I met Verne Dawson while sitting beside him at Table 23 at the celebration for Dream Machine: Brion Gysin at the New Museum in New York. Dawson revealed a cosmic process previously unsuspected by me: the genii of the 22 paths of the Kabbalah and their correspondence to the 22 major cards of the Tarot. He spoke also of inspiring entanglements and structures of linear time, of folkloric tales and myths disguising moon cycles and astronomy. He opened all three of my eyes to entire waves of sacred geometries and internal structures of our enveloping universe, changing my means of perception irrevocably, just as Brion Gysin had done in Paris in his quaquaversal conversations with me, gifting me knowledge that we shall all ways value.
— Genesis BREYER P-ORRIDGE
BREYER P-ORRIDGE’s reputation preceded her. S/he founded the legendary band Throbbing Gristle and has a deep association with magic including the dark arts and arcana of the occult. S/he is a living example of a cut-up and has a fierce intelligence. I must admit to being a little uneasy, and not about which fork to use. Instead of hostility I found a very sweet, sympathetic, engaged, and engaging person and artist. Magic can be very disarming and evolution continues apace.
— Verne Dawson
(Unrecorded prologue in which Verne Dawson tells Genesis Breyer P-Orridge that he saw a girl reading Thee Psychick Bible on a plane to Asheville, North Carolina.)
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge So did you speak to the woman on the plane?
Verne Dawson I did. She said you were thinking of moving to Asheville.
GBP I wonder if that was Hannah, who went to Asheville to check if it was a place to move to.
VD Beautiful stately young woman, close to six feet tall, long, straight dark hair—she looked like she could’ve been a bass player in a rock band.
GBP Hannah’s hair isn’t all that long but I can’t think of who else it might be.
VD You know, my wife, Laura Hoptman, curated the Brion Gysin show, and that’s how you and I met.
GBP At the New Museum, yeah.
VD It all started coming together in an odd way. This woman sits next to me on the plane after I’d been learning a great deal about Gysin and about you in the previous couple of years. She was talking about what it meant to her to be going to this important place in the world of culture—from Black Mountain College to Robert Moog of the Moog synthesizer being there, not to mention F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. There’s a real New Age contingent there too that sees Asheville as a place that’s going to survive the—
GBP The apocalypse; we read a book about that. There’s a movement of post–Grateful Dead, rainbow-traveling people who started centering around Asheville. One of them was adamant that those are the oldest mountains on the planet.
VD That’s what the geologists say regardless of where they are from. Apparently, geologically speaking, the Blue Ridge Mountains are the oldest on our planet.
GBP The first boil on the surface of the boiling potential planet that solidified.
VD There are a lot of gemstones around there. An abandoned opal mine is near my place. You walk around and there are quartz crystals strewn everywhere about the ground, sparkling throughout the orchards on my old decrepit farm.
GBP It sounds like a place we should reconsider.
VD In your travels, do you find that some places have more . . . that word energy is a really trite one to use, but—
GBP Definitely, every summer before we left England we’d rent an old Volkswagen bus and take my two daughters all over Britain to stone circles and prehistoric sites. There was one site in particular up in Dartmoor built on a great bed of quartz granite. In the center were these two vertical stones—a portal to another dimension, according to local legend. Whenever you stood between these stones, even if there was a raging wind, it was completely still, as if there were some unusual interface happening.
VD It’s interesting that a microclimate feels spiritual, in a way.
GBP Back in the ’80s when we were doing Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY) we met these people living in Glastonbury. They were called the English Kabbalah and were obsessed with Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law. To them it was actually a coded message transferring English letters to Kabbalistic symbols, so they were retranslating it. Through English Heritage, an organization that supervises historic sites in Britain, they got permission to spend 24 hours in Stonehenge to do the ritual of the Silver Star. They invited me and a few others from TOPY to go along. It was a great opportunity because at that time nobody was being allowed into Stonehenge.
VD What are the origins of the ritual?
GBP The group said that for Crowley it was an ancient ritual to create a priestess, a direct representative of the goddess power of this universe. A woman in the English Kabbalah group would be the female who’d be empowered, and we were the plebs in the congregation. We were all chanting—naked, of course—and sending earth energy to her by thrusting our genitals into the ground until we went into a trance state. Being somewhat skeptical, my mind started drifting. Suddenly I had this vision: the vertical stones were the thighs of a primal female goddess and the lintels across were her pelvis. We were within a circle of female energy, a huge vagina.
