An interview with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (Part 1)

Daniel House

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Genesis - photo by Todd Crawford

Many years ago, I created a music dating site called RocknRollDating. It was around for six years or so, and would probably still be active had GoDaddy (the company that I paid to host it) not decided to update the version of the database that all of our user data was stored on (this included our backup which was on a different partition). When they did the update (WITHOUT my permission) our entire user base of over 7,000 users was wiped, and with it, all profiles and transactions between different users were permanently eradicated as well. 

One of the great sections of the website was a list of interviews with different artists who I felt were interesting., Fortunately, those were all saved. During the course of 2020, it’s my intention to re-post many of my favorite interviews here.
This is the first one (part 1 of 2)

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is an English performer, musician, writer and artist whose work with pioneering performance art group COUM Transmissions and industrial band Throbbing Gristle, have become the stuff of legend. Later musical work with Psychic TV was far more prolific and received a much broader exposure. This interview took place on a clear Saturday morning in 2009. S/he (Genesis) spoke about love, life, art, music, pandrogyny, and Lady Jaye.

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Genesis photo by Todd Crawford
Genesis photo by Todd Crawford

I understand you’re preparing to go to Nepal?

Yes.  Nepal and India, and just maybe Thailand.  It depends how engrossed we get in the culture in Nepal and India.

Have you been to these places before?

Never to India.  We’ve been to Nepal two times.  In fact, we were in Nepal in Katmandu the day we heard the house had been raided by Scotland Yard.  It was quite strange, we came to breakfast to this fax that said ‘Urgent.’  We looked at it, and all it said was, ‘Scotland Yard has raided your house. Don’t come home.’

What year was that?


And that was what led to you moving here?

Yeah, to America.

How do you compare the experience of living here versus living in the UK?

Oh, we never do that.  Actually, we were talking about that with someone the other day.  It might sound corny to people who have not been nomadic, but all my life we’ve moved.  When we were four, my parents moved from Manchester to London, at six from London to Cheshire, at fourteen to Birmingham, at eighteen to Hull in Yorkshire, at nineteen to Islington in London, at twenty back to Hull in Yorkshire, at twenty-three to Hackney in London, at thirty-eight to Brighton, in ‘92 to Sonoma County, California, and in ‘96 to Brooklyn.  So we’ve been moving around, and as you can imagine, especially during childhood and adolescence, we never had a consistent group of friends.  Every time we went to a new school and started to make friends, we would move again, and we’d be thrown back on my own solo resources.

That sounds like my childhood.  I was in California and along the West coast, but I moved constantly and was always in new schools.  I actually spent several years not going to school at all. Many of those years I had little or no exposure to television.

It’s probably hard to imagine, but in my early childhood there was no television.  By 1953, when we were three years old, my parents had a television that they got to watch the coronation.  That’s my first childhood memory, watching this strange, bizarre, baroque ritual on this tiny black-and-white television with all the neighbors in the house, crowded and staring at this incredibly magical box with pictures and sound.  No one else on the street had one.  There were only two people who had cars on our street.  So we’ve actually watched television arrive and mutate and become planet-wide and then become the most entropic garbage one could imagine.

Did that experience, being one of your earliest memories, directly or indirectly influence the development of Psychic TV and your use of television as part of your performance medium?

That’s a really interesting thought, which has never occurred to me, but it certainly had a very profound effect on me.  There’s been this ongoing relationship, not a happy one, between myself and the Queen ever since.  For example, at the age of fourteen when we moved to Birmingham, we were sent to a private school.  In England, they call a private, fee-paying school a public school, which is confusing here.  It was so well-connected that the Queen was one of the main patrons.  It had its own modern church that had been built on the grounds that had actually been consecrated by Her Majesty the Queen.  In honor of that they started an extra house, a team called Windsor, after the House of Windsor.  There were six teams in the school, and everybody had to be on one of them for everything.  We were put in Windsor.  We then suddenly were re-embroiled with the Queen’s vibe.  In 1975, we were actually prosecuted for making collage postcards using souvenir postcards of the Queen and adding soft-core porn and strange imagery and so on.  We got the maximum sentence of a year in prison and the maximum fine, which fortunately was suspended if we didn’t do any more collages of the Queen for three years.

And you were how old at this point?

By then, 25.

So this was after you had started with COUM Transmissions and all of that?

Yes.  And then of course in 1976, COUM did the farewell retrospective at the [Institute of Contemporary Arts] in London called Prostitution.  That building, the ICA, was owned by Her Majesty the Queen.  The Queen actually sent Law Lords, the advisors she has, to request that we close down the exhibition voluntarily, which we refused to do.  One of the things we said to the Law Lords was, ‘If you try and close us down, we’ll just put sandbags up, paint the building pink, and refuse to leave.’  So there’s been a strange friction between my art and music and lifestyle and the establishment as represented or symbolized by the Queen.

Since COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, you’ve been involved in all sorts of art and performance and media and music.  It seems at the very core it’s aimed to challenge or breakdown societal constructs of normalcy.

Well, we wouldn’t use the word ‘normalcy,’ but inherited cultural templates that are usually just accepted unquestionably by anybody in any culture.  Cultural constructs are basically arbitrary, we all know that.  If you travel, you’ll realize that in one country what’s acceptable sexually, or in terms of marriage, or the position of women, etcetera, is one thing, and that’s considered the norm.  In other places it could be completely the opposite, and that’s the norm.  Anything that purports to be a norm is an arbitrary imposition.  As William Burroughs said to me once, when you’re confused by something or mystified by it or you’re concerned and suspicious of it, look for the vested interest and usually that’s the answer for what’s going on.  And so we look and say, well who is getting the advantage by policing my sex life?  Who is getting the advantage by intimidating me by having an army, an air force, a navy and a police force to impose their arbitrary rules of normalcy?  Who does this serve?  And obviously it serves the people who have power.  Why do people want power?  Who are these people?  Is it the symbolic figures like the Queen, or is it an invisible group of businessmen and power brokers and politicians who are almost addicted to power plays as they would be to playing chess?  And some of them, of course, are disturbed individuals who actually think power has some innate value, which is does not.

