This interview was originally published in SFAQ issue 9 (May–July 2012).
She arrives about an hour late, dressed in all black except for a denim cut-off jacket and a walking cane that seemed more likely to be used in poking away small children than for support. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge has platinum blond hair and gold teeth, wearing a small pin on her vest that reads “Not Every Ejaculation Deserves a Name”. She strikes me as spectacular, the perfect cocktail of wit, horror and charm – the sort of stranger I’d cozy up beside in a nameless back alley bar for a chance at conversation.
Credited as the pioneer of the Industrial music genre, Genesis, now 62, is widely known for fronting the bands Throbbing Gristle and later Psychic TV, which is still active. Since the late 1960’s, Genesis has been musically and artistically exploring subjects of sex, murder and the occult. Then Neil Andrew Megson, she first formed COUM Transmissions after dropping out of school and taking a fancy instead to anarchic counter culture (or dope and dreams as I prefer to imagine). The artist collectives were called “wreckers of civilization” by members of the British government and narrowly avoided jail time for creating pornographic mail-art of Queen Elizabeth. What a treat!
“Breyer P-Orridge I’m Mortality” is the enduring-duo’s second solo show at Invisible Exports, a space focused on contemporary and avant-garde artists at their modest, dumbbell shaped gallery on the Lower East Side. They are small but mighty, and have managed to whip up a dynamic exhibition program and just last year even graced us all with art by the beloved Prince of Puke (not Genesis, silly, she’d be more like the Bride of Blood, or the Duchess of Demons ), John Waters. In this exhibition, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge focuses on her body, which includes the multiple surgeries she and her late wife Lady Jaye underwent to look like one another, or perhaps meet halfway in a new pandrogynous form.
Genesis’ work has been exhibited at The Tate Britain, the ICA, and Serpentine Gallery in London, the ICA Philadelphia, the Musee D’Art Modern in Paris, among various other international museum and art spaces. The Breyer P-Orridge story is now a motion picture, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye directed by Marie Lozier, currently released in theaters globally.
As I interview her, Genesis seems straddled between universes and times. It’s sometimes unclear who, when or where she’s talking about. She incessantly speaks as “we”, or the Breyer P-Orridge that is what her now deceased partner in crime and love Lady Jaye called the “separate person who is both of us. Both of us are in all of our art. That third being, Breyer P-Orridge, is always present.” In Genesis’ eyes, the collaboration hasn’t ended, but simply, the collaborator has “dropped her body” five years ago at age thirty eight.
How has it felt putting together this exhibition?
This particular exhibition was probably one of the most pure we’ve managed to do. And the fact that it was all lying around sort of explains our methodology of working which is a form of unconscious collage, we didn’t pick all the objects with the idea of making art. We had them because of some intuition that they had a power or an influence that we were curious about and that assembled themselves. It’s a jigsaw of something that’s both about pandrogyny and the various elements that are involved, blood, hair, skin, that contain DNA which is the ultimate recording that goes back to the slim mold. We did the whole exhibition with almost no mental thinking at all, everything just flipped in my head like a finished piece.
With your wife and artistic collaborator having passed away, how does the performative element and transcendence of gender change?
It’s never been about gender, that’s a mistake people make. There’s obviously a relationship with the idea of gender, but for us the whole point was to erase gender all together and create a new being that was neither male nor female but a combination of the two. We believe the evidence is there: that there is a possibility to maintain a sense of self after psychical death and even reincarnate and return here if you wish. But it’s the letting go of Western rational linear concept. We’ve had too many experiences that suggest anything is possible. There’s no proof that we’re here. We could be going through the same lifetime over and over again, until we wake up.
Can you articulate a bit more the creation of a new being that is the combination of both male and female?
Pandrogyny for us began as a personal quest for ourselves to blend and merge as much as possible. The surgeries and the ways of wearing each other’s clothes and so on were just to keep us focused on the task of becoming each other. But of course we believe any binary system, male/female, black/white, Republican/Democrat, Communist/Socialist, etc., are all traps holding the world back. It allows those that enjoy power and violence for its own sake to manipulate and control other people; because once you have the either/or you can have the other, that’s different and can be blamed and scapegoated. And that can give a sense of unity to one group and a sense of an enemy at the same time. Which creates wars, violence, greed. For us it’s also a sociopolitical concept, saying as human beings we have to let go of ideas of either/or, of nationalities and so on, and think of the human species as being one organism.
