Genesis P-Orridge: The Provocateur
By Richard Metzger 1998
Genesis P-Orridge. Image Source: Lumen
As the never-ending dialectic of pop culture marches on, neutering and commodifying “rebellion” and “outrage” for mass-market consumption, some “rebels” manage to retain their artistic credibility by constantly reinventing themselves and finding new and improved ways of confounding the status quo. One such figure is artist, musician, writer and “cultural engineer” Genesis P-Orridge. For three decades now, as a performance artist, as a prime mover behind both “industrial culture” and the early “rave” scene, and as the anti-Pope of his own magicko-religious order, The Temple of Psychic Youth, P-Orridge has infuriated the powers-that-be with his deliberately provocative and innovative body of work and ideas. His mutant “magickal children” – Marilyn Manson being a fine example – are themselves continuing his policies of mischievous media manipulation the way that P-Orridge himself once studied and enlarged upon the revolutionary templates provided for him by the likes of his own predecessors, William S. Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Aleister Crowley.
After a near-death experience left him determined to follow his notion of becoming a beatnik writer, the young P-Orridge’s instinct for finding other “genetic terrorists” led him to the psycho-therapeutic bootcamp of the Exploding Galaxy/Transmedia commune (which also included filmmaker Derek Jarman).
The commune’s anarchistic spirit and insistence on life as art and art as life inspired the performance-art events of COUM (pronounced “coom”) Transmissions. Staged primarily by P-Orridge and part time pin-up model Cosey Fanni Tutti, COUM’s outrageous “happenings” were parallel to the work of Viennese Actionist Otto Muehl and Hermann Nitsch’s Orgies Mysteries Theater. COUM’s shamanic improvisations involved enemas, blood, roses, wire, feathers, sexual intercourse, milk and urine. “Prostitution,” COUM’s show held at London’s ICA in 1976, became a symbol for everything that was wrong with the country and compounding the furor, the exhibition had been staged at the taxpayer’s expense. P-Orridge and Tutti appeared live on prime-time television after a week of media overkill with over 100 magazines, newspaper headlines, even cartoons (mostly) denouncing the duo. Tory Member of Parliment Nicholas Fairburn declared the show “a sickening outrage. Obscene. Evil. Public money is being wasted here to destroy the morality of our society. These people are wreckers of civilization!”
All of this, it should be pointed out, was a few weeks before the Sex Pistols swore their way into history at talkshow host Bill Grundy’s expense and long before Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Karen Finley’s yam-stuffed asshole caused similar firestorms in Reagan-era America. “Prostitution” was one of the most publicized art scandals of the 20th century and with it “the music of 1984,” had arrived a bit early: Throbbing Gristle’s “mission of dead souls” had begun.
For Throbbing Gristle, P-Orridge and Tutti were joined by Chris Carter (rhythms, synthesizers) and Peter Christopherson (prepared tapes, electronic percussion). Carter had constructed light shows for bands like Yes and Hawkwind; Christopherson designed album covers as a partner at the legendary ’70s design firm, Hipgnosis. P-Orridge played bass, electric violin and fronted the group. Tutti played the guitar. The TG sound ran the gamut from soft (albeit doomy) improvised proto-ambient instrumentals (“In the Shadow of the Sun”), to punishing rhythms and electronic squall played at top volume layered with P-Orridge’s psychotic screaming (“Subhuman”) to Carter’s ABBA-influenced synthpop (“United”). “It was John Cage meets Stockhausen meets the Velvet Underground,” P-Orridge says.
The group deliberately encouraged myth and confusion by titling its debut album Second Annual Report and its flirtation with quasi-fascist symbolism such as the now-familiar red and black TG ‘electric bolt’ logo reminiscent of the National Front symbol and the anarchist flag, further muddied the waters. Lyrically, TG continued COUM’s policy of not toning down the members’ interest in the more disturbing areas of the human psyche. The red-light district of London’s seedy Soho, deadly viruses, burn victims, mass murderers like Myra Hindley, Ian Brady and the Manson Family were all grist(le) for the lyrical mill. TG’s darker obsessions liberated the concept of what could serve as thematic fodder for pop music for all time, yet it was difficult to tell if the group was endorsing their subject matter or simply saying “Here it is.” The group’s dangerous ambiguity was meticulously calculated to force the audience to think – not so much conceptual art, rather it was “deceptual art,” as painter Brion Gysin described their work.
