Good Trip or Bad Trip? The Art and Heart of Genesis P-Orridge

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Painful But Fabulous: The Life and Art of Genesis P-Orridge on 6 January 2003

Genesis P-Orridge’s work defies objective analysis. So I won’t even pretend that this little essay can accurately summarize or, dare I say it, codify his varied adventures in music, literature, art, magick, cultural engineering, and performance. Genesis’s expressions are characterized, at least in part, by a breaking of conventional boundaries, a challenging of expectations, and a blurring of the usually polarized relationship between artist and spectator, performer and audience. To speak about Genesis’s work is to speak the way a person projects oneself onto his work. Nothing more.

But if one man’s experience of Genesis P-Orridge can serve to illustrate something about the shape of Genesis’s intention–much in the way the tire treads across one’s chest can be used to infer something about the car and driver that ran him over–then let me be of service. I have been impacted by this man, and I’ve lived to tell about it.

I first learned of Genesis while studying the history of the cut-and-paste aesthetic. I was devouring one of those great, early RE/Search books out of San Francisco, in which the lineage between William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin had been painstakingly chronicled. But who was this third man being added to the mix? Genesis P-Orridge? Wasn’t he the lead singer for UK industrial band Throbbing Gristle?

Yes, but he was also the man who turned cut-and-paste from an experimental art form into an act of conscious defiance.

In the 1950s and 60s, Burroughs and Gysin had seen fit to turn post-modern deconstruction into a new kind of self-expression. Instead of merely deconstructing texts, they had the bright idea of recombining the many parts to see what came up.

Like the music of John Cage, it was a somewhat random process. The artist gets out of the way and allows the myriad of mathematical possibilities to unfold. The text of a newspaper article, for example, recombined into as many possible word orders as time, space, and probability will allow, yields strange results. We begin to understand the world of the article from a new perspective. Sometimes it feels as if secret codes have been unleashed (Burroughs was a rejected applicant to the CIA, after all). Other combinations give us an emotional overview of the newspaper’s reality; or a political template. Sometimes, it even sounds sexy.

Genesis was fascinated with the cut-and-paste process too. He eventually tracked down Burroughs and Gysin, and became something of a protégé to them. But Genesis saw a different kind of voltage in the deconstruction process. To him, it was an appropriation. An opportunity to seize power that he’d been looking for all his life.

Genesis was born into a working-class English family, and, despite his station and some illnesses as a child, managed to earn a scholarship to an exclusive public (what we Americans would call private) school. There, Genesis learned firsthand which membranes of society were permeable and which were not. Often the victim of the worst mental and physical humiliations that privileged upper-class schoolboys could evolve in 20 generations of dormitory domination, Genesis learned that he was living in a world m which power was not earned–it was a birthright to the few. The pain and embarrassment he was forced to endure was meant solely to confirm their own sense of superiority in themselves, and to ingrain Genesis’s inferiority in him.

But, as a child growing up in such an environment, Genesis couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to it. Do these quasi-sexual acts of depravity have some intrinsic power? Are these boys doing something more than it appears? Is the power they will one day experience as the Lords of England somehow dependent on creating this fear and pain in others? Which comes first, the torture or the power? Genesis was participating, albeit unwillingly, in one of the oldest rituals practiced by some of the most powerful men in the world during their highly impressionable adolescent years. And these rituals were allowed, if not absolutely encouraged, by the headmasters charged with training and educating the power elite of the future.

Understandably, young Genesis developed a worldview that saw power as a kind of evil, maintained through ritual and protected by institutions. The rest of us were imprisoned in their world, incapable–or at least led to believe that we were incapable–of doing anything about it. They own the land, the buildings, the money, the media and the sex.

But maybe not the language.

Why were words like fuck so forbidden? What threat did they pose? Where did all these words we speak come from, anyway? Does anybody even remember that good-bye means “God be with ye”? How much else is going on in the language we use–in the language we are taught not to violate? When was all this agreed upon, and by whom, and for what purpose?

