Interview with musician and artist Genesis P-Orridge

(Image: Seth Tissue, CC BY-SA 2.0, modified)

Since the 60s Genesis P-Orridge has been one of the masterminds behind artist collective COUM Transmissions and seminal music acts Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Beyond that, P-Orridge has had an astonishing career in the visual arts, founding an artist collective called Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, as well as helming the infamous pandrogeny project in, which P-Orridge and deceased partner Lady Jaye went through ongoing plastic surgery sessions to resemble each other in an attempt to, as New York's Rubin Museum's catalogue once put it, "break down the limitations of biological sex and express their unconditional love for each other." As of 2017, Genesis has been having an ongoing battle with cancer. Here's our interview with Genesis, conducted earlier this year.

Do you think something happens to our consciousness when we die?

We think about that a lot. But we've also spent much of my life as an existentialist. We had the, is it good or misfortune to have read La Nausée by John Paul Sartre when we were about 12. And needless to say, it totally altered the way I saw all the information I'd been given by the Church of England and the status quo. And it made me basically an existentialist. There's just "we're here, we die, there's nothing," you know? But then we also had these psychic experiences and saw certain things that made me still not 100% sure of that either.

We used to say we were a romantic existentialist because we've always had this strong belief in Big Love. But then, myself and Lady Jaye talked about what would happen when one of us dropped the body. We've had some experiences where we really felt bonded psychically and inter-dimensionally, mainly during ketamine experiments to be clear, so with enhancement, but nevertheless, very, very powerful experiences. So, if it is possible to maintain a sense of individual identity as just consciousness, how would we communicate with the other one? Because we want to stay in touch. So we came up with the three things that would make it clear it was a real communication. And they were: one, there had to be witnesses. Two, there had to be something that physically happened. You couldn't just think you heard somebody's voice or thought you saw somebody in the crowd that was them. And then it also had to have special meaning. Those were the three things we felt would give us a very strong sense that it was a real communication.

Genesis P-Orridge, 2007 CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

And after the funeral, so the second or third day after she dropped her body, Caresse and Genesse, my daughters, came to visit for the funeral and looked after me, and they were trying to get me to go back to California. Everyone was scared we were going to commit suicide. We didn't say that. But they couldn't imagine me staying here without Jaye, so everyone was in this non-verbalized panic, and we knew they were but we didn't say anything because we wanted them to suffer. If we were suffering, why couldn't they, you know? And then suddenly, while they're talking, I kind of drifted and was almost daydreaming, and we thought, what if we go with them? We're gonna need a picture of me and Jaye together to put by the bed. Of all the things, that's what came into my mind.

So we got up without saying anything and walked through the apartment to the bedroom, and in the bedroom, on the side of the bed, was what she called the kissing wall. And on the kissing wall were photographs from all over the United States, and all over the world, of us kissing. There were about 20, or probably 23 knowing the way things work. And so the last thing she saw when she fell asleep was these photographs of us kissing and being joined, and the first thing she saw when she woke up was us kissing. So it was like a sigil, like a magical invocation of always being aware, of always strengthening the bond.

So we looked at that wall, and there's all these nice pictures, and in the middle is one and it's me and Lady Jaye in Kathmandu, in the garden of the hotel we usually stay at called The Nirvana Garden, and we were both wearing red robes. And we sat on Lady Jaye's lap. So it's a blob of red, and our two heads kissing, and it really is like one being, the two heads a part of this one being, and we thought, that's the Pandrogyne -- it's the two of us becoming one.

Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye. Photo by Courtesy Of Genesis P-Orridge.

So that's the one we took off the wall, and we walked back through the apartment, to the little living room where we sat in a semi-circle. We put it face down on this cupboard against the window, a few feet from where we sat.

And then somebody, pretty sure it was one of the children, said, "So are you going to come to California, Papa?" And as we looked up, the picture rose up a few inches, then it floated across a few feet and settled in front of me -- between us -- me and everyone else. To this day we often say to each other, "Did that really happen? You were there..."

[The other people say] "Yes it happened, Gen." We thought about that night and all that happened and then, well, [referring back to the three criteria for contacting Jaye] "there were witnesses and it has special meaning and something physical happened." And then we just thought, "Lady Jaye, you're pretty good in three days, it mustn't be easy to learn to move things when you enter a non-corporeal state. You know, have you seen that film Ghost? So we thought, "Gosh, she's good." Then you think, maybe she's done this before? Yeah. Maybe she was truly a gift, you know, from something more incredible.

