Cut It Up And See What It Really Says: Collage As Subversion At The Brooklyn Museum

Colette, Real Dream, Clocktower, Installation Performance NYC 1975-76, photo edition 30 x 72" (Courtesy the artist, via

Colette, Real Dream, Clocktower, Installation Performance NYC 1975-76, photo edition 30 x 72″ (Courtesy the artist, via

“The Cut-Ups are not for ‘artistic purposes.’ As we see it, the function of ‘art’ is out. The Cut-Ups are a weapon you will need on the way out.”–William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin The Third Mind

Since the Dada-ists such as Tristan Tzara and Hannah Höch, collage has been understood as a revolutionary medium, cutting, ripping and tearing apart normative culture, sexualities, genders, the patriarchal structure and hegemonic society.  Last weekend, the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and the International Collage Center hosted a panel, “Fashioning Personnae: Collage, Gender and Feminism,” bringing together an inspirational group of artists to question the nature of collage as it relates to gender, identity and the self.

Moderated by art historian Judith Rodenbeck, the panel featured some of my personal favorite artists, including the unmatched Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, founder of the bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV whose work I have been slightly obsessed with after viewing h/er mind-blowing quasi-solo (more on that later) show at the Andy Warhol Museum, Colette, an influential Downtown artist whose fabric and sleeping works have been copied by pop “artists” from Lady Gaga to Tilda Swinton, and finally, K8 Hardy, a younger staple on the New York performance and art scene.

Beginning with Breyer P-Orridge, each artist delved into their own work and artistic practice, illuminating the ways in which collage can be used, as Rodenbeck quoted, as “a bullet through culture” or as a transgressive subversion of societal norms.

Since the panel was filled with fascinating ideas, so much so that I went reeling back into the streets afterwards, ignoring the Wangechi Mutu exhibition I previously wanted to see, I’m going to break down the epic conversation into a few categories, highlighting the transformative potential of collage as related to the magical process of the cut-up technique, its anti-patriarchal possibilities and lastly, collage as the ultimate disruption of identity.

Cut It Up

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, My Funny Valentine, 2013 Expanded Polaroid, C-print mounted on gallery Plexi  (Courtesy the artist and Invisible-Exports, New York)

Breyer P-Orridge, My Funny Valentine, 2013, Expanded Polaroid, C-print mounted on gallery Plexi (Courtesy the artist and Invisible-Exports, New York)

For at least two of the panel’s artists–Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Colette, the process of collage related to a ritual or magical process, which brought to mind the power of the cut-up technique as conceptualized by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin.

For Burroughs and Gysin, the cut-up technique was a spontaneous process of rearranging a text to find a hidden and perhaps, more honest narrative. As William S. Burroughs told Breyer P-Orridge, “Let’s cut it up and see what it really says.”

Drawing on the legacy of Dada and the Surrealists, Gysin and Burroughs developed the cut-up method to free language from linear narratives and create new associations and meanings.  As Burroughs states in his essay “The Cut-Up Method,” Images shift sense under the scissors smell images to sound sight to sound sound to kinesthetic.  This is where Rimbaud was going with his color of vowels. And his “systematic derangement of the senses.” The place of roescaline hallucination: seeing colors tasting sounds smelling forms.”

Both Gysin and Burroughs suggest the cut-up method can be used in other mediums rather than solely writing, which brings me to the cut-up technique as collage.

According to Breyer P-Orridge, the legacy of the cut-up technique, as well as h/er personal friendship with these two cut-up geniuses, heavily influenced h/er art and life.  Even though Breyer P-Orridge privately collaged for 30 years, h/er more public music career in Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV transferred the cut-up technique to music, creating music through cutting up noises, sounds and conversations regardless of skill.

Breyer P-Orridge began to use collage as a part of a magical ritual with the Temple of Psychick Youth (TOPY), a group of people, or a cult as accused by the British government, linked by their interest in Psychic TV and the occult. With a group growing up to 10,000, TOPY members created collages, called sigils, which participants would make on the 23rd hour of the 23rd day of the month for a desired goal.  Breyer P-Orridge’s sigils combined traditional collage techniques, bodily fluids and ritual practices.

