Douglas Rushkoff in conversation with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
When Tim Leary called and asked if I’d pick up Genesis P‑Orridge on my way down from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I knew enough to be afraid—but not a hell of a lot more. As founder of industrial music pioneer Throbbing Gristle and cult-inspiring acid-house follow-up Psychic TV, P‑Orridge was known for soliciting mail-in pubic hair and semen samples from his fans, tattooing his wife’s labia, and staging mock abortions on video. When those tapes were interpreted by clueless police as real satanic murder rituals, it became impossible for Genesis and his family to return to England without danger of imprisonment.
The near-universal notoriety he received in the U.K. was even more than Genesis had bargained for, and his marriage didn’t survive in exile. Sensing a kindred spirit, Leary—who had once lived in exile as an escaped convict—invited Gen to decompress at his Beverly Hills home, just one cliff down from the Sharon Tate house, which was then being occupied by Trent Reznor.
When I found Gen at the designated coordinates—an underground shopping-mall parking lot—I was surprised to find him with his two daughters, then about seven and ten. They spent the entire six-hour drive fighting in the backseat as Gen tried every threat and bribe he could think of to quiet them. Over the next decade, it was the challenges of the mundane that we bonded over more than any artistic or cultural ideals.
Sometimes he’d come stay at my apartment when he’d get in a fight with his second wife, Lady Jaye (Jackie Breyer P‑Orridge). Meanwhile, I’d come to Gen for encouragement whenever my personal courage didn’t quite match the temerity of my ideas—or if I was getting pounded on a bit too hard by a critic or online forum. Gen’s the one who convinced me to get married (“See what’s behind door number two”). Yes, we contributed to one another’s projects and conceptual framework, we worked on a few book projects together, and for a year or so I even played keyboards for the newly reformed Psychic TV (PTV3) and experienced Genesis from the other side of the stage and recording booth. But our real value and connection to one another always concerned navigating or, in his case, erasing the boundary between our personal and creative lives. For while my life might be dedicated to understanding and exploiting media, his life and body became the medium itself.
Gen’s most recent project is a cutup experiment called Pandrogeny for which s/he and Lady Jaye underwent gender-challenging plastic surgeries to look more like one another. Jaye’s sudden and unexpected death left Genesis Breyer P‑Orridge as not just one half of a couple but one half of a real-life art project.
S/He wanted to talk about it with me, and for posterity, as soon as possible. So, just a week after Jaye was buried, I showed up at their Ridgewood apartment with a tiny handheld video recorder, and we took a subway ride into Manhattan for Gen to do a bit of the kinds of banking one does after a spouse dies.
I. REBELLING AGAINST DNA
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Maybe we should start at the beginning, for those who might have no idea what Pandrogeny is about. I mean, you have big breasts and wear women’s clothing. What’s the difference between Pandrogeny and transvestism or transgender?
GENESIS BREYER P‑ORRIDGE: Well, the main difference is that Pandrogeny is not about gender, it’s about union. The union of opposites. One way to explain the difference is very easy: with transgender people the man might feel that he’s trapped—the person feels they’re a man trapped in a woman’s body, or a woman trapped in a man’s body—whereas in Pandrogeny you’re just trapped in the body. So Pandrogeny is very much about the union of opposites, and, through that reunion, the transcendence of this binary world and this illusory, polarized social system.
DR: Doesn’t that happen in sex, anyway?
GO: Of course, the orgasm. When people have an orgasm together that’s a moment of Pandrogeny. And when people have a baby, the baby is pandrogynous, sexually. Because it is literally two people becoming one.
DR: So then these memes—this ability to transcend polarity and gender— are already at our disposal. Why do it the way you are, through surgeries and implants and all this medical activity, all the social challenges of getting into the ladies’ room as a pandrogene? How do the literal cutting and pasting of gender traits dissolve these polarities any more than they underscore them?
GO: Well, as you know, it went in steps. In the beginning it was very much romantic. Jaye and I decided we didn’t want to have children. But we still got that urge to blend, to merge and become one. I think the heart of a lot of the romance in couples, whatever kind of couple they are, is that they want to both just be each other, to consume each other with passion. So we wanted to represent that. First we did it by dressing alike. Then we started to do minor alterations to our bodies. Then we decided that we would try as hard as we could to actually look like each other in order to strengthen and solidify that urge. So it was initially a very self-centered thing to do. But once we started to think about it, we realized that it was a bit like William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in The Third Mind, where they said the two of them together would no longer be the writer of the piece; it’s the two things cut up and being reassembled. That was the product of The Third Mind—the cutups. We thought if we used each other as separate artists, or individuals, and we cut ourselves up, maybe we could create a third entity, which is the pandrogene. So that’s very much the third being, a new state of being. Burroughs always used to talk to me about how you short-circuit control. And Jaye and I talked a very long time about that. And we decided that DNA was very much the recording—the tool of control. Perhaps even DNA is a parasite and we’re just the vessels at its disposal.
