‘What’s the worst that could happen if we dedicate our lives to being creative? The only answer we could come up with was either going to prison or starving to death. And it’s really hard to starve to death in the west. And prison – Burroughs wrote his best books despite going to prison.’
So says Genesis P-Orridge down the phone from his New York base.
Before Christmas, M had the privilege of quizzing the cultural engineer about his/her forthcoming book, their creative legacy and life. And what a life it has been.
Genesis, born Neil Andrew Megson, has squeezed as much out of his/her existence as any contemporary artist. From the early years in Hull as part of the COUM Transmissions artistic collective to later, (accidentally) authority baiting musical projects with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, Genesis has created art at the jagged edge of popular culture. His many (and numerous) projects have explored subjects which polite society deems to be taboo – sex, festishes, occultism, rituals, the body.
Indeed ‘the body’ is the subject of P-Orridge’s later fringe experiments. After marrying Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge in 1993, the pair began ‘Project Pandrogeny’, an attempt to amalgate their beings into one entity. Despite Lady Jaye sadly dropping her body in 2007, Genesis has continued to work and create both music and art at a breathless rate with a book of ‘the life’ from First Third Books being the latest project. Put together with artist Leigha Mason, the 350 photos offer a lifetime of memories from a unique being.
Unsurprisingly, speaking to Genesis is like speaking to no other. His incredible memory and ability to articulate his experiences so beautifully make up for a hypnotic conversation. When we rang him he was laughing off pneumonia and happy to chat for almost an hour. Here’s part one of an extensive interview about the book, art and a life well lived…
Why was now a good time to publish a book?
People have been asking about a biography for years. But our old friend Brion Gysin warned us not to even try until we were at least 60. Until then you haven’t really done anything. We’re 64 now and when you get to this age, you become aware that you’re on a slippery slope to oblivion. You become more aware that it’s closing in.
This was at the back of my mind when Sabrice from First Third Books asked us to do the book. We immediately said that we didn’t want it to be a traditional account. We wanted it to be much more of a cut up work. That’s been at the heart of everything.
What was the role of Leigha Mason?
Leigha is an artist from New York who worked as a volunteer photo editor. There were literally 20,000 photos to go through. We grouped them into clusters of information – rituals, sex festishes, friends, animals, family – it’s the only way to give an accurate portrait of the chaotic threads of the life.
But then we thought that’s not enough. Our life has been all different sorts of media. So we did some art which is how the poster came into it. Music and sound came up. We’ve ended up with three vinyl singles as well – one is Jaye being interviewed by years ago. On the flip is me talking and that symbolises pandrogny and our closeness. It’s a very important thing to have.
Mr Sam is on the record too. He’s the first person to give me piercings and tattoos but when it was still so underground that he was the only person doing it. That was 1980. The idea of having him on was to thank him and to broadcast his presence. Everyone and their grandma is now an expert tattooist and piercer. It wasn’t that long ago in 1991 when the old bailey judge said it was illegal in the Spanner trial. It gives you the space to debate that whole cultural event.
Did you feel you were making a cultural impact from the beginning?
Looking back via the book I couldn’t believe how we got so much done! And with minimal support from the establishment. The year we got the grant from the arts council for £500 was the year we did the Prostitution show at the ICA. There was all this furore in the papers and parliament which complained we were living off the state. £500 for a group of several people? It was ridiculous.
The book shows that art can be so controversial – or accidentally confrontational – that life can be at risk. There is still danger involved if you try to be absolutely and utterly open hearted and reveal everything through art and music. After the Prostitution show, the Daily Mail said ‘they should cage me like the wild animal I am and throw away the key’. Later in the book there’s a letter from the Tate Britain telling us that our archive and art was moved to the national collection of fine art.
We were criticised as wreckers of civilisation, then later praised as creators of great, British art! Some of our work is now in with the Turners and the Rothkos of the art world. It shows you how culture changes.
Was there a single piece of music which first inspired you?
We were always really sickly with asthma as a child so we’d spend a lot of time at home reading books avidly. We’d be reading about everything. We were lucky enough to have a father with a great library. His policy was ‘if you can read it, you can read it’.
This way we came across the beatniks and their lives really got me – how life and the art you create cannot be separated. The only art we loved was made by people whose lives were wild and wonderful in themselves. The art was a luxury side effect of seeking truths that give existence shape and meaning. Once we came across the beatniks, we can remember very clearly thinking – ‘that’s what we want to do’. We want to be a travelling bohemian poet/writer.
You have to absolutely surrender to a spiritual belief in the power of creativity itself. For me, art and music are all part of the same journey in search of wisdom and knowledge. How can we eradicate bigotry, hypocrisy, violence, selfishness – are there ways to change human behaviour? And if there are, how do we do it? If that is what you’re trying to do, then you’re going to run into trouble. Those who are greedy or selfish don’t like you doing that. Suddenly you’re positioned through altruism as an enemy of the state. That’s something you have to think about very seriously at the beginning. And pledge to yourself that that is just part of the job. It’s not glamorous. Or something you would really want to be involved in. But as it happens, it’s part of the life.
Visit http://www.firstthirdbooks.com/books/genesis-breyer-p-orridge/ to find more about the book, Gensis Breyer P-Orridge.