Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (First Third Books this November), which took nearly a year's time to compile and edit, is the first artist monograph for the multi-disciplinary legend and icon and spans half a century of history, personal archives and artworks. This 323 page book, with an introduction by Mark Paytress and photo commentary by Breyer P-Orridge, has over 350 images ranging from iconic photographs and artworks taken from early COUM Transmissions' infamous 1976 Prostitution exhibit at the ICA in London, to as-of-yet unpublished promotional imagery of Throbbing Gristle and early Psychic TV band shots, to the Pandrogyne project with Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, and the most recent imagery from the current retrospective at The Andy Warhol Museum, up through September 15. I sat down with the artist and collaborator Leigha Mason to discuss the efforted editing of the collection of memories.
Daniel McKernan: So whose idea was it to do this book?
Leigha Mason: Fabrice Couillerot's idea. He had done the book for Felt. He had made a Felt book and made a Serge Gainsbourg book, and he had approached Gen with doing a book. S/he said s/he wanted me as editor. So he came to New York and we met and we got along really well and we just spent days―it was when I had 1:1 [the now defunct Lower East Side gallery]―and we spent days putting out photos all over the gallery floor and moving them around...
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: As you can imagine, there were thousands of photos and bits… There were just hundreds of pictures from Nepal. And then photos in Haiti from our honeymoon, and it just goes on and on...
DM: Are these the archives that Ryan Martin and Jason Louv helped you organize?
GBPO: Yes, I mean, they helped catalog the archives that went to the Tate, but these are all—
LM: This is different―this is like, pulling out shoeboxes from Gen's closet.
GBPO: My personal archives. Basically, really allowing people into the deepest intimate aspect of our life. That's why in the deluxe edition there's a brown envelope rubber stamped with a warning saying that if you open it, some of the photographs are very intimate and may be offensive to you, so you open it at your own risk. And that's where the sexy Polaroids are.
LM: Yeah, so it was Fabrice's idea to do the book, and then we developed the structure and the kind of conceptual underpinnings of the book together.
GBPO: It's impossible to do everything. That's why it's so good that we've got Leigha, because for me, every picture tells a really emotional story. So we want them all in. We want to put out a book that's 20,000 pages long!
LM: The first edit was about 800 to 900 pages.
GBPO: Oh, it's been such a struggle.
DM: How did you two meet? Did you work together before Leigha's Spit Banquet performance/video piece that was in the recent Pasolini themed exhibit, “I Killed My Father, I Ate Human Flesh, I Quiver With Joy: An Obsession With Pier Paolo Pasolini,” curated by Invisible Exports, at the Allegra LaViola Gallery in February and March of 2013?
GBPO: Leigha's friend Matt was doing most of the gold-leafing for our works. One day he asked Leigha to come over and help to do a straight line because no one else could paint a straight line. Leigha and Matt were also doing performances together, and we invited them to perform at the closing event of the "Thirty Years Of Being Cut Up" exhibition at Invisible Exports.
LM: That was long before Spit Banquet. We just become good friends.
GBPO: It's really good for me to have another artist to bounce ideas on, like I did with Jaye. If we're just alone all the time, we're always afraid of getting into tunnel vision, and as you know, we hate the idea of habits and we like to keep breaking behavioral traits or even perception traits. So having someone to go, What do you think? and then responding, Well yeah, but you've done that before―what if you did it this way? or, No, that photo doesn't need to be there because you've already got that information here... So that is part of how we work. She's my muse and we bounce things around together. And she's incredibly dedicated and smart. The Warhol Museum wanted to include Spit Banquet in the short films evening we're doing there. It's also that thing we've talked about before where instead of competing it should be about supporting each other―reciprocal advice, reciprocal assistance. Not be the biggest name on the marquee but just to get stuff done that is interesting or that's challenging. That makes people stop and even laugh, for God's sake. There's a lot of dark humor in what we do―look at It's That Time of the Month sculpture—it's just an art deco clock with tampons in it. It's a joke, and they say we were threatening the government in Britain. Now, how dangerous is that? And yet it was discussed in Parliament and they threatened to take away my passport. So, there are weak spots in the culture. You don't even know where they are until you hit them. But if you don't cast your net wide and you don't keep collaborating and sharing and asking and looking and listening, you'll never know where those are and when you press those buttons it's becoming more and more important to destabilize the status quo. I think we all knew, even before this guy Snowden, that they'd been building a totalitarian digital system. The complacency that people have with the technology is very disturbing to me and it needs to be seriously reassessed.
DM: Do you know if Snowden made it out of Russia yet? To Venezuela?
