culture jammers: replacement values

by Art Chantry (

THIS is going to be tough. trying to explain WHY this record cover and the trajectory of genesis p. orridge’s thinking is so important to the history of contemporary graphic design (and our popular culture) is very very tough. it’s not an easy thing to do. it is too involved and esoteric and spans too much territory to be easily surmised in a few paragraphs. entire books have been written about this turf and you have to read them all to even begin to really understand what genesis has accomplished with (done to) our shared culture, his medium of choice.

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let’s start with the context of this cover. it’s called “2nd annual report” by the band (his band) throbbing gristle. when it was released in 1977, the world was all disco chrome, jamie reid sex pistols punk, star wars was in the theaters and saturday night fever was just being released. jimmy carter was president and britain was in an economic nightmare. we still wore bellbottom and had shag haircuts and drank red wine with our quaaludes.

genesis had already made a notorious name for himself with his art collective called COUM. the performance/exhibit he produced at the (ultra cool) ICA in london was called “pornography” and attracted the hippest art/punks in town (the bromley contingent even made an appearance). the london times slammed it all as abhorrent smut and vile dross. they dubbed genesis p. orridge a “wrecker of civilization”.

he formed a new art collective/noise band with his wife cosi fanni tutti (a former porn actress and model) and a couple of other weirdos (one of which had worked for years as a photographer witht he infamous design team ‘hypgnosis’). nobody knew how to play any instruments. so, they didn’t even try. they used power drills, broken guitars and banged on garbage to make rhythmic din and aggro noise “pop songs” with titles like “hamburger lady” (about a woman in a n institution they had met who had virtually the entire top half of her body burned off in a terrible accident. yet she lived a long life, trapped in herself.)

they set up living/studio quarters in an old abandoned factory (appropriately christened “the death factory”) and set about building an aesthetic that included lightning bolt logos for their armbands and full military uniforms that they wore 24/7. their regular performances of throbbing gristle were carefully documented and occasionally released. the covers for their self-made 45 releases (on ‘death factory’ records) had poor quality b&w photos reproduced on the meager covers that depicted bland, uninteresting images of common locations you would see anywhere – like the underpass of a footbridge. it meant nothing until you realized that you’d seen this image before – it was the sight of a brutal rape of murder. a commonplace location, innocent yet horrible beyond imagination.

so, that’s the context. this was either art or rocknroll or communal tribal rage or disconnected isolated alienation or perhaps a cult. maybe it was all of it rolled into one big terrifying glop. they celebrated serial killers and mad cult leaders (the epitome of the dislocated hero) and continued to work in sound until their name had become the force behind a new kind of underground music, outside of the punk movement, but still every bit as influential. one of their ‘friends’, monte cazzeza, dubbed them “industrial.” it stuck. genesis had created a new subculture.

“industrial culture” blasted out a shock wave force that is still felt today. it spawned hundreds of bands, art movements, cults, popular entertainments. i when mixed with ‘new wave’, it became goth. when mixed with heavy metal it became a dozen dark genres of dark metal. when mixed with dance music it became rave and party and trance, etc. etc. in fact, if you study the impact of this subculture, you might even be convinced that it’s influence is even greater and felt longer and spread further than punk itself. a stunning achievement, but only the beginning of a long career by master culture jamming manipulator.

so, try to imagine the world in 1977. in graphic design, it was still southern california airbrush stylings and precious self-rendered cover work by the likes of joni mitchell. disco chrome and neon lettering for donna summer records. if you preferred hard rock, you’d have covers by hipgnosis for pink floyd or led zeppelin. in the advertising world, the crude beginnings of primitive computer generated imagery (like those titles for ‘the late late movie’ that smeared across the tv screen). in my hometown the beautiful organic calligraphy of tim girvin was all the rage, appearing on virtually every major design piece in the region. LA was totally under the grip of cocaine. london was asleep.

out of the underground punk scene, there were the rumblings of new graphic language emerging to attempt to deal with the change that was brewing musically and culturally. early nyc punk still had covers created by design professionals in the language they co

control – very un-punk, but hard enough. the ramones covers used b&w xerox and big bold type. the talking heads used clashing colors and big bold type. television used the new technology of color xerox and big bold type. you get the picture. nice tries, but still within the language of the mainstream. the brash ideas were relying on the technology they knew to create the attitude for them. no new ideas, just new technology. (note: sorta like today.)