In 1981 Sounds declared that “the legend of Throbbing Gristle was easily as important as the outbreak of punk,” but other than a small handful of substantial articles (RE/Search, Rapid Eye), by and large, COUM and TG’s histories are hazy and apochryphal. Now with the imminent publication of Simon Ford’s authoritative COUM and TG history Wreckers of Civilisation, and a planned exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Genesis P-Orridge is finally getting his due. Not surprisingly, it comes at a time when the “sickest man in Britain” – forced into exile by moralist hysteria like Oscar Wilde before him – is at a safe distance, far from England’s green and pleasant land and living in New York City. P-Orridge’ s current activities are concerned with identifying the hidden themes of his life. He sees himself, echoing Andy Warhol, as a “work of popular fiction.” P-Orridge wishes to “dematerialise” his celebrity to see what it really describes, further re-inventing himself by abandoning his creation, donating the myth to the public who now shape it to conform with their own expectations. “Genesis P-Orridge” is a person he once knew, and as the curator of a life seen from the perspective of a sympathetic biographer. He views his first 50 years as a “product” he now co-manages which will manifest itself in fine-art photo-works, hand made books, and other formats.
Away from the audience, away from the psychic youth Genesis P-Orridge lives his life. He does not live other people’s perception of his life.
When “Prostitution” was held at the ICA in 1976, it was pretty far-out stuff for such a prestigious public institution. As the ICA would have received money from Britain’s art councils, in a manner of speaking the funding for “Prostitution” actually came from the Queen herself, didn’t it? Do you think she actually knew about the used tampons and the milk and blood enemas?
Absolutely! She and I have had a long-standing relationship (laughs)!
She sent three Law Lords down.... They tried to do the British diplomacy thing, you know “C’mon, you’ve had your moment of fun, old chap. If you just calm things down, behave nicely, we’ll forget about this.” And maybe you’ll get more money! (laughs).
I said to these Lords, “Look, you try to close this show down, we’ll paint the whole place camouflage. We’ll put sandbags outside and declare this a free zone. We’ll have a war. You’re not coming in, we’re not going out. What do you want? Because I will not stop and I will not close this show down for you, for the Queen, the government, the newspapers or a-n-y-o-n-e. If we have to live in here under siege, we will. And you won’t like that publicity!”
Your public life and your art has always been very confrontational.
No, self-indulgent (laughs). And prepared to have a confrontation as a result of specific action. I’m aware that confrontation can or probably will occur and I try and have various back-up plans in mind even before it occurs. But confrontation just for its own sake has never been something I’ve been interested in.
How did Throbbing Gristle develop out of COUM?
What happened was that suddenly here was the unit of people who absolutely “got” how to do “it” and could contribute something that made it much better. It was a concept and a spectacle.
You were trying to break down pure sound in order to gauge its magickal effects?
It struck me that the original reasons for music were ritual and that somewhere along the line, if we jump to rock ’n’ roll, people started to believe that if the audience got excited and leapt around and felt sexy and wanted to fuck the singer and ripped up the seats, it was because the band was good. Because the singer was sexy. And it was my feeling that this wasn’t what was happening at all. The sound and the resonance and the frequencies and the rhythms and the pulses and the lights and the group mind psycho-sexual effect were actually as important, as vital, if not more so. No one had really explored that in an interesting way in so-called popular music. There was no music that really seemed to reflect the disenfranchised, economically depressed, predominantly white, Western European post-industrial revolution culture.
Throbbing Gristle were an archly ‘arty’ band. Are you saying that TG actually set out to be a sort of prole rock group?
Somebody said to me during the peak of COUM, when it was so successful “That’s all fine, but would you be able to do that in the local pub?” Believe it or not, that’s what made me really determined to see TG work. So it could have lots of artistic intent, lots of intellectual theories and concepts for me as an artist. But it also could be simply visceral. Entertainment was not the focus, nor was music really. It was much more out of control in terms of the actual moment of live performance and it was the voluntary refusal of “control” – to set up an alchemical musical environment and then be equally at its mercy to some large extent compared to the usual concert set up. The sound on-stage was as loud, if not louder, than the sound in front. I had huge bass bins next to my ear. Sometimes we’d even have a second PA at the back facing us!
Do you look at over three decades of your career – performance art, industrial music, rave culture – and see a fairly straight trajectory?
It’s basically a sequence: art, music, literature – divinity. The whole point of any project is to get to the point where some form of 21st century philosophical meta-PHYSICAL manual can be assembled from the detritus of all the work, that is functionally useful and inspiring to other people. “Entertainment” has never been of interest to me, as such (laughs)!
You’re sort of the grand old man of the counter-culture now that William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary have died. DNA has not seemed to produce many ‘rebel philosopher’ types in any great number...
Maybe that’s how the mutant gene pool works. I imagine that the next challenge will be that of becoming "beyond human.” Working towards the next species and moving towards the portal of the inconceivable without fear or expectation. That’s the door I wish to pass through. I’m up for change and adventure and I’m in it for the duration.