DR: Yeah, we used to talk about that. “Breaking sex” as the rebellion against the code of the DNA. Even death might be a DNA program and not—
GO: —a necessary one.
DR: Which formed the basis of Tim [Leary]’s and Bob [Robert Anton Wilson]’s ideas about life extension, too.
GO: So we decided to start approaching that and what that would do— what the effect of that was. Obviously, one way human beings have to change is to change their behavior, and change the binary system that’s been in place in all societies for thousands of years. So that’s when you get into evolution. You know, in the beginning, in prehistoric times, people were… This isn’t easy for me, because I keep just thinking about Jaye being dead.
DR: Well, that’s the thing; I mean, the real question under the questions we’ve been asking….
GO: The bottom line is that the human species has to realize the human body really is just a cheap suitcase. It is not sacred. We do have the potential to radically redesign ourselves, for better or worse. Our destiny as beings is to keep on evolving. It’s not to think you have reached a perfect state and all we need is new toys. The human species is still behaving in prehistoric ways on both the macro and micro levels. “If it’s different, attack it; if it’s other, attack it; if it threatens our resources, if it threatens our perception of how we replicate, then it must be eradicated….”
DR: So then instead of activism being this thing you do, it’s this thing you are.
GO: Or want to become.
DR: But, then, Jackie’s passing. Do you experience that on two levels, then? On the level of half of the pandrogene?
GO: Yeah. But I also experience it as a person who is fifty-seven and has been indoctrinated for most of my life to accept a binary world. And feeling a great sense of loss just in a romantic way, as an emotional person. Conceptually, I see that she has just broken through the final perceptual barrier. The human species won’t exist if it carries on replicating pointlessly. I think it’s very clear what we were concerned about when we began this, which was the ever-increasing polarization and reduction of ideas into dogma and paranoia, and this posturing that there’s a right way and a wrong way: I’m right, you’re wrong, and therefore I must attack you. And the whole idea of Pandrogeny is to make that irrelevant, and to bypass that. If we were all pandrogynous, physically and/or mentally, it would be impossible to be at war, because there wouldn’t be a sense of difference all the time.
DR: So does the project continue? You as a lone pandrogene?
GO: It’s not convenient. Because there are lots of things we had in mind that would use both of us in the projects. So I have to try and figure out ways to represent those ideas anyway.
DR: Or start on the new ones. I mean, gender may be an artificial duality perpetrated by DNA and all… but what about death? That’s got to be the biggest, baddest duality of them all. It’s not so very hard to see through gender as a social construction. An illusory divide, like you’ve shown. But death is entirely more convincing. We die, and the people to whom we’ve passed our genes take our place. Death feels like DNA’s last laugh, its final tyranny over us.
II. PERFORMATIVE MASH-UPS
DR: I played our PTV3 record for a Rolling Stone critic who shall remain nameless. He said, “Well, it’s competent. But this song is a copy of the Doors, this song is a rip‑off of old Pink Floyd, this song is The Velvet Underground.” I always understood that we were emulating certain things about the Doors with one song, maybe, or emulating certain things about Floyd with another, but I didn’t see it as stealing, copying, or even as tribute, in the sense of some tribute band. PTV was “sampling” this way before samplers even existed. It’s not just mindless appropriation, is it?
GO: No, it’s a knowing cross-reference, because young people today don’t have any sense of the history of their own music. You can go down St. Marks to those record shops and mention the Doors and they’ll say, “What? Who?” They don’t know who any of these people are. They buy Interpol but they don’t know about Joy Division. [I’ve] always found it really suspect when musicians or writers act as if everything is divinely inspired and they’ve never been influenced by anything. It’s just all theirs. They’re unique. Brilliant. And, in fact, I’ve always felt that everything is a continuum. It’s important to serve as an educational foundation as well as just an entertaining or a conceptual one. So you cross-refer people to what didinfluence or inspire you. Every band that’s around today starts off by trying—consciously or not—to be like their favorite band at some point or other in its career. That’s how you begin.
DR: Without ever saying it.
