Uploaded tonight is a tape I was given by Genesis P Orridge way back in 1986 when I used to go to Beck Road on semi regular occasions. The tape is of the infamous Sordide Sentimental concert that Psychic TV performed in Rouen around the time that the record label Sordide Sentimental released in limited quantities the ‘Roman P’ 7″ single. The poster above for the Rouen performance is an original from my collection, the same graphic was reduced in size and added to the package for the ‘Roman P’ release. All other Psychic TV images taken from ‘Thee Grey Book’ and ‘Thee Sigil Book’ also from my collection, text below by John A Walker from his book ‘Cross-Overs: Art into Pop, Pop into Art’.
For the realisation of this project Psychic TV were: Genesis P-Orridge / Paula P-Orridge / Alex Fergusson / John Gosling / Paul Reeson
Psychic TV’s ’Roman P’ 7″ single on Sordide Sentimental can be listened to HERE
Performing before a live audience is common to both Pop music and Performance art. It is not surprising, therefore, that some Performance artists have crossed from one realm to the other. Genesis P-Orridge is a case in point. He was a leading figure first in the Performance group COUM Transmissions (1969-76), then in the music groups Throbbing Gristle (1976-81) and Psychic TV (1981- 1990).
Genesis P-Orridge (originally Neil Andrew Megson) was born in Manchester in 1950. He came from a middle-class background, went to a grammar school in Stockport and then, in 1968, to Hull University to study social administration. In his youth P-Orridge was impressed by the works of the Dadaists, Aleister Crowley, Jack Kerouac, Joyce, Sartre, Camus and Andy Warhol. William Burroughs was also influential, especially his “cut-up” method of composition (P-Orridge was later to meet Burroughs). P-Orridge’s musical tastes encompassed the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane. Since Happenings were in fashion in the 1960s, P-Orridge organised some with the help of school and college friends. From the beginning he evinced a desire to mix media, to improvise and to perform live: in 1968 he participated in the Early Worm rock band and the Transmedia Exploration Group. At Hull University he met Cosey Fanny Tutti and they formed COUM Transmissions. An early event—”The ministry of anti-social insecurity”—took place in Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery.
In the early 1970s Genesis and Cosey moved to London where, having established a reputation in the art world, they received grants from the Arts Council for activities in Britain and from the British Council for events in various European cities. Their relations with the official art world were uneasy—eventually they declared it pretentious and elitist—and the public monies they received were later to provoke the wrath of the popular press.
An issue of central concern to COUM Transmissions was the boundary which separates art from everyday life. The effect of this boundary was to create an antiseptic realm in which works of art were contemplated in a distanced, detached manner. As a result art had lost its magical power to disturb, it had ceased to function in the important way it did in “primitive” tribal societies. Although rituals and performances of various kinds are to be found in all spheres of modern life, only a few specially designated ones count as art. COUM Transmissions undermined the art/life distinction by transposing activities from one sphere to the other, and by the adoption of shock tactics. Ultimately, their aim was to destroy the barrier altogether.
Some of COUM Transmission’s early performances were innocuous enough. I recall a low key piece about one of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades which took place in a South London arts centre in front of a tiny audience. Another work, a solo performance by Cosey at the Hayward Gallery, consisted of a gentle, balletic display of bodily movement. Candlelight was used to create a magical atmosphere and a large audience, including many children, found the performance hypnotic and pleasurable. As time passed, however, the desire to outrage and transgress took over. Like Yoko Ono, Cosey began to slice her clothes, while Genesis began to simulate masturbation. In brutal performances similar to those of the Viennese “actions” or “direct art” of Günter Brus, Otto Müehl and Hermann Nitsch, COUM Transmissions degraded, humiliated and hurt themselves in public. Some in the audiences felt sick, others found the experience cathartic.
During the early 1970s P-Orridge participated in the international “Mail art” movement. One postcard—a reproduction of Magritte’s 1939 painting “Time Transfixed” to which he had added a copulating couple—was judged indecent and gave rise to a court case which ended with Genesis being fined. This case had its amusing side: GPO was prosecuted by the GPO (General Post Office).
A much more serious scandal erupted in October 1976 as a result of a COUM Transmissions exhibition entitled Prostitution at the ICA Gallery in London. Cosey had been earning money as a stripper and as a model for soft-core pornography. In her eyes this was a form of art or popular culture even though it was not recognized as such by the art world—one could say she had prostituted herself for the sake of art. Her frankness in admitting this—by including photographic examples in the COUM Transmissions show—caused a moral panic in the popular press. Besides the photos, the exhibition contained whips, chains, used sanitary towels, bloodstained clothes and a sculpture. Performances by COUM Transmissions were due to be given during the course of the exhibition, but because of the public uproar these were canceled and the exhibition’s contents censored. A provocative press release ensured a crowded opening at which the groups Throbbing Gristle and LSD played. A professional stripper was hired for the evening (a clear-cut example of cross-over) and was disconcerted by the art world context in which she found herself. The popular press affected to be shocked by the “waste” of public money on a “sex” show. In statements to the press, P-Orridge claimed that COUM Transmissions’s aims were to parody all that was wrong with the art world and to infiltrate the mass media in order to show how they distort information.