What can the cut-up technique teach us about our perception of reality?

Basically, it's like a perceptual loop. By becoming hyper aware of cut-ups, you become aware of the fact that nothing is really linear and nothing is fixed. [William S.] Burroughs and [Brion] Gysin always used to say, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." So, you know, there is no definitive reality, and any interpretation of existing or appearing to exist here is as true as any other.

One of the things that Burroughs taught me early on, probably the first year we met: you'd say something like "the future" and he would say, "There is no future, Gen."

We'd say, "What do you mean?" and he would say, "There is no THE future." He said it should always be "A" future because every single human being has a different future. So where's THE future in that? There's all the futures that haven't happened that could have. So there's the possible and the impossible and the in-limbo futures. There's only "A" future and it's not specific.

Another thing that happens with cut-ups is you get alternative ways of seeing. You get collisions and combinations that would otherwise never occur, or wouldn't get noticed if they did occur. The cut-up technique heightens your ability to see these little chunks of information and how they move and change. And when they're rearranged, they tell you something totally different.

Language in particular is incredibly vulnerable to cut-ups. It's the most precious tool that was handed to us, for anyone thinking in a creative way from the last century. And if you look at film and TV and digital media, they are basically amplified versions of cut-ups working for the enemy. How do you fight the enemy? You have to know the weapons. If they're using cut-ups to control and suppress you, then how do you break those? By cutting those up and short-circuiting theirs.

You can come away realizing that it's all vulnerable to perception, that we are actually in control of what we perceive. And we can utilize cut-ups to stay awake and alert to what's being done around us to try and prevent us from thinking. It's one of the only weapons which utilizes chaos in such a positive way. It permeates everything that we do. I mean, without cut-ups, Lady Jaye and myself would not have come to the Pandrogyne, because we started out just being totally in love. And we would say how much we genuinely wanted to just become each other, just be absorbed into each other, and why couldn't we become one?

Image New York Story / YouTube

And we looked at history and even the Bible and myths and legends of the creation of humans. And most of them all have a moment where there's a being which is male and female, but then it becomes two. Ever since, the argument by mystics has been that perhaps the reason to experience physical living -- biological living -- is to reunify with the other half, or to become totally aware of what that means. And then, we were always seeking reunification with the divine.

Because we use cut-ups, we were looking for a way to make sense of what we were feeling and where it might go. And we thought about the Third Mind, which is my favorite book of Burroughs and Gysin. And in that book they go, "When we do these cut-ups with writing together, the result is not by Brion or by William, it's by the third mind."

It's creating a third mind that is unique and separate from the two of them. And then we thought, what if we do that with us as, say, two beings, cut up and reassembled, recreating the third being? That's the Pandrogyne. So, from simple games with words and collaging you can end up with this divine purpose rooted in a mixture of love and resolution as why we exist at all.

How do you think that we can spread more love in a world where there are so many competing versions of reality?

Love is probably the one triumphant quality of human beings. It seems to exist outside of the nuts and bolts of biological existence. No one really knows how to define it or explain it. A lot of people don't even believe it exists. Sometimes it can last a lifetime, and sometimes a week. So it's a bit like cold dark matter, you know, all of the thought particles. It's there and it permeates everything already. It's our job to locate it and not be afraid of love, not feel that we're demeaned, or weakened, or in some way open to ridicule or exploitation by believing and trusting in love.

We found that was the part that people found most uncomfortable about the Pandrogeny Project -- myself and Lady Jaye just totally surrendering into someone, both an idea and another being. People really have become very addicted to an individual, egocentric sense of self. You know, you only have to look at the contemporary world with branding and celebrities. When we've given talks at universities, we would often say to all the students: "So, what would you like to have happen if you could have anything, or what do you want to have happen in your life?." Almost 100% of the students would say, "I want to be rich and famous."

We would say, "Okay, for doing what?" And they would go, "We don't really care. We just want to be rich and famous." And we would say, "Well, it's because you don't care that you won't be rich and famous."

What advice would you give to someone who wants to form a community within an art practice?

