Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
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Born Neil Andrew Megson in Manchester, U.K., Genesis P-Orridge played an indispensible role in shaping the history of industrial music. As leader of the experimental avant-noise act Throbbing Gristle, and later as the head of video art collective/punk band Psychic TV, P-Orridge fused music with shock and performance art, in a bid to (as s/he puts it in a new documentary), “punch a hole through reality.”
Genesis’ biggest upturning of reality’s applecart came in 1993, upon meeting Lady Jaye Breyer. The two were so entwined that they conceived of a lifelong project to become one another, first by dressing the same and mimicking each other’s body language and, by 2003, undergoing surgeries to push along the physical resemblance. They called it “pandrogyny”—an attempt to become one unified, genderless entity. Lady Jaye died from stomach cancer in 2007, leaving Genesis to carry on with their pandrogynous existence.
This experiment is the subject of Marie Losier’s new film, The Ballad Of Genesis And Lady Jaye, which opens Friday, April 27 at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax. In the affecting and unforgettable film, what emerges through all of the high-minded performance artistry and gender-busting surgery is the deep, almost profound love between Genesis and Lady Jaye.
The A.V. Club spoke with Genesis—who now goes by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge—about the idea of pandrogyny, the influence of William Burroughs, and Losier’s film.
The A.V. Club: There’s probably not an easy definition, but could you explain how you and Lady Jaye conceived of this idea of “pandrogyny”?
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: Sure, as long as you don’t mind a paragraph, rather than a sentence.
AVC: A paragraph would be great.
GBP: Okay! [Laughs.] Well, to put in context, we—we say “we” now whenever possible, because we now represent myself and Lady Jaye in the material, mortal world. And she represents us both in the immaterial, immortal world. This is just our belief system. So when we say we, it could mean me in the past, or we in the present, or both of us.
AVC: Thanks for clearing that up. You use “we” in the film, but it seems a little inconsistent.
GBP: Right, well that’s because the film’s chopped up from seven years of filming, and archive material from before we even met. And sometimes it’s just hard to recall to do that. You just slip back into the old ways. As you probably know, one of the things we’ve always tried to do is break free from habits and forms and try and consistently change not just the way we perceive the world, but the way we describe it back to ourselves.
AVC: And this is part of pandrogyny?
GBP: Yes, that’s why we mention that. Even before we met Lady Jaye, way back in 1969 and ’70, we were part of a street theatre art group called The Exploding Galaxy. During that time we met Derek Jarman—the filmmaker—and other artists. And a lot of them, inevitably, were gay. So we became involved with gay street theatre, and with transvestitism as a political act, as we conceived of it then. We’ve always been interested in the breakdown of traditional ways of judging gender and identity, if you like. So that’s always been in the background.
There has always been a curiosity with this idea of gender and humanity being either/or. The either/or universe is one we’ve always been at war with. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, with their cut-ups, gave me a tool to break down logical, linear progressions of anything. They worked with film, sound, and writing. We took it into the human body, and identity as well. We thought, “How do you change the way people behave?” To change humanity’s destiny for the better, we hope, we have to end violence, intimidation, greed, nationalism, and all those other ugly things, which are generated and maintained by the idea of something different being a threat. So that’s the context. We wanted to break down the either/or, whether it meant black/white, gay/straight, good/bad, Muslim/Christian, etc.
AVC: How did Lady Jaye get involved?
GBP: When we met in 1993, the very first day, Jaye took me to her apartment. She dressed me in her clothes and put makeup on me and said, “You’ve always wanted to be both a man and a woman, I can tell.” And I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” We fell in love that day. We began dressing like each other, and to mirror each other, originally as an act of unconditional love. But both of us, as analytical performance artists, began to wonder about why this pulled us so close, and why we wanted to form this deep bond. We wanted to erase our individual selves and become one whole self.
