of our universe, and to me, that makes it special and precious.
There’s so much cynicism in the last couple of decades of contemporary art, that it’s been a struggle for us to re-authenticate the artists’ existence the in world. It doesn’t end at the frame, it doesn’t end at the end of the sculpture, it has to be coming from experiences that are entering the artist’s life. The things that are created are almost evidence — anthropological talismans that sort of go in sync with the life and help explain it, without actually giving a single answer. It’s a constantly flowing, fluid experience, so the work should also be the same.
Lady Jaye used to say, “When you wake up in the morning, why be the same person you were yesterday? Why not try being someone else?” That’s profound to me. She’s saying there are so many options, so many narratives you can create that is your life: your life is your narrative. You are the creating author of that work and to me its the only way to work. The book had to reflect that.
How did it make you feel, seeing all these different days and moments mapped out photographically in the book?
It was very emotional for so many reasons. We knew right from the beginning that we couldn’t do the edit. We couldn’t choose one image over another, because they’re all equally part of life. They’re all friends, I love every picture of my children, I love the dog pictures, all the Jaye pictures, but thankfully an artist and good friend, Leigha Mason, agreed to take on the burden of going through 20-30,000 photographs and slides that we located. She had to narrow that down to a book and the first version was about 600 pages, and then Fabrice, Mark Paytress, Leigha, and myself would vote.
They’d send a PDF and give a yes or no. If it got three nos it was out. Sometimes, pictures we really wanted in didn’t make it, but what matters most from the response we’ve had is how many people thankfully saw it as a love story and full of love. And being intimate, sometimes playfully and other times blatantly. That’s us. It’s a portrait and a portrait shouldn’t have censorship.
If you’re talking about looking for truth and honesty, you have to include all the different aspects of what you’ve done, even if later on they seem immature and embarrassing. You can’t start editing the past, otherwise, it becomes fiction. We wanted it to be as close to the truth as we could get.
Looking at it now, the first thing that goes through my head is: How the hell did we get all of this done? When did we sleep? Not just life, but performance art, inventing industrial music, acid house, switching to psychedelic rock, going back to poetry, and of course going back into the art world. In ’76, we decided to quit the art gallery world, just as we were starting to get respect for art. We wanted to do things independently, which became Throbbing Gristle and music.
I’ve always seen your music as just one component of your bigger art and vision. Is that part of your idea of giving your body to art?
From the very beginning, it was always clear in my immediate art heroes when we read about them — the Dadaists, Surrealists, and later the Fluxists; and we were fortunate enough to be involved at the tail end of Fluxism, we were fascinated with the Beatniks — it was because their biographies were as fascinating and potent, powerful, and stimulating, in terms of ideas and aesthetics. It seemed to me that that was the key: live a life that’s equal to the work you make, and what you make doesn’t matter. That’s one reason we’ve always worked the way we have.
In 1976 we did a farewell to Coum Transmissions, the performance art group, as a retrospective at the ICA in London and we called it “Prostitution.” It was just meant to mean, everybody sells a skill, no matter what it is, so we’re all equal. But it was, of course, completely sensationalized by the yellow press, and that’s how we ended up being called “Wreckers of Civilization.” And when everybody stripped away the hysteria, the items that caused questions in Parliament and threats from the Foreign Office to revoke my passport, because we would shame Great Britain abroad — which was a weird conversation — were these four little sculptures.
There was a wall left in the gallery with nothing to go on it, so we had one of our quirky thoughts and we got these used tampons and make these little sculptures. One of them was this old Art Deco clock that we emptied out and removed the mechanisms, and replaced them with used tampons and called it “It’s That Time of The Month.” Silly jokes, almost schoolboy jokes! There were four of them all together called “Tampax Romana.” That was freaking them out. According to the press and certain right-wing MPs, this was going to wreck British civilization.
In a turn of irony, about two years ago the Tate Britain bought the four sculptures and they are now in the National Collection of Fine Art in Great Britain. That’s a bit of a turnaround! Obviously it’s very vindicating to have people finally go, “You know what? What you’re doing might have been confusing to us at the time, but looking back at the ’70s, they were real instigators of change, and were important, no matter what was being made.”
I wouldn’t make those now, but we’re proud of them because it took 40 years for them to become significant. Art works that way, you don’t always know how something will be received or how it’s going to change other people’s perceptions. The general way that art succeeds in the art world as it is now, which is basically run as an investment business, is that you come up with a formula that’s recognizably yours. With Damien Hirst it was sharks cut in pieces and then later dots, with Bridget Riley it’s stripes, Salvador Dali, it was just the way they were painted, and that’s — to the art world — really, really, important, so collectors can say, “Oh, you have a Dali! You have a Hirst!”
So, if you keep changing and have no interest in a continual style, you’re not just fighting to be heard or seen, but to be given equality in terms of the actual creative act.
When the artwork isn’t “branded” or easily commodified, it’s not always easily contextualized — especially when it presents new ideas.
