There are few true experimental artists among us. “Experimental” is widely considered a style when it merely denotes a handling of creative material that resembles past experiments, voiding the word of any real meaning. Genesis P-Orridge is one of the few pioneers of contemporary culture, someone whose renowned experiments of decades past are actually overshadowed by his current endeavour. Or, I should say, their current endeavour.
They are Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. The man who’s widely recognized as the founder of industrial music (via his bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) has partly assumed the identity of his late wife Lady Jaye Breyer, nearly rendering literal the clichéd notion of people living on inside their loved ones after death. This act was an extension of the couple’s pandrogyny project. Their goal was to merge through plastic surgery, to become one by becoming twins, but that was only the physical dimension of their experiment. Its psychological component continued after Lady Jaye succumbed to a heart attack and “dropped her body,” as P-Orridge puts it.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is the guest of honour at the inaugural edition of Phénomena, the newest festival in Montreal, and the successor to the discontinued Festival Voix d’Amériques. The multidisciplinary affair couldn’t have found a better guest, as P-Orridge will be appearing at a visual art retrospective of their work, attending and answering questions following a screening of a documentary about them and performing with their musical spoken word act Thee Majesty.
P-Orridge explains the genesis of the latter project, “an extended poetry reading”:
“Back in the early mid-’90s, there was a point when I was injured after a fire and couldn’t really do much, so Lady Jaye said, ‘Why don’t you sit back and think about what you personally really enjoy, what you really care about,’ and it was poetry. It began with straightforward readings, but then naturally evolved with the inclusion of ambient music and tones — we added a tabla player and Lady Jaye would play guitar. Then we thought it would be nice to have non-narrative video so that the moods and the meanings expand. The connections and collisions of unlikely images with words, with sounds, just make the whole experience far more open; we’re not telling you what we mean, the audience is free to interpret what they hear and see.”
The art exhibit, entitled The Eyes of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (which has its vernissage tonight in Montreal), features 30 years of collages by P-Orridge & cie.
“It’ll be a glimpse into how we perceive things,” they say. “One thing we’ve always adored about collages, since the ’60s, is that you create new worlds and you create, visually, situations that could not exist any other way. It’s the same theme that goes through all the work we do: the cut-ups — cutting things up, reassembling them and then seeing what you learn from that process. We’ve done it with visual things, we’ve done it with music, we’ve even done it with our own bodies. It’s the main tool that we use to re-perceive the world in the hope that we learn more about the mystery of existence, really.”
Cut-up pioneers William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Antony Balch used the technique primarily in writing and film, but inspired artists of every stripe to try their hand at it, including P-Orridge’s avant garde collective of the ’70s, Throbbing Gristle.
“I thought, ‘What would happen if you actually applied it directly to music? And between that and John Cage, where everything that makes a noise is music, what would happen then?’ And that’s how industrial music came about, of course.
“So by reconsidering and reassembling things in unusual ways, you can have these amazing moments of revelation where an entire genre of music evolves from those experiments. Now we’re hoping that an entire way of healing the human species and its evolution will come from the experiments with pandrogyny that we’ve been doing.”
P-Orridge describes the pandrogyny experiment as “the merging of biological identities, as well as identities via conditioning and consciousness.” For a deeper understanding and first-hand account of the process, it’s essential to see The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, a 2011 documentary by French director Marie Losier, eight years in the making.
“In 2003, after Lady Jaye and myself got matching breast implants on Valentine’s Day, she said to me, ‘It would be really great if we had someone following us around documenting this process: what happens to us, how people in the world outside react to it, how it resonates and how it develops.’”
The very next day, Losier happened to attend a Thee Majesty performance at New York’s Knitting Factory, and fell in love with the sound of P-Orridge’s voice. The day after that, she just happened to step on his foot at a vernissage, and was soon on the road with them, on tour with Psychic TV. From the day of their chance meeting, which P-Orridge feels was “divinely intended,” Losier and the couple spent the better part of four years together.
“It went on till 2007, when of course Lady Jaye dropped her body,” P-Orridge explains. “Then there was a hiatus. We don’t even remember the first two years after that, it was a sort of trauma, but somewhere around the second year of that mourning, that grieving, we decided that Jaye would want the film to get finished.”
As bittersweet as it is, P-Orridge couldn’t be more pleased with the film, a unique documentary that dispenses with the conventional talking-head format. (Losier did interview a number of people for the film, and that material is collected on a disc to be packaged with the film’s DVD release in November.)
“She just stuck to our lives,” says P-Orridge. “She made little tableaux that were symbolic of our approach to things. She would dress me up in ridiculous costumes. The soundtrack is my voice, and she made 16 layers of me saying things and then edited those together in a huge cut-up to make the narrative. The music is from all the different projects: solo poetry, Lady Jaye telling stories, Thee Majesty, Psychic TV.”
Among the film’s multiple awards is an audience prize at the Buenos Aires Film Festival, and it’s the one that P-Orridge is most proud of; despite cultural and linguistic barriers, their love story is one that can touch the masses.
“Lady Jaye was often asked, ‘What’s it like to be in a rock band?’ and she would say, ‘I don’t care about any of that. I love to do it, but all I want is to be remembered as one of the great love affairs.’ And that’s exactly what the film has become: a memento of a great love affair.” ■
The Eyes of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge opens at la Centrale Galerie Powerhouse (4296 St-Laurent) tonight in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 19, 7 p.m. and runs through Oct. 28
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye screens at Cinéma Excentris (3536 St-Laurent) Oct. 22 –25. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and director Marie Losier will be present at a Montreal screening on Sunday, Oct. 21, presented by the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma.
Thee Majesty performs at Cabaret du Mile End (5240 Parc) on Saturday, Oct. 20, 9 p.m., $20
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