About Town - Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and John Zorn

by Vanessa Sinclair

This year two of the most influential experimental/ avant-garde artists of our time, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and John Zorn, are having retrospectives of their work. Both based in New York, these two creative forces have been relentlessly testing the limits and pushing the boundaries of conceptualizations of art and music for decades.

This summer the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg is exhibiting over 100 pieces of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s work in a retrospective entitled S/HE IS HER/E. With focus on the Pandrogeny project that Genesis embarked on with wife Lady Jaye, the exhibition covers he/r career from the late 1960’s until today, revealing the progression of the work as it unfolded over decades culminating in merger of the artists’ selves into The Pandrogyne.

Breyer P-Orridge began as a performance artist in the late 1960’s. He/r group COUM Transmissions performed public actions across Britain. Known for pushing the limits of their bodies and minds, the artists were once called the “Wreckers of Civilization.” Exploring conceptions of gender, identity and the imposition of societal structures upon the self, the group challenged traditional notions of sexuality while entering into the realm of the taboo. In its many incarnations, Breyer P-Orridge’s work has always questioned societal norms exposing pervasive systems inherent in culture, which serve to control, constricting thought and creativity. Noting that in every civilization, society and tribal structure there have been laws governing sexuality, suggesting that the powers that be have a vested interest in suppressing sexuality and its intrinsic power. Breyer P-Orridge has stated that freedom is taken away when there is a threat; sexuality posits a threat to control and should therefore be investigated and liberated.

Seeing the artist’s position in society as a signifier of the ability to short circuit all of those filters of social control we inherit long enough to create space for a new vision to come through, Breyer P-Orridge seeks to inspire others to wake up, disrupt and cut-up. Heavily influenced by the work of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, Breyer P-Orridge implements the method of the cut-up first utilized by Dada in the early twentieth century. In much the same way that Burroughs and Gysin discovered the combination of their work melded into what they termed the Third Mind, Breyer P-Orridge took this a step further by subjecting this to the Real of the body. Through body modification via surgical procedures and hormones, combined with the development of similar speech patterns and mannerism, Breyer P-Orridge sought to cut up their individual identities in order to come together more fully as one, the pandrogyne.

“We’d gone as far as we could of melding our mindsm of mimicking
clothing and so on, but it wasn’t enough. We wanted to make a statement
to the world that there is no limit to the way imagination is expressed.
The body is just more material. It’s just stuff, It’s not sacred. It’s not green,
It’s not fresh water. It’s just stuff. And we all play with it – makeup, contact
lenses, facial hair, no hair, clothing, dressing up – but we thought, “What
would happen if we became as much as possible physical mirrors of each

Defying categorization, the couple chose the term Pandrogeny as reflective of the inclusivity of sexuality. In the early 1970’s, Breyer P-Orridge wrote an essay entitled Panthropology, a reflection on the fluidity of sexuality, a young man’s commentary on the irrelevance of the object of his desire. Breyer P-Orridge explores the ratio of the masculine and feminine in all of us, constantly in a state of flux. “We are not heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or transsexual. We are simply sexual.”

Concurrently, composer John Zorn is celebrating his 60th birthday this year with an array of events being held across the city, country and the world. With influences ranging from classical, jazz and pop to experimental, improv and hardcore, Zorn has been breaking the boundaries of music for decades. The venues showcasing Zorn’s work are just as varied as the compositions themselves. Sacred Voices was presented in correlation with the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim as part of their Works & Process series. Performed by six female vocalists in the rotunda of the museum, the pieces created a sense of the teetering on edge of the abyss, being pulled into the enveloping oceanic feeling of void, intriguing and alluring yet unnerving in its disorientation.

The ethereal beauty of these female vocalists was also showcased at Lincoln Center, along with a performance of Zorn’s groundbreaking Hermetic Organ. Displaying the range of Zorn’s artistic ability, The Complete String Quartets presented a cacophony of sound, highlighting the disruption of sharp aural movement as it dislocates one’s senses, disturbing the usual flow of harmony in exchange for a heightened awareness of one’s environment and expectations. In much the same way that Breyer P-Orridge utilizes the cut-up, Zorn short-circuits the typical, forcing the audience to remain attentive to every note, every movement. Disrupting supposition, Zorn creates a the space for something to be formed anew in much the same way as we use scansion in the analytic situation.

Zorn started his independent record label, Tzadik, in 1995 as a not-for-profit organization, showcasing new talent and veteran experimental musicians alike. Ten years later he opened a complementary venue, The Stone, in which all earnings from admission go directly to the performers. Set in a curatorial style, artists are given the ability to invite whomever they desire, providing opportunity for an eclectic range of ever changing musicians to interact and collaborate. Recently, the venue has moved towards an artist-in- residence model wherein each is given a week to perform twice a night for the week. In June, the Secret Chiefs 3 from Northern California enjoyed a stint at The Stone. Playing twelve different sets throughout the week, one such performance focused on the concept of tessellation. Originally applied to mosaic tile-work, tessellation as applied to music involves the slight rotation of one tile, or in this case note, causing the form to cascade affecting the pieces around it, causing a cascade of sound culminating into an ever changing, seemingly endless flow of patterns, which in this case went on for an hour and a half, sending the audience into a trance, challenging the notion of conventional music and heightening the impact of the innovation of sound.

Vanessa Sinclair PsyD is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York.


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