GENESIS P ORRIDGE:
FROM COUM TO
I first met Genesis P Orridge circa 1971 in Hull, well before the ICA
‘Prostitution’ exhibition first impinged his name on national consciousness.
That was before Throbbing Gristle, and before Psychic TV, when he was
part of the ‘COUM’ group. Predictably my article which resulted got
butchered down to some seven paragraphs by a vindictive sub-editor… and
I’ve been subsequently re-writing it at intervals ever since in attempts to get it right. Until a retrospective as part of the 2017 ‘Hull: City Of Culture’
offers the perfect opportunity...
‘(1) COUM ARE FAB AND KINKY’
So it all COUMs down to this.
Everything here is true. Everything here is lies.
A retrospective respectfully preserved in rows in neat numbered glass-topped exhibits. All that extremism, shock, outrage, confrontation, all catalogued and contextualised. Was it really meant to be this way? Was it? The ‘Humber Street Gallery’ PR leaflet does all that arty gobbledygook about ‘on each occasion COUM’s auditory and kinetic actions constituted spontaneous responses to collective and individual experience. Simulation and artifice combined with actual and real, confounded familiar systems, methods and institution, re-activating the spaces of the street, lecture theatre or art gallery.’ Which is pretty-much what COUM was actively against. Because it was absurdist fun too, subversively silly, mad shenanigans, deliberately provocative in taunting and inflammable ways. Pretention was no real part of it. Take my word for it – no, don’t.
On the ground floor there are Sarah Lucas cast-plaster body-parts with cheekily inserted cigarettes – part of her ‘I Scream Daddio’ commission. But she seems so very dull and unexciting by comparison. The COUM exhib is more vital than all that slick cleanly-targeted cash-centric Brit-Art stuff. That’s unfair. In general, I like Sarah Lucas. It’s only when seen in this juxtaposition that she appears so coolly cerebral. COUM are never that. COUM use their bodies as weapons of the art-war. There’s no neutral space. So safety margin. No distancing. It’s every queasy squidgy internal organ, crinkly body hair and pulsing orifice.
In the first gallery there’s a flicker-experience of Dissident Watchers. Seven video-interviews with original COUM activists. Conceived by Cosey Fanni Tutti, whose voice retains her easy natural regional intonations, as though she’s selling you a bacon-bap in Greggs, not dealing gender-confrontational sexual-politics. Shot and edited by Gavin Toomey, there’s Spydee, Foxtrot Echo, the Very Rev LE Cheesewire Maull and ‘technical director’ John Lacey.
I’m thinking of Manchester. The ‘Hacienda Club’ in October 1982. A night of sartorial jacking off. An audience topography of primping self-esteem, friends selected as visual accessories, being seen and becoming SCENE. A squeaky-clean Faberge cabaret with eye-shadow setting eyes in deep wells, erogenous zones worn on the sleeve, lights and quirky visuals washing over an audience as flimsy and disposable as Kleenex. Above them two huge video screens are programming the night’s alternative entertainment, even though people-watching and bitch-banter wins hands-down.
That’s how I remember it. Remember it this way…
‘(126) COUM ARE YOUR
LOCAL DIRTY BANNED’
Hold On, It’s COUMing…
I first meet him circa 1971 in Hull before the ICA Arts Centre exhibition that first impinges his name on national consciousness. He’s then part of the ‘COUM’ group. I was leaving Hull, just as it was kicking in. But I’d seen him around town. We both use the Mod ‘Gondola’ café. There was the ‘Brick House’, on Baker Street which was a hippie corn-exchange, a kind of flea-mart for alternative paraphernalia and mimeo magazines. I was browsing there when I come aware there’s a debacle. Genesis is there dressed in head-to-toe knitted dayglo, he’s negotiating to come in and distribute subversive promotional leaflets about COUM. There seems to be a problem. The dialogue in itself mutates into a form of absurdist theatre. And some of those leaflets are here at the ‘Humber Gallery’. The original ‘1001 WAYS TO COUM’ copyrighted 1971 in orange mimeo. The ‘Book Of The End 1969/72’ a Gift To Cosey made up of drawings and writings. The ‘Trigger Happy Ballet’, 1972.