VD The womb.
GBP Exactly. As I looked up from inside this circle all the stars started to go out until the sky within the circle was totally black. We had the sense of it being a pathway that would connect us to another place. A kind of psychic wormhole. It was very powerful. For once we’d had no drugs, so it was actually a pure experience from this trance situation.
It’s interesting: Computers are using silica to store information, when all the quartz beds where these stone circles are could just as easily be storing information. Maybe sacred spaces are a millennial recording device.
VD Same with tarot cards, which are also a device to track time. I’ve gone to many caves in France and Spain, and also visited a few of the prehistoric and Neolithic sites in England. I once spent a day in Salisbury, where there are standing stones right in the middle of the village green. It’s very beautiful, like a lot of other places in that area. In town there are these Georgian houses, and what’s right over each door but a radiating sun. You know, the half-circle window above the door. That’s got to come from eons prior to that, when the sun rising over a heel stone was an important calendrical event. It amazes me that it shows up in architecture 2,000 years later. Prehistory and pagan belief pop up in England so frequently!
GBP Why do you think we have this fascination with stones? All through my childhood I would balance stones on each other and make dams and circles of stones, obsessively.
VD I’ve read a little bit about your Christian upbringing. Were you devout?
GBP I guess so. I got confirmed when I was about 11. Then when puberty hit, I started to be interested in what I wasn’t being told.
VD Did you think of yourself as in a tribe?
GBP I’ve always looked for the rest of my self-chosen family, my tribe. I bumped into one of my cousins when I was doing a workshop in Santería at Lancaster University, in England. She said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to meet you because at all the family reunions this name would be whispered: Genesis. You were the black sheep.” (laughter) But what about tarot—I want to know more about that.
VD Arthur Corwin, a sculptor, taught me a long time ago. He was a man of fabulous oral memory for fables, folk tales, and myths. He was deep into the tarot with other people in the ’80s, although it goes back probably to the ’60s and ’70s when astronomy was being brought to bear on archaeology. You’ve got astronomers seeing artifacts as remnants of the scientific culture of earlier times. Most of these artifacts concern keeping track of time, of planetary and lunar movement as the only way to organize a society. How do you get involved in any kind of ritual if you can’t keep track of time?
GBP And understanding the seasons is essential for knowing the availability of food, of course.
VD It can be a very bad idea to procreate at certain times of the year, particularly in an ice age, when, in the Northern Hemisphere, the mortality rate for an infant born in September would be far higher than one born in April (hence the popularity of June weddings). Knowledge of time telling, that is to say, of astronomy, was coveted, concealed, and the “ace in the hole” of the priestly caste. Knowing what day the solstice would occur gave power to those who held astronomical knowledge. The tarot, with its 78 cards, can be used as an incredibly accurate calendar that needs adjustment only every 2,200 years. As you know, a regular deck of cards is also an annual calendar, with its 52 cards, one for each week of the year, and four suits, one for each season. Each suit has 13 cards representing the year’s 13 full moons, one for each month or, more appropriately, moonth of a lunar year. The two jokers do what the jokers always do, provide the irrational by occupying, in the form of leap days, those days necessary to balance a calendar. That’s essentially an annual calendar concealed in a deck of cards.
When asked by authorities, people would say it was simply a game or, in the case of tarot, an implausible fortune-telling tool. Both the secret knowledge and the deck of cards can be passed down from generation to generation. When you add in the additional cards of the tarot, the 22 major arcana cards, the calendar then represents big years, the entire procession of the equinoxes, the grand earth in its wobble. The axis points to every sign in the zodiac as it goes around in one complete wobble, which takes 25,800 years. That’s called a great year in many ancient myths, like in the Mayan calendar. This takes the history of scientific culture back to prehistory, to metaphors, myths, stories with their math intact transmitted over eons through oral traditions of folklore, religion, and superstitions. All rich in numbers related to astronomy, to regimented ways of keeping track of time that are still with us today.