To Genesis, Burroughs’s cut-and-paste process was not simply psychedelic beatnik art. It was revolution. To deconstruct the language of the establishment is the first step towards appropriation. Whose language is this, anyway? Why are we speaking “King’s English”?–especially if it benefits only a bunch of sick, rich fucks who flush your head down the toilet?

Genesis reveled in the appropriation and recombination of language, but sought to take it further. Deconstruction is the first step towards disempowering the masters of language. Demystification is the next step. Once you take apart the words, you can toy with them purposefully–not just randomly. A student of language, Genesis discovered the origins of words, as well as the assumptions underlying their common usage. Once the language itself could be questioned, so, too, could be the assumptions they are designed to enforce.

Finally, the words can be recombined, re-engineered to tip the balance of power in another direction. Why and when did thee become the? And what happens if you bring the origins of language back into play? Genesis moved from the deconstruction of language, through the demystification of its sources, to the engineering of new language that better stated the reality that he wanted to create. Do-it-yourself language.

Genesis’s first word-poems in this vein were not aesthetic experiments, but magical sigils. The words themselves, and their placement on the page, were conceived in trance states and with the conscious intention of creating a new reality based on the deepest workings of mind and spirit. He was tapping language for its power, uncertain of what he would release, but daring enough to believe that if it made people uneasy, he must be onto something good.

A sigil is really just a focusing ritual, in which the magician concentrates on the object of desire or the state he wishes to create, and then places words or objects in a certain relationship to one another. Like a child who lays out the stones or shells she has collected over the course of a day, the magical artist arranges his words on the page in accordance with an intuitive psychic template. The resulting image contains, or represents, the thought structure that the magician is trying to bring into reality. The more mental and spiritual energy he can invest in this process, the more power the sigil will contain and, finally, release.

Genesis soon saw the value this process could be to his collage art. He had been developing the techniques of cutting and pasting pictures and images for years–since he was a young child. Now, those practical techniques could serve him in his translation of cut-and-paste language to cut-and-paste imagery. In a sense, they were the same thing. Like his word poems, each of Genesis’s postcards and art pieces was a sigil, appropriating images that had been generated in one context for a certain reason, and recontextualizing them in a new context, for a very different one.

As Genesis expanded into other media, like music, he brought this same ethic and aesthetic of appropriation, demystification, and magical recontextualization into play. The “Industrial Music” that he and his cohorts in Throbbing Gristle pioneered takes the mechanized factory sounds of everyday life–the acoustic evidence of the working-class’s subjugation–and recontextualizes it as a form of political art. His concerts and records were, themselves, sigils, in which the hidden powers of sound were explored and exploited.

In doing so, Genesis came to learn about the effect of sound on the human body and mind. Certain frequencies create sexual sensations, while others can make one nauseous. Some noises make us feel weak, while others make us feel strong. Is this because we are conditioned to feel certain ways, or because the sounds have an intrinsic impact on human beings? Genesis would be the last to tell us. For, even if the body is programmed at birth to respond a certain way, who is to say we can’t program it to respond in another? Everything is up for grabs.

This philosophy alone, permeating through Genesis’s work and lifestyle (or should we just say “life”?) may be responsible for his enormous success in mobilizing an army of young people into a youth culture dedicated to re-engineering the world in which we live.

Throbbing Gristle and, eventually, its successor, Psychic TV, generated a fan base unlike anything seen before. These weren’t fans, exactly, but initiates. Young people who felt powerless in one way or another, and who saw in Genesis’s work and ideas the opportunity to seize control of the language, images, and sounds of modern life.

By introducing so-called “modern primitive” aesthetics to the body ornamentation and dress of what had by then become the Industrial Movement, Genesis gave his audiences a chance to participate in forms of personal re-engineering they had formerly never thought possible. No, piercing one’s nose or genitals in itself may not hold any innate magical power, but breaking one’s own preconditioned aversion to body modification may just reprogram one’s passive relationship to circumstance and existing power structures.