Let’s talk specifically about this show, “Breyer P-Orridge | I’m Mortality”. Where shall we begin?
How about here with this video, it’s the first one that started it all off.
It’s called “Blood Sacrifice,” it was a gift to me about a year after Lady Jaye and I got together, hers is the one on the left with her face on it. It’s a Chanel N°5 bottle and she filled it with her own blood. And I thought it was pretty fucking fabulous. I kept it, put it in the fridge and a year later I gave her a bottle twice as big as a sort of “anything you can do I can do better!” gesture and we just stored them. One way or another the bigger bottle with my blood in it ended up in the freezer and of course the blood froze like ice and expanded, shattering part of the bottle but not falling apart. And one night it popped in my head the image of the two placed side by side, her bottle of blood on one side and my broken one opposite to thaw back to room temperature. So, we decided to make a video of it and got lucky. The background is a Tibetan prayer scarf that was blessed by the second in command to the Dalai Lama. When the Dalai Lama has a spiritual question and is not sure, he returns to the second in command and seeks advice. We wanted a white background and measured the table surface with a level to make sure it was totally flat, and put the two bottles there and let the room warm up and photograph every one or two seconds, and it took about ninety minutes for it to melt and spread. But what fascinates me is when you watch the video the blood from my bottle goes against the laws of physics and spreads across toward her bottle when it should spread evenly in a circle. Here are the layers from that original Tibetan prayer scarf.
Why the reoccurrence of the number 23?
Well, it was my friend William S. Burroughs who turned me on to the number 23 in the 1970’s. He was keeping journals and doing collages on every page for decades and started to notice the number 23 cropped up a lot in headlines, “23 Killed in Hotel Fire”, “23 Killed when Plane Crashes”, and so on. And once he started to keep track of the number 23, it kept coming up more than seemed mathematically probable. He would go somewhere and get room 23, get a bill and it would be $23. We started to use it mainly for things in the universe we would think have more to do with synchronicity, or what myself and Lady Jaye call the “Of Course Factor”. “Of course we got room 23, of course we got table 23.” Like after the Brion Gysin show at the New Museum we all went for dinner at this Chinese restaurant and got table 23 as we were discussing the whole thing. “Of course it is!” For us it’s a friendly number. We don’t really have any long theory about it, we just accept it. If you like the magical inexplicable part of the universe, as to why it takes 23 seconds for blood to go around the body for example. This show is very much about alchemy.
Where did you get the inspiration for this sculptural piece?
We went to Katmandu in November for a month’s rest and I ended up in the intensive care unit. I was getting these really nasty pains in my belly and couldn’t even walk. We’ve had a lot of pain before from art performances and surgeries and such, but this was the worst. We were pretty much delirious but they put me in their ICU and the doctor, who was an American, said “If you hadn’t come in now you’d be dead by tomorrow.” The doctor asked, “What does the pain feel like?” Out of the blue without considering it we responded “It’s like a part crab, part centipede is inside me and it’s trying to eat its way out.” “Well, look at these x-rays” he said. “Your gallbladder is twice its normal size and these white areas here are where part of you has been eaten away by something.”
I left the hospital and bought all orange, which is the holy healing color in Nepal. I got various Nagar healing talismans and walking sticks from a shop I know. The Nagar of this very extreme Shiva sect do a lot of hashish and really extreme physical things. And Nagar is the name of the cobra, which is depicted all around the neck and head of Shiva for protection. A week later we went back to the hospital for a checkup and the doctor said, “Well, this is very strange, look at these x-rays. Your gallbladder is completely normal, there’s nothing there anymore.” So for whatever reason it went away. The Nagar live on charity and they carry around these small begging tins which are the same proportions as this piece but only about 9 inches high. We decided to make a giant begging tin, and we also on an impulse bought a cobra door handle. It occurred to us the cobra is meant to be living in the stand, so that’s why its tale is there, it’s protecting the whole piece. Inside is a reference to the multi-layered Hindu deities. The orange flowers are what are used for healing rituals.
