Photo by Michael Fox
Hot on the spiked heels of the notorious 1976 “Prostitution” showstopper at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Genesis P-Orridge and his chief partner-collaborator at the time, a stunning exotic dancer turned performance artist named Cosey Fanni Tutti, turned up in L.A. to perform at LAICA (Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art) as COUM Transmissions. Gen and Cosey had recently flipped minds over easy in London and Toronto with Viennese Aktionen-inspired splatterfest performance gross-outs involving semen, milk, urine, menstrual blood, vomit — and live maggots, which they used as their base “ore” for a series of neo-alchemy filth-therapy rituals.
Whatever the Sex Pistols were to rock & roll, so COUM was to the art world. Gen's pre-digital handmade assemblages even predated Sex Pistols artist Jamie Reid's anti-royalism with their wicked depictions of Windsor family members superimposed over dirty little jerk-off pics from the porno glossies in which Cosey appeared, many of them evocations encouraging mass outbreaks of public fellatio, cunnilingus and masturbation.
But that night at LAICA — just weeks after Carter beat out Ford and days before the Pistols re-codified pop culture after behaving like yobs on prime-time TV — the local avant-garde art community fled the COUM show one by one. Performance-art eminence Chris Burden's reported parting shot: “This is not art, this is the most disgusting thing I've ever seen; these people are sick.” Conceptual-art bigwig John Baldessari was unimpressed. International mail artist and Vile magazine queen Anna Banana weighed in with a terse dismissal.
In 1983, Genesis reminisced about the LAICA performance in the Industrial Culture Handbook (www.ReSearch Publications.com): “I was naked. I stood on tacks. I drank a bottle of whisky and gave myself enemas with blood, milk and urine, and then broke wind so a jet of blood, milk and urine combined shot across the floor in front of Chris Burden and assorted visual artists. I got a 10-inch nail and tried to swallow it, which made me vomit. I licked it up off the floor. Cosey was naked and trying to sever her vagina to her navel with a razor blade, and she injected blood into her vagina, which then trickled out. We sucked the blood from her vagina into a syringe and injected it into eggs painted black, which we then tried to eat. I urinated into a large glass bottle and drank it all while it was still warm. We vomited again, which we used for more enemas. And then we gradually crawled to each other, licking the floor clean (we don't like to leave a mess; it's not fair to insult an art gallery).”
At least one person present at the LAICA event was amused. His name was Claude Bessy, a nomadic iconoclast poet from Brittany. Bessy was six months away from becoming chief bullhorn of Slash, the bimonthly music-and-arts journal/punk fanzine that helped launch and shape L.A.'s punk and underground arts renaissance of the late '70s. Bessy was much more tickled by the reaction the performance had provoked than by its stomach-churning content or execution. Genesis P-Orridge had arrived in Los Angeles with a bang, and good old controversial shockery began to pervade the cultural landscape once again.
COUM eventually made themselves over from art-world enfants terribles to rock/pop-culture cut-'n'-paste vampires when Gen and Cosey began collaborating in the late '70s with garage space combo Hawkwind's lighting director, Chris Carter, and graphic artist-marketing tactician Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson. The quartet named themselves Throbbing Gristle, who were, according to Gen, “four people who couldn't play their instruments finding a way with music and sound.”
From late '77 on, Throbbing Gristle helped drive a major Krautrock revival throughout the international “post-punk” underground. (The Krautrock approach was basically expressionistic psychedelic garage rock jamming with sequencers and other electronic gizmos thrown in. This style, which had been ridiculed and reviled since the early '70s, was suddenly the Groovy New Haps, partly anticipated by Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express LP in '77 and bolstered by Berlin-period David Bowie's Low album the same year.) TG's Second Annual Report album, released in February '78, was a mixture of abstract noise and Germanic electronics, and helped pave the way for many new esoteric bands, especially Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League in Sheffield, Warsaw/Joy Division in Manchester, and PiL and The Pop Group in London. By the early to mid-'80s, industrial music had spun out of the TG/Industrial Records aesthetic dreamed up by Throbbing Gristle in cahoots with California composer Boyd Rice, who shared dark Germanic influences with fellow artist Monte Cazazza.
