An Interview with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Where to begin with the storied achievements of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge? S/he's one of the founders of industrial music via the band Throbbing Gristle, and h/er other band, Psychic TV, made the Guinness Book of World Records for the most albums released in a single year, usurping Michael Jackson. Genesis organized underground arts collective Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth and spread its occult themes with a 500-page tome (P-Orridge and Abrahamsson 2010). Then there's applying William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin's cut-up techniques in their extreme pandrogyne project (NPR 2014), a melding of bodies with P-Orridge’s late partner Lady Jaye, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars of plastic surgery. Genesis has been the subject of multiple documentaries, including The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (Losier 2011), Bight of the Twin (McCarthy III 2016), and the crowdfunded A Message From the Temple (Unclean 2019).
Recently, Genesis has grappled with being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. In this rare phone conversation after h/er 2018 Moogfest performance in Durham NC, the multidisciplinary artist comes across as sagacious and candid, unafraid to confront h/er circumstances.
Tristan Kneschke: How's your treatment going?
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: We've had to cancel tours in Europe and Australia and all kinds of things since October . For a while it looked like we'd never be able to even daydream about doing any concert again.
In February , I was in the intensive care unit for two weeks and then another week in the oncology ward. My kidneys stopped working 100%. They just stopped completely. They put this tube in my jugular vein and did dialysis for 24 hours a day for three days. Thank goodness that, combined with thousands of friends, fans and extended family sending their best positive thoughts, and three voodoo priests in West Africa performing a healing ceremony, my kidneys came back.
Since then I've been pretty stable, but I asked my doctors if they thought it was wise every time we went somewhere. For Moogfest 2018, I brought a caregiver and an oxygen generator with me, just in case. We looked and thought, "This is a really good test. It's not very far to travel [from New York City], and it wouldn't be difficult to get back to the hospital if something goes wrong. And it's only an hour-long set." We usually do sets for two and a half hours plus. We tried out three rehearsals on the clock at Sunnyvale in Brooklyn, and my voice and energy held up, although I was tired afterwards.
And so we decided, "Let's do a real test and see if we're ever going to be able to play live again." And the answer is, "One by one. One at a time." Each situation has to be evaluated separately. I go for blood tests every week, and they tell me what all the levels are of everything and whether it's getting worse, better or stable.
And from there, they can recommend further treatment or if you should lay low.
GBP. Yeah. At the moment, they're doing tests on my siblings and my daughters to see if somebody has good donor material. At some point, I'm going to have to have a stem cell transplant.
I'm sure you're finding out what the limits of technology are.
GBP. Well, it's truly day to day. We have days when we're bouncing around and playing with the dog, and everyone goes, "God, he seems really well. I haven't seen you this healthy and energized in years." And then other days I can hardly be bothered to cross the room and sit down. It's a weird illness, leukemia. I have a strange, quite rare version of it, CMML [Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia]. There's not that much research and information on that one. So a lot of what's happening to me is to some degree experimental.
I can't really travel without someone who is there to supervise food and sleep and know what my meds are. I mean, it's amazing I'm alive. That time in the intensive care unit, it's the closest you can get without leaving, you know?
I was lying there for three days on my back with this tube in my jugular. I couldn't move because it would pull out. And I was just listening to the whirring of my blood being sucked out of me, cleaned and being pushed back in, not knowing if my kidneys would ever work again. You have to really look at your mortality at that point. It's spooky, the idea that you won't exist. It's just so hard for anyone to understand what that means.
I'm kind of at peace with it now. I'm hopeful. They said I'm strong, that I'm amazingly fit in other ways for my age. I mean, I'll be 69 in February . The doctors are shocked by how much I do (laughs). But that's just a mental thing. I've always been like that. "What's next? What's next?" I think that's going to work in my favor.
How do you frame someone dropping their body? Do you see that as a transition or a passage, or some other way?
