Art

Top image: Courtesy A Message From Thee Temple

For those familiar with Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth (TOPY), it might seem understandable that their story has never been fully told. Formed in 1981, TOPY was an ‘anti-cult’ of experimental British artists who created subversive art alongside ritual magick, forming the inimitable band Psychic TV among other projects.

The group wound up in the centre of a Satanic panic in the UK, culminating in a raid of their material by Scotland Yard and the exile of founding member and iconic performance artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Yet despite opposition from authorities, TOPY succeeded in creating an unprecedented network of counter-cultural creatives, preaching ‘guiltless sexuality’ and arguably forming a framework for the transgressive subcultures which followed them.

Though the raid claimed a large portion of TOPY’s material, director Jacqueline Castel aims to remedy the obscurity of the movement in the group’s first documentary titled A Message From The Temple – as Castel here describes in our interview, it’s “a punk retelling of a modern witch trial.”

The film, which will be produced by Sacred Bones and Dais Records, is in its final stages of pre-production and undergoing a kickstarter campaign for funding. In line with the campaign, the team are hosting a fundraising event in New York this Saturday – with screenings of rare archival material and discussion with TOPY members including P-Orridge in a church titled ‘Thee Temporary Temple’, it certainly promises to be a unique experience. We spoke to Castel and the film’s producer, Ryan Martin, about their work on the documentary, the exciting material they uncovered (spoiler: bodily fluids), and why the telling of this story is so important to culture today.

Alice Simkins: Why did you feel compelled to start this project? 
Jacqueline Castel: This project underwent a few manifestations during its initial inception, originally envisioned by our team as an exploration of the esoteric music scene in the UK during the 1980s, inspired by bands like Psychic TV, Coil, Current 93, and Nurse with Wound. But as we began to dig deeper, we struggled with how to construct a compelling narrative that didn’t reduce the project, out of sheer necessity, to another music documentary. It had to cut deeper if we were going to devote years of our life to it.

During this time, mentions of Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth kept permeating our discussions. While I was abstractly aware of TOPY and had read portions of the Psychick Bible, it wasn’t until I started asking questions that it became quite obvious that we had discovered our story. The more I learned, the more I realised the tremendous impact TOPY had, not just within the broader countercultural context, but the direct and deeply personal impact it had on my own life, unbeknownst to me. It shocked me that its history had never been told, and I felt an immediate urgency to reach out those who came before me, to give back to those who gave to me.

With A Message From The Temple, we aim to tell the story of TOPY in all its complexities and contradictions, yet its scandals, both internally and in the context of the external world, are not what ultimately drew us to the topic. It was the core, underlying philosophy that inspired us, the desire to craft a path of self-actualisation via radical experimentation. And that lifestyle is bound to stir up controversy. At its heart, I view the TOPY story as a punk re-telling of a modern witch trial. It’s timeless, and that’s a quality that always draws me to a project.

“At its heart, I view the TOPY story as a punk re-telling of a modern witch trial.”

Ryan Martin: One of our co-producers, Caleb Braaten, had contacted me one night vaguely asking if I had ever had any experience or interest in making a film. I had replied, “No” to which he came back with “Great, lets meet up this week to discuss a film idea I have.” Me and Caleb met up to flesh out his idea of making a documentary loosely based around Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Would. Jacqueline came on as director and soon after Aldona Watts joined the fold as co-producer since she had just wrapped up her own documentary, Land of Songs. 

After a year of struggling with trying to find an engaging story suitable for film without it being a stereotypical music documentary only for the fans, the four of us noticed that Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth kept coming up as a point of discussion and focus.  We soon realised that the film had to change course because TOPY was this untold story that kept inserting itself into the conversation of people within the UK underground.

AS: How do you see TOPY still having an influence on people today?
JC: As one of the largest and most organised DIY networks ever created, TOPY formed a global, pre-internet alliance as a means to distribute material directed at informing and empowering its membership. Its lasting influences can be traced philosophically and aesthetically throughout the bloodlines of the counterculture -– from the punk, industrial, and early rave scenes, to the queer underground, to the formation of the cyberpunk movement. From sexuality, occultism, altered states, and body modification to filmmaking, performance art, graphic design and fashion, its influence is staggering. Basically, if you have any interest whatsoever in the counterculture of the past thirty years, there’s a good chance that TOPY has probably, in some form, had an impact on it whether you realise it or not.

“If you have any interest whatsoever in the counterculture of the past thirty years, there’s a good chance that TOPY has probably, in some form, had an impact on it.”

AS: Did you set out with a clear idea of how you wanted to present TOPY in the documentary, what parts of their history did you want to focus on?

JC: It was clear to us early on that we needed to focus on the years 1981–1991, both as a means to maintain focus and brevity, and because those years had a clear and compelling narrative trajectory. 1981 marked the initial inception of TOPY in the aftermath of Throbbing Gristle’s dissolution and lead to the first Psychic Television performance in 1982 at The Final Academy alongside William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, so it was an obvious starting point. From there we plan to focus on how TOPY grew into an international network throughout the 80s, the challenges that presented to the group, and how those trials lead to its ultimate, controversial dissolution in 1991. We’d like to end on the Scotland Yard raid of the P-Orridge property that occurred in early 1992, a strategic political tactic that claimed a large portion of TOPY’s archives, history and legacy, a loss we aim to remedy with this project.    

AS: How did you go about uncovering the archival material for the project?
JC: As we are in the initial stages of this project, we are still in the process of sourcing, cataloging, and transferring media at this time. It’s akin to private detective work and requires you to openly investigate all sources – from individual personal collections to major institutions internationally. It requires intuition, intensive research, and the generosity of strangers. Part of the goal in launching a very public campaign about this project is to send out a signal, to connect with others who may have otherwise fallen out of contact, gone by aliases, or previously been unreachable, to aid and participate in this process.

