Beyond the Body (an interview with Genesis P. Orridge)
The lead vocalist for the band Throbbing Gristle and one of the founding minds of Psychic TV, Genesis P-Orridge has been charged with having invented industrial music, acid house and some even lump Brit Pop into that mix. A musician, performance artist and social provocateur, Orridge has made it his, or her, life’s work to push the boundaries of social behavior. From the early days of living in an anarchist commune fueled by the infinite frustration he experienced in the 60s and 70s he has always worked to explore the intellectual and very human experience of why do we do the things we do. His art has taken many forms, it is both playful and confrontational and has covered ground ranging from pornography, totalitarianism, Nazism, love, peace, evolution and especially gender. Both his art and music often defy the conventional, in fact they mischievously and intelligently deny the use of conventional expression as words and symbols and definitions become altered, removed, unnecessary. Throughout his career his life has become inseparable from his art and most recently he and his other half, Lady Jaye began a physical, living art project that saw them both undergo body modification and plastic surgery in an philosophical and artistic effort to explore the concept of what they call Pandrogeny – the realization of a third entity that exists beyond the sum of either one of them. Unfortunately the project has since ended with the abrupt passing of his partner Lady Jaye in October 2007. Regardless, he continues with his work, having recently released an new Psychic TV album and DVD and his intelligent and thoughtful ability to articulate his ideas and heartfelt hope for the survival of the human race has helped him find a new and excited audience in Universities around the world. I spoke to Genesis on the phone from New York.
ONLY: How are you?
G.P.O: It’s been a really hectic week. Tomorrow we’re the visiting artist at NYU so we have to get things organized.
ONLY: I can imagine that there is a lot to talk about on your behalf.
G.P.O: I suppose, but it’s been interesting lately, in the last 8 weeks maybe even the last 6 weeks we’ve given a lecture at Rutger’s University, at Columbia and at the gender studies department at NYU and now we’re doing the art department. And at Rutger’s the Head of Graduate Studies said afterward that our lecture had the largest attendance in the history of the University.
ONLY: That’s great.
G.P.O: Isn’t that interesting? That there is that much awareness of the project that Jaye and I were doing?
ONLY: I certainly think that that kind of reaction is quite compelling and an interesting testament to the awareness of both the project and for the ideas and the concepts that you have been working with and towards for so long.
G.P.O: That’s funny to think about for an old codger like me.
ONLY: It must be an exciting time to discover that there is an audience for you.
G.P.O: It is, but obviously it’s tragic that Jaye’s not here to share that with us.
ONLY: Of course. But I’m happy to hear that you have found the strength to continue.
G.P.O: Well it’s partly the fact that there is such a positive response to what he have been doing that encourages me to keep going. It’s an irony isn’t it? Derek Jarmen once said to me, when he just turned fifty and been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, he said : “You know Gen, now that I’m dying they’re going to throw money at me to make movies and they’re going to give me all this praise and publicity, but they won’t do it until you’re either dying or dead.”
ONLY: I think that anyone who is pushing boundaries or concepts, like yourself, that seems so far ahead of the general public consciousness has to expect that it will take time for the public to catch up. For example so much of what you have contributed culturally and even philosophically has been ahead of the curve. It can sometimes take a generation or two to catch up to what were originally seen as radical ideas.
G.P.O: A good example would be something like industrial music. We did the first Throbbing Gristle gigs to less than 20 people, most of them throwing things and screaming abuse that it was just a racket. Of course, now it’s a global phenomenon and most young people would look at you wide eyed and startled if you said there was a time when there was no industrial music.
ONLY: Of course and obviously you were at the absolute forefront of that. I’ve heard you be referred to as a cultural engineer…
G.P.O: Yeah that phrase popped out one day. I can’t remember where it was but somebody who had enough importance to me to merit that thoughtful said: “How would you sum up what you do in two or three words”…and out pops this phrase, “cultural engineer”. And the minute it popped out we thought it does sound arrogant but there’s enough evidence out there to justify that as an explanation. I mean we have actually taken the flows and the ebbs and the underlying subtexts of popular culture and then submitted it to a detailed analysis and then proposed the next mutation. It’s not so much that we’re claiming that we’re geniuses in an isolated world where we come up with these marvelous ideas, it’s more that we’ve become skilled at reading what’s inevitable in the culture and we have the nerve, the stubbornness or the stupidity to then see if we can make it happen.
