Positive Surrender: An Interview with Breyer P-Orridge
Breyer P-Orridge like to paint in broad brushstrokes, to create grand narratives about human evolution, and individual growth. Crucially, they do so in order to urge us to break them, and replace old systems with unthought possibilities for change. ‘Viva la evolution’ is a key rallying cry of Breyer P-Orridge, in interviews, statements and performances. As a cultural engineer, P-Orridge relentlessly insert new strategies into the horizon of art and popular culture, including the historical cultural innovations such as industrial music, acid house, commercial body piercing, and most recently, the figure of the p-androgyne. ‘One of my main quests in life has been to take control of my own identity in a very real way,’ Breyer O-Orridge state. In their practice, this quest has involved performance art, collage, mail art, the occult practice of sigil drawing (inspired by the art of Austin Osman Spare), the development of new musical styles, club performance, and most strikingly perhaps, the obliteration of any feasible distinction art and life.
Most recently, this commitment to new artistic strategies has involved a translation of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique into a surgically oriented practice, merging two previously separate bodies into a fictional construction they refer to as the ‘p-androgyne’ or positive androgyne, a corporeal manifestation of ‘the third mind’ that focuses on its threat to conventional ideas about sexuality and gender. Formerly Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye (Jacqueline) Breyer, the artists have forgone their earlier names and public identities towards a new collective subjectivity. In tandem, the two formerly discreet individuals used cosmetic surgery, performance, and other tools to produce a ‘third being’, a p-androgyne who goes by the name Breyer P-Orridge. This composite identity has obliterated their prior individualities, towards a political exploration of the possibilities that emerge from experiments with art, science and culture.
One of the problems with writing about Breyer P-Orridge is the semantic trouble their work has instigated. Traditional modes of biography, historical summary and critical writing fail when one tries to discuss the multiple identities, harassed bodies and destitute subjectivities that the p-androgyne has produced. ‘My original name was Neil Andrew Megson’, states the body that constitutes one half of the surgically engineered dyad Breyer P-Orridge. ‘A couple of year ago I started to wonder what happened to Neil. I have become an artwork with no author. In a sense, Neil destroyed himself by creating me.’ Moreover, the threat the artists pose to traditional unities of biography and subjectivity were consolidated in disturbing ways by the sudden death of Lady Jaye in October 2007.
In a prologue to the following interview, conducted live at New York University in April 2007, Breyer P-Orridge set out a history of their creative journey, from the decision to jettison identities given at birth, to the early art projects that scandalised the British press and public, and the most recent developments in their unstoppable quest to rethink sedimented assumptions about art, culture, identity, and institutions of power. P-Orridge stated, ‘I’d been taken to court for doing collaged postcards of the queen [in the 1970s], and been given a suspended prison sentence for that, so there was an ongoing evermore serious attack on me and my lifestyle.’ They explain how their current project complements and extends their earlier practices in performance and visual art, especially.
DJ: Can you tell me how Breaking Sex came about?
Gen: At the beginning of Breaking Sex and pandrogyny, Lady Jaye and I saw it primarily as an incredibly romantic thing to do – to want to become each other, to look like each other. So the very first thing that we did that was more or less permanent was I got two tattoos on my cheek – beauty spots where Lady Jaye has some, and then she had one removed on the other cheek, so that we were beginning to make our faces more superficially the same. Then she got the shape of her eyes changed so that they were more like mine, and got her nose worked on to make it like mine. Lady Jaye and I both got breast implants three years ago on Valentine’s Day [year?] and we woke up together in the room where you come back from being under the anaesthetic, and we held hands, and I looked down and I said ‘Oh, it’s my angelic body’. I found it really interesting that I would go to sleep and when I woke up I would not recognise the person in the mirror in the same way.
I’m just a basic heterosexual, which confuses people because it’s much less common for heterosexuals to be transgender. And I’m not fully accepted by the transgender community because they don’t understand why it would be an art project. We really are investigating the idea of evolution. We’re challenging DNA and refusing to accept it as the programming that controls our biological life. I am a p-androgyne – a positive androgyne. A hermaphrodite by choice. Pandrogyny is a suggestion or strategy for the survival of the species. In some ways all the different projects – even the music – are about challenging the status quo in order to change. I think change should be inclusive of other people, not exclusive.
DJ: I’d like to ask you about the idea of allegiance, in the sense of connecting to forgotten or less privileged parts of cultural history. You’ve stated your relation to William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Derek Jarman, for example. How important is it to you to connect yourself to histories of cultural experimentation?
