The performer and Throbbing Gristle co-founder discusses love, violence, and making life a work of art with gallerist Lia Gangitano for Document's Spring/Summer 2017 issue.
Since the late 1960s, Genesis P-Orridge, born Neil Andrew Megson, has been defying conventions of contemporary art, gender, and identity. They—the performance and multi-media artist prefers the plural tense—discovered rebellion at an early age, refusing to bully the younger students at their all-boys boarding school, a mark of seniority. They soon after discovered the writings of William S. Burroughs in porn shops, the Dada scene, and, after dropping out of the University of Hull three weeks in, ran away to London, founding COUM Transmissions, a now-notorious art collective perhaps best known for its 1976 retrospective “Prostitution” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which featured tampon and syringe sculptures, pornographic ephemera, and more. The backlash from Parliament against “Prostitution” was legendary, as were the politically vocal industrial rock bands that followed. In 1993, P-Orridge embarked on their most radical project yet: along with their now late wife Jacqueline Breyer, known as Lady Jaye, P-Orridge quite literally began transforming into what they saw as the idealized female form. The two got matching breasts, identical noses, eye jobs, corresponding tattooed beauty marks, and underwent hormone therapy. In 2007, Lady Jaye died of stomach cancer. But the project has continued.
Here, Participant Inc gallerist Lia Gangitano sits down with P-Orridge in their Lower East Side Manhattan home to talk about the meaning of real actions in our very surreal world, the nature of rebellion, and just what it means to be collaborative in an environment where both conformity and aggressively individualist-styled survival tactics reign.
Lia Gangitano—So much of the discussion of the current election situation has to do with an alternate reality or people feeling like they woke up in an episode of “Black Mirror,” or like we’ve gone into this parallel universe situation. The question that’s jumping out at me right now is about the perception of real and not real.
Genesis P-Orridge—Where in my life are you visualizing it when you ask this? At the very beginning, with COUM?
Genesis—Through a scholarship, we were sent to an English public school, which, in England, is private. It was one of the top six schools in the country, and they said to us, “You are the next leaders of the country. You will be the diplomats, the politicians, the heads of industry, the bankers. You will control this nation.” But there was this dark underside, even then, which was conformity. You will be one of these things if you go with the program and you actually the idea of examinations seriously. We didn’t fit the template because we didn’t have money and everybody else did. When we went there, we had long hair, and the rule was that it had to be above your ear. We knew straight away that we were an aberration, that, for whatever reasons, none of it felt comfortable; all of it felt awkward, difficult, or even violent. We knew that we didn’t want to be what they were selling us.
We count ourselves very lucky that we saw that. There was this incredible teacher of English literature who saved us in a way. After a year of being bullied, beaten up, and knocked unconscious almost daily, he called me up at the end of class and he said, “Stay behind, I want to speak to you.” And I think, “Oh my god, what have I done now?” He brought a little piece of paper out and he said, “I think you would really like this. Try and find this book.” I looked and it said, “’On The Road,’ Jack Kerouac.” We took it home and read that, and we thought, “These people are freaks that don’t fit in, too!” They’re older than us, but they’re going through the same punishment. They’re saying no, we do not want to be a part of this machine. We want to explore, be passionate and delirious, and find out what existence is—all those wonderful things that art is. So that was our salvation. We tapped into this other culture, a completely different culture, a shadow culture almost. But it reinforced our faith in the idea that each individual is writing a book; it’s not just a metaphor. You’re writing a book of your own life, and each day is like a page of your book. You can make it whatever you want it to be. It was very easy to think then that, once we left school, we would be a wandering beat poet. We went to university, but after three weeks we stopped going to lectures.
“We’re not making art to put on people’s walls so it’ll look great; we’re doing it for us. It’s our journey towards, hopefully, a tiny bit of wisdom.”
Lia—Was it clear to you, even at this early age, that you were meant for real and permanent transformation?
Genesis—At that point we felt that we’d made a choice: that we were the artwork. We started to find out about Andy Warhol during the 60s. There are stars and there are superstars, but there’s also what we like to call Godstars, which is when you move onto other dimensions. We thought, “What happens if Neil Andrew Megson creates a self that’s an art piece?” And that’s what Genesis was. We are a living artwork by Neil Andrew Megson, the artist. That’s really weird for us to think about it. Did Neil die when we got animated? Or did he just gradually fade away and just not exist? Where’s Neil? We were not afraid of letting go of the other person. In fact, it seemed essential. The nicknames that we got—Genesis being the main one, P-Orridge later—felt like us. It’s like growing up as a child and leaving home, and everything that represents that: The name, the society, the belief systems—everything. You have to start from zero again. So we began being Genesis, and had no idea it would last this long.
Lia–And so, the actions you were performing were real in terms of cutting your body, marking your body, ingesting poisons, durational, physical actions. The physical transformation began in COUM and continued, it seems…
Genesis—To the present.
Lia—Yes. I’m interested in that development toward androgyny and merging your identity with Miss Lady Jaye.
Genesis—It’s almost as if we just keep doing the same alchemical process, but we are purifying it a bit more and a bit more and a bit more all the time. As we learn more and we discard more, we get closer to what might be the essence of a being. And that’s the journey: to find out what that is. Also, in its relationship with any culture, is it possible to change the culture, too? To reflect that malleability back? That’s been problematic with the art world, because we are so committed to the idea that life and art are inseparable. Although you get lip service from the art world, very few established museums and critics really take that on board. It’s still considered to be a sort of sidebar, a perversion. Very quickly it went from the bohemian traveling poet to the dedicated enemy of stereotypes and expectations from the culture.
