Having completed a successful tour of the festival circuit earlier this year, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is finally opening this weekend in New York, courtesy of fledgling distribution company Adopt Films. The intensely personal documentary chronicles the relationship of Lady Jaye and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, performance artists and musicians who married in 1993, and went on to jointly embark on a controversial body modification program known as the Pandrogyne Project.
The name Genesis P-Orridge might not instantly ring any bells for you, but if you’re a fan of industrial bands like Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, or SPK, you have Genesis P-Orridge to thank for their existence. P-Orridge was a member of the ‘70s experimental electronica group Throbbing Gristle, which began as an outgrowth of transgressive art collective COUM Transmissions, and evolved into one of the most seminal (literally and figuratively) rock groups in the history of the medium. P-Orridge, and the other members of TG, went on to found Industrial Records, sponsoring musical and cultural pioneers like Leather Nun, Cabaret Voltaire, and Monte Cazazza. Industrial Records’ tagline – “Industrial music for industrial people” – was the first recorded use of the expression, and consequently, TG is typically credited with the creation of the industrial music subgenre.
If you’ve ever been to a rave, or enjoyed the work of electronic beatmakers like Lords of Acid or Fatboy Slim, or if you’re a fan of cut-up artists like Negativland or DJ Shadow, you also have a reason to appreciate P-Orridge. Through over thirty years of musical exploration, and a parade of line-up changes, P-Orridge has been performing under variants of the group name Psychic TV (with later incarnations including PTV2 and PTV3). Launched with TG compatriot Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson – who would leave PTV in 1982 to found the experimental group Coil – Psychic TV was an extension of the same radical, anti-authoritarian thrust for personal empowerment that distinguished COUM and TG’s work, but with a more mystical and revolutionary focus, encouraging its fan base to rebel against unjust authority through a combination of passive resistance techniques (body modification and psychedelics) and esoteric Magickal ritual. PTV were also one of the first bands to pioneer the musical and large-scale video application of Burroughs/Gysin cut-up theory, and to incorporate complex video monitor displays into live performances.
Losier’s documentary doesn’t attempt to comprehensively summarize P-Orridge’s entire artistic career, which is good, because doing such a thing would be practically impossible (In addition to the above summary, P-Orridge has also been publicly declared a “wrecker of civilization” by British Parliament, founded an esoteric mail-order cult called Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, traveled to Nepal on his own meager dime to help Buddhist monks organize soup kitchens, been exiled from Britain as an accused Satanist, and collaborated extensively with groundbreaking experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman). Instead, the movie focuses on P-Orridge’s creative and personal relationship with his kindred spirit, and creative collaborator, Lady Jaye Breyer, and the unique body of work the pair produced together during the course of their relationship.
After being forced to flee Europe in the early ‘90s, P-Orridge settled in the United States where he met Jaye, a young, sexy, and talented New York performance artist (and licensed nurse) who would become his wife and creative accomplice for approximately the next fourteen years. Ballad’s chief subject is the Pandrogyne Project, an extension and fusion of Genesis and Jaye’s separate artistic investigations into gender, medical ephemera, and cut-up theory, which gained new clarity and focus after their efforts became unified, culminating in a series of shared cosmetic surgeries designed to make them physically resemble each other, creating a “third entity,” fittingly referred to as Breyer P-Orridge.
The Pandrogyne Project was a bold and controversial enterprise, addressing a complex variety of themes about the nature of personal identity, the meaning of gender dichotomies, and the process of achieving true intimate connection with – and commitment to – another person. The project was also intended to raise questions about plastic surgery itself, a cosmetic option that has frequently been criticized in Western culture as a form of radical concession to mainstream beauty standards, but which Breyer P-Orridge saw as a potential vehicle for radical self-expression and mystical transcendence of the physical body.
The real heart of Losier’s film, however, is not the mechanics of the Pandrogyne itself, but the personal relationships that fostered it. When asked how she wanted to someday be remembered, Genesis recalls that Jaye said she didn’t care too much about “all that art crap – I just want to be remembered as one of the great love stories of all time.” Losier’s misty, roiling, poetic treatment makes it instantly apparent that, without the giddy clarity of vision granted by the sheer joy of being in love, the Pandrogyne could never have materialized or been a success.
The film’s dreamy, highly textural feel is a perfect fit for its subjects, not only because of how strongly it conveys the delirious emotionality of Breyer P-Orridge’s worldview, but also because of the Pandrogyne Project’s semiotic and Magickal relationship to cut-up theory. The footage for the film was compiled over about seven years, and Losier was severely budget-crunched throughout, but she uses the technical drawbacks to her advantage, crafting an intensely moving and distinctive sound and video collage that simultaneously celebrates and eulogizes the pair’s many creative accomplishments. The finished film is more intuitive and poetic than rigidly narrative, but it’s still a beautiful and rewarding sensual experience, and the romance at the center of a narrative shines through perfectly, even without a highly specific context.
And the soundtrack – needless to say – is all aces.