Gen: People feel a kinship with what Breyer P-Orridge are doing in our various incarnations. It was the same for me when I was young in the 1960s, and I’m sure for Lady Jaye in her time – that there are certain people, certain movements, usually suppressed ways of seeing the world, different ways of perceiving reality that shine like beacons because they contradict everything that’s being pushed into you by the so-called normal world. I went to a very authoritarian British school that actually had a statement in their manifesto that said that art was not a real subject – parents were to be glad that teachers didn’t waste their time teaching us anything to do with literature or art. For whatever reasons I’m perverse and that made me want to look at literature and art as much as could. So there was an attraction for previous manifestations of rebellion I think. If you feel rebellious against the status quo you look for commonality with other rebels. You seek them out. You ask them what it is that they’re trying to say and find out if you can say something similar but in a more contemporary way. So that’s how I very luckily got to know William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Derek Jarman very early, in the period between 1969 and 1971.
DJ: You each bring very different histories and experiences to the project of Breaking Sex. Can you each say something about the preparations that enabled you to tackle such complex and provocative material?
Jaye: Although our backgrounds are very different, Gen and I share common early childhood experiences. When we discussed out early life quite soon after we met we realised that sharing these similar experiences caused us to perceive the world in a certain way. As an extension of that some of the same artists resonated strongly with us. Like getting hit over the head, you find something obscure or suppressed and it seems like a truth, and you ask how it could have escaped you for so long. Not all of our life experiences have been the same, naturally – we’re from different generations, and from different countries, but that in many ways helps our work. It would not be a work of the third mind if we saw everything identically. Sometimes our views will contradict each other, like an exception that proves the rule. Our work isn’t parallel sometimes, but rather perpendicular, and forms a greater whole that covers a lot more territory.
Gen: Jaye became very active in the downtown New York scene and alternative theatre. Do you want to mention that?
Jaye: A lot of the work that I did when I was younger drew certain parallels to Gen’s work. Had I known about Gen’s work – had I been a little more worldly and sophisticated – I might not have done some of these things, knowing that they had already been done in the 1970s! But I felt a need in myself to explore certain things, and when I started reviewing Gen’s early work I realised it expressed similar ideas to what I was feeling at the same age.
DJ: To turn specifically to the current project, one of the most striking tensions in the work is that although it may seem at least superficially to be monstrous or horrific, on a much deeper level it demonstrates an investment in romance. Can you say something about the collision between monstrosity and romance?
Gen: At the very beginning before we were committed to being with each other for a long time, one of the very first times we actually met in New York I stayed at Jaye’s apartment – we were still just good friends – one of the first things she did was dress me up like a little doll, in a very androgynous way.
Jaye: It was a green crushed velvet Betsey Johnson catsuit.
Gen: And a little leather skirt, with Fluevog shoes that you bought me especially.
Jaye: Only the best.
Gen: Only the best. So there was an immediate resonance between us that was never discussed at the beginning where we began to blend. From then on we playfully started to cross-dress with each other, and play with the idea of looking similar and not taking on traditional roles. When we got married on Friday 13th June 1995, we intuitively – without a great deal of discussion – swapped roles. I wore a white lace dress and nice white and black shoes, and Jaye wore skin-tight leather trousers, motorcycle boots, a leather vest and a moustache. That was the first step – a deeply romantic urge to blend. The mutual orgasm can be a transcendent experience where two people seem to become one. Another way you can have that experience is to create a baby, which is again two people becoming one. We didn’t want to have a baby, but we did want to create a new being that represented to two of us, so we took each other and started to analyse how we could play with that sense of positive surrender, and create a new dynamic being. That’s where the more considered artistic side began.
DJ: Do you think that Breaking Sex is a utopian project?
Gen: Absolutely. [could you say more here?]
DJ: How does the political emerge from this sense of the utopian? I’m reminded of Burroughs’ statement that ‘paranoia is having all the facts’, where a political statement emerges from blurring the boundaries between two opposites: the positive and the negative, romance and monstrosity.
Gen: Burroughs also said that if there’s a situation that makes you uncomfortable, or feels threatening, look for the vested interest. Well, we felt very uncomfortable in the stereotypical roles we were assigned, in terms of gender and being biologically present. We wanted to expose the deliberate conditioning and the push towards emotional, economic and creative inertia, which serves the purposes of globalised culture. The last thing that the great corporations would like is to have a new species erupt that’s based on the absolute rejection of everything inherited at birth – identity, body, social position, gender, race, humanity – a new species that has the right and the way to erase everything we were given and rebuild itself. That’s where the political emerges.
Jaye: Today I was talking to Gen about the story of Marduk and Tiamat. It’s the first recorded story of how mankind was created – a Sumerian narrative about a pre-Biblical god who conquers the dragon Tiamat who represents femininity, chaos, nature and wilderness. The other gods made Marduk in the figure of a man, and gave him the power to create the world – including the first city and the first civilisation – and the power to rule its people. So the very first creation story is based on control. There’s an extension of the story that says humans were put here to serve gods and to serve kings, and fill their storehouses with grain to give them wealth. I would find some kind of change refreshing at this point.