We talk some – me practicing an interviewer-role to which I’m as-yet unused, them rehearsing an interviewee-routine to which they are equally unfamiliar. Them trying out their ‘Melody Maker’ interview-technique on me, me attempting spontaneous bop-prosidy on them. When Gen says COUM he pronounces it ‘cum’. But he’s softly-spoken, articulate, intelligent. When they tease me about my Mod-length not Freak-length hair he chides them to desist. Maybe it’s simply that he wants the press on his side? He bothers to do the interviews when they can’t be arsed. Or maybe, as I’m inclined to believe, it’s natural courtesy.
At the ‘Humber Gallery’ there’s the Deed Poll registering the moment – in 17 January 1972, that Neil Andrew Megson (born in a state of ‘instant circumcision’, 22 February 1950) legally became Genesis P Orridge. In the vid-installation s/he talks of a revelatory moment during a 1969 family car journey through Wales. ‘The feeling of gravity shifting.’ The visionary insight that nothing is solid, everything is porous. An awareness of what s/he terms the Dissident Watchers, invisible entities in other dimensions and time zones, who tell him ‘COUM’.
Afterwards, we adjourn through the narrowing streets of the ‘Land of Green Ginger’ to no.3 Magistrates Court to witness the hearing of a friend caught up on narcotics charges. Gen explains that it’s policy not to initiate criminal proceedings, but to ship them out to De La Pole hospital for psychiatric treatment. It proves to be the first, and possibly the most bizarre interview I’ve conducted. Predictably the article that results gets butchered down to some seven paragraphs by a vindictive sub-editor… and I’m subsequently re-writing it at intervals ever since in attempts to get it right. Until now.
As Gen phrases it, ‘better to figure it out now than never.’
‘(15) COUM URINATE DOWN
THE HANDRAILS OF
Everything you read here is absolutely true. Everything you read here is nothing but a tissue lies. Take my word for it – no, don’t.
COUMing Of Age.
In the ‘Humber Street Gallery’ exhibition there’s a poster for the ‘Bust Benefit Concert: To Aid Busted People’. According to Gen ‘a commune of freaks in Hebden Bridge had been busted and the concert was to raise funds for their legal costs.’ It was held at Bradford’s St George’s Hall, a dignified venue that hosts subscription classical concerts and ballets, as well as comedians and cheesy-Pop singers. Then – 22 October 1971, Hawkwind top the bill, with poet-activist Jeff Nuttall listed below.
The ICA centre is on the Mall, down the road apiece from Buck House. The ‘Prostitution’ dialogue debunks the po-faced art establishment by focusing on how art, and particularly performance art, involves selling both self and work – which is why the group is selling the material they have used in earlier shows. ‘One is debasing oneself by selling.’ So why are they debasing themselves? ‘Because we want to, and we need the money. To sell yourself is somewhat debasing and everyone is selling something.’ Another section of the show extends exploitation-selling into photo-spreads of Cosey posing for soft-core Top-shelf magazines. ‘The photographers aren’t just creepy blokes doing it for kicks,’ she says, ‘but the main thing was that I was doing it for reasons they didn’t know about – for the exhibition.’ The sexual impulse, when bent out of shape, denied and suppressed, mutates into dangerous perversity. And that’s here too. Via atrocity, and child murderer Ian Brady. In a jittery morally repressed society gender issues ignite outraged reactions that worry away at the very core of what is considered decent and proper. For art and Lit, that’s an irresistible equation. ‘Violence’ runs the cover-line to JG Ballard’s ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ ‘is the key’.