Do it. Absolutely. I think you already know that. It's one of the things that we think is a way out of this pickle. As a sort of simplistic picture, first you change yourself, which means opening yourself instead of wanting any kind of result from other people, any kind of praise or recognition. You should do things because it's right for you to do them, and because you feel there is a positive action in the world -- or society -- in which you exist. And so you change yourself first. We would say you change your bedroom first, and then you try and change your household. Then you try and change the street, and then you try and change the town, and then try and change the world. For all of its flaws, digital social media and the connectivity of it is going to turn out to be really, really useful because it's exposed the unpleasant underbelly of culture, in all its forms.

What is happening in the current art world that excites you? 

Nothing!

And what are your hopes for the future of art?

Hopefully for the art world and future, there isn't one, and [hopefully] there's no art market. There's no "somebody makes a piece of what we call art and it resonates as special, and they sell it for 10 grand and then the next person sells it for 10 million, and then the next one for 20 million, and the next one for 120 million, and they only got 10 grand because they were starving." That should change. Whatever art is made, each time it's resold, a certain percentage should go to the artist or their dependents. That seems only fair. You know, if you made something and sold it for a thousand, and then it sold for 200 million, that's not right. But it's become an art market like Wall Street, you know, where they buy them as investments, not because they appreciate it, and not because it even means anything.

A lot of it is just decorative stuff that looks nice in big penthouses on white walls. And it's obviously made with that in mind. And if somebody comes up with a formula where that works and they do sell some to rich people with white walls in penthouses, then they will tend to stick to that thing they did over and over again. They will then have a formula and they will repeat the formula so that the other rich people can go, "Oh, you got a Damien Hirst too? Do you have one of his butterflies? No? ...Oh, well, a lot of us do," so that they'll buy. But it's not about anything. It's not saying anything, it's not commenting on the weirdness of existence, which, to me, art should be commenting on existence. It should be the same as a religious inquiry. It's a search for wisdom and truth and balance with nature and with humanity. It's a calling like being a priest, or a doctor or a nurse or something like that.

The original artists were healers. They were often shamans as well. You know, they would make objects to work within rituals. They would draw things in the sand, in the soil, and sometimes on a cave wall. And eventually they drew them on something they could take with them to different locations. That's how it grew. That's where it comes from. So it's about trying to make things happen.

It's important to tell people about the things that inspire you. The chances are higher that it will inspire other people around you. Everyone you meet, everyone you have respect for, and everyone that inspires you to think again. All of that is really important and it is information that you should share. If you think they're important and exciting, why wouldn't you want to share that with other people? The art world version of that is "Don't tell anyone."

We've always believed in sharing anything we found out that seemed interesting. You know, we've never had a problem with that. Burroughs and Gysin were the same. When we met Burroughs, his books were all out of print. He was living in two tiny rooms in London in this tiny little apartment. We said to him, "This is a travesty. You're really important." And so we did the album with him. We'd all read about the cut-up experiments in books, but nobody had heard them. So I said, "We want to hear them, what did they sound like?" And so we did that. And then I said, "Why don't we do a special event, a festival, to celebrate the influence of you and Brion Gysin on all these new young artists like us? To tell them about how this is a current..it's not individual people...it's a trajectory, and all of us are part of the same one. It's the lineage, it's why I love the statement by Brion Gysin so much: "Wisdom can only be passed on by the touching of hands." That's why we feel that we've been really blessed by meeting people who were very important in terms of things that influenced our ideas. We try and share ourselves with people too, if they feel like that, so those are all really important things to keep in mind. We're not in an ego game, we're trying to change the fucking world. Before it's not change-able.

What do you feel the value of nonsense is, especially in a world of such intense and conflicting ideologies? Do you think it can reveal truth, meaning, or universalities?

I don't really care (laughs). I like the Charlie Manson quote, "No sense makes sense." We use that a lot. Basically we deal more with strategies than artworks as such. So as a strategy, yes of course. Ridiculing things or exposing the insanity of things, stripping away the emperor's invisible clothes -- it's just a strategy. The strategy should be what works in a given situation. So it would depend on the situation. Sometimes the best strategy is to walk away, sometimes it is to be somewhat aggressive, sometimes a million other things. It's what works this time. You shouldn't have a formula. You should only have strategies that are appropriate at the moment. And those change. A situation now where nonsense made sense as a strategy might not make sense in a year. It can change, so you've got to be fluid and flexible.