We thought about Burroughs and cut-ups and how we could break the ongoing biological progression that’s promoted by DNA to jump-start the human species as a new, maybe better form. And we had this idea of DNA as a recording: as a recording going all the way back to single-cell creature. We thought we could cut it up, just like you’d cut up tape or writing or film, and liberate the imagination and conception from the linear progression of biological humanity. Perhaps by becoming neither male nor female, so neither either/or, but rather the divine hermaphrodite, that we could help give people an image that moved away from destruction and toward something more complete, more spiritual, and ultimately, maybe, the true nature of our species.
AVC: How long did it take to get from discussing this as an idea, on paper, to actually deciding that you were going to start getting surgeries and make it happen?
GBP: It took us 10 years. From 1993 we were together, madly in love. In 1995, we got married on a Friday the 13th in June. In 1995, we moved to New York. But also in 1995, I was severely injured fleeing a fire in Laurel Canyon. Eventually, after a two-year hiatus while my body physically recovered and my post-traumatic stress disorder waned a bit, we won a settlement in the Supreme Civil Court Of California. After all the bills were paid and everything else, it left us with $300,000. Although we received $1.6 million, after bills were paid, that’s all we had left.
We could either use the money for boring, mundane things. Or we could be free to really explore these ideas. That’s when we decided we wanted to go further than just dressing the same and trying to mimic each others’ body language. It wasn’t until 2003, on Valentine’s Day, that we decided to have the surgeries. The first one was matching breast implants. We wanted to show people not something dramatic, per se, but that we truly mean what we say—we truly stand by these ideas. I think in some people’s eyes we looked, well, at least eccentric. If not a little more. But it took 10 years of analyzing the idea to actually having the facility, and the means and inclination, to go to the surgery stage.
AVC: Was there ever a problem of finding a surgeon who was on board with pandrogyny as an idea? Or were they on board as long as they got the money?
GBP: Actually, we wouldn’t work with someone who was only doing it for the money. We can’t mention the name, unfortunately, because we promised discretion.
AVC: Of course.
GBP: But we went to plenty of friends, who were sensible, and were told various names. One we went to and discussed the project and said, “Maybe this is odd. But it’s not just Lady Jaye who wants the breast implants. It’s me as well.” Luckily for us, his was an incredibly intelligent surgeon, who was also considered one of the best in the United States. He fully understood the idea. He tried to figure out a way to make us look as similar as possible, within reason. We weren’t concerned if we looked better or worse, in our minds. It was looking similar that mattered.
AVC: Did your steadfast belief in this idea of becoming “the divine hermaphrodite,” as you put it, help you through the practicalities of the project, like recovering from surgeries?
GBP: It definitely did. Both of us are very fanatical. Once we have an idea, we stick to it. It was one of the things we recognized in each other right away. One of Lady Jaye’s favourite sayings was, “See a cliff, jump off.” One of mine was, “When in doubt, be extreme.” We had no problems with the surgeries. Plus, Lady Jaye was a registered nurse. So she really understood what we were in for. When she was young she had scoliosis and had to wear a corset for, we think, two years, to straighten her spine. We were both sickly children. So we were used to suffering and finding away through it.
AVC: You mentioned Burroughs earlier, and he comes up a lot in the film, too. There’s a scene in Naked Lunch where two children are having sex and they tumble into the cosmos and explode into this flash of pure being. Did images like this inform your project? And what about Burroughs in general? There’s a guy who had a pretty complex relationship to his own sexuality.
GBP: Oh yeah, he did. It’s funny, we don’t remember that part of Naked Lunch. But it’s possible that it had seeped into our subconscious along with everything else. When you look back in hindsight you realize—actually, it was Lady Jaye that said this to me—“You know, you’ve really only been doing one project, Gen.” She said it’s always been about identity and shifting and changing. She put together a book of photos of me, and there were hundreds, and I always looked different. But Burroughs and Brion Gysin, together, were my main mentors. The cut-ups are the main inheritance. But also just the lack of any prejudice against sexual proclivities and identities. Neither of us had any boundaries in terms of what people should be allowed to express. Except for the usual, “Don’t hurt someone.”