GBP We had a phrase back in the ’60s that came to mind: “It’s all a matter of time.” We saw that as meaning “it’s all a consideration of time,” but also that time can be equivalent to concrete matter, that matter comes with time. And time is not just a measurement but also energy, like light and sound and so on. It still haunts me. Even the most recent song I wrote begins with this phrase.
VD You are so much about the future, whereas I’m always going back in time. Sometimes I find that the further back I go, the more I pop up in the future. Like my paintings about floods, which seem inevitable down the line. So what about the time travel? Have you visited places in the distant past or in the future?
GBP There was one occasion. Lady Jaye was into psychedelics when we met. She had discovered DMT, the active part of ayahuasca. It only lasts ten minutes but it puts you in a whole different framework of time. I’d met Terence McKenna in California—
VD Oh, did you?
GBP I was living near Occidental and his kids went to the same school as my kids, so I’d see him at PTA meetings. Once I said to Terence, “Well, what’s it like, DMT?” He was into proselytizing DMT and said it turns the universe inside out. He offered it to me but I wasn’t ready to try it at that time. A couple of years later Jaye persuaded me to check it out, so I did. I basically saw the entire history of two galaxies: One was being formed, and then eventually there were civilizations and wars between planets. Another one had all this huge drama and sagas and families. Then all of a sudden I was back in this room in the East Village, with Jaye sitting there semitransparent. Then she solidified. All in ten minutes. I thought, Whoa, weird stuff, there’s no way of knowing what is solid anymore.
VD There’s a legal herb called Salvia divinorum that people smoke. Apparently it is very concentrated DMT and lasts only about two minutes. You travel very far, for what feels like years even, and then come back. It is very curious. I saw these videos on YouTube called “Gardening on Salvia,” and “Driving on Salvia”—a man says he is going to smoke salvia and then, say, garden or drive. He gets his gardening spade ready to plant, takes a couple of hits from a bong, and within seconds rolls over and passes out for a couple minutes, twitching a bit. Then he comes back, is fairly normal, and proceeds to plant his potted sprig, or to start his car and drive away. I must admit it scared me, being partial to my physical body and uneager to abandon my motor functions. Not for me—the body as baggage left behind on the earth while the mind is traveling doing all these things. (laughter)
GBP Lady Jaye used to say that the body was a cheap suitcase. We both were sickly children. She spent lots of time in the hospital since she had curvature of the spine and severe asthma. And about three or four months of the year I was off school also with severe asthma, hay fever, and so on. Physical limitation was forced upon us by ailments, but at the same time it also liberated us into our fantasy worlds. We both read lots of books, wrote things down, daydreamed of other places, other lives.
We both had this very ambivalent relationship with the body that carried on into adulthood. She went into nursing; she loved to see the mechanics of the body, just meat and bones. Then her other job was as a dominatrix—finding the limitations of the body and the different ways that people fetishize either erotic pleasure or simply pain. With me, my rituals were very much about sensory deprivation and using bondage to force me to travel outside the body the way you were saying you found uncomfortable. In the ’80s I did an experiment with sensory deprivation: I was wrapped in wolf skins inside a coffin suspended on chains. I’d had eight hits of ecstasy before I was put inside. I was in there about eight hours apparently. My first words when I was let out were, “Now I understand time!”
VD We were talking about the end of time the Mayan calendar popularized recently. Perhaps I should get with this apocalyptic thinking, foolish though it is. After all, anything that facilitates an evolution of human consciousness on a huge scale should be encouraged. So what if we walk out of the cave the day after looking foolish.
GBP We would agree with that. The dream of it being within our grasp to facilitate change has been a great quest for me: How do we change human behavior? I came up with a slogan this year: “Change the world one kiss at a time.” The strategy can’t be anger, friction, greed, violence, or fear of that which is different. Those are symptoms of our primitiveness as a species, and the tools of those who would control us. Our strategy has to be about embracing the qualities that give you that sense of purpose, and belonging, and being loved.
VD You’re a sentimental old fool!
GBP Definitely—an old hippie.
VD I am too. I keep thinking about sentimentality and how disparaged it is in contemporary culture, especially in terms of the avant-garde. It’s time to revive it, because at its core it’s indicative of an appreciation of life.
GBP I love people’s idiosyncrasies. We’ve always thought that everybody has a “genius factor.” Everybody has something within them just bubbling near the surface that they secretly want to do or dreamed of being. The only way change can come, as Brion Gysin used to say, is “by the touching of hands.”