Genesis P-Orridge has now issued a book, Painful but Fabulous, an illustrated catalog/photo album of key events and influences on his early life, plus a few great photos, interviews, discographies, testimonials, and a collection of insightful essays by various writers detailing the startling extremes to which our man went to do art. At 200 pages, it's longer on listing and analysis than anecdotal narrative, though we do learn that a pre-'71 Gen, then known as Neil Megson, was an episodically romantic occult fantasist who recounts hallucinating a visitation from Aleister Crowley as a child in 1957, 10 years after the Auld Beast's death. We see from the collection of clippings that Gen was eventually decried as the “sickest, most evil, depraved person in the U.K.” by Britain's moronic vigilante tabloids, who dogged him with accusations of Satanism, child murder, fraud, and being a demonic apocalyptic cult leader with terrorist intent. Gen pissed off everyone everywhere he went; at one point he was on the lam for obscenity and for allegedly being an accessory to murder (there was an attempt to prosecute him in the U.K. for videotaping an abortion).
In the early to mid-'80s, following his Throbbing Gristle stint, Gen had persevered at living beyond the extreme. His disastrous attempt to launch a shamanistic magick cult, Thee Temple ov Psychic Youth, explored the “modern primitive” culture of tattooing and body piercing long before those items became de rigueur fashion accouterments; the cult ended when members began demanding “a strictly enforced patriarchal structure.” Gen also coined the term “acid house,” that being the title of a P-Orridge track heisted by Northern soulboys to identify the Detroit-Ibiza-Manchester connection essential to the evolution of house music.
Painful is an invaluable companion piece to the Industrial Culture Handbook and Simon Ford's well-done Throbbing Gristle bio, Wreckers of Western Civilization (Black Dog, 1999). Various bibliographies provide a bizarre tour of 20th-century proto-pop culture, from the benign to some of the creepier antecedents — Futurism to Dada/Surrealism sliced 'n' diced with Nietzsche, Jung, Crowley, The Black Mountain Review, Burroughs and Gysin, Leary and Warhol. Timelines chronicle P-Orridge's small-press poetry publications and his earliest performances with the London-transplanted Exploding Galaxy collective of anarcho-hippie-activist-provocateurs who invaded Hull University in '68, when Gen was a student.
Gen's writing, co-writing, editing and archiving of a number of books and pamphlets are logged here, as well as the art shows, exhibits, installations and performances he involved himself in over 30 years. He's also noted as a major wheel in the international mail-art revivalism movement of the '70s, and there are testimonials from the likes of Leary and Burroughs (the Auld Mummy himself was an ally who croaked, “Genesis P-Orridge is an artist, not a pornographer . . .”), as well as Charlie Manson, who wrote in a letter from the pokey: “Gen — you must be a retarded person — or maybe you're in another universe!” Gamely putting depth-spin on Gen's spiel are several decent essays by various fringe academics, far-out Webmasters and other social-commentator desktoppers who revere our man as a maestro conversationalist-thinker, like a latter-day Quentin Crisp from Hades.
A “chat artist,” according to some, Genesis P-Orridge is the ideal drawing-room guest, a freak with style who regales your guests like some darkly benign trickster-fairy of the occult in lederhosen, or perhaps a Wehrmacht-era evening gown, accessorized with 22-carat pointed fangs. Even if you don't consider what Genesis P-Orridge does to be art, Painful holds as an indispensable road map to essential areas of esoteric music and thought, and with what better a guide-interpreter than Gen, the self-described “cultural engineer” who's slaved, suffered, bled and even risked his life to obtain the info you can pick up on here for a pittance.
PAINFUL BUT FABULOUS | By GENESIS P-ORRIDGE | Soft Skull Shortwave | 200 pages | $20 softcover