GBP. Pretty much literally. You know, for decades, we were sort of romantic, sentimental existentialists and just thought, "If you die, there's nothing." Therefore, use the time you have here to the best of your ability. Create and give and do as much as you can, not just for yourself but for everyone and anyone that you have contact with. For the species, ultimately, we're all in this same existential angst, but we deal with it in different ways.
Having worked with Tibetan Buddhists and other shamanic cultures in Nepal, the Himalayas, and in West Africa, we have been forced — begrudgingly in a way — to reconsider what the body and consciousness are in terms of physical death.
Now we have had so many strange experiences that imply there's something else after the body is no longer functioning. The body, Jaye used to say, is a cheap suitcase that carries around the mind. And the mind consciousness is what we really are. That means the body is both a useful tool for mobility and sensory experience, but it's also a limitation because it's in such a grueling environment, existing in this planet in apparently a material world, that it also forces you to consider what happens to it.
Is it a container alone? We came to the conclusion it is. For whatever reasons, our species has consciousness on a level that, as far as we know, is greater than other beings. So dropping the body is a phase, a transition, but not to a clear next phase. No one knows for sure. When Jaye dropped her body, one or two days after the funeral, we were at home in our apartment, and Alice Genese, our bass player was there. Edley and a couple of other people were there too. My daughters were saying, "We're really worried about you, papa. We want you to come to California with us so that you can grieve and be safe so we don't worry about you."
And we're thinking, "I don't know if I want to go." So as the children were trying to persuade me, we suddenly got this weird impulse. "Well, if we do go somewhere else, we need a photo of me and Jaye to get there."
So we went through to the bedroom. And on Jaye's side of the bed was what she called the "kissing wall", about 20 photographs of her and myself kissing in all these different locations. From a dungeon to Thailand to Kathmandu, you name it.
And we were looking at them all and thinking, "Which picture should we take?" And then we sort of honed in on this one photograph of us in Kathmandu. We were both wearing red robes, and were on one seat entwined, a blob of red with two heads. And we thought, "That's a pandrogyne, two becoming one."
So we took it back to the other room. We hadn't said anything about the picture to anyone else, and we placed it face down by these drawers by the window, sat back down and in our chair about three or four feet away my daughters said, "Are you going to come to California?"
And as we were starting to say, "I don't think so," this picture rose up about four inches, floated across in front of me, turned the right way up and then settled between my feet.
GBP. And we went, "I guess we're staying here with Lady Jaye." We used to say to each other, "When one of us drops our body, we'll try and communicate from the other side," as it's called. But how would we know it's a real communication?
So we had come up with three things: that it should be something that has witnesses so you can't imagine it, it should be something that has special meaning, and it has to be an incontrovertibly physical thing that happens. And so Lady Jaye managed to communicate from "death" in two days.
How does our culture better come to terms with aging? How have your practices helped with this?
GBP. That's difficult for me because we don't really feel that we're any part of the aging process. The body to me is a machine, and yes it's breaking down, but it always does. So we focus on consciousness and keeping it awake and alive and fluid and able to improvise and change.
My mother lived to be 92 and she still did crossword puzzles in the newspaper, read novels every day, and lived on her own because she didn't think she was old. She used to go to the church group and say, "I'm going to help with the old people." And I would say, "Oh really? How old are they?" "Oh, they're all about 70." She was 20-odd years older, but to her they were the old people because of the way they surrendered to the stereotype.
Society and culture are basically used as weapons to steal our dreams, our daydreams, our expectations, our potential. They're all deflected or distracted or even censored because a society that has a pyramid power structure can only survive by suppressing those below.
And so you always have the lowest common denominator at the top. The more stupid the person in charge, they'll then get people helping them who are even more stupid so they're not really a threat. And so you have this decay of quality and thinking and action. As it decays, then authoritarian solutions become the only way to maintain power.
Growing old relates to a system growing old, and often it's reflected in the individual. We spent a lifetime trying to be ready to improvise and see the strategies that are being used to attack or suppress you and not assume that you know the answer. You have to keep reassessing what's happening.