VD Speaking of geniuses. I understand that you had long conversations with him. When you spoke at the New Museum, I really appreciated how you kept the focus on Gysin, even when people were asking about you, about Throbbing Gristle, about Warhol, and so on.
GBP Brion Gysin has affected my whole life. It’s our duty to tell people where the influences that trigger our ideas have come from and to share our sources of inspiration. This is an ongoing lineage, a wave of people sharing ideas, resources, materials, opportunities—that’s the one true TOPY tribe.
Something great happened just recently. In the ’80s, whenever I had enough money, I’d go over to Paris and rent a video camera, one of those old big ones, and a cassette recorder—then I’d talk to Brion all day, for hours, and record as much as I could.
VD Is that in the archives?
GBP Well, in the ’80s somebody who was interested in Brion came to visit me. He wanted to study the material I had and then stole everything; it vanished. It was a real shame because I had transcribed all these interviews to eventually make a book. Then this year I got a phone call from a friend in Sweden, Carl Abrahamsson, who’d bumped into that guy in Slovenia, of all places! He’d said to Carl, “I feel terrible about stealing all this stuff off Gen. Here it is in this box; could you get it back to her?” So now Carl is finally going to publish the Gysin book all these years later.
VD That sounds wonderful. I suppose an exhibition is quite a cage to put Gysin in.
GBP He was rejected at the last minute from the first surrealist show in Paris. Two paintings of his were already hung, but the night before the opening André Breton personally took them down. Brion was quite bitter about it and believed that his overt homosexuality was used to justify their removal. Then there were all of these art movements—dada, minimalism, abstract expressionism . . . Gysin called most of that “deceptual art.” He believed in creation in any media. One minute he was making a film, then he was messing with tape recorders, then he was going to Morocco and opening a restaurant. Traditionally, you were supposed to be a painter or not a painter, a sculptor or not a sculptor. The obsession with specialization is still there. Performance artists and people who work with different strategies are still viewed with some suspicion by the art establishment.
VD It does seem that art was much more motivated by thought and spirit and not so much by merchandise making. As a painter, I became interested in the vernacular styles of painting because I wanted to communicate something, and I didn’t want it to be about art. Regarding a continuum of time, I put a lot of limits on my work, essentially using the same tools, techniques, and materials that painters have always worked with, so I could relate with another artist from 40,000 years ago who essentially was doing the same thing.
GBP So you’re using tempera and old-style painting methods with egg yolks and all of that?
VD No, it is more basic: fat and pigment, animal-hair brushes. I do use paint in metal tubes. That came around about 1860.
GBP Have you developed a language within that?
VD Well, I keep playing around with numbers, math, and astronomy, and how they show up in art and culture. Often I’ll paint fairy tales, making sure all the attributes are right so the knowledge gets passed on. That’s where this mathematical and astronomical information often finds itself, in fairy tales and folktales. “Little Red Riding Hood,” for instance, is about a lunar eclipse. There’s a wolf moon—if you’ve ever seen a lunar eclipse, the moon turns red. A little girl visits the old woman—that’s the old moon transiting into the new moon. Also, I am fascinated with the circus in spite of its—
GBP Political incorrectness.
VD The circus is the most intact manifestation of Stone Age culture. A circus, like the sky, is in motion. It rolls into town and puts up its big tent, a model of the universe. Up goes the big center pole just like the axis of the earth. Everything rotates above and below it. Then down below you have your ring with the opening right in the middle—like in Stonehenge, and like the zodiac. You have all these animals coming into the ring and going around this big circle. Then these other gods and goddesses come out and dance on the horses.
GBP And do superhuman things.
VD I go to Switzerland occasionally. I think they have 22 circuses there. America has 3. I don’t know what that says about Switzerland other than that they like their circuses and they have money to support them.
GBP I guess the lineage for somebody like me, whatever that is, is more that of the psychic healer of the tribe—
VD Are you aware of the notion in Native American culture of the twin spirit? It’s an important role in the tribe to be male and female, to be two spirits.
GBP That was very common, wasn’t it?
VD It was de rigueur in most tribes—a natural occurrence, too.