GBPO: I think he's still in the transit lounge. The bit that amazes me is that anyone thinks it's a surprise. There's this idea of digital farms where they have sub-power stations collecting information so they can store everything forever, localized.
DM: Until the digital dark ages.
GBPO: It's funny, we were thinking this morning, that way back in the mid-seventies, we wrote an essay for a book called Decoder... My essay said that the next war is the information war. This is where the next war is going to be. Who's got the most information? Who's got the most data? And it's happened, which is what we call, See the inevitable. Like we thought industrial music was inevitable, or we thought the tattooing craze was inevitable. That's the cultural engineering aspect of observing the ebbs and flows just underneath the surface of the media and starting to suspect where the waves are taking us and then exposing it.
DM: I was curious about the differences between this new book and the now out of print, Painful But Fabulous: The Life and Art of Genesis P-Orridge.
LM: The new book is going to be much more of an image-based art monograph.
GBPO: It implies the same message. It implies that you can make every day of a life exciting, worthwhile, challenging. You can actually live an entire life as an adventurous story of your creation. And even though there are ups and downs, it's always worth it, compared to surrendering to the status quo.
LM: Yes. In terms of differences, the new one is much more of a biography and images and it's more personal. Rather than how different people see Genesis, it's more of Gen's own notes and archives and personal photos.
DM: Aside from Thee Psychick Bible and Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle―are there any others I'm not aware of? Those two and Painful But Fabulous?
GBPO: We're doing one called Breaking Sex which will be primarily about identity and gender and the ownership of the narrative of your life, alternative ways of exploring consciousness and, ultimately, ways to genuinely break negative behavior patterns. And then the ultimate project is still to set up small alternative villages, communities―not communes, but communities―that are experimental think tanks on different ways to live and different ways to have small societies based on sharing, generosity, kindness, and courage, instead of fear, paranoia, greed and intimidation. We're at a very interesting spot of the evolution of the species.
DM: The music on the three seven-inches that are going to accompany the deluxe edition was done with Ryan Martin from Dais Records, Sean Ragoon from Cult of Youth, and Blind Prophet Records?
GBPO: Yeah, we went in and did four tracks in two days. And then the third single we've not heard, but Mark Paytress, who is the editor of MOJO Magazine, whom we've known for years and years, he is going to write the introduction and sort of interpret the captures. And he had an interview where he edited bits of me and Jaye, so it's both of us speaking, which is nice. We didn't even know he had it.
DM: I see early photos of Jhonn Balance and Sleazy. Are these mostly photos of early Psychic TV?
GBPO: Basically. I mean, at that point, some of the others hadn't done anything for the band yet. Some were photos to deliberately make it look like there was an actual movement going on. Like, a propaganda photo. And it worked―by us all wearing these outfits we made it look like it was much bigger than it was and then it became much bigger than it was [laughs]! The things they say though are so insane! Things like this where it's only a tiny movement of the indicator of the little arrow of culture as to whether it would expose or whatever―if someone decided to make it their crusade for whatever reason, then we're all back to the beginning again, fighting for the same rights.
DM: What are some of the extra bits that people will get in the deluxe edition?
GBPO: Comes with the three records...
LM: The deluxe edition has the main book, a second book, three seven-inch singles, and a poster. The second book is part catalog of artworks, part documents (like the document where Neil Megson changes his name to Genesis P-Orridge). There are hospital bracelets from when Gen and Jaye got their breast implants, and then there's a few—
GBPO: [Pointing at details of the artwork included in the catalog] These are all dope bags, commenting on the Christian myth. Amazing how they work, isn't it? And this is the new piece we made for 1:1 called My Funny Valentine, which is a Polaroid of Jaye turned into a mandala. But then it's all these bums and things, the way you see it completely changes when you do that. Part of a series we've been doing… We found these in the back garden. Worms making love to themselves. And we actually had wild roses in there and we came back from the tour and there they were, all these worms having sex with themselves and all these roses. And we just thought ovaries and vaginas―seeing the world―and that one's a mixture of worms and the lip, how they fit together―the way the world intertwines with collage now, the cut up technique, seeing what's really there. And the birth certificate? Isn't that in there?
LM: Yes, the birth certificate, that's in there. There's also some really funny early report cards from Gen's elementary school teachers saying like, Neil refuses to give over to conformity, and, He's very smart but he seems to live in another universe—from when Gen's like, nine. And then there're some personal diary entries, some early news clippings… The most exciting thing about the book is that it's a real testimony to somebody who merged art and life and I think that this second book of documents is totally furthering that.