in england, it was a very different story. inspired by the political cultural full frontal assault of situationism, jamie reid linked his thinking with the detournment provocatuer of the sex pistols to re-create the graphic language of rebellion. it was no longer poised inside the realm of the mainstream or it’s fabulous technology. it used the trash, the flowers in the dustbin, the monkeywrench approach. the covers and posters they produced were made from tape and paste and words and letters and photos cut out of magazines and cheaply copied and thrown about like litter. and best of all, it was done by anybody – any level of talent or skill was perfectly acceptable. it completely turned the lock step production process and the centralized control of the rocknroll industry upside down and inside out.

one of the basic tenants of situationist philosophy is that our shared culture is the real problem at the root of our collective woes. so, destroy the culture, you solve the problem! this process was coined ‘detournment’. when applied to this new graphic language and music style and fashion sense, it did exactly that. it trashed everything in it’s path and left the smoldering rubble in it’s wake like sherman’s march to the sea.

however, on the other side of the coin was genesis p. orridge and his industrial culture. they celebrated the machine. they loved the culture – but their OWN culture, which was the machine, the dark urges of destruction and mass annihilation as a culture to emulate. it’s ‘destroy’ goals were essentially the same as punk, but it offered a culture to replace the old culture – their culture.

try to imagine the reaction in the midst of this philosophical underground battle being waged in the arty-farty scenes of england. so many kids were forced by the national school testing system to attend “art school” that there was a huge contingent of poor kids on the dole studying art and design and music. they were all keenly aware of what was going on everywhere in the country (it’s a small place, unlike america). they bought the records by the sex pistols and throbbing gristle and the rest. they examined the covers closely. the understood what was being said. they formed their own bands (like the buzzcocks and joy division). they built their own scenes centered around these new underground cultural visions (mixed with a few of their own).

they began to attack the stolid stodgy halls of mainstream graphic design. the anarchist political/cultural mayhem of jamie reid’s inspiration and the industrial culture dystopia of genesis p. orridge were the leading forces. but, the design kids melded them together into their own vision. the first important designer to blend these ideas together into a potent new style and vision was malcolm garret. the work of barney bubbles – an old school stalwart who had undergone a design epiphany – became yet another huge force in the design thought of the culture in england. peter saville’s work out of northern england was so austere and terrifying that it almost sneaked the crown away from genesis for reserve and subtlety.

eventually, these ideas felt full fruition in the work of neville brody, a former member of the design team of rockin’ russian and even a early collaborator with throbbing gristle. also, vaughn oliver’s work for 4AD records paved the way for the new mature graphic design language that still dominates the thinking and style of the mainstream design world. could stefan sagmeister or even david carson ever have emerged without the subculture language discourse/battle launched by genesis p. orridge and jamie reid? i don’t think so.

genesis quickly moved on from his industrial culture, more deeply exploring the ideas of cult and communication and control in various other projects. i once had the pleasure to take him to a demolition derby in rural washington state (his very first!). we have a mutual friend in paula sjunnesen (paula the swedish housewife, a burlesque impressario). as we arrived at the demo derby, a huge vintage cadillac became airborne directly in front of us and slammed on the ground, on it’s side, and skidded up against the chain link fence. showering us with mud and dirt. he turned to me and said, “oh!, now i GET IT!”

later that same evening i took him to see dale travous’s giant tesla coil, another sight he’d never encountered. his response was , “i LIKE IT! i want TWO!!” the man knew what he liked.

on the way home he told me about one of his latest projects. at the time, he was having an enormous legal problems with immigration. he was being vilified in a divorce and a child custody battle, as well as his general ideas and artwork. so, he was chumming up with a number of “silicon valley and cia spooks who were sympathetic thinkers” to attempt to make him the ‘evilest man in the world’. simply described, he was in the process of placing himself and his name into history via the internet.

for instance, if you pull up the zapruder film online, look carefully at the grassy knoll. you may just find a blurry image of genesis positioned there with looks disturbingly like a rifle. or, perhaps, you may want to look again at some of those old soviet politbureau photos from the lenin era. is that really genesis standing next to trotsky? was genesis really a charter member of the golden dawn? you see what he was up to? garbage in/garbage out.

this offensively plain, period-shocking cover for throbbing gristle’s “second annual report” (actually their first LP) is likely one of the most profound and disturbing record covers to ever be released. taken in it’s context, it could NOT be MORE contrary and negating. it’s the ultimate embrace of everything we are trained to hate and avoid. it makes the most outrageous horrifying and nasty punk rock record covers ever created simply whither in comparison. you see, this isn’t a kiss-off joke. it’s a whole hearted passionate embrace of the end of the world. it’s utterly sincere and beautiful. and terrifying in the extreme.

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