ONLY: I wonder how these sorts of expressions, that you seem to naturally migrate towards, begin to form. Is it a result of being engaged with a sympathetic collective group? Do these ideas come about organically?
G.P.O: It’s very much the result of dialogue. It really begins with when we were….oh by the way you probably realized that we’re trying to use “we” instead of “I” so we can represent both myself and Lady Jaye in the physical…
ONLY: I had yes.
G.P.O:…So when we dropped out of university in 1969, we joined an artistic, psycho-therapeutic commune called the Exploding Galaxy, that’s really one of the root influences, one of the basic training camps for a lot of what has come since. It was a very brutal, very analytical environment. You would constantly be interrogated as to why you still looked how you did yesterday or why your hair was the same, or why you wore the clothes other people were wearing…why you were following any habits. That sort of environment of living with no privacy and being constantly intellectually harassed, to be de-conditioned in every possible way has left a very deep imprint on my way of perceiving nonsense reality as we prefer to call it. The other really, really important methodology of course is the “cut up”, in all of it’s infinite variety, which could simplistically be called “collage” refers to the way that we edit our experience of reality, the way that the media edit what they present, the same reality and the underlying themes of that nonsense reality that can be revealed by unexpected collision and frictions and the rearranging the linear structures. All of those techniques, we’ve applied, not just to the mediums of writing, film, video, music and art…we’ve applied it to behavior. And that was where we got into the Shu shamanism and the majik and the focused orgasm and eventually, the body itself. The cheap suitcase as Lady Jaye would call it. Which is where the battle rages between the software program of DNA and the concept at least of intellectual free will.
ONLY: It seems to me that you have treated your whole life as an art project really…
ONLY: And one of the integral aspects of being an artist is the concept, or rather the process of evolution. To not be mired in one specific approach or by simple repetition of form.
G.P.O: Except here’s the irony and one of the issues that remains problematic. If for example you are Briget Reilly the painter and you see a canvas with stripes and you go: oh that’s probably a Briget Reilly, you see silk screen images and you say: oh it’s an Andy Warhol, you can recognize a Dali. Now how can you recognise these pieces of art? It’s because they are so similar to all the others that went before. That there’s a basic formula, a branding if you like in contemporary language. So the problem for the artist is change and evolution and mutation are absolutely-we would agree with you- the essence to us of creation. and yet to fully live with that means that you are always outside the bounds of the art world, the art market or the music market. The commercial cultural world wants recognizability. As if to say you’re investing in this and you can tell this is what we’ve given you because it looks like all the others. It’s a horrible problem for every artist…do we try to make a living at making art, is creation about making a living? Is it possible to make a living and maintain an obsession with novelty and change? Or do you have to surrender to that and hope that you can still have content? Obviously you know that with me, we did not surrender. (laughs)
ONLY: Your entire career could be seen in the context of this kind of conflict. Particularly in relation to perceived convention or normal behavior. But at the heart of all of this there is also a pattern of love that transcends your work. From the earliest Throbbing Gristle days which were perhaps more directly confrontational and maybe even personally violent, but never has your work openly advocated violence. In fact it goes against violence, so there is an interesting contradiction that your work elicits violent reactions from certain people…
G.P.O: …those who maintain the status quo…
ONLY: …but denies any form of appeal to conventional violence.
G.P.O: Well with Throbbing Gristle and COUM Transmissions we sort of went from theater of the absurd street theater, into again inevitably looking at the intimate structure of personal taboos and behavior. Why for example is it okay to masturbate in bed at home and not to masturbate in the shopping center? the action is exactly the same but the location is changed. So what is it? Is it context? What makes the parameters? Where are the boundaries and why are they there? And who creates the boundaries of what’s acceptable and not in any culture? And of course you can go from one country where is acceptable to have five wives and then to another country where it’s not allowed, and so culture changes in accordance to geography, and therefore it is malleable because the rules can contradict each other depending on where you are. So culture is contrived by human beings, but what is it contrived to do…to control them. In particular to police the aspects of personal experience we find liberating, that’s why sexuality is policed by culture. Because it has so much power. And while it is also linked to love it is a very powerful force. So when we were doing COUM we went from generalized attacks on the absurdity of society’s contrived ethics into a very, very intimate exploration of that interface between the individual’s sexual and imaginative life and how that causes friction and anger sometimes. And to look at the role of male-female as well. While that was all happening we discovered that from having been rejected by the art establishment, we were beginning to be courted and embraced and we felt uncomfortable with that. So we started to move away from that world and look again at what was happening in the outside. we wanted to not be elitist and to just talk to a few people in galleries. We wanted to see if we could change society. If we could actually apply the things we’d learned about behavior and make something else happen. So we experimented with Rock music because that seemed to be one of the most easily accepted vehicles for ideas amongst younger people.