This “either or” is the main system that’s imposed on the planet. We’ve had problems with the LGBTQ [community]. They think we’re being negative when we say, “Is it enough to decide to become the other gender?” Because they’re still in the binary thing, gender is an imposition and nature’s proven that with intersex and now with the developments in medicine. The human body is a malleable piece of stuff. It’s not you.
Lia—We’re talking about language and we’re talking about the body. It seems you’ve applied this collage idea to everything—all areas of practice and life.
Genesis—We got lucky; we found a few Burroughs books in the Soho porn shops in London. They had “Naked Lunch,” because they heard it was obscene.
Lia—Oh, I was just asking about this idea of the cut-up.
Genesis—We became very aware of cut-ups in about 1966, and we started working with cheap tape recorders to try and experiment for ourselves. Around 1970, we got involved in the Mail Art scene. We liked it because it was outside the gallery system; you were sending handmade, beautiful things to each other—gifts. In one of the magazines by General Idea there was a list of all these artists from all over the world asking for things for projects. We came across William S. Burroughs, he wanted camouflage for “1984.” We looked and there was this address in Piccadilly in London, Duke Street St James’s. We thought that couldn’t be his address! Surely someone that infamous wouldn’t put his address out there. But we wrote him a letter, and he wrote back and said, “Next time you’re in London get in a cab, I’ll pay for it; come and see me.” So by 1971, we’d met Burroughs!
Lia—The reason I was mentioning that is you’re able to incorporate past works into the present. I felt Jaye’s presence so strongly at the Rubin [Museum of Art], not only because some of the work carried forward, but in terms of this sort of irrevocable process.
Genesis—We brainstormed together constantly, for years on end, everyday. She left so many amazing photographs that we’re still using as raw material, and so many ideas. One of my favorite pieces were the two coffins. Not necessarily as artworks, but they were the sort of penultimate proof that we were doing something that did occur. The one on the left was just me and the one on the right was me and Jaye superimposed. It was almost identical—it was identical—bar a little bit of lip. We thought, “We did it! Against all the odds we managed to become, at least temporarily, identical.” Those were basically our declarations of this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to commit everything we have—money, bodies, life, love—to this thing, because we saw it as one of the most potentially efficient ways for this species to finally change its behavior by example.
Lia—Right. Try to alter everything.
Genesis—We’re not making art to put on people’s walls so it’ll look great; we’re doing it for us. It’s our journey towards, hopefully, a tiny bit of wisdom. We had over two thousand people, didn’t we? That doesn’t happen anymore.
“We were not afraid of letting go of the other person. In fact, it seemed essential.”
Lia—It was a big step for them, too. I was going to mention a high point in my recent memory as far as dream shows—or the show you’ve always wanted to see your whole life—was the show at Invisible-Exports of your work with Pierre Molinier. That was epic.
Genesis—We’ve been obsessed with Molinier since about 1975. That’s something that’s important to us: to try and tell people about those who inspire or who teach us. We wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t for them. Go check them out. That’s not very common right now in the very cutthroat world of art—the one that we see. When we’re at art colleges teaching, the most common answer to the question, “What do you want to do when you leave?” is, “Be rich and famous.
Lia—Well, I think that exhibition demonstrated your interest in these spheres of influence. People talk a lot about building networks and choosing our own families and communities, but that also works in terms of a genealogical trajectory. Like what formed you and what is part of you; it’s not always in the present, it can be historical or the Pyramid Club.
Genesis—When we had our big run-in with British culture—with “Prostitution”—at the ICA, and the Arts Council announced that they weren’t going to fund us anymore when they were only giving us about 300 [GBP] a year. We just thought then that we were lucky to be moving on to [earning money through the band] Throbbing Gristle, so that we’d never beholden, that we can be censored because we need the money. It was actually an old man who lived in the park that told me to do a band. It’s the same information, but it reaches more people.
Lia—So there was a desire to reach more people?
Genesis—Oh yeah. We thought, “If we’re doing this, and we feel it’s right for us, maybe it’s going to be helpful to other people.” You don’t insist, you share information.
Lia—Sometimes I think the most radical artists don’t view themselves as necessarily… They see themselves as almost populists, like [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder. He was just like, “I’m making films for my generation.” The perception of the effort was that it was for everyone.
Genesis—That’s why it’s been so satisfying the last year or two touring with Psychic TV. We can go to St. Petersburg and get four or five thousand young people, and then Tbilisi in Georgia and get a full house. It makes them feel less isolated to know that there are people out there who’ve been through a similar experience and survived. It’s important that people aren’t intimidated into stopping thinking and stopping taking risks. More than ever now.
It’s still my dream, if there was ever a legacy, to have a community. Like a think tank, a certain number of creative people living together. Not all in one building, but in a village, just spinning new possibilities and encouraging people, giving them new skills, whatever. Present an alternative. It’s going to be almost impossible to be off the grid, and in a way we don’t want to be. We want to be in our zone maximizing our propaganda and then sharing back into the society in hope it will change like a virus. Change in society is important, but what’s even more important is changing human behavior. There’s something wrong with the way that people behave. The idea that there ever could have been a second war? Surely after you’ve seen maimed families and dead bodies, wounds, trauma, and devastated emotions, you would think, “What the fuck did we do that for?” and never do it again. But we’ve done it again for thousands and thousands of years.