AVC: And you’ve had a vasectomy too, right?
GBP: Yes, it was one of the first surgeries. And afterwards the doctor said that I was the only patient he’d ever seen who laughed and smiled through the whole thing! And I knew it was because that’s because DNA can no longer escape me and continue its tyranny. He looked at me a bit puzzled when he said that.
AVC: Well, that’s not necessarily true. There’s still your skin and your hair and your blood for it to escape through.
GBP: Of course. But it was symbolic. This new exhibition we’ve just done is all about blood and hair and skin. It’s called I’m Mortality, which is also Immortality. Theoretically, eventually, we could clone from that material. And possibly there would be a way to clone us combined. That image from Naked Lunch that you mentioned, we had that experience one day. We were kneeling down kissing, and suddenly we were transported out of our bodies, and for about 45 minutes in earth time we were in the cosmos. And we did explode and implode, and, in that time, we became pure bliss and melded as a joint consciousness. After we finished kissing, Jaye looked at me and said, “Did you see what we saw?” And ever since then we’ve called it “The Long Kiss.” It’s even if in one of our new songs. [Sings] “Nothing like a long kiss…” is at the end of one of the songs.
AVC: When did this happen? Were you already thinking of pandrogyny when you experience this?
GBP: It was before we began the surgeries, but while we were thinking about it.
AVC: You mentioned how Lady Jaye said that you’ve always been working on the same project. Do you see the film as part of that? It’s not your film. But you’re so giving with your time and material from your life that you seem to be coauthoring it.
GBP: Well, we had no control. If we made the film, it’d never be allowed to be shown in cinemas or festivals. We’d have included the surgeries and the more extreme thoughts and implications that might have occurred to us. We actually never, ever asked to see what she was editing or interfered in her choices. It’s a completely independent vision of us as lovers. And Marie had never even heard of us before she met us. She spotted us, quite by accident, at the Knitting Factory in New York. She went to see Suicide play, and we were third on the bill, and she said she fell in love with my voice. She contacted us and came to see us and said she was interested in filming us. We said, “Okay, come on tour with us.” Within two weeks, she was in a tour bus with Psychic TV. We all began completely fresh.
AVC: A film seems like a good way to promote the project of pandrogyny, though.
GBP: Well, exactly. And if you go on YouTube, you can find “The Pandrogeny Manifesto.” We met some filmmakers in France who wanted to do a documentary for the gay cable channel in Europe; we think it’s called Pink. So we tried to explain in more intellectual ways what we wanted to do. As a way of structuring it, we did an impersonation of a William Burroughs and Anthony Balch film called “Bill And Tony.” They’re reading the end of Freaks, the Tod Browning film, and they do it in the other’s voice. So when it’s Anthony’s voice, you see William Burroughs saying the words, and vice versa, on a split screen. So that gave us the idea for the structure of our pandrogyny manifesto.
AVC: Is that the one that starts, “Hi, my name’s Bill, what’s your name... ”?
GBP: Correct, yes! That’s the one. And there’s another connection there, too, in that I was the one who originally rescued that film, and a bunch of other films, from being destroyed.
AVC: How did that happen?
GBP: It was in the ’80s. I received a phone call from Brion Gysin in Paris, and he said that there was a problem. Anthony Balch had died of stomach cancer—the same thing that killed Lady Jaye, incidentally—and he had this office that he rented in Soho, and they called his mother and said they were going to throw all these film canisters into the garbage to remodel. And they were going to do it that day!
We were then on the dole, so we used our rent money to take a taxi to Soho, and we loaded these film cans in the taxi and we took them home. Then Derek Jarman went through all of them, and we catalogued every shot with inscription and put together a whole archive. That’s when we discovered the only original print of “Billy And Tony.” If we’d been a day late, it would have all been gone forever.