Monday, March 12, 2012

Genesis & Lady Jaye: The Fiction of Self

The star-crossed lovers

"The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye," French-American filmmaker Marie Losier's full length documentary, concerns the intense relationship between Industrial musician Genesis P-Orridge (of the influential cult bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) and Genesis' wife/partner, American performance artist and pro-dom Lady Jaye Breyer. It's a meditation on rebellion, individuality, gender, connectiveness, love, art, bohemianism and ultimately, death and loneliness. As with so many great romances, one of the lovers doesn't survive to the end and the film is a elegy to their love.

The film's central figure is Genesis P-Orridge, going from beginnings as a picked-on androgynous schoolboy growing up in hardscrabble Hull, England to, at the tender age of 17, being involved in a controversial artistic cooperative starting in 1967 called COUM Transmissions. Their subject matter included BDSM, pornography, serial killers, occultism (P-Orridge had a lot to do with the cultural resurrection of 1920's mystic, Aleister Crowley) and P-Orridge's own exploration of gender issues, which were way ahead of their time. At one point in the late-60s/early-70s, P-Orridge was one of the most reviled artistic figures in the UK (a point Genesis gleefully makes clear by showing us a tabloid broadsheet from 1970 proclaiming them as a social menace).

An Industrial oldie but goodie from '79.
Genesis is second from the left.

Eventually, with three other artist-musicians, COUM morphed into the group Throbbing Gristle, which was largely built around William Burroughs' cut up techniques, the psychedelic experiments of artist Brion Gysin, the lounge muzak of 1950s composer Martin Denny, some of the earliest use of sound sampling and a crunching Industrial beat which greatly influenced later groups like Einstürzende Neubauten, PiL and Nine Inch Nails. After Throbbing Gristle broke up with a 1981 farewell performance at Kezar Pavillion in San Francisco, P-Orridge founded a music collaboration called Psychic TV. This featured seminal queer filmmaker Derek Jarman, the recently-deceased Peter Christopherson (AKA Sleazy, one of the first openly gay musicians who was also responsible for much of Pink Floyd's imagery including their famous floating pig balloon) and performers from other bands like Alternative TV. This group eventually had a huge impact on what was to eventually become Techno and Tribal club dance music. For much of P-Orridge's career, the alternatively whimsical/elfin and horrific/ominous P-Orridge also cultivated one of most ambiguous and androgynous images in music... far more proto-genderqueer than Bowie, Lou Reed or Jagger.

After relocating to San Francisco and eventually New York in the late 80s, P-Orridge met Jaye Breyer at a BDSM club and the two instantly bonded. Literally, bonded. Losier explains in an interview that during the 7+ years of filming the documentary, she had a far more difficult time getting Breyer to open up about her past and activities. What we do know is she left home at 14, moved to the Lower East Side in NYC, became a dominatrix to support herself and got involved in performance art. Meanwhile P-Orridge, while staying at mega-record producer Rick Rubin's house in LA, was involved in a big house fire later found to have started due to Rubin's negligence and was awarded over one million dollars (the film curiously skips this entire episode?). With the money, P-Orridge and Breyer shacked up in a house in Brooklyn and started what is surely one of the more notorious art projects of recent times... they attempted to 'mutate into a single being.'

A genderfuck wedding

It was Breyer who first suggested they merge together to try and form one new identity they called Breyer P-Orridge. They initially started dressing alike, and wearing identical hairstyles and makeup. Eventually, they both underwent numerous surgeries intending to make themselves resemble one another, including various facial procedures and Genesis getting breast implants. They stopped at genitally-related surgeries since they said they didn't want to remove any body parts which gave pleasure and Jaye Breyer, despite her interest in having a penis, was unable to to convince doctors she should be on that surgery track. They deemed their project an exercise in Pandrogeny and creation of a non-binary gender. In this persona, they made a grand tour of various art institutions in the US and Europe as well as touring with Psychic TV.

The documentary uses a fair amount of performance video and quick-cut home movies but has far more of Genesis than Jaye. Midway through the film, it pretty much stops its original thesis and goes into an abbreviated career biography of P-Orridge. Perhaps it was due to a lack of archival material, but it does throw the film off kilter—no matter how fascinating, absurd, creepy and sometimes boho absurd P-Orridge's oeuvre was.

Most curious in the film is the sketchy way it covers Jaye Breyer's death in 2007. As I understand it, she basically died due to complications from a long-term battle with stomach cancer, but you wouldn't know it from this documentary. Instead, Genesis describes how she collapsed in the bathroom... lived a few more days seemingly okay and then went back in the bathroom and promptly died. It's a jarring exit to what seems an otherwise great counter-cultural tale of love and passion.

So the question remains, is their story on some level 'trans' or is it a bunch of artist-posers appropriating issues from the trans community for their own ends? Well, firstly, after Jaye Breyer's death, P-Orridge has continued to be known as Bryer P-Orridge, maintained what is in some way an "MTF" presentation and seems to either go by gender neutral "they" or "them" or is referred to as she (which the filmmaker does whenever referring to them). Jaye Breyer's gender perspective seems a little more undefined, but I suspect they would be somewhere in the queer box. While I never hear the Breyer P-Orridge use the term "queer" when referring to themselves (much less genderqueer) they would still seem to fall into this segment of the trans community.

Was Breyer P-Orridge exploiting a certain amount of social queasiness about gender transition in much of their presentations about Pandrogeny? Well, heck yeah! They made numerous videos of them undergoing surgery to the accompaniment of Nine Inch Nails-style growl and grind. At least they weren't exploiting other people's transitions.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye might not be the perfect biography of the duo (as she herself admits, Losier isn't a regular narrative mainstream arthouse filmmaker). But it is a moving and oddly tender shock poem of love and devotion, as well an a tantalizing introduction to the world of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and has much to say about gender fluidity and identity. It's currently being shown in a handful of US cities and is appearing at a wide number of top-tier film festivals including Berlin, Marseilles and Athens.