GBPO: These clippings go back to the sixties... And that's the original lineup of COUM: Pinglewad, he was at school with me, that's Spidey, Gas Mantel III, he was at school with me, and this guy is Ray Harvey, who even then was covered from his head to his feet in tattoos. He was a complete illiterate but a natural genius―if you gave him a tambourine and a microphone, he would just make up Captain Beefheart-like songs. And he would bang the tambourine until it was in bits and there was just blood on his hands.
DM: Do you keep in touch with any of them?
GBPO: We stayed in touch with Pinglewad for quite a long time and Ray Harvey. We sent him a copy of the record he was on, The Sound of Porridge Bubbling, and just not long after that, he died. Spidey―we don't know where he is. These are pieces of diaries.
LM: The Worm was a publication that Gen did at university.
GBPO: It got banned. So we broke in after it was banned, stole all the copies back and gave them away free. They weren't happy because it said on the front, How To Make a Molotov Cocktail, and on the back it was a diagram of where the oil tank was at the head of the university’s house [laughs]. We didn't say anything should be put together... I mean, it was a bit naughty. These are more diaries from the sixties, early seventies. That was an article that some paper did on venereal disease and the young [points to a picture of self]. There's my birth certificate… There's my communion or baptism.
DM: As far as all the archives that you went thru for this―I remember in the Breaking Sex documentary that you'd said that when Scotland Yard raided your house in England they took away two tons of your archives. Is that something that you ever had returned to you?
GBPO: No, they never returned anything.
LM: In the documents, there's a reference to―we couldn't print the whole list because it was so massive―but there is a reference to a huge inventory of things that they took and destroyed or “lost.” Scotland Yard wrote a letter―and the letter is in the second book―basically saying that they don't know what happened to her stuff and, Too bad, if you want to sue us you can try, but it will take years and a lot of money.
GBPO: Yeah, you have to put down a £60,000 deposit to begin to sue Scotland Yard, which is $100,000. With no guarantee, there's no bill of rights, no guarantee you could ever win unless you're a multi-millionaire. This is from my lawyers about Scotland Yard basically. This page spread is funny because this one's from the whole Prostitution show when my tampons were sited as why we were “wreckers of civilization”―and then the next page is from Sir Nicolas Serota [Director of The TATE] congratulating us on the fact that they've moved the tampon sculptures into the National Collection of Fine Art with the Turners and everything. It's just so ironic. So there's lot s of little documents like that that if people really look, it tells a lot of the story. Plus, the fact that we've had to fight off the authorities literally year in, year out. They've tried to shut me up legally several times and put me out of the country once. And I'm still not officially allowed back even though I go back sometimes. This is when they started suing me for doing post cards. Here's a letter from Burroughs writing on my behalf trying to find me a lawyer. Because they said that my postcards of the Queen were indecent―not obscene―indecent! And the difference is, with obscene you have to get a jury to all agree it's obscene and likely to deprave and corrupt society. But if it's called indecent then the only proof you need is one person to say, I was offended! There's no defense. So they charged me with indecent mail. And he was friends with Lord Goodman who ran the Arts Council and was a big deal lawyer, high aristocracy. One of the things that still surprises me is how often the powers that be, the government, Scotland Yard, the Lords that represent the Queen, have tried to shut me up. It's not very common in this day in age for artists to be attacked on that level for what they're saying and doing and creating. So, we thought it was important to include some of the documents of that to make it clear that when people say, It's all been done―there's nothing you can do to subvert the status quo―there is. Ironically, usually when you're not trying. That's the strangest part.
LM: So the archives that we're talking about all started after that or...
GBPO: Or things that were hidden in houses that they didn't know about.
LM: Yeah, so there was a lot of reaching out to people from way in the past, who Gen hadn't been in contact with for years, or even second-hand from those people, so we got a lot of stuff sent to us from various people. Gen and I are in New York, Fabrice is in Paris so he did a lot of going back and forth between Paris and London, meeting people and working really closely with photographers like Sheila Rock, and she brought out tons of photos of Gen and Sleazy and put us in touch with other photographers. Jean-Pierre Turmel had a lot of stuff that he gave us.
GBPO: Yeah, Turmel did Sordide Sentimental [Records] back in the seventies. The first record he released was Throbbing Gristle's “We Hate You Little Girls” [as a split] with “Five Knuckle Shuffle.” And then Ian Curtis rang me up and said, We love this record, do you think this guy would want to do one with Joy Division? and I said Yeah, he likes Joy Division, so we put them in touch and Joy Division was the next. “Dead Souls” paired with “Atmospheres.”