DR: And without even knowing what influenced that band. Or, better yet, they try to hide the influence by camouflaging it or changing a few chords. They deny the influence because they’re ashamed of it—as if it undermines their claim to originality. Unlike, say, the Talmudic rabbis: whenever they would talk they would say, “Well, as the great Rabbi Eliazar said to the great Rabbi Hillel said to the great Rabbi Moshe…”
DR: And only then would they add their own insight to the tradition. Acknowledgement of lineage makes the new contribution stronger and more pronounced. But in this culture of copyright and ownership and money, it seems as if claiming unique ownership is somehow more valued than claiming lineage or reference or heritage. To have been influenced might mean you owe someone some money.
GO: Well, for a start, you’ve got to remember that we grew up in the ’60s. There was a point in 1969 where we actually did light shows for Pink Floyd. We would hitchhike down to the UFO Club and the Arts Lab in London and be in the squats in 105 Piccadilly. That is my era, and I’ve been consistently creating music and art ever since then, without any break. So if anyone has the right to sound like or cross-reference their own era, it’s me. They seem to forget that we’re a ’60s band in terms of the person leading the band. And so we’re not actually plagiarizing, we’re merely being absolutely consistent with our origin, and actually deliberately directing people toward the more exciting parts of that heritage.
DR: And PTV predates computer sampling and mixing…. I mean, so the way you cut and pasted in that era was not by cutting and pasting tape of other bands, it was by cutting and pasting styles and sounds that you actually performed. It was a performative mash-up as opposed to a digital one. And for cutup to work, there has to be a loosening of our sense of ownership.
DR: And this reaches an extreme in an era of Napster and hip-hop and remix and even television commercials using pieces of songs reinterpreted by others.
GO: But we’ve done all those. We’ve already done all those. The only thing we never did was a straight-ahead psychedelic-rock band, which is my first love in my record collection. And, yes, it’s absolutely and utterly selfish to make an album that we really enjoy all the way through. So what? You know, we’ve always made albums for our own interest, anyway. The audience is somewhat of a luxury on top.
III . IT’S ALL REVOLVING AROUND BATHROOMS AGAIN.
GO: In Phoenix, there was that whole furor about PTV playing in the bar, because I was transgender and he wasn’t letting anyone come into the club who was transgender. And that got mentioned on a little local newspaper site, and then I was getting phone calls from FoxNews and ABC. Same day!
DR: You would think that would be good for business, though.
GO: Well, not really, because the gig was the same night, so what you’re basically talking about is not being able to play exactly when we were going onstage.
DR: They were claiming it had to do more with the bathrooms, because they wouldn’t supply a transgender bathroom?
GO: Apparently, what happened was that at the first club, called Anderson’s, a few months before, one woman came from the women’s bathroom and said she had looked under the door of one of the stalls and seen somebody with their feet pointing the wrong way, which to her meant somebody who was transgender or a transvestite was standing up to pee. And she was appalled, shocked, outraged, and she complained. So the owner of the club then banned all transgender people from the club. Oh, of course, I assumed when he said “tranny” he was referring to transvestites, but there’s a difference. Transvestite is very different than transgender. Many transvestites who are heterosexual males feel that they have to dress up as a woman sometimes.
DR: Or would like to.
GO: Yes, or would like to. And transgender women identify as being female and would never stand up, no matter how far along in the change they are, because that would be strange to them to stand up, because they always sit down. So it’s really only about transvestites, it’s not about transgender people at all. So he banned everyone from the club, and then there was this little local scandal about it, a big story of was it violating rights to free expression and civil liberties and so on. And then they discovered Psychic TV was coming to play—some of the more active gay/lesbian/transgender people—so they started emailing us, saying, “Did you know that the club you’re going to play at has banned ‘transgender people’ and transvestites?” Of course we said no. Then one of the activists told the owner of the club, “Do you realize that you’ve got Psychic TV on tomorrow and the lead singer is a tranny?” So he of course was caught off guard and said, “I had no idea; I have nothing against transgender people, per-se.” So they said, “Well, we want to come see them play, but we’re not allowed to go! Isn’t that a little bit of a contradiction in terms? The singer can sing—lead tranny—but we can’t watch.”
DR: No, it’s like the old days: big black performers in the clubs that black people couldn’t go to.
GO: Yeah, it is very much like segregation. The whole thing. It’s interesting to me that it’s all revolving around bathrooms again, and the use of facilities, shall we say. So at that point the promoters talked to the owner of Anderson’s, and he said for this one night he would let me use his personal private bathroom. And that way the people in the women’s toilet wouldn’t be bothered, the guys in the men’s wouldn’t be bothered, and I would have somewhere to go pee. And I said, “Oh, that’s not appropriate.” He also said he would put armed guards in all the bathrooms to prevent anyone from misusing them. I said, “No, I can’t play under those conditions.” So then the promoters tried to find a new venue, and they found a new venue called The Sets, which is another club.