Immortality is rational/irrational. Where does logic stop and magic begin? And how little we in the West know and how much we’ve missed because we tend to stay on the rational, the real. The holographic version of perception makes more sense to us, and this is a holographic reference to that.
How about your scroll pieces, they look like secret languages.
Another time we were in the hospital a friend came to see me and there was this one nurse who was really bad at drawing blood and giving me injections, we’d call her the vampire. The vampire kept making a big mess with blood everywhere, so I used a roll of toilet paper to dab off the blood each time, and that’s where these two scrolls came from. We thought they looked like pictographs, just really amazing. And with this show being so near Chinatown there are those red and gold images with calligraphy in them for good luck and basically spells, which look a bit like these.
Not that you are a hoarder, but what are the discards in “Alchemical Wedding”?
Well, one day Lady Jaye came home with these two big wooden carved boxes, one for us each, to keep our hair and finger nails and toe nails and skin in so nobody could curse us or damage us or wish us harm, so these contents are taken from that. The glass on the right contains all of Lady Jaye’s hair, toe nails, skin, even pubic hair. And the one on the left contains the same but of mine, and the middle glass is both, mixed together. And that’s the “Alchemical Wedding”. It references the hidden but also the obvious, and of course there is this whole thing with pandrogyny where we propose that eventually the human species is at a point where it can choose to continue to evolve or remain in its larva state, which we see the binary male/female state to be. And so this represents the male and the female combined into perfection, because most mystical traditions say that whatever supreme power there might be has to contain everything, which is male and female. Hence the divine hermaphrodite in all the alchemical texts. It also has a nice, sort of Duchampian look to it as well.
I imagine the keys to that weird haunted house in Tails from the Crypt look like these, what are they really?
They are called “Spiral (Thee Source)”. In the early 1990’s my father died in England. He left me just three things; a broken watch, a broken clock with his name engraved in it and this key, which is from a medieval castle in Whales.
A decade before that, somebody gave me a Psychic cross made out of iron. They have each been lying around ever sense, and one day during the process of creating this exhibition I put them together and it was perfect symmetry. Did he know? Is time linear at all? It just fit together in this perfect way and we welded them together. It became a beautiful object. So we made additional pieces from it, casting them in white resin. This exhibition has been very intuitive, there’s no logical progression. The objects make themselves and we try to understand why they’ve appeared. It’s a different way of working.
How about your photo “Coagularis”?
This is one Lady Jaye took of me. It’s all about transcendence, leaving the body and out of body experiences, which you can have under aesthetics. That’s a Jackson Pratt Pump I’m holding. Lady Jaye was a registered nurse, so she told me what it was called and you squeeze it to create suction through the valve and any excess blood is sucked out and you empty it every so often. It’s the source of a lot of the blood we used from my body. Lastly is this little person here which is called “Blood Bunny”. In the early 90’s we met someone who worked with John C. Lilly who did a lot of work in dolphin intelligence, and also the 1980 film Altered States is based on his research. He would float in a sensory deprivation tank with no light and take huge quantities of ketamine to leave his own body. We were talking to this other researcher and he said we might want to experiment with ketamine because it’s really good for out-of-body experiences.
Ultimately, with myself and Lady Jaye, pandrogyny for ourselves is to maintain a sense of individual self when the consciousness is separated from the body at psychical death. So when my body is dropped and consciousness is released, we can find each other and meld to become one consciousness made of the two, so the blood on “Blood Bunny” is from all the injections we did over a period of three years. The hair on the back is Lady Jaye’s ponytail, and it contains my blood, Jaye’s blood and ketamine soaked into the wooden rabbit. We got the rabbit near Tijuana and they were selling these touristy things that were all decoratively painted and this one hadn’t been finished and we just thought it was a very demonic looking bunny—it didn’t look like a bunny at all. So we thought instantly it would be great for soaking up blood, and as we called each other “bunny”, it made sense. There is more than ten years of blood on it.
Does Orlan have any bearing on your work? Has she been an influence at all?