It’s the reason why looking for instant gratification in the art world is often a negative in the long term. We’ve always felt that all the work we do — whether it’s art, music, writing, or poetry — we imagine it from our deathbed looking back, and would we still be satisfied with what we’ve tried to do?
There’s an old Sufi saying, which is ‘Live every day as if it’s your last and what you do that day is what your whole life will be judged on.” That’s how we’ve tried to live our life, though some days we wouldn’t be sure what the judgment was!
You worked with Leigha Mason, who’s a young New York artist. Are there other artists out there that you see pushing the envelope as you once did, or doing things you really appreciate?
Apart from Leigha, who we met because we really liked her work, she introduced me to a photographer named Emily Kinni, who did this incredible project where she traveled around the United States to different states where the death penalty had been rescinded and then either took photos of the redundant, no longer functioning death chamber or whatever was there now. Sometimes it was a supermarket or a room in a school. There was something about that attitude about her traveling all over, negotiating with bureaucracy, having to have respect for the horror that it really represents, and also how life demolishes what was there before, only to become something mundane or totally different. That’s the kind of attitude that we’re always looking for in an artist.
In music, we like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and became good friends with them and we like Starred, whenever we get to see them. I love their music, and we’ve played with them a few times. In all honestly, there’s so little time in my life to look, that we rarely get to go out and take everything in. Having said that, we’re often disappointed. At one point, one of the bigger art magazines invited us to Chelsea to review all the art shows that were up and we hated them all. It was depressing. The problem was that it was like “Oh, there’s a really bad version of a Duchamp. There’s one hoping to sneak in as Damien Hirst again. Now they’re doing abstract impressionism again.”
Too much was recycled. In my opinion, it’s something coming partly from art colleges, where they’re trying to teach you how to be an artist as a business. Of course, it’s like that. But where’s the search for the holy grail of revelation? Where’s that gone? That’s how art started, with the mystical and mysterious in prehistoric times. We didn’t know when the sun would come back, or if at all, so every day was a miracle. Art was made — talismans, drawings — to have some sort of controlling relationship with the environment. Shamanism grew into religions, the patrons of art became Popes and rich families, which sewed the seeds of what we have now, which is a banking system.
But the source of all art is that mystical moment of fully aware empathy, wondering how does the universe work and does it really exist? Are we dreaming or are we asleep, where does it begin and end? Those are the things that should concern us, because we need to know as a species, more than ever, what are the dynamics of a universe? Is there a way around this trap? And is the only way around to change how we perceive? Change human nature by changing how we perceive. And that’s going up against thousands of years of dogmatism, bigotry, and intimidation, enforced by violence, primarily to control societies. It’s become much more fluid and fragmented because our culture is so huge. Pinpointing the issue becomes more difficult. It’s what Jaye used to call “dazzle camouflage.” There’s so much culture, you can’t see. But that’s the job of the artist, to isolate one or two things that truly could make a difference and a happy future for the species. To isolate them and make them pristine, and share that moment of revelation. That’s what we hope happens with the book.
Are there any images that you came across while assembling the book that really stood out to you?
One of my favorite photographs in the book is one where we’re grinning and holding my young daughter Genesse — she was only a year or so old — and she’s laughing her head off in my face. It’s a double-page spread, but it was only recently that we noticed that we had a 12-foot boa constrictor around my neck [laughs]. That just sort of sums it up, we didn’t even notice, because there’s so much going on. The kids are the same way, they used to call William Burroughs “Granddad William.” He took my daughter Caresse on stage when she was three weeks old and blessed her in London. They grew up with Derek Jarman and all these people and they always tell me those are the bits of their childhood that they treasure, traveling in a school bus all over America, meeting these unusual, but inspiring people. Hopefully, that’s a tradition that we can maintain and amplify in some way.
The book is partly that: This is a life. You can have a life, one that’s exciting, edgy, banal and mundane, or as financially successful as you wish, but make sure it’s the one you’ve chosen.
With Sunday really being a celebration of this book and your life, does it have a different weight to it than other performances and events you’ve done?
It does, it really does. Someone recently said, “Do you realize you’ve become one of the old ones now?” In 1971, at 21 years old, we were thrilled to bits when we finally met William Burroughs and we became friends until his death, and we sometimes think when we look at this book, these are the friends that are going to look back at it and say, “I remember the first time I met Gen… and it wasn’t how I expected it to be at all!’
Hopefully, it inspires people. That’s the point, and hopefully, its cement is the love story and the constant search for a soulmate: another half. That to me symbolizes the ultimate question and answer of the universe, that that which exploded in a “big bang,” to use a metaphor, somehow one day must re-coalesce. And perhaps all that we experience, or feel we do, is just the universal mind reassembling itself. We can either encourage that assembly and that evermore amazing revelation, or we can squabble and fight over dogma and details and wreck it and delay it.
We’re responsible for the future… people forget that.