Genesis led the way, his own body a canvas and bisexual sigil. His multiply pierced genitals and deeply scarred and tattooed arms and chest served as ample evidence of his commitment to make the seemingly inviolable into plastic. He broke unquestioned sacred truths in order to reclaim that which was truly and individually sacred. And thousands followed suit. (Yes, from Throbbing Gristle right through to 21 Jump Street, Genesis was responsible for the emergence of body modification in counter and then popular culture.)

His open invitation for anyone to join him in this re-appropriation power, by any means necessary, led to unexpected results. Psychic TV’s “fan club,” Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth, despite being anti-hierarchical became something of a cult. It turned out that many young people, having disengaged from the official parent figures of their childhood, now felt the need to project a kind of parental authority onto Genesis.

And Genesis’s provocations, though designed to promote autonomous thinking and unleash the power associated with breaking cultural repression, tended to create blind obedience in those who weren’t quite ready to embrace the implications of a magical lifestyle. Genesis invited fans to clip a few pubic hairs and then send them to him for his archives, and many welcomed it as a kind of surrender, rather than the shared community sigil that Genesis had intended. Genesis’s invitation to join him in recreating by a series of conscious choices, an infinitely malleable, multi-dimensional consensus reality through group invocation and incantation was translated by the media and unfortunately by less realized fans as a one-dimensional dark power trip.

Things got out of control when Genesis and Psychic TV made a strange little series of films that included some deliberately ambiguous, ritualized erotic scenarios that were carefully designed to demonstrate the latent disinformational power of TV editing and the potential to generate hallucinations embedded in the core of that medium itself. His original intention was to show how real he could make the film seem; how video cut-and-paste had become a language in its own right capable of deluding and deceiving the viewer; and to create a program that tested the boundaries of decency. An extreme right-wing Christian propagandist seized upon the film as conclusive evidence that Genesis, “the most evil man in Great Britain,” and his sick followers were engaging in genuine satanic rituals. In a moment of supreme irony, the same propagandist edited a national TV documentary that featured sensationalized outtakes from the original fictional footage, presenting them as fact!

So shocking, and effective, was this broadcast fabrication that a police investigation followed, along with a raid of Genesis’s infamous archives. Whilst he and his family were in Nepal during the raid, working in the eastern equivalent of a soup kitchen feeding lepers and Tibetan refugees. Someone from Scotland Yard warned Genesis, off the record, that he’d be arrested, or worse, if he returned to England. He moved to California, instead.

Genesis learned the hard way that art which attempts to re-engineer reality often does so–but not quite as the artist expects. Entrenched reality has a way of kicking back, hard.

I first met Genesis shortly after his arrival in the States. I was driving to Los Angeles from San Francisco to spend a little time with Timothy Leary, who suggested I give Genesis and his daughters a ride down the coast. Genesis had planned to spend a few days with Tim, in the hope of getting a little counsel from the man whose own former countercultural adventures and media antics had led to “the most dangerous man in America,” as well as a bit of jail time.

I found Genesis in a parking lot with his two young daughters Caresse and Genesse. He was positively delicate. Tiny and frail–not at all the pierced monster I had imagined when listening to his records or perusing the photos in his books. Sure, he had been through a lot, and was a bit strung out as a result, but this was not a demonic magician. He was more of a little imp. A hippy-come-dandy.

We talked for hours in the car–seven hours, actually, because we took a few very wrong turns. And, as I listened to him recount his saga, I realized that Genesis was not a musician, a writer, or even a collagist any more than he was a performance artist. Gen’s life was his art project. An experiment in finding the ill-defined margins or conflicting codes in our cultural scheme and then mining them for their untapped voltage. At the moment, he had been zapped by it.

