YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND: The Breyer P-Orridge Pandrogyne and the Re-conditioning of Gender Stereotypes
By Kate Ross
In my last article for the Vagenda, I looked at how gender and ideas of tribal femininity were used by the band The Slits to produce a variation on punk rock that was as free and loose as their revision of previous models of how women making music should behave. However, it was ultimately argued that although The Slits were of instrumental importance in the emancipation of musicians that happened to be womenand to perceptions of their efforts made by both music fans and peers alike, women in music nonetheless continue to be defined and their creative output so often validated, primarily through their gender in a way that men are not.
Therefore, in order to further clarify my position on both this matter, as well as amidst my esteemed Vagenda collaborators and their opinions on the relationship between women and perpetuating ideals of ‘culture’, I would like to now explore the work of a different artist. The figure in question has explored gender in an extremely physical and terrifyingly brave way through forms of bodily alteration and genetic experimentation in order to break down notions of social conditioning and prescribed ideas about social and sexual behaviour informed by outmoded, yet prevailing, gender stereotypes. When propagated ideas of identity have become a prescribed set of formulae based on ghastly visions of accepted normal behaviour for the sexes, when widespread assumptions based on vacuum-packed models of gender and the body becomes, to quote Barbara Kruger’s 1989 collage, ‘a battleground’, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge has made human genetics and biology the terrain for the fight.
P-Orridge is perhaps best known as the founding pioneer of Industrial music and core member of the genre’s ground-breaking collective, Throbbing Gristle. With members Chris Carter, Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson and Cosey Fanni Tutti, the curiously-monikered oat enthusiast (no, seriously) P-Orridge was responsible for producing some of the earliest examples of synthesised electronica and noise music. The group’s sonic experiments were more like art projects using music than music per se, the quartet manipulating ideas of music itself, but also its industry and the structure of ‘the rock band’ as a medium like any other. Throbbing Gristle sought to create a ‘metabolic music’ drawing on the experiential engagement at the heart of Andy Warhol’s inter-media show ‘the Exploding Plastic Inevitable’, in which he collaborated with The Velvet Underground. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, or EPI, was a travelling music, light and dance extravaganza defined by, ironically, a hurly-whirly mess of indefinable, kaleidoscopic elements, namely movie projections, flickering lights, sirens and found sounds, and, of course, live jams from the Velvets themselves. The EPI sought to collapse the barrier between the performer and the spectator, the participator and the passive audience member.
It is this that P-Orridge has consistently brought to projects as diverse as Throbbing Gristle (and prior formation, controversial performance art group, ‘COUM Transmissions’), pop group Psychic TV (which played on the idea of a musical cult), and, more recently, Thee Majesty and P-Orridge’s independent artwork.
Following on from a formidable career in the underground music scenes, in the 1990s, P-Orridge, with partner Lady Jaye Breyer, created an artistic being called the Breyer P-Orridge ‘pandrogyne’ through which, by altering their personal appearances to resemble one another, sought to create a third sex. P-Orridge and Breyer not only dressed like one another through matching outfits and hair styles, but underwent extensive cosmetic surgery and hormone injections to assimilate themselves into a single entity. Through the pandrogyne, P-Orridge has abdicated the use of the ‘he’ pronoun form and is now to be understood through the ‘s/he’ or h/er’ format, the forward slash both a grammatical rupture and yet the boundary at which the two genders meet and dissolve one another’s absolutism. Rather than operating like the Freudian doppelganger as a means to underline the presence of the (singular) ego through repetition, the Breyer P-Orridge pandrogyne acknowledges the split but attempts reconciliation through the twinship of these two separate individuals in a completely new being.
Lady Jayer Breyer and Genesis P-Orridge: The Breyer P-Orridge Pandrogyne
I should probably highlight the fact that the pandrogyne was obviously not conceived of as a tool of Feminist critique or, more broadly, as an idea with which to counter female representation in the media. However, I feel that that which propelled its establishment – essentially an unwillingness to fall subject to expected standards – are certainly comparable to the concerns of the Vagenda and of myself.
It’s a fascinating concept, and one that, in spite of Lady Jaye’s unfortunate death in 2007, P-Orridge continues to embody today. P-Orridge has always demonstrated a heightened sensitivity to the idea of social behaviour and concepts of identity as highly conditioned, and even ‘engineered’, oppressive constructs. If this all smacks a little of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics dogma, there’s no need to worry. The concept of ‘de-conditioning’ and ‘re-auditing’ is indeed a central component within both Scientology and Pandrogeny, only P-Orridge’s idea seeks to re-engineer an idea of behavioural identity through a kind of human genetic collage between consenting individuals rather than demand spiritual funding in the form of gross monetary donations from members. P-Orridge has never suggested that pandrogeny is a belief to which all humankind should submit, especially since it is, fundamentally, based on a romance, on h/er relationship with Lady Jaye. It just so happens that the pandrogyne makes for a brave and fearless example in the quest for continual change and evolution touted by P-Orridge as a form of rebellion against prescribed standards, in not only cultural and musical spheres but in society more generally.
P-Orridge’s life and work have, in a sense, become the same thing through the fulfilment of the pandrogyne. Furthermore, through the establishment of this third sex, even as an idea, it becomes less straightforward for gender to become a stricture or label on artistic creativity and on everyday life. I don’t mean to say the pandrogyne is the answer to all problems regarding gender inequality since it encourages the merging of two sexes rather than their rightful democratisation. However, I do feel that it makes for a mighty call-to-arms against the ‘supposed-to’ attitudes of society, their benefactors and their terrible modes of transmission that inundate the media today.
The new Breyer P-Orridge exhibition, I’m Mortality has just opened (last Friday 17thFebruary) at Invisible Exports Gallery in New York. For more details:
Breyer-Porridge. ‘Pandrogeny – An Attitude Discussed’, 2010, http://www.genesisbreyerporridge.com/pandrogyne.htmlAnd in fact, any of the texts credited to P-Orridge and the Breyer P-Orridge Pandrpogyne are worth a look, especially for the unorthodox pronoun formats and other curious verbal idiosyncrasies
Ford, S. Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of Coum Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle, London: Black Dog, 1999
P-Orridge, G. Painful But Fabulous: The Lives and Art of Genesis P-Orridge, New York: Soft Skull Shortwave (Soft Skull Press), 2002
Walker, J. A. ‘COUM Transmissions to Psychic TV (1987)’, orig. in Cross-overs: Art into Pop, Pop into Art, accessed online on 19/05/11 & 03/09/2011 at art design café: http://www.artdesigncafe.com/COUM-Transmissions-Psychic-TV
 This italicised term is offered as an alternative to the frankly to the deplorable rubric ‘women (or female) musicians to which it is rarely, if ever, considered necessary to use the masculine counterpart when referring to male artists.