ONLY: Music certainly has the opportunity for the shared experience.
G.P.O: But with both COUM and Throbbing Gristle there were times in our explorations of ideas where people were shocked by the content, but in fact we weren’t trying to shock people we were trying to find out why they were shocked.
ONLY: Interesting. It wasn’t simply a case of “here is the line and we are going to push it just to push it”.
G.P.O: No it was about asking “why is the line here and who created it.” And with TG, we were in our mid twenties and we have to confess there was a lot of anger and frustration in me, as a vocalist and performer at the hypocrisy and the bigotry of the society that we found ourselves in. And also anger that this incredibly unique moment in human history, the 60s, had been battered to pieces by propaganda. It was the only time in human history where millions and millions of young people chose to explore peace, love and consciousness instead of just accepting what went before and accepting violence as an answer to things that were surprising and confusing. It was this amazing experiment, whether people realize it today or not. And yes there was a lot of anger in me and the anger and violence that we felt was directed inwards, because we felt as the artist that we were somehow failing the human species if carried on behaving in these negative self-destructive ways. Why can’t we get them to wake up and realize that war is insanity. And it’s still true. We can’t understand how there could have been a second war…ever. surely after one war thousands of years ago people would look at the dead bodies and wounds and grief and go: “we’ll never do that again.” And yet we keep on and on with these self-destructive, species threatening behaviors. So what is that? Is that what people mean when in organised religion when they talk about the fatal flaw? The original sin? Is that what they mean that in the recording, the software of our behavior there’s something that keeps on and on keeps leading us to self destruction? and if there is…where is hidden? What is it and can we get rid of it? That’s really been the center of all of my work.
ONLY: Your work has always reflected a transformative aspect, even here where you mentioned that you have begun to replace “I” with “we”, and I read this somewhere, in an effort to better represent the multiple aspects with any one person. To use “I” refers to a singularity of personality when in fact most people have many facets to their identity better embodied by the use of “we”.
G.P.O: Absolutely. Yes.
ONLY: You have also consistently taken the use of language and of cultural signifiers and played with them and reorganised them, as you might see in the influence of the “cut-up”, and all of this helps to create a somewhat cohesive narrative for you and your work.
G.P.O: Well thank you. When I first met William Burroughs, way, way back in 1972…it’s kind of funny, but he said to me: “Genesis, this is your task. How do you short-circuit control?” And somehow that instruction has stuck with me really deeply. and when Lady Jay met me, we both, for different reasons had focused on this same issue. “Where is that special flaw in us, where is control and are they the same thing.” And we came to the conclusion that the answer is in the DNA. that the DNA is a software program and in that program, originally, when we were man apes, we needed to have an element of our genetic structure where the male of the species was protective of the female which were the breeders. and in order for the species to survive the males had to be violent to get food, to protect themselves. so anything that was not understood, that was different was attacked. So that genetic program of violent reaction originally helped us survive, it was if you will, a friendly gene at that point.
ONLY: What I find interesting is with that is that the one thing that greatest things that separates us from other creature on an evolutionary scale is our brain. It has allowed us to create complicated social structures, great works of art. It has allowed us to create and appreciate all of these things…
G.P.O: Well we are very clever chimpanzees if you like, and we became toolmakers because of the brain, but what’s happened in a simplified form is that over the next few thousand years from that original situation, we have created and taken control of our environment. So now we have this 21st century environment that is miraculous. We have people floating around in space labs, we can talk to people across the world on these little boxes, we have the internet, computers and it’s mind boggling. But we have not bothered to apply the same amount of effort, finance and thought to our behavior. We now have the same behavioral patters that we had in prehistoric time but in this amazingly futuristic environment. Of course that’s a recipe for disaster. You wouldn’t put a bunch of clever chimpanzees in a room with a bunch of red buttons that set of an atomic war. But basically that’s what we’ve done. we’ve ignored the need to maintain and evolve consciousness on a par with technology. We assumed it took care of itself. Or even worse we’ve assumed that the human body as it is right now is the final version of our evolved self. That it’s somehow sacred. It’s not. It’s a work in progress just like everything else. the brain is still evolving, and getting larger. And now that people are semi-cyborgs with new technologies like ipods and cell phones their brains are going to change again. But we’re not taking it into account and we’re not looking at it as an absolutely necessary are of research in order to maintain our survival. And that’s where pandrogeny comes in. We believe that DNA is the program and the program is out of date. So we need to look at how we can adjust that program in order to evolve, in order to realize our innate potential and to ultimately explore both inner and outer space. But we will never be able to escape this planet and escape disaster if we ignore behavior.