People are hypnotized to think that old age is a time of surrender, that you're very lucky if you get to live in Florida and have just enough money to buy food and play card games and dominoes, and if you don't have that much money you just live in a hovel as more or less a nuisance.
It's not like that in other cultures. If you go to Africa, they still have the extended family and age is equated with wisdom and knowledge and good advice, and that's true in Nepal and tribal communities like the Akha tribe and the Semang in the jungles of Burma. Our society has broken that continuity deliberately. "Divide and conquer" isn't just a war phrase.
My advice would be to find people who are older than you or remember the people in your family that are older than you, and reconnect if you haven't got a good relationship and encourage them to look at life as more free time as you get older, with therefore more things to do, more freedom to think right.
But people aren't given those skills in their education. Their education is about training people to enter the job force at various levels in order to keep the economic machine running on behalf of those at the top.
So wherever you go with culture or perceptions of age or how people think about life and death, it always comes back to how things are right now. As Burroughs used to say to me, "If you want to know what's happening, look at the vested interest, and the vested interest is submission." They turn old age into a business where people are in homes and it becomes profit-making.
People have to really be wary of being sucked into the way that things are presented and always analyze and critique. "Is this really what I believe? Is this what I think has happened? Does my actual experience agree with this way of living or am I just going along with it?"
What can you tell us about the "Loyalty Does Not End With Death" exhibition in Australia? You weren't able to go to that, right?
GBP. No, two days before we were due to fly out, we just felt really strange and got this strong, strong intuition that we shouldn't go, and that was when my kidneys failed. If I'd have gone, I would have been on the plane for 20 hours and my kidneys would have stopped working. I would have died.
But some entity — maybe Jaye — was whispering a very clear message. "Don't go. It's dangerous." So we weren't able to go. We were going to do some lectures and some spoken word with music which had to be cancelled.
The exhibition went ahead and in a way it's an homage to Lady Jaye and to our belief that the spirit, the soul, the consciousness truly is capable of maintaining a sense of individuality without a body. Jaye is still part of my life guiding me, keeping me safe at moments like that, because she was a registered nurse, too.
Loyalty is what Jaye said was the most attractive quality in another person, and we tend to agree. Loyalty is incredibly precious. Unconditional loyalty is almost like an alternate side of unconditional love and it doesn't end with physical death. That triggered the exhibition title.
The continual bond relates to the pandrogyne project too.
GBP. Well, close friends at various times have all said that they felt Lady Jaye was guiding parts of their life or warning them about things in advance. She's very much alive to the people in our extended family and we all talk to her (laughs). They all think about her every day, that she's there, guiding and advising and hopefully waiting for me to join her. That would be amazing. I can't wait to go and see what the other dimensions are like.
Tristan Kneschke has written for a variety of arts publications including Tiny Mix Tapes, Hyperallergic, Pop Matters, Metal Sucks, Decoder Magazine, The Wild Honey Pie and others. He was Subrewind's former managing editor and has written extensively about video for No Film School and Premium Beat. He enjoys traveling to places his mother has warned him about.
NPR. 2014. “Genesis, Lady Jaye and the Pandrogyne”. NPR.Org. 20 June. <https://www.npr.org/2014/06/20/323955434/genesis-lady-jaye-and-the-pandrogyne> (accessed 7 October 2019).
P-Orridge, Genesis Breyer, and Carl Abrahamsson. 2010. THEE PSYCHICK BIBLE: Thee Apocryphal Scriptures Ov Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Thee Third Mind Ov Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth. Edited by Jason Louv. Port Townsend: Feral House.
Unclean Pictures. 2019. "A Message From the Temple". Kickstarter. <https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/uncleanpictures/a-message-from-the-temple> (accessed 8 October 2019).
McCarthy III, Hazel Hill. 2016. Bight of the Twin. USA: The Mill.
Losier, Marie. 2011. The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. France: Adopt Films, Arsenal, Epicentre Films, GoDigital.