That's why cut-ups help, because they keep you flexible and aware of the collisions that happen that are not linear. Time is one of the great big problems that we've created, because we tend to work assuming that time is linear, and it's not. For people to have control over society, they need to give the impression that it's linear, and it goes from point A to point B, and that is the rule of nature. We know it's not.

Nothing is fixed. Time is not fixed. Time at the very best is a loop. The moment we exist in the present, no futures have happened yet. They're happening instantaneously like a wave moving, but there's no after and before, there's just this wave where we appear to exist. It's very tenuous. So strategies are much more important than anything else, and when Burroughs told me how to short-circuit control, obviously, any weapon is useful.

It's getting harder and harder to maintain a rebellion. Don't assume that success is measurable in those old ways. Success can only be measured in who is coming to see you do what you do, because they are really touched by and feel the same way and can go, "That resonates with me. I feel like that too." Then they'll come and say, "You know, I want to know more about why you do this. Because I feel like this. And I think that means I'm like you in some way."

And that's how our networks always grew, because there was no internet. You know, it took two weeks for a letter to get to somebody sometimes, and I'd have to write back so everything slowed right down, but it gave you a lot of space to grow unnoticed.

That's why it was cool when people freaked out. We'd been doing that for six years, until we did this big show with ICA in London, down the road from Buckingham Palace. You could see it from where we were in a gallery owned by the queen. Then they noticed us and then they tried to destroy us. But it wasn't COUM Transmissions that made them force me into exile. It was Temple ov Psychick Youth in the 80s. After the ICA and COUM they were watching me -- we know this from what we were told later. So I was on their "to be watched, dangerous, nasty person" list. It took them 10 years but they finally got me. They didn't get me for doing anything, they just made it impossible for me to be in England. They couldn't even get me on a parking ticket. I hadn't done anything. Must have driven them up the wall, and they couldn't find anything. No drugs, no parking tickets, no nothing. I mean, we must have had them scared in some way for them to go to those lengths.

I was told by Scotland Yard they could not guarantee my physical safety if I went back. My civil rights lawyer said, "You mean that something could happen to Genesis like, being killed?" and they went, "Yes, that's what we mean. So tell your client not to come back." Which is what they wanted. They wanted me out of the way, you know. And this is all pre-internet. So in a way, that helped protect us because they didn't know where we were. They couldn't track us.

There was much more privacy.

Well, one of the things we wrote an essay about a long time ago was privacy is the last taboo. And I'm surprised over and over again, I'm surprised how many people surrender their privacy happily, they can't wait to tell everybody else in the world about themselves. Stepping back and thinking, is there another way without the Internet, like, could you turn up lots of events handing out manifestos to people? And, what we did with COUM Transmissions at the very, very, very, very beginning, we would just appear in the street wearing weird outfits. And young people would occasionally come up and say, "What are you? Who are you? You look interesting." And if they seemed interesting, we'd say, "Why don't you come back for a cup of tea?" And some of them would end up living with us and becoming part of it. Sometimes for a while, sometimes just for a little while, sometimes for years, and it would spread like that, one on one, you know, much slower, but it was much more. It had a lot more strength. People had to make the effort to get in touch. Obviously now my life is more complex because of being sick, but my plan was to go back into sending letters. The problem with that is, in England, the authorities were opening my letters. So we couldn't put in anything that might provoke them in letters. You become self-censoring, because you're aware that you're being checked out all the time. It's difficult. That's one of the things you're going to have to find strategies for. But when in doubt, be extreme. Okay, been there, but it's fun. So that's what you meant a little bit by the nonsense, you know? It's harder now than it was when we were doing it.

It's really confusing

They've gotten better and better, like I was saying, at closing it down and stopping you from breaking out of certain restrictions and so on. And that's deliberate. My personal strategy at the moment is books. You know, I can't go anywhere. And I don't know how long we'll be here to try and get as many ideas and examples of how we did it. In the hope that that's helpful to other people when we're not here. That's what I'm working on now and doing my autobiography. There's a book coming out on my birthday called Sacred Intent, which is interviews from 1986 till now, and they're basically about why we do what we do and that it's about ultimately trying to save humanity from itself. That's to me what art is really, ultimately about—this spiritual thing. And that's really been out of vogue for so long.