ONLY: Your relationship with Lady Jaye and the living art project that you both embarked on with the creation of the pandrogyne as the realization of the third entity, has at this stage taken on a directly physical manifestation. Would you imagine the next phase of this be a collective conscious recognition and an attempt to transcend the body?
G.P.O: Oh absolutely. That is definitely the next step. It’s worth going back to how the idea of pandrogeny evolved when Lady Jaye and myself began working together. When we met it was a meeting of equal minds, as she was already a quite stunning intellect and it was actual Lady Jaye, who on the first day we met, started dressing me in some of her clothes. That was an intuitive and traditionally female intuition. that the minute she saw me she was beginning to manifest what became this pandrogeny project. And we were so in love, and still are, but you know when you love someone so much you say things like “I wish I could just eat you up” as if to just totally adsorb the other person? Well we felt like that and when you have a mutual orgasm you reach this supreme otherworldly state of bliss. So at the beginning it was an expression of our love for each other and we began to look the same. Very superficially. Doing our hair the same, wearing the same clothes, we got tattoos. I got beauty spots on my cheek to match hers, then she had her nose done to match mine. As that happened we were thinking about why we were drawn so compulsively to become a hermaphroditic middle ground of each other. What was this that was making us feel this way. And we went back to the idea of the “cut ups” and the idea of the third mind where the collaboration reveals something beyond which either participant is the actual author. These “cut ups” were the creations of what Brion Gysin and William Burroughs called the third mind. And we thought that maybe we could take that even further and apply that to identity and to gender stereotypes. Then perhaps we can adjust behavior by neutralizing difference. So we began to take plastic surgery more seriously as a way to get us as close as possible to realizing a third person. By removing differences. To draw a third way that got rid of binary systems and made the discussion become much more conceptual and less rooted in difference.
ONLY: In an interview Lady Jaye discussed how this wasn’t a project directly linked to sexuality and that the idea of, say you having your genitals removed to become more feminine was not the point because that would deny you the possibility of pleasure. Instead that it would be more to the point if you both could have both sets of genitals.
G.P.O: Yes we even spoke to surgeons to see if it was somehow possible to create both genital for each of us. And so far that’s not feasible. But we’d like people to not get bogged down in the male female aspect. Yes we wanted to become hermaphrodites because that would work for human beings culturally as a statement of neutrality, saying lets forget about either or and male, female because that simply encourages polarity. If we remove the binary symptoms and become hermaphrodites and chemical symbols then we can discuss evolution in a much more positive and useful way. This is why pandrogeny digs so deeply into some of the most embedded issues in western society, because it is saying that we need to completely re-imagine ourselves as a species and we need to make decisions socially, politically and economically as a species that is fighting to survive. And once it can maintain a reasonable expectation of survival it must then think of evolution as its primary program. That should be what we all devote ourselves to in one form or another…the mutual and positive and potential rewarding evolution of the whole species.
ONLY: If I were to think of one particular trait that was both a blessing and a curse in the human species I would suggest that our curious nature is something that of we could refine, might help us. It’s what has given us this idea of exploring new frontiers that might be of benefit to us as a species.
G.P.O: Of course that comes back to what you were saying at the beginning about the artist, for us, for Lady Jaye and myself. We absolutely believe that to be an artist, to be a creator is a calling, just like it would be for a priest or a doctor. Lady Jaye was also a nurse. It’s incredibly important to look at things in that way. For us it’s a sacred calling and it’s an act of devotion to the species to become an artist.
ONLY: Is it this idea to give yourself over to something…
G.P.O:…without knowing the frustrations ahead.