DM: I'd mentioned Orlan as a like-minded artist.
GBPO: We're showing an interview that we'd done with Orlan out at the Andy Warhol Museum when we do an evening of short movies. We went to Coney Island and while we were discussing the body and art in really serious terms, we were bouncing up and down in front of those funhouse mirrors that distort you.
LM: I actually think Orlan is approaching things very, very differently. I think of Gen's practice more in the context of someone like Derek Jarman, who was making such beautiful films and just by him being who he was, they were political statements.
GBPO: Oh, absolutely. It's refusing to censor your expression of how you see life. That your perception of what's going on is more important than your own safety. That's what Derek was definitely doing. He couldn't wait to tell the world that he was HIV positive because it meant that he was absolutely an outsider and absolutely unashamed of it. And it had a huge positive effect in Britain on the whole gay activist scene, and still does. He's still an inspiration to people.
LM: That's always a major issue with "politics." People are so obsessed with normalizing and naturalizing everything, a focus on inclusion... The emphasis should be on the opposite, like for a rupture in the established system which is obviously failing everyone.
GBPO: People should invent their own gay marriage, and fuck the world. Yes, legally they should be allowed to share insurance and everything else but the actual establishment, neo-Christian ceremony―fuck it. What are you doing? Saying, Oh, please accept me! You know: I like to suck cock but please pretend I don't―it's just like, no! A gay marriage is where people suck each other off at the end instead of kiss. That would fuck things up.
DM: People have been doing these Pink Mass ceremonies where a Satanist has been marrying gay people on the grave of Fred Phelps' mother.
GBPO: Who's Fred Phelps?
DM: God Hates Fags.
GBPO: Oh, that guy [laughs]. Yeah, that one's good. They need to dramatize what they're feeling and Derek Jarman was from the sixties of course, we're sixties, we're the bridge between the Beatniks and now, and it worries me that young people are sort of distracted by the disconnection of the internet where it's all almost like gossip―you put up your things but no one is responsible for the source of it. And there's still plenty of room to shake things up if people step back and think, What can we just do that's really what we mean and not symbolic of what we mean? When we gave our lectures at universities, first of all, there is curiosity in your generation [born in the eighties] because we've been literally breaking attendance records at universities like Yale as guest speakers. And people come up afterwards and ask, How can we find out more about this? It's so amazing and inspirational to realize that life and art are the same and that love is unconditional. And we often say as an example now, if you want to buy a book, you go to Amazon.com and type in the name of the book and you click and it gets sent. But when we had to get a book in the sixties―not like, Oh, poor me, but―we had to lie to our parents that we were going to London to visit somebody's grandparents and then hitchhike down to London with the train money so that we could have something to spend, meet all these weird people and truck drivers and people who want to give you a blowjob and everything on the way down there, listening to their stories, wandering around in the streets ‘til you meet somebody who says, Do you wanna crash at my place? and then search Soho through the porno shops because the only people who had Burroughs and everyone were the porno shops because they'd heard Henry Miller and Burroughs were obscene. So that's where you went for Jean Genet, Burroughs, Henry Miller and everyone. And then you came back meeting lots more people. What's the difference in the enrichments between those three days and adventure―versus the click. It's a huge loss of richness.
DM: I'm seeing John Waters this weekend on Fire Island. He just got back from doing a hitchhike across the country for his new book Car Sick.
GBPO: The first time we met him―Jaye and myself―we were at a party at PS1 for Alanna Heiss who used to run it and help set it all up―and John came in and saw me and Jaye standing there looking as identical as we could. He came immediately over, flying towards us and we smiled and he saw our gold teeth and his first words were, Can I lick your gold teeth? and we said, Of course, John, and he did. That's how we met. So when you see him, say hi from the gold teeth. Our obsession, as you said, is that life and art are truly inseparable and the media are absolutely random and just, whichever works at the time. And who are you talking to? Not the converted, because they're converted. So, you're trying to find ways to set up situations that don't have to be confrontational but do cause people to stop and go, What is that about? And, Why have they done that? That's why the Warhol retrospective is so important. Because thousands of people who will go there because they've heard that Warhol is weird or just heard that he's collectable or whatever it might be―and then they'll be confronted with thirty years of artwork―a whole floor. And hopefully they'll see the connections, that it's a way of seeing, a way of perceiving. But you know that we've told you over and over again that for me it's a mystical, spiritual journey. It's got nothing to do with the right gallery and career and everything else. It's got nothing to do with how much money you make or don't make. It's about speaking.
images courtesy of genesis breyer p-orridge