Gen: Gender infuses every cultural system and is a very important aspect of reassessing what it is to be present, to feel that you’re alive in any particular consensus reality. Yet people often confuse gender and identity too easily. Identity is something that begins from the moment you’re conceived, while you’re still inside your mother’s womb. Before you even come out there is the influence of relatives you’ve never met that you may hate when you do meet, all these things that your parents want to have happen, and their friends have investments in what you’re going to be, and it just gets worse from then – school, peer groups, you’re a boy so you have to hang out with the boys and do boy things, and so on. The key point about this structure is that it’s fictional. If it wasn’t you making all those choices up to the point you become fully self-aware, perhaps around puberty, then you’ve had the story of your identity written for you – a narrative written by someone else. That’s just not acceptable. Everyone should have the absolute right to be the person who writes their own story and create their own narrative. To give it away or to let it go through laziness is a tragedy. That’s how we’re controlled, because we let those stories become the warp and the weft of the fabric of society, and then we’re stuck. So a process of deconditioning is incredibly important if you want to rebuild your own identity and write your own story.
Jaye: It’s difficult of course, because our culture doesn’t accept change, and if you were to reject everything – all your family’s wishes and all their dreams for you they would be hurt. We’re controlled by guilt. We don’t want to make changes that will make other people love us less or not accept us.
Gen: I’m sure everyone knows about that. Everyone has to go through it over and over again. Well, there are very simple ways to change your identity. Change your name. The name is the first way that other people exert power over you. If you change your name you take on a huge challenge. Neil Megson thought he could make an art work that was an extension of Andy Warhol’s idea of the superstar, and create consciously a character as an art piece, which was Genesis P-Orridge. But Neil hasn’t been seen since 1969. Gone. Subsumed.
Jaye: And the character wasn’t just Genesis. If I look at what’s left of the archive, all the photographs, there are hundreds of different characters that all have very distinctive personalities and represent different ideas. Sometimes they lasted for ten minutes and sometimes they lasted for a few years. It was so wonderful to see an artist who had so much to express.
DJ: Finally, I think it’s clear from the amount of exhibitions and performances that you are working right now that there seems to be a moment for your work. I’m interested in the conditions that make the reception of work possible, but I’m also intrigued as to whether you think there’s a future for subculture. Why is the moment right for breaking sex and the emergence of the pandrogyne?
Jaye: In one of your earlier questions you used the word ‘monstrosity’. In the past twenty years the media and advertising have become so sophisticated that ever since punk all these manifestations of subversive culture that young people especially are attracted to has been taken from the streets and repackaged, and sold back to them. Everything is a potential product, and I think that for some people we are just a little too raw and a little too hard to look at, and it’s going to be very hard to put our work in a box, place a little ribbon on it, and sell it. I think that’s exciting because what we are working on isn’t a commodity. How can you sell individuality? It’s not the kind of individuality like ‘I want to different like everybody else’, where a subversive style is defined for you, along with where you should go, the type of people you should hang out with, the shops you should purchase your clothing at, or the kind of music you can listen too. What we’re doing is much more abstract than that – you can’t pin it down as easily because it covers so many bases.
Gen: There are two lines of thinking that I’m pondering. One of them is quite simple, which is that pandrogyny, as a word, is uncluttered by any specific connections to gender, sexual orientation, or sexual preference. It’s a very gender-neutral word. But it’s also a very clear declaration at the same time. At the very least it gives a lot of different people a chance to discuss issues to do with the survival of the species, the way that culture is working, and the changes that are happening to the way people view their bodies. If pandrogyny does nothing else but open up debate by becoming a word that can be rebuilt from the beginning to represent a much more non-aligned view of things, then that would be important. The second way I can respond to your question is that we’re in an age where people are still driven by prehistoric genetic codes. To put it simply, when we were all running around naked trying to catch slow-moving animals in prehistoric times it probably came in very useful for the male of the species to have the fight or flight reflex in his genetic code, in order to hunt and survive. Without that primitive drive we wouldn’t all still be here. We then discovered weapons and tools that helped us to kill some of those slow-moving animals, including each other. We got very excited when we learnt we could make tools, and slowly but surely over thousands of years we built this incredible, miraculous, technological environment. People can pick up little boxes and talk to somebody at the other end of the earth, they can fly, they can be in space looking down. But nobody’s been bothered to check on our behaviour and move it along at the same rate. We’re still genetically prehistoric. So we’re in this horrible situation of a futuristic technological environment and a prehistoric band of clever apes ready to destroy each other because their behavioural responses are so polarised from the world they live in. It’s an incredibly dangerous time.
Pandrogyny went from that deep romance that you mentioned into a discussion about identity and how it’s made. That led us to realise that really the ultimate question is: evolution or not. That makes it a very volatile and exciting concept for us, which contains the seed of a discussion about survival. That’s why it’s resonating – people instinctively are seeing pandrogyny as a door they can pass through in order to talk about their fears.