How very strange for me to watch him reconcile his art with his life. In between diatribes about the British monarchy’s dependence on magic and language for its power, he’d ask me to stop the car so he could get a snack for one of his daughters, or to gently scold them for fighting in the back seat. He was a daddy, just like any other dad.

Most of all, I realized that Genesis P-Orridge is not scary. He’s a sweetie. A trickster, for sure, but not a demon from hell. Just a guy on the edge–living there in order to show the rest of us where that edge is.

His forays into Industrial music were seminal not just for the sounds he found, but for his purposeful exploitation of those sounds for very new reasons. His commitment to appropriation was as important as the work of Andy Warhol in inspiring Malcolm McLaren to conceive of his meta-art band, the Sex Pistols. His notion of engineering sound to create physical, psychic, and magical responses in listeners was as important as the Acid Test music of the Grateful Dead and the electronic experiments of Kraftwerk in launching the rave movement. It was Genesis who reworked and applied the insights of Aleister Crowley to popular music gatherings, telling dancers to “revel in your bliss.”

Of course such an invitation is absolutely contrary to the working order of a civilization in which the human impulse is not to be trusted. Genesis instructs us to break boundaries and create our own narratives, while our religions and governments insist that human beings, left to their own devices, will rape and pillage one another. Genesis challenges us to co-author the collective story. He insists that if we don’t create reality ourselves, someone, somewhere, will surely do it for us. And that person will not have our best interests at heart.

This position itself is what has been known as “evil” for the past 2000 years. If Genesis is demonic, it is by this definition, alone. And if the autonomy he insists we take back is a sinful thing, then count me among the sinners, too. But for those who believe in absolutes–those who have accepted the arbitrary polarities masquerading these days as ethical truths–Genesis’s almost Gnostic proposition that it is we humans who are charged with creating reality amounts to blasphemy. For Genesis. it’s the essence of creativity. That’s why he renamed himself “Genesis,” after all. (The P-Orridge part is a tribute to the breakfast food that he credits with curing his childhood disease.)

Genesis went on hiatus for a couple of years, and considered the other polarities he might next dissolve. He settled on sex, and announced to me that he had embarked on breaking the boundary between what we think of as “man” and “woman,’’ again using his own body as a canvas. He underwent electrolysis on most of his face, and began cross-dressing so convincingly that most waiters referred to him as “ma’am.”

He had decided, at one point, to have breasts implanted. “You’re going to become a ‘chick with dick’?” I asked. “No,’’ he corrected me with a puckish grin. “I’ll be a man with tits.”

This is when Genesis embarked on his latest series of paintings and prints, variations and perspectives on women penetrating one another with dildos, his own pierced penis held between metallic fingers, and other images of sadomasochism, or bondage and domination.

These are not merely fetishistic titillations, but abstractions so removed from the context in which they were actually photographed as to be unrecognizable. The most extremely polarized sexual acts, obscured and recontextualized into soft, non-narrative landscapes of flesh and leather. Viewers must tilt their heads and squint to satisfy their trained expectations for content. Who is the man and who is the woman? We ask ourselves. Who is penetrating whom?

Genesis often augments these works with the props that were used to stage the scenes. The instrument that was once inside his anus, or a string of beads that were once inside a vagina rest on pedestals in front of the pictures in which they appears. Breaking time along with sex, these objects are elevated at once to historical artifacts and all-too-present reminders of what took place whenever it was the photos were first taken.

These objects also conflate mythos–the mythical realm in which the artistic moment occurred–and chronos–the historical reality of their objectified use in the real world. Are these sacrificial objects or the tools of this artisan’s trade? Religious talismans or simply used sex toys? Or, God help us, both?

Genesis’s paintings are also hung at various levels throughout a gallery space, so that viewers must crouch and contort themselves in order to see them. Only a few probably realize that the positions they are forced to assume mirror the same positions of the sex partners in the paintings themselves. The viewer recapitulates the kinesthetic of the artwork.