GBP When Jaye and I were thinking about pandrogeny early on, we were thinking, Something is going on, there’s an undercurrent. If you look at the trajectory of the sex ads in the Village Voice, you notice how it used to always be heterosexual men getting services from biological women. Then it started to change. Now it’s almost entirely shemales, but the clients are still heterosexual men. That’s a massive shift.
VD How can you tell who the clients are?
GBP We know a lot of the people servicing them. (laughter)
VD I’m glad I asked.
GBP Cosmetic surgery used to be the big ugly secret of Hollywood. Now gaggles of housewives go get breast implants or nose jobs together. That’s another big shift.
VD The prosthetic devices that the veterans are sporting these days are mind-blowing, right out of science fiction.
GBP Amazing. As a species we’re opening up to the body being arbitrary and adjustable—and that’s only a beginning. Once people start to really work with genetic engineering and cloning and so on, then space is both the limit and the goal.
VD It’s filled with incredible possibilities both negative and positive. When I think about environmental matters I worry that we’ll get into an endgame. Say the air becomes too harsh to breathe, so we develop a different kind of lung. And as the air becomes worse, the eyes burn all the time, so they remove them and put in electronic eyes. (laughter) Then eventually the body itself just becomes too big a burden in an environment that isn’t supportive of it anymore.
GBP This brings me back to Gysin’s cut-ups. Cutting things up in literal as well as theoretical ways is still the best tool we have found for breaking down linear thinking and coming up with truly radical, unlikely connections and collisions that reveal solutions. Everything we’ve applied cut-ups to has been revelatory.
Collages, for example, are so helpful because they don’t have to conform to the geometry of consensus reality. We’ve taken a lot of photographs and Polaroids that generate the raw material that we then reconstitute in new forms. Often they are taken during a consciously developed ritual or a psychedelic experience.
VD What are you working on now?
GBP A book for a French publisher, My Life in Photographs. We’re also in volume 1 of the collected poems and lyrics, and we’re preparing for a retrospective at the Andy Warhol Museum next summer—it will run for three months and they’re giving BREYER P-ORRIDGE a whole floor to focus on pandrogeny.
VD That’s a good place to do it.
GBP There wouldn’t be a Genesis BREYER P-ORRIDGE without an Andy Warhol.
GBP No, not really because Neil Megson, the original person in this body, decided to create a living artwork called Genesis P-Orridge, insert it into our culture, and see what would happen. So I am actually the artwork of the artist Neil Megson, but here is where it got tricky . . . where is the artist now? He has vanished. The artwork has superseded him and invaded the body as well as the concept. I’m a parasite. It’s an interesting puzzle: Where’s Neil?
VD He’s in your memory.
GBP He’s in there somewhere. And you? What are you doing this next year?
VD There’s a little church by my farm in North Carolina, and I’m trying to secure it so that I can make frescoes in it. It’s a cement block church from the 1940s, nothing beautiful. I’ve been wrangling with a neighbor about it. I think it’s mine, but he says that his father told him it was his. It’s so countrified there. I found the deeds going back to the 1830s, but none of the property markers—a rock, a chestnut tree, a willow tree—are there anymore.
I’m also planning to decorate and paint a little theater in Paris. You know the Palais de Tokyo there, right? Down below it’s all movie theaters from the Cinémathèque Française. I have a design for the room and the curtain of a film and video theater. It’s a funny thing to paint in a dark room. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to use fast-fading fluorescent paints that’ll be there for a brief time and then fade. So it’ll be like a classic planetarium that’s going to tell the story of the zodiac, and the curtain will be about the earth. A model of the universe, I hope. It’s such a thrill to go do something that will be around for a few years and not be cash-and-carry. I love painting but what bugs me more and more is the stretcher. The stretcher makes it something to be hung in a home or a gallery.
GBP Yeah, I just saw a thing in the paper that said, “Sotheby’s Breaks Record for Sales,” and not, “Wonderful Painting Rediscovered.” (laughter)
VD Sometimes I think it’s going to be the things that aren’t art that will matter. But, you know, the idea of not being creative—it’s like I’d rather die. As a kid I remember thinking that, at 12 or 13.