Throbbing Gristle. Discipline. Having burnt their boats in the art world in spectacular fashion, P-Orridge and his friends turned their attention to the music business. “Throbbing Gristle” was the deliberately distasteful name which Genesis, Cosey, Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson and Chris Carter devised for their “rock” group. Throbbing Gristle lasted for several years and during its existence numerous LPs and sound and video cassettes were issued. A typical tape— Beyond Jazz Funk: TG Psychic rally in Heaven (1980)—features tracks with such inviting titles as Rite of death, Discipline and Termination.
As one might expect, Throbbing Gristle’s “music” was highly unconventional. It blended improvised noises, howls and chants, and primitive rhythms. Pieces tended to be lengthy and to build hypnotically to powerful climaxes or to break off abruptly. Throbbing Gristle’s aim was to transcend all existing categories of music, consequently labels such as “avant garde” or “Pop” are of little value. Their performances constituted a violent assault on the senses and preconceptions of the audience, who had to contend with dazzling lights and mirrors directed towards them.
The imagery employed by Throbbing Gristle was morbid and in bad taste: Nazi concentration camp ovens featured on posters, the lightning flash insignia (a high voltage symbol) of Mosley’s blackshirt movement appeared, and a film of castration was projected during live performance. Those who turn to music for entertainment, solace and escape would be well advised to avoid Throbbing Gristle’s records.
In 1976 Throbbing Gristle founded Industrial Records to explore through various media the connotations of the word “industrial”. Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, argued that mechanical reproduction had destroyed the “aura” of traditional art, had destroyed art’s links with ritual. Throbbing Gristle’s idea was unusual because it sought to combine ritual with industrial and technological means of artistic production. “Industrial culture” was also ironic because at that moment an economic recession was rapidly eroding Britain’s manufacturing base. As the factories of the first industrial age fell into decay, they acquired for Throbbing Gristle and others a grim aesthetic appeal— a variation on the romantic taste for ruins. For a time Throbbing Gristle re-created the non-musical sounds of the urban environment; their graphics featured deserted factories and they wore dingy industrial-type overalls. Later, in accordance with their cultural guerrillas stance, they appeared in camouflage battle dress designed by Lawrence Dupre of Paris.
Following the dissolution of Throbbing Gristle in 1981, Genesis and Christopherson formed a new partnership called “Psychic TV”. The underlying themes of Throbbing Gristle -”sex, resistance, subversion and discipline”—were retained, but there was a desire to reach a broader audience. Psychic TV did not conceive of themselves as just another band but as a total cultural event; their aim was to transcend the short-lived fashions and triviality of most Pop music. During live performances holophonic sound (3D) was employed and linked to images appearing on multiple video monitors. One critic described these screens as “flickering portholes to hell”.
Genesis P-Orridge has explained the rationale of Psychic TV’s mixed-media show as follows: “Perhaps we are the first group which are doing truly Surrealist television in that we are using television to investigate the subconscious and the unconscious. Where Salvador Dali would do a fantastic painting, we try to get the same jarring of sensibility, the same confusion leading to revelation by juxtaposition of television images, film images and sound. Because, as most people realise, film and sound are integrated in order to manipulate the emotions and the perceptions of the viewer. And they are being bewitched, and they are in that sense very vulnerable. What we try to do is, in a sense, to be the obligatory bull in the china shop and churn a round images, concepts of initiation, the banal with the strange, the obvious with the obscure, to find out what happens and to short-circuit the training the brain has already had to be accepting without thought.”
Psychic TV have established for their followers an organisation called “Temple ov Psychick Youth”. This would normally be regarded as a “fan club”, but in the case of Psychic TV the Temple appears to be more of a mysterious pagan cult. Even so, like any record company marketing operation, the Temple offers for sale badges, T-shirts, booklets, records, sound and video tapes. Further information cannot be given because their present policy requires members to sign a declaration of secrecy. This policy arouses curiosity and at the same time reduces the possibility of prosecution by official authority.
Although Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV have little or no popular appeal—their work was/is too difficult and weird for mass consumption—they have certainly been an influential force and have gradually built up a loyal following amongst youngsters with a taste for the macabre. They have also demonstrated that by preserving organisational independence, by operating on low budgets, and by taking charge of your own production and publicity, artistic activities in the margins of society can be sustained for many years.
As regards the horrific subject matter they tend to dwell on, it has been argued that this is a one-sided world view because love, joy and kind deeds are also part of the human condition. And yet anti-social or evil human impulses and behavior continually occur and are continually being repressed. Genesis P-Orridge and co. arouse fear and hatred in so many quarters because they transgress the unspoken rule not to meddle with such matters. Yet, it could be argued in their defence that they conjure up demons not in order to further evil but to exorcise it. This is the true meaning of their performances: they are primitive rites serving for an advanced technological society the same function as the ceremonies of shamans and witchdoctors.
John A Walker