Orlan was an inspiration to some degree in the beginning. We liked the way she utilizing cosmetic surgery in a new way and confronting female glamour through the ages. Her early work wasn’t quite an influence but a recognition and reinforcement that what we were feeling was an inevitable movement of social and creative matters, that we were observing something we felt was already a subtext in culture. For example, when we first came to New York together the sex ads in the back of the Village Voice were nearly all biological women and biological men—the women offering services to heterosexual men, and the guys usually for gay men, and now it’s all nearly shemales, but their clientele is still heterosexual men. That’s a huge shift, that these thousands of heterosexual men in New York secretly prefer a transsexual. A man-woman. So we saw that as an intuitive grasping by the species toward a new phase. Just the fact the Rupaul is now a sort of successful star on TV and the whole transsexual movement has gone from being the most covert GLBT state of being to almost mainstream, who are being written into movies, TV shows and there’s been a big shift.
Lady Jaye used to say something to me which is true of the USA—“America is three countries: the West coast, the East coast and the rest.” So we’re not blind to the fact that it’s still a dangerous conundrum. We chose to take a physical stance, we are prepared to put our bodies under the knife to show that this needs to be discussed. Once you let go of this being the finished human, you can begin to extrapolate all these different options and possibilities. We can use our resources on this planet to the best possible efficiency when people can actually choose who they want to become. They can have horns and furs, they can have feathers, extra limbs, whatever they choose. It’s just a matter of letting the imagination take over from logic. We don’t really believe in logic. We think it’s a trick, another way of blinding us to the options we have.
Do you think something has been lost with the mainstreamization of queer identity?
There is a certain aspect amongst the GLBT community who seem to want to simply become as normal as possible, which to us is just puzzling. Why on earth would you want to get the legal and political rights to be just like the people you despise? To us it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s somebody’s choice. You have gay Republicans—how can you be a gay Republican? People should stop trying to fit in and rather celebrate difference, and celebrate new options and push them further. Don’t be afraid to go for the things you really believe in. And that’s what we’ve always done. We understand why people can misconstrue what we’ve done so far because we took breasts as a second sexual characteristic but for us that was because they were an obvious statement. We were prepared to do this to a point where it might even be dangerous for us. Because you know, if you go to the wrong place you could get beaten up for wearing a mini skirt, not being biologically female, we’d been scared a couple times in Brooklyn where we’d been followed by a car “come on darling, get in”. If we got in that car we’d be dead. But overall, anything that adds to the consensus of tolerance has to be better. The possibilities should be all inclusive. I mean to me GLBT is great, but why isn’t it just queer? And revel in being queer and different, and obviously some people do and we support that. But there is still an awful lot of this planet that would like to regress and go back to the most intolerant, bigoted, violent stage of human history, and that’s terrifying.
So there is a movie out about you now, The Ballade of Genesis and Lady Jaye, are you flattered?
It’s a miracle that film has made it to big cinema, and however long it lasts, what a breakthrough for a film about two very unconventional people! And the fact that Marie Losier, the director, focused on love is what worked for it. People all over the globe relate to it as a love story and they are able to be tolerant of the content and not really see it as so strange. In a way she allows the audience to become affectionately interested in us enough for them to let go for awhile their normal prejudice. That’s quite miraculous. We’re hoping it stays in cinemas long enough to have an impact outside our demographic and to contribute towards rethinking the future. In a way, it’s agitprop what we do. It’s not just enough to live in the artist’s Ivory Tower for us; we have to relate, no matter how obliquely, to the transcendence of the species. And to the way we behave toward each other as creatures.
What a collaboration! Genesis has devoted her whole life to untangling the but-who-am-I-really questions most of us have for just a few short drug-induced hours. And knowing the dramatic transformations of both she and Lady Jaye in the name of creating an all inclusive pandrogynous gender identity, well, it kind of makes Gilbert and George look like soft-serve vanilla. And Breyer P-Orridge is still making art, using archived blood, photos, films, skin and hair to continually make work that imagines a new kind of person. The work of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge leaves their audience frightened, appalled and inspired, how perfect. “Do you know any Haiku’s by heart?” I ask her. I like to end these things lightly. “Oh fuck no,” she says. “I’m terrible at remembering.” I thought for a moment that was one.