Speaking on these sigils, Breyer P-Orridge revealed many stories about how h/er desired goals actually came true.  For example, s/he created a sigil for h/er friend, director Derek Jarman, who was going blind from complications from AIDS, hoping that he would be able to finish the film he was working on. And he did.

As Breyer P-Orridge states in The Psychick Bible, “What Bill [William S. Burroughs] explained to me then was pivotal to the unfolding of my life and art: Everything is recorded. If it is recorded, then it can be edited. If it can be edited then the order, sense, meaning and direction are as arbitrary and personal as the agenda and/or person editing. This is magick. For if we have the ability and/or choice of how things unfold—regardless of the original order and/or intention that they are recorded in—then we have control over the eventual unfolding. If reality conists of a series of parallel recordings that usually go unchallenged, then reality only remains stable and predictable until it is challenged and/or the recodings are altered, or their order challenged. These concepts led us to the realization of cut-ups as a magical process” (279).

This potential magical power inherent in collage and cut-ups was also theorized by Burroughs and Gysin.  As explained in the New Museum’s publication Brion Gysin: Dream Machine, “Gysin and Burroughs cut up texts and rearranged them to destroy their face-value meanings, but also to reveal hidden ones, in an operation not unlike tea-leaf, coffee-ground or entrail reading. The were not interested in the ‘aesthetic ramifications of chance’ so much as its prophetic, paranormal powers” (77).

COUM Transmissions, The British Government, 1975 (Courtesy the artist and the Andy Warhol Museum)

COUM Transmissions, The British Government, 1975 (Courtesy the artist and the Andy Warhol Museum)

Perhaps the powers inherent in collage influenced the British government’s near consistent attacking of Breyer P-Orridge who was first threatened with jail-time over collages associated with h/er early COUM Transmissions, which have since been acquired by the Tate Britain.  S/he was also subsequently kicked out of England due to TOPY.

Not only does collage contain magical powers for Breyer P-Orridge, but Colette also discussed her own view of collage’s ability to represent the unknown. Starting her career as a painter, Colette wanted to take art outside of the canvas, reaching people in the street.  This desire to reach a wider audience lead her to paint street art (literally in traffic intersections) and create immersive living environments, which she would often sleep in, in galleries, museums, store windows and other unexpected locations.

While Colette throughout her career has switched identities from Colette (who threw her own funeral) to Justine to Mata Hari to Countess Reichenbach and The House of Olympia, her fabric-swaddled installations, interest in fashion and understanding of collaged installations as transformative have remained consistent. Comparing her installations to rituals, Colette explained that she wants to “understand the invisible through making art.”

I Am Collaged Parts

K8 Hardy, Credit Default Swap, 2012 (Courtesy the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York)

K8 Hardy, Credit Default Swap, 2012 (Courtesy the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York)

As Brion Gysin observes, “My ambition was to destroy the assumed natural links of language, that in the end are but expressions of Power, the favorite weapon of control or even the essence of control” (76).

One of the main purposes of “Fashioning Personnae: Collage, Gender and Feminism” was to discover the potential feminist power of collage, as a means to subvert patriarchal power.

According to Colette, she felt alienated from feminism when she started her art career in the 1970s due to the suspicion of early feminists of a hyper-feminine, heavily made-up and fashionable artist. Known for her gorgeous Victorian Goth aesthetic, Colette’s celebration of femininity was seen as frivolous to many feminists. Colette figured “I’m just going to do my own thing. That was the most feminist thing I could do.”

Despite Colette’s separation from 1970s feminists, her collaged art, as well as the others on the panel, undoubtedly participates in a feminist discourse.

Perhaps the artist who expressed her connection to feminism the most was K8 Hardy, who declared that for her, collage was inherently anti-patriarchal due to its ambiguous, ever-evolving meanings. For Hardy, collage’s meaning “is never clear. You can jump around and guess. There is no end point.”

Subverting linear narratives and direct meanings, collage is a more fluid art form, which recalls French feminist Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One. While Irigaray’s work in recent years has been brushed aside due to its obvious essentialism, I still believe her writings contain some important and useful ideas.