GBP I looked at dada and surrealism, I read about the Beats, and thought, That looks like the life I would want. I want to be a bohemian beatnik of sorts creating artwork of some kind. At 17, after I’d been ill—and actually temporarily died—when I came back, the doctor said, “We don’t know; you could drop dead any day or you could live a normal lifetime.” So I thought, That’s it, we’re going to be an artist. What’s the worse that could happen? It’s really hard to starve in England.
VD I guess in ’94 I started to make a living on my paintings, but for 20 years I worked in libraries to make a living. I was asked to be the director of a psychoanalytic library but I just wanted a part-time job. They hired me, though I had never been on a computer. Already librarians were on the forefront of the Internet and online computing. I was sweating every day just trying to get up to speed. Then the whole psychoanalytic field started to collapse intellectually and financially. Therapists would treat someone with three visits and psychotropic drugs instead of analysis for seven years. At the same time I started selling paintings. It was such a fortuitous confluence of events. I saw the writing on the wall—this place is going under!
GBP My good fortune was that money from my music actually managed to keep me going. Though sometimes I do wish I could focus on only one thing. It would simplify everything.
VD You’re not in the art world specifically, you have your foot in a lot of different worlds: the music world, the poetry world. That must be really wonderful. I’m beholden to one thing, and I know it all too well—I disdain it, covet it, and depend on it mightily. So I just keep painting and doing portraits. That’s John [Giorno] and his friend Ugo [Rondinone] back there—maybe you recognize them?
GBP Do you see John Giorno much?
VD We’re very good friends. He can sure deliver a performance that’ll bring a house down.
GBP That sort of half-whisper voice he does. And when he uses tape recorders with the delays, I love that. I actually took that delay idea and used it for a track on my record.
VD Are you making any recordings?
GBP We just finished a brand-new record that we meant to bring you a copy of but we forgot. We’ve been doing a series of classics from the late ’60s and early ’70s; they’re 12-inch singles. The A side is always a classic. The first one was “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic. Then we invent a completely new song for the B side with a title that always begins with the word alien. So in this case it’s “Alien Brain.” The newest one is “Silver Machine” by Hawkwind, and the B side is “Alien Lightning Meat Machine” about Nikola Tesla. I went through various biographies on Tesla, marking up every phrase that seemed striking. So I probably had 200 or 300 notes. I typed up every single word that I had highlighted into one prose poem. Finally I went through the list and started to select the things that spoke to me in a vivid way. I tend to do a lot of research before I create a lyric for a song, even though I eventually improvise the vocals in the studio, straight to tape.
VD Did you experience Sandy?
GBP I got up with the sun and spent my time writing in the journal and making collages. It wasn’t so bad.
VD John Giorno had a dinner on the big night. We’d been upstairs having some champagne, and then we came down to the bunker. The lights went out just as dinner was about to be served. We put the candles out and ate. Armageddon could have been going on and you wouldn’t know it!
GBP Yeah, I’ve got a sequence of Polaroid photos of the bunker when William [Burroughs] was still there. There was an austere metal desk with a typewriter in the middle and a Brion Gysin painting of Marrakech above it.
VD It’s unchanged, that room. Did you have an introduction to William or were you a fan?
GBP I met William in 1971. I’d found out about him through Jack Kerouac and the character Bull Lee in On the Road. Then I discovered Naked Lunch in a porno shop in Soho, London. It’d been banned in the US; that was the only way to get a Burroughs book back then. I was living in Hull, in the north of England, and making mail art. General Idea in Toronto did this magazine File—a pastiche of Life—and inside was the Image Bank request list. If artists were looking for something in particular, they would list it there.
I was looking through these lists, and there’s William S. Burroughs. I thought, Surely he wouldn’t put his real address out like that! And then, What’s the harm? So I wrote him a letter that said, “Dear William S. Burroughs, I’m so tired of you and Allen Ginsberg pretending you know me, telling everybody at parties that you’ve been hanging out with me just to get some hip credibility. Will you please cease and desist?” He wrote back saying, “Dear Genesis, If you’re ever in London ring this number.” So I hitchhiked to London and rang the number; he said, “Come on over to Duke Street and Saint James.” I got to his place in the morning and was there until about one in the morning the next day. He drank one and a half bottles of whiskey; I drank the other half. He was doing cut-ups on the TV and discussing magic principles. We stayed in touch until he died.