By JOSEPH NECHVATAL December 28, 2023
The hard cover art/music history book, THE LAST SLOGAN (by Nicolas Ballet and Jean-Pierre Turmel) reveals the middle skin-head period of the intense creative life of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, founder of the COUM Transmissions artistic collective and Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth occult group, singer-songwriter-musician (Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV), poet, performance and visual artist, and occultist influenced by the little known English artist/occultist Austin Osman Spare. Genesis is clearly one of counter-culture’s single most iconic figures of the past fifty years—and someone who has over the course of he/r career influenced countless Anglo-American artists/theorists. Myself included: as Genesis’s type of non-binary crossover/cutup approach is what I found needed to disturb narrow-minded neoliberalism within the art world.
Reading the two-part interview from April 2016 that Genesis—who died in 2020—generously gave to Nicolas Ballet (now Centre Pompidou-based art historian who specializes in the sonic assaults of industrial music and No Wave, William S. Burroughs, occultism and transhumanism and is the author of Shock Factory: Culture visuelle des musiques industrielles (1969-1995)) reveals a profound intersection of social power mixed with intimate moral dispositions and erotic drives. There is a perverse satisfaction to be gained here by reading recalled reversals of aesthetic hierarchies as the conversation turns from the sophisticated historic language of art/music criticism into pandrogeny as a form of resistance to power. (In the nineties, Genesis and h/er second wife, Jacqueline Breyer, conceived of their pandrogeny body art project that was designed to break down the limitations of biological sex and express unconditional love.)
In the second part of the book, letters from Genesis—from the mid-1970s till early 1990s—to Jean-Pierre Turmel (a founder with Yves Von Bontee of the Sordide Sentimental French record label notable for its releases of early recordings by Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and others) are reproduced in all their graphic splendor. Some of the letters are largely comprised of theoretical texts Genesis wrote, and on the page spread mixed with other archival documents from Turmel’s personal collection. Tossed together, they display a discourse of cultural alienation that has been perfected, appropriated, individualized, and made one’s own. The layout of these letters looks something like a fanzine, but read between the lines and they convey a set of mostly positive images for the reader that supports subjective acts of artistic spontaneity, creativity, cooperativity, mobility, an attempt at good peer relations, appreciation of difference, and an openness to extreme experience.
What THE LAST SLOGAN offers up to us today is the intellectual background of an effective anti-systemic movement turned against commodified culture and restricted subjectivity. It shows how cultural critique can become effective again today (or any day) with enough courage and determination. Yet for an expanded and contradictory understanding of Genesis, I also recommend reading Cosey Fanni Tutti's (a founding member of Throbbing Gristle and one half of electronic pioneers Chris and Cosey) forceful book Art Sex Music, as it paints Genesis in a much less flattering light.
When rubbed together, Art Sex Music and THE LAST SLOGAN offers definitely some new perspectives on the work and life of Genesis. The revealed un-enigmatic ego forms of Genesis described in Art Sex Music can be seen as politically instructive as any call to rally collectively around a just cause. Still, by doubling up on Genesis’s creative ego, creative rhetorical and aesthetic strategies detected in THE LAST SLOGAN take on the force of an opposition to the constructed picture of an authoritarian personality. As such, the book provides an unequaled insight into Genesis’s life-long journey via the deeply intimate correspondence with a close friend and associate—an intellectual sparring-partner of sorts—in which Genesis discusses he/r inner thoughts, strategies, doubts and plans without any of the usual control filters. It gives an intellectual focus to an intense and widespread dissatisfaction with the idealistic failures of the sixties and seventies.
Newspapers and magazines of the right constantly stir up indignation against what is unnatural, over-intellectual, morbid and decadent. Today left idealism has seemed to have vanished. So as the level of far right violence in the world increases, tangible reminders of a counter-critique of the master-slave mentality can help us look further ahead by looking back. To be effective, a cultural critique must show the links between the major articulations of power and the more-or-less trivial aesthetics of a radical (if marginal) artist. This book is that.
What I remember most and last from THE LAST SLOGAN is its veiled theory of critique of the culture industry by putting forward potent forms of self-controlled ego. Most art is recognized as it emerges in the individual’s relation to the cultural market, particularly when the labor in question involves the processing of cultural information. But by involving oneself with this level of Genesis ephemerality, one could possibly not imagine a better inspiration for a non-commercial, style-conscious, tech-savvy, nomadic, hedonistic person—who nonetheless is connected directly into fluctuating flows of cultural information. For THE LAST SLOGAN—when read next to Art Sex Music—reveals Genesis’s social relations as a result of a compelling, if not controlling, character while subtly pointing to non-specific phantasmagorical discourses and emotional attitudes of inequality and violence. These books shatter the balance of cultural consent by flooding daylight on exactly what cultural society consents to ignore. How it refuses to tolerate the intolerable. As they show, social critique is difficult to put into practice within culture because it must work on two opposed levels—coming close enough to grip the complexity of social processes so as to convince while finding striking enough expressions of formal difference seductive enough to sway. In THE LAST SLOGAN this aesthetic dimension appears to hit, as a contested bridge between an ego-psyche and the objective power structures of a counter-society connects the reader to the taste for the negative. Such is the power of its anti-systemic critique of conformist art. As such, this fine book will not slot easily into the standard cultural studies program, which is usually an affirmative strategy for adding value—not for taking it away. For THE LAST SLOGAN implicitly argues for a renewal of the negative as an ideology of critique.
Pouring over this book shows Genesis elevating musical rock expressions into art through a process of noise contamination. The idea was to create positive alternatives to the new kinds of domination projected by the mass media. Hopefully THE LAST SLOGAN is not the last word on how that can be achieved. But it may be one of the first. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.view all articles from this author