In Irigaray’s “The Power of Discourse” in This Sex Which Is Not One, she discusses the need to create a new discourse, one that transgresses masculine linear forms. As she explains, “We need to proceed in a way that linear reading is no longer possible” (80).

Calling for a more fluid, feminine discourse, Irigaray details, “This language work would thus attempt to thwart any manipulation of discourse that would also leave discourse intact. Not necessarily, in the utterance, but in its autological presuppositions. Its function would thus be to cast phallocentrisms, phallocraticim, loose from its moorings in order to return the masculine to its own language, leaving open the possibility of a different language.” (80).

Creating a space for a different understanding of images, narratives and even language, collage follows Irigaray’s call for a more fluid, more ambigious language in comparison to a linear masculine language. For example Colette’s art, in particular, participates in a similar feminist narrative with her use of feminine materials, colors and forms, in order to construct new feminine artistic language.

Breaking Sex 

Breyer P-Orridge,  Doppelgangered, 2008 (Courtesy the artist and the Andy Warhol Museum)

Breyer P-Orridge, Doppelgangered, 2008 (Courtesy the artist and the Andy Warhol Museum)

“Where does control lie? How can it be short-circuited?” said Burroughs to Breyer P-Orridge.

Not only does collage have the ability to subvert gender and patriarchy, but Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s extreme use of collage and the cut-up technique prove that collage can be used to subvert just about anything. Taking collage and the cut-up technique to its absolute limit, Genesis P-Orridge embarked, with h/er wife Lady Jaye Breyer, on the pandrogyne, creating the identity Genesis Breyer P-Orridge using plastic surgery, clothing and make-up to become as similar to each other as possible.

Answering Burroughs question about control, Breyer P-Orridge revealed that for h/er control lies in our DNA, which contains the history of all humanity.  In order to short-circuit this control, Breyer P-Orridge describes in Breaking Sex, “Just as Burroughs and Gysin collaborated together, subsuming their separate works, individuality and ego to a collaborative process by cutting up the Word to produce a third mind, so in our current practice Breyer P-Orridge have applied the cut-up system and third mind directly to a central concern, the fictional SELF. The un-authorised Astory of our lives so far. Breyer P-Orridge both supply our separate bodies, individuality and ego to an ongoing and substantially irreversible process of cutting-up identity to produce a third being, an ‘other’ entity that we call PANDROGYNE.” (444).

BREYER P-ORRIDGE, Untitled, 2007 (Courtesy the artist and Andy Warhol Museum)

BREYER P-ORRIDGE, Untitled, 2007 (Courtesy the artist and Andy Warhol Museum)

Starting with a vasectomy, Genesis and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge had a series of surgeries over years, tattooing birthmarks on their faces, getting twin breast implants, and facial surgeries to literally cut-up their own identities.

On the panel, Breyer P-Orridge explained that the body, for h/er, has always been  uncomfortable with its multitude of cultural connections, histories and social limitations. As Breyer P-Orridge explained, “We didn’t want to be told by society who were supposed to become. Where could that lead us?”

Escaping the binary structure of either/or, male/female, man/woman, Breyer P-Orridge creates a third being, one made from two. As s/he reveals in Breaking Sex, “Pandrogeny is not about defining differences but about creating similarities. Not about separation but about unification and resolution” (445).

Portraying the absolute fluidity of identity, the work of Breyer P-Orridge continues even though Lady Jaye sadly passed away.  Using an extreme form of collage, Breyer P-Orridge proves the world is mutable and completely fluid.  As Lady Jaye used to say, “Why wake up and be the same as you were yesterday? Why not be someone else?”

While looking around the audience during the panel, it became clear that Breyer P-Orridge still has the power to make people extremely uncomfortable, a skill which I have always admired. I watched two mothball-smelling (No joke, pee-yew ladies) older women just writhe around in their seats when Breyer P-Orridge spoke at length about pandrogeny. Particularly in an art world, which is in need of some serious shaking up, it was magnificent to see an artist who continues to push the boundaries of identity.

While discussing the COUM Transmissions during the end of the panel, Breyer P-Orridge explained that one of the members always used to say “Fuck em all!” As Breyer P-Orridge exclaimed, “Take control of the narrative. Fuck em all”

Fuck em all indeed, Gen!

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