As the disruptor of accepted boundary conditions and, as a result, the generator of altogether new forms, Genesis will be fully understood only as his innovations are, themselves, appropriated by other artists. Only then–as when we watch multi-pierced and tattooed kids on Jerry Springer, or someone like Marilyn Manson or Trent Reznor, today–will we be able to reckon with the aesthetic upheavals and cultural violations that Genesis has perpetrated.

For now, we must content ourselves with the clues he leaves for us in the relationship between his own life and the life he portrays on stage and on the canvas. It is a seamless continuum–an internally consistent world where the only rule is that nothing is sacred. Appropriate, demystify, and then reassemble the component parts into a sigil that must be engaged with wholeheartedly in order to be understood. Such engagement requires us to abandon, at least for a moment, the dualities and boundaries we have been preconditioned to expect. And in doing so, we unwittingly extend his magick a bit further.

To interact with Genesis’s work is to interact with Genesis, himself.

Late one night, in a particularly distressed and abstract moment, I shared with Genesis the contours of one of my own immediately pressing confrontations with what seemed to be the darker side of my consciousness. He leaned back in his chair and smiled, revealing a mouth filled with freshly gilded teeth. Priest or devil? I was unsure.

I feared for an instant I had confessed my vulnerability to a man who had the power to abuse me, if he wished. But I had lost my bearings, and Gen had no doubt once been right here, himself. I needed context from somewhere. Anywhere. The boundaries were all broken. What was up and what was down? Where did good and evil fit?

“Well, Douglas,” he said in a deep, even tone. “There’s something I remind myself of at times like this: The only good trip, is a bad trip.”

It’s impossible to evaluate the art of Genesis P-Orridge by simply looking at one field of activity, one set of tools. He is one of those rare artists whose entire life and career is one great, evolving artwork, and the specific activities but parts thereof.

In essence, Genesis P-Orridge is a thinking man, a thinking artist, a philosopher. Although in many ways technically intuitive and often willing to cooperate with others, the spark is always a single, defined P-Orridgean idea–a reflection or an impression he feels a need to filter through and, most important of all, to recreate, to reshape. A thought most often takes shape through words, and it was in and through words he started out on his expressive and, one should add, impressively productive journey.

A tender teenage poet steeped in romantic fantasies about the artist’s way of life, P-Orridge contributed to poetry contests and small publications. While at the University of Hull, the fields of romance expanded and, slowly but surely, some kind of general vocation grabbed hold of his creative essence. Together with friends, he actively embraced the lifestyle he’d dreamt about. They lived in freedom, in a freedom of impression and expression, and with a will to evolve by trial and error. Poor perhaps, but still free to define and refine themselves daily.

Spontaneous peformances, mail art, collages, and redefinitions of sels of art history took P-Orridge on to new levels of realisation. The greatest realisation was never the manifestations per se, but rather the curious effects they had. All of a sudden things began to happen. There was an interest in his work and in his person. The synchronistic revelations dawned upon him at about the same time as an active interest in esotericism and magic did. He read and studied material on occultism all through his youth and was fascinated not so much by the lure and romance of medieval magicians, cloaked in robes and waving wands, as by the apparent changing ability the human mind and activities actually have.

In P-Orridge’s mind, it wasn’t enough to just work with self expression through various kinds of interesting media, as did other emerging artists around him. The Art in itself had to also be in touch with a higher essence, a sense of worth that transcends the current market value on the art scene. Without having fully realised it at the time, Genesis P-Orridge had formulated his vision, his quest, as pursuing a path of talismanic and transcendental art.

In synthesis, the esoteric awareness and the realisation that art can actually cause change, made P-Orridge focus more on collage work. He applied on photos from newspapers and weeklies the cut-up methods his mentors William Burroughs and Brion Gysin applied on writing and painting, respectively. With inexpensive materials readily at hand, P-Orridge started constructing and deconstructing his own graphic universe, often sending the results out to friends as “mail art.”