GO: We moved all our gear over there, and we’d just started to load in around six. And then the promoter came over with the guy who ran the club and said, “We are ever so sorry, but you can’t play here tonight.” So we said, “Why?” “ Well, we’ve been getting phone calls, threatening phone calls from the extreme right-wing people in town, the Christians and so on. And we have also been getting phone calls from the transvestite/transgender/ gay/lesbian alliance saying they will demonstrate outside.” And it turned out that the club owner said that’s not really it, it’s that the people who own the building, which was a shopping mall, had rung him up and said, “If you let those people play they will take away [my] lease.” And the insurance company rang up and said they would close insurance coverage as well, because they were afraid there might be a riot because of this tension. So then we were suddenly stuck with having to move again, and by then it was around eight o’clock in the evening. And we finally ended up at a really run-down biker club. They were more than happy to let us play, but it was a tiny stage. I couldn’t even take my bass off, and Eddy had to play with three drums. It was not the appropriate space.
DR: Did people come?
GO: Oh, it was packed. And there was a really nice moment about halfway through. Because it was so packed—it had been 110 degrees that day, and everyone was drenched with sweat. So I just said, “You know what? This is when the whole gig goes topless.” So I took my shirt off, then the rest of the band did, and then about half the audience did.
IV. COYOTES AND KALIS
GO: All the ways Jaye and I experimented with Pandrogeny while she was still alive, they all kept leading us to the fact that the human species is stuck in a primitive behavioral loop: underlying behavioral patterns that are still based on a sort of clan mentality from the Stone Age. That the male of the species protected the women and children because they were a resource that they needed in order to continue the clan, and how any other clan would steal that resource, literally, but also try to encroach on the food supplies and shelter and resources of every kind.
DR: In the current conversation, you’re either supposed to be pessimistic and ecological, or to accept the infallibility of human ingenuity and evolutionary capacity.
GO: But our evolution—mine and Jaye’s—is about behaving, it’s not about resources. The basic point is that in the very early stage of human existence, when we were fighting to survive the Ice Age and for survival against sabertooth tigers, it actually served humanity’s purpose for the male to be controlled by an embedded program to attack anything that threatened its resources.
DR: Anything other.
GO: Anything that’s different or other. That helped us survive! But that was a very different environment, and we haven’t bothered to change that behavior pattern at all. We’ve just made more and more incredibly complex and sophisticated and intricate environments.
DR: And natural selection is inappropriate in this situation because…
GO: …because there are so many people at risk for the sake of a few who still work with that basic template. And unless we change that behavior— which is based on a very polarized dualistic system and very much about using violence and intimidation to maintain a status quo—if we don’t change, then we’re doomed.
DR: So you change the self? Through external changes like breasts?
GO: It’s all to help the human species change its behavior. It happens because humans see themselves differently. That’s the thing. If you change the way you are physically, we all know that it changes the way you perceive things. For example, somebody who becomes a quadriplegic perceives the world differently.
DR: Just as someone who gets what are ultimately artificial breasts will end up perceiving things differently and being treated differently?
GO: This is what we felt was at least symbolically represented in the pandrogene: the commitment to absolute change, for the greater good and for the individual good. It’s the whole thing: change the means of perception and you change the world.
DR: Well, they definitely changed for the people immediately around you.
GO: Then I think it could happen on a macro level, and that level, too.
DR: Yeah. I mean, the funny thing—the thing I’ve always enjoyed about it most—was how it played with the minds of some of your hard-core fans. I always found the original group, the boys and girls calling themselves “Coyotes” and “Kalis,” somewhat sexist—entrenched in very stereotypical gender roles.
GO: Well, that’s not what it was about.
DR: But it’s certainly where a lot of guys, especially, took it. You were the most pierced, scarified, and scary person they had to look up to. For many, the neo-primitive thing was at least in part a form of daring machismo.
GO: It’s funny because Jaye used to walk down St. Marks Place with me and say what you were just saying, basically. She’d look around at all these people with their piercings here, there, and everywhere, and their tattoos, and she’d say, “I blame you for this.”
DR: And when we played that first Psychic TV show after you got the tits—to be onstage and see those guys’ faces when they realized they had to come to terms with seeing Gen like this. They had all been modeling what they thought was Gen’s, for lack of a better word, machismo. “Oh, he can stick a spike in his balls and survive…. But now the person I’ve been ‘modeling on,’ whose tattoos I have on my skin, is now crossing a boundary that is really frightening to me.” That was the greatest gift you were giving them, I thought.