We often speak of musical heroes like David Bowie as living their entire lives as art projects, immersed in personas and transforming themselves on creative whims. But few dedicated themselves so completely to embodying their conceptual ideas as avant garde icon, performance artist, godparent of industrial, poet and occultist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who died on Saturday (March 14) from chronic myelomonocytic leukemia.
Besides making formative industrial albums with Throbbing Gristle and exploring the possibilities of ‘magical experimentalism’ with Psychic TV, they (P-Orridge identified as third gender) approached art, poetry and music as a means to break down and remould the attitudes of western society through the confrontational – and often controversial – shattering of its taboos and the exploration of free-thinking occult ideas.
“I’ve been involved in a total war with culture since the day I started,” they said in 1989. Religious scholar Christopher Partridge described their work as a “confluence of pornography, violence, death, degradation, the confrontation of taboo subjects, noise and Paganism… What they tried to do with music was wreck the civilization that had rejected and oppressed them.”
P-Orridge’s body became their canvas, taking their art far beyond mere expression to consume the identity. They considered the ‘self’ a consciousness separate from the physical form, and since 1993 had been undertaking the Pandrogeny Project, whereby they and their partner Lady Jayne (nee Jacqueline Breyer) spent $200,000 on surgical modifications such as breast, chin and cheek implants to resemble each other, and identified as a single pandrogynous entity called Breyer P-Orridge.
“We were just two parts of one whole,” they explained. “The pandrogyne was the whole and we were each other’s other half.” After Jayne’s death in 2007, P-Orridge continued the project as an “interdimensional collaboration”.
The journey to become Breyer was a long and rocky one. Born Neil Megson in Manchester on February 22 1950, P-Orridge discovered occultism, avant-garde culture and underground music through the works of Aleister Crowley, William S Burroughs, John Cage, The Velvet Underground and Allen Ginsberg while at private school in Solihull, and after being hospitalised aged 17 following a blackout they decided their life should be dedicated to art. They began to conduct ‘happenings’ designed to spark an “artistic revolution”. Such works were controversial – their Hull University magazine Worm, which published anything submitted without editorial interference, was banned for obscenity by the Student Union.
Becoming embroiled in radical politics and dropping out of university in 1969, P-Orridge moved to London and joined the Transmedia Explorations commune, leading lights of the counter-culture scene since 1967. The idea was to decondition from conventional behaviour. After three months, they returned to Hull and channeled the experienced into their own avant-garde art and music troupe COUM Transmissions, who performed anarchic, improvised events in pubs using broken violins and polythene tunnels for the audience to enter through.
COUM Transmissions founded its own counter-culture commune of artists and thinkers called the Ho-Ho Funhouse in a dockside warehouse and moved towards more theatrical performance art, such as purposefully turning up to play as gig with no instruments, or encouraging audiences to boo them offstage.
Drawing the attention of both the police and John Peel, P-Orridge (as they were now known by deed poll) relocated in 1973 to a Hackney basement studio – dubbed the Death Factory – with fellow performance artist Cosey Fanni Tutti. Tutti would claim in her 2017 autobiography Art Sex Magic that P-Orridge was an abusive figure behind the scenes, attempting to attack her with knives and concrete blocks thrown from balconies and expecting her to have sex with friends at COUM’s numerous orgies. P-Orridge denied the accusations.
Their work accrued greater influence from spiritual magic, resulting in greater confrontational shock value. In a bid to challenge conventional ideas of morality, COUM performances began to include sex, masturbation and self-mutilation. They gained acclaim for their innovation, and P-Orridge formed Throbbing Gristle in 1975 to court popular culture; the band was named after Yorkshire slang for an erect penis.
The band developed a cult following, though their live debut at the 1976 ICA show Prostitution raised questions in Parliament over its use of strippers and pornographic images – and cost COUM its Arts Council. Throbbing Gristle’s 1977 debut album ‘The Second Annual Report’, released through P-Orridge’s Industrial Records, was self-described as “industrial music for industrial people”, thereby inventing the industrial genre.
Throbbing Gristle’s seminal, tongue-in-cheek 1979 third album ’20 Jazz Funk Greats’, recorded on a 16-track tape machine borrowed from Paul McCartney, is considered industrial music’s ‘White Album’, branching into rock and exotica, forcing P-Orridge’s dark, unbounded artistic vision into the heart of post-punk. A vast array of alternative acts, from My Bloody Valentine, Killing Joke and Spacemen 3 to Autechre, Nine Inch Nails and Aphex Twin, remain firmly in its debt.
The band collapsed in 1981 due to personal issues and P-Orridge went on to found the experimental “video group who does music” Psychic TV with Alternative TV’s Alex Fergusson. They embraced video art, psychedelia, electronica and punk. Delving further into P-Orridge’s interest in the occult, they also utilised magical sigils, Tibetan instruments made of human thigh bones, and explored the teachings of LaVeyan Satainism; they hoped reclaim television as a form of “esoterrorist” magick rather than a tool of establishment indoctrination. Over 18 years their revolving line-up released around 100 albums.
In 1992 a Channel 4 Dispatches programme claimed to have footage of P-Orridge abusing children in sex-magic rites. Their home was raided, but the material was later found to be video performance artwork from the early 1980s – partly funded by Channel 4 itself, and featuring no children. After Psychic TV’s split in 1999, P-Orridge embarked on some scattershot documentary appearances (most notably 2004’s DiG!), collaborations and reunions of both that band and Throbbing Gristle, who played together for the first time in 23 years at London’s Astoria in 2004.
In 2009, following the death of their pandrogenous partner, P-Orridge retired from touring, sold their home and dildos and concentrated on making art in an apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. In 2016 P-Orridge was honoured with an exhibition of their art at New York’s Rubin Museum Of Art and featured as a model in a Marc Jacobs campaign. The fashion designer described them as a “come-to-life definition of realness and authenticity”.
Certainly, in terms of expressing who you are no matter what the consequences and living your art like it’s all that matters, P-Orridge was as authentic and uncompromising as they come.