Do you think it’s just the process of amassing power that is intoxicating, or is there something more that they actually get to exercise influence?

We think you’re right, the primary excitement of power for people who find themselves getting the opportunity to explore it is intoxication.  Sometimes there is also at the beginning an altruistic mindset, a little ideology that they truly believe in, but it’s the power itself, the control system that seems to actually, as well all know, corrupt and dismantle good intentions.

So do you think that power and ideology are antithetical?  That one cancels the other out over time?

Probably.  We would prefer a world based on compassion than on power and ideology.  Whilst challenging all inherited cultural and ethical systems as a matter of principle, in order to see what they are and whether they really serve any purpose for each individual or not, whether they’re things we want to buy into or reject, while that’s part of the earlier work, as time has gone by and we find our approach to trying to analyze and observe the cultures within which we were living, we became more and more convinced that it was just human behavior that was the issue, the problem.  The engrained instinctive, genetic behavior code, those ultimately are where real control resides, those patterns that basically we inherit through DNA and through repetition throughout cultural history.  So for example, one of the things we really isolated and looked at was in what we could call prehistoric time, barbarian time, very early on when humans were in small clans, moving from cave to cave, and just getting food and surviving the climate was the only real imperative.  Then, the males of the clan were strong, violent, and capable of scavenging and killing for food, and it was appropriate for us to have a gene or a genetic code that said the male could be strong and violent and would protect its group by fighting and trying to kill anything different, anything that appeared to be a threat, including other clans.  That’s what helped the human species survive through the earliest ages against all the odds when we didn’t even know why there was daylight or night time and we didn’t know where fire came from except that it came from the sky sometimes.  That’s how we survived, and you could call at that time, in the early days, a ‘friendly’ gene or program.  But of course it was a program that absolutely intrinsically related to its environment.  It allowed us to survive in the environment of prehistoric times, where almost everything was a threat.  Now, what’s happened over thousands of years is that we have, by the use of tools and problem-solving, changed the environment, manipulated it like a sculptor with clay.  This has been done to such an extent that we can divert rivers, create electricity, live in space, and talk to people anywhere in the world with tiny boxes by our ears.  We have video and computers and all this amazing stuff, which is our current technological, post-industrial, miraculous tool-based environment, but we’ve done nothing to change our behavior patterns to be equal and relevant to the environment we’ve created.  We’re still basically at the mercy of those ancient, prehistoric, vicious genetic codes and routines.  So what have you got?  Inevitably you have this terrible problem.  We’re basically clever apes with incredibly sophisticated and dangerous toys, and that’s a recipe for disaster.  Our entire thrust, our entire direction has been ‘how can you?’  Is it possible even to adjust voluntarily through different techniques of human behavior so that we are not self-destructive?  So that we do not in this new, wonderful environment still think that anyone different, anyone outside, anyone we don’t understand is an enemy and we should attack them?  That the solution to everything confusing is violence and intimidation?  We think it’s pretty obvious that that’s still where we are at the moment.  You can see it very easily in world events that we’re using prehistoric templates to resolve futuristic issues.

I think intimidation is a tool of power.

Oh, absolutely.  We think a lot of people would agree if they were honest with themselves that the main reason societies appear to remain stable is because of the intimidation of those who can direct the police and the armed forces.  But, people say if we didn’t have them then there would just be anarchy.  That’s why we have to as a species let go of spending every spare penny in aggression and invest in consciousness and the understanding behavior, looking at what the rest of the brain might be capable of, exploring scientific boundaries for the sake of everybody.  We should all be thinking as a species instead of as parts of the species as rivals.  The great mistake now in the picture people have of the world is that they’re not thinking on the whole of the world as a species, they’re thinking of it as them as an individual trying to get their life to work or them as a part of a group, whether it be religious, economic, or cultural such as hardcore music or skinhead or whatever.  We breakdown and we try and have these clans, these tribes, these nations, and so on.  They’re all basically still suffering from this knee-jerk prehistoric violence that’s underlying the way they exercise their attempt to establish themselves in terms of control.

Do you consider much of what you’ve created through your music and art as a way to challenge people’s thinking around those things and reconsider…?

We’d prefer our body of work to be taken in as a whole.  One of the big problems we have is that we get ghettoized, especially by the art world.  ‘Oh, they can’t be serious when they’re making art because they make music.’  That’s a very common response.  ‘They can’t possibly have any merit because they make music, and rock music is people who are ex- or anti-intellectual,’ which is rubbish as you know.  So we get deliberately sidelined and ignored in the same way the music industry sometimes to some degree thinks, ‘they’re not really interested in making music that has any kind of profound significance because they make art.’

Why do art and music have to be mutually exclusive?

We would say the same thing, why do they have to be exclusive?  Surely, ever since the 50s, the main lesson we’ve learned from art is that it’s multi-media now.  Art and life are basically one thing, a mirror to each other.  We would agree with you that it’s a ludicrous position, but it is still one that’s quite altercative.  There’s a lot of ignorant prejudice between one clique and another clique.  One of our jobs, of course, is to keep on demanding that people see that, in fact, life and art are no longer separable.  They are but one thing.  The artist, as the source, is the artist, and the media is just whatever is useful to talk or create dialogue in that given moment.

Please GO HERE to continue on to PART 2.

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