G.P.O: And that’s where what you said about “love being a thread in the work” is so true. There are many tyime when we wish we didn’t care as much as we do, and that we could turn away and say “so what it’s their own problem.” But we just can’t. We are duty bound and honor bound to do everything we can to keep a dialogue of survival and evolution and change alive. In a way pandrogeny seems to be the project that ties together all the threads that have been part of my life before and we see it and its various implications is more than enough to deal with however long we still have left in physical form. The ultimate objective of pandrogeny for myself and Lady Jaye as individuals was always that post physical death we could still be together and still be absorbed into each other and become one new form of self-aware consciousness but that was made of the two of us.
ONLY: If the thread of everything here is that the programming construct is DNA, it seems then that the hope would be at some point to be able to extract or combine genetic material from different sources. For example you and Lady Jaye have shared physical qualities to an extent, but let’s say for example that you loved her sense of humor, or her laugh, it would be of interest then to seek out that genetic material related to the programming for those kinds of things.
G.P.O: That would be fine.
ONLY: I guess the big fear and the big question then is how as a public and as a species do we maintain control over, or even access to that kind of powerful, scientific technology when so much of this technology already lays exclusively in the hands of an elite group.
G.P.O: One of things that tends to happen is that with technology the research costs are so high that the people who are subsidizing it, i.e. the big corporations, that luckily for us, they tend to share the spoils of their research in order to recoup their costs. It’s not altruism; it’s a strange form of greed. Like personal computers and Polaroid cameras and cell phones and all the other things that have come back to us as spillage from the program and so on. The people who invest are so self centered that they let it filter down. Having said that, of course there is going to be fear of totalitarianism but listen, we are entering a state of totalitarian capitalism right now…
ONLY: …whether we like it or not.
G.P.O: Exactly, and so from our perspective it is better to challenge that in any way we can and try to utilize to subvert one obviously disastrous future into at least the option of a future that might be more positive. And perhaps that shift will bit by bit create more shifts until as a species we wake up and think “my goodness, we don’t need to listen to these people.” I man there is probably only five thousand of them, why should we let them control three billion? And then we turn our back on them, at which point their power is gone. So we have to have faith in ourselves and in our intentions. And if we have pure intentions then we will not add to the disaster, if we do nothing we will add to the disaster.
ONLY: Well, hope is a powerful force.
G.P.O: Definitely. The human species is so frustrating to observe because on one level it is so self-destructive and self-obsessed and greedy and violent that keeps on repeating the most ludicrous, nasty and shocking mistakes, especially socially and politically, but we are also the most wonderful creatures, full as you said, of curiosity and pragmatic invention and inspirational imagination…and that’s what you have to hold on to. And we need to nurture those qualities. If we all do that then we would be shocked at what we could achieve.
ONLY: Let’s hope that we get to live, in some form or another to see that day. But speaking of achievement, and this is a bit of a departure, but you have just released a new album.
G.P.O: Oh yes.
ONLY: I thought it was really interesting in the way that it sort of spans a lot of your previous work, but offers new and fresh interpretations of the genres and sensibilities you have touched on throughout the years.
G.P.O: Well we have always done that, taken things and reworked them at certain points.
ONLY: The title of the album, “Mr. Alien Brain versus The Skinwalkers”, I have to wonder if it doesn’t somehow relate to everything we have just talked about.
ONLY: Well immediately it made me think of the alien brain as something foreign or otherworldly and then the skinwalkers simply being bodies covered in flesh that are in essence automatons.
G.P.O: Yes. Of course the alien brain is the title of the first public theater piece that the COUM Transmissions did, so there’s a reference there that says that this record is covering a whole spectrum of work. For me personally, this is our most favorite album we have ever done. It feels as if it were made by someone else.
ONLY: The accompanying DVD is also a definite bonus. You can really see the hypnotic joy in the performances.
G.P.O: There is a lot of commmaradery in the band. But it’s worth mentioning that all the main tracks were recorded live. There were no overdubs. We were invited to do a program for National Public Radio and they asked us if we would be interested in doing a live broadcast of some songs in honor of Lady Jaye, and we hadn’t played at all since she dropped her body. We had a one hour rehearsal the night before we went. And we recorded live, very much like Abbey Road, in a great big live room, straight to tape so to speak. So we basically improvised most of the arrangements and some of the lyrics spontaneously.
ONLY: That’s quite amazing because to listen it feels so intuitive and together.
G.P.O: It’s quite mind-boggling. We think Lady Jaye was there helping.