A large part of our archival access has come from the collaboration of the Tate Britain, who now house the official Genesis Breyer P-Orridge archives (which Ryan initially packed during the time of its sale). I digitally transferred most of the videocassettes from their collection by hand personally, with the assistance of the incredible staff at LUX Artist’s Moving Resource in London. At the time, LUX’s facilities had recently relocated to the grounds adjacent to Highgate Cemetery, and I couldn’t help but be struck by how poetically fitting an environment it was, to be broadcasting the spirits of the past from the gates of a graveyard.

“I couldn’t help but be struck by how poetically fitting an environment it was, to be broadcasting the spirits of the past from the gates of a graveyard.”

RM: I had worked for a number of years with Genesis cataloging material from he/r archives, so the primary source right now is those very archives now housed with the Tate Britain. The amount of material within the Tate is overwhelming but since no one has previously tried to tie together the full survey of TOPY and its methodology, the material is scattered. Beyond the Tate, we’ve been using the TOPY network of past members to track down any footage, ephemera and interviews to help get a wider view of TOPY’s purpose. With everything that we’ve uncovered so far, we acknowledge that this is only the tip of the iceberg with respect to TOPY and are hoping that former members will come forward. 

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

AS: Did you discover anything unexpected, what was the most evocative thing you worked with?
JC: One of my personal favourite discoveries was a diary that Ryan secured from Genesis, a daily account of activities during the 1980s, thick as a bible and chock full of rich, provocative details (my first instinct was to look up my birth date, to discover the details of an orgy). Ryan similarly procured a ritual sigil diary, filled with intensely intimate photographs, artwork, and writing from the same period, preserved in the “three liquids” (spit, blood, cum). It’s one of the most beautiful artifacts we’ve discovered.

Our biggest breakthrough moment for the project though was securing a copy of Beyond Belief, the satanic ritual abuse television program responsible for the 1992 Scotland Yard raid of Genesis’ home and subsequent exile of the P-Orridge family from the UK. We have since obtained a high quality copy, but our original source came from a bootleg Caleb, Aldona and I discovered in the Mohave Desert at the Archives of Aesthetic Nihilism. We spent a blistering August afternoon lost in a massive collection of meticulously cataloged VHS tapes and cultural ephemera (everything from a bottle of Budweiser belonging to Nico to framed personal photographs of Bobby Beausoleil’s wedding to every publication on mass murderers imaginable), finally emerging triumphant with a DVD rip of the coveted broadcast as the sun was setting. We were exhausted and exhilarated and covered in dust, in the absolute last place you’d think to find a copy of a British television program. We raced back to Los Angeles to view it, and after our initial viewing, my heart sank. I was dumbstruck with the program, hit by the weight of how little was required to justify terrorising a marginalised demographic in the eyes of the law. Its banality horrifies me.

RM: As Jacqueline pointed out, the ritual sigil diary we scanned was one of the more unique and eloquent pieces we’ve worked with. Most of the videos (and there are A LOT of videos) are really fun to go through since a lot of them we’re publicly distributed and we’re somewhat done in a mixtape fashion, so depending on who put together that specific video, the contents would be extremely unusual.

AS: Why do you feel it’s important to uncover the story of TOPY now?
JC: With each passing day archives continue to erode and disappear, the relatively recent loss of both Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson and John Balance are a stark reminder that if we don’t take action now, these perspectives could be lost forever. It’s imperative to tell this story while we still can.

On a larger, more philosophical level, it’s also clear that marginalised voices have a historical precedent of being negated, either because its viewpoints disturb the current power narrative, or simply because the cultural fringe is less likely to be valued by the majority and its protected institutions. And this therefore necessitates action on the part of every generation, on a personal level, to protect ones own cultural legacy. It’s only in preserving the past and in learning from its mistakes that we are able to take responsibility for, and ultimately impact, the future.

In times of political uncertainty and instability, the underlining philosophies of TOPY as a means to explore radical personal liberation, autonomy, and transformation become increasingly more urgent. Its message now is as relevant as it was in its inception 35 years ago. To rephrase in words employed by TOPY, as borrowed from the harrowing signage of Jim Jones, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

AS: What exactly is going down at your fundraising night?
JC: Ritual Cuttings is a benefit for A Message From The Temple, where we will be presenting a curated selection of rare archival footage followed by a moderated panel discussion with TOPY members from three of its international access points (from the UK, USA, and Canada). The “de-programming” features a collaged mix of interviews, films, music videos, and TOPY ephemera, culminating with “Beyond Belief” in its entirety. It’s our take on what Genesis refers to as “Surrealist Television,” an echo of the cut up techniques utilised by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, as a means to craft a narrative of the TOPY legacy through re-discovered footage.

Afterwards, we are opening the floor to a panel discussion and Q&A moderated by Ryan, featuring original TOPY members Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Tom Headbanger (aka Coyote 2/12 and head of TOPY North America), Caleigh Fisher (founder of TOPY Toronto), Paul “Bee” Hampshire (early TOPY UK and PTV), and Pieter Schoolwerth (TOPY North America). We will presenting a similar event in London in the next few months in support of the project.

More information on ‘A Message From The Temple’ can be found at the website, and to support, head to the Kickstarter fund here

Ritual Cuttings: A night of Psychic Television Transmissions and discussion with TOPY members Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Tom Headbanger and Pieter Schoolwerth is on 8pm tomorrow night, Saturday 15th October at 85 N15th Street Brooklyn, New York

All images courtesy A Message From Thee Temple