Predictably ‘Penthouse’ magazine is more supportive, ‘this sexhibition featured a selection of pornographic photographs of Cosey Fanni Tutti, P-Orridge’s girlfriend/ model and fellow artist, in various positions of sexual foreplay or sexy pose. There was also a series of small boxes of soiled tampaxes with amusing titles like ‘It’s The Time Of The Month’, ‘Tampax Romona’, ‘Living Womb’ and ‘Pupae’, which decorated one wall. An enigmatic construction of heavy chains positioned near the entrance of the gallery, like a shower of metal, evoked a feeling of cold violence and sensual delight’ (Vol.12 no.4, July 1977). Bizarrely vilified by both the ‘Daily Mirror’ and ‘Spare Rib’, the photos were nevertheless re-shown in the ‘Tate Triennial 2006: New British Art’. After all, Cosey is ‘a Hull girl with a healthy appetite for life and with unquenchable curiosity’ according to ‘Fiesta’ (Vol.10 no.7, 1976).
Retaining elements of COUM’s anti-art structure, Throbbing Gristle take it a step further. As ‘an egomaniac, a pervert, a porn queen and an introvert in a grey dufflecoat’ (‘Melody Maker’, 28 September 1985). There’s no drummer. Drums establish too strict a rhythmic structure. Instead, Gen is credited as bass. Cosey reluctantly plays a cut-down Woolworths guitar. But Leeds-born Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson contributes an experimental barrage of improvised triggered tape technology, and ‘the introvert’ Chris Carter devises or adapts electronics. Again, Kraftwerk had constructed their own electronic devices and beat-boxes. Can and radical atonal Amon Düül II operate in pure noise concepts. And anticipating Punk, there’s a gut-suspicion of virtuosity in favour of energy and invention. Yet again, TG is not quite like any on them. ‘Like Nietzsche’ as journalist Don Watson notes, Throbbing Gristle ‘advocate immersing oneself in the depths of forbidden thought, in the hope of emerging in the final daybreak with a deeper awareness and understanding’ (‘New Musical Express’ 17 December 1983).
Lights around the stage event horizon drill upwards. As it gets hotter and the air gets more congested the lights get buried beneath mounds of discarded leather jackets. Internal combustion results in columns of toxic smoke drifting hazily across the snaking wires and control boxes. People stand around, watching like it’s Special-FX, Queen’s Dry-Ice or something. I’m watching, lager in hand – but at fifty-pence a pint I’m not about to offer to extinguish the imminent conflagration. Sound grates on. From the back of the stage Genesis P watches plumes of smoke gather and dissolve, and starts gesticulating like a refugee from Martha Graham’s Modern Dance, until Roadies slam to the front hurtling smouldering leather jackets – with button-badges of Throbbing Gristle/ Police/ Toyah, at odd trajectories into the crowd.
Afterwards I hand Gen a copy of my arts magazine which pirates some of his visuals from the COUM phase. He accepts it with a gracious comment about me holding onto it for a long time. Yes, I guess it may be a short time in years, but we’ve both come a long way. A strange night.
Then there’s a guesting Marc Almond – who’d taken elements of Throbbing Gristle to structure Soft Cell, and now adds vocals to “Guiltless” and “Stolen Kisses”. Although dark light years from anyone’s idea of commercial product, it – and sequel ‘Dreams Less Sweet’ (1983), constitute Gen’s most accessible shot at the mainstream. Until the “Godstar” (Temple TOPY009) single reaches no.67 (26 April 1986) and “Good Vibrations” c/w “Roman P” (Temple TOPY23, on 20 September 1986) goes two places better to to.65 on the chart, narrowly averting the terrifying prospect of Psychic TV appearing on ‘Top Of The Pops’, instead finding a natural home by moving into the Acid Techno Rave culture.
And it’s Psychic TV, whose video I’m watching here at the Hacienda Club… A skinhead has a wolf tattooed on his fore-arm. Later, in a bare concrete yard he gets his-self naked, pours petrol over himself, and ignites. As the corpse collapses and crisps in a heap of guttering embers, a wolf is seen escaping across the concrete…
Everything here is true. Everything here is lies.
‘(24) COUM ARE THE
SQUARE ROOT OF MINUS ONE’