Once part of a collective of artists, musicians and provocateurs described as ‘the wreckers of civilisation’, Cosey Fanni Tutti today finds herself the subject of much praise – and it’s clearly taking some getting used to.
The plaudits in the past 12 months have brought about by the publication of her autobiography Art Sex Music, a memoir whose frankness and fearlessness has changed perceptions of her work with the 70s performance art group COUM Transmissions and the pioneers of industrial music, Throbbing Gristle.
“I’ve been quoted as saying I take exception or I’m uncomfortable with it,” she says, pondering her recent acclaim. “But that’s because...I don’t know, maybe it’s a Yorkshire thing.”
An exhibition at Humber Street Gallery during Hull’s City of Culture year in 2017 certainly brought the art of COUM Transmissions home to where it all began. It was close to the gallery that Tutti – born Christine Newby – had lived in a commune with Genesis P-Orridge and launched COUM in 1969 as a performance art group whose sometimes sexually explicit work challenged social taboos.
Tutti says the start of last year was “one of those serendipitous moments where everything seemed to happen and come together at the same time, with the whole City of Culture and the book and everything, and then the offer to do something in Hull. It wasn’t planned at all so it seemed a very natural progression towards both events – the book and the exhibition.”
She feels the exhibition helped put the first four years of COUM’s work, before they moved to London, into context. “It was not really talked about, the start and the history of COUM in Hull. It’s always been focused around the ICA [where in 1976 they staged their infamous retrospective show Prostitution], which was at the end of COUM, really. It was important to put COUM on the map of Hull and Hull on the map of COUM, and in a way that was historically correct and gave an insight into the workings of COUM before it became what it was known for. That was what was interesting for me, being able to go back and put all those things together and everyone that was involved in it at the time in Hull. It was incredibly busy and active back then before it became just the two of us.”
Revisiting Hull 45 years later was, she says, “a strange thing because you always have this memory of when you were there, and all the buildings reinforce those memories which are all really great for me”.
“I have a real affection for Hull even though I was asked to leave more or less in a round about way, and then embraced and invited back. I think anyone from Yorkshire never loses that love of Yorkshire ever. It was strange seeing some of the buildings that I had such an attachment to that have been redeveloped or knocked down. That was kind of sad for me but I do recognise things have to move on.
“One of the reasons why I chose Humber Street as the gallery for the exhibition was because that was where my roots were when COUM was doing everything there. It wasn’t in Ferens Art Gallery or the University art gallery, which were beautiful spaces but it just felt more right to come back to the place where we began.”
Tutti’s book details the hardship of life in Prince Street commune where she moved when she was thrown out of home by her authoritarian father. She thinks it made the collective, who also included Spydeee Gasmantell and others, more resourceful. “I think being resourceful is part of that hippie ethic as well,” she says. “You didn’t call it eco-friendly back then, it was just a necessity that you had to source cheap materials to enable you to make the things that you visualised, or to even eat. There would be leftover bits of cheese from when they chopped it up or grated it – you’d do something as simple as that when they’d sell off food at the end of the day. It’s a little bit what’s happening now where you have food banks or food that’s going out of date and then that’s used. I think that’s the way it should be.
“It was tough but it’s exciting when you’re 17 and you’re suddenly free to live in your own space. My mother was supportive at the time. I was seeing her every week or even two or three times a week when I lived in Prince Street. She would drop by or we’d go and visit her when my father was at work, and she would help me out if things were rough. She was very good to me.”
What also emerges from Art Sex Music is how Tutti’s vision of COUM as a “democratic collective and all-embracing lifestyle” conflicted with the sexism of others within the group. She says she had such a strong support network at the time that “the control issues” that she faced from her then-partner P-Orridge “were kind of diluted by the fact that I had such good close friends around me”.
“I would see them and we’d go out together and then I would come back and just deal with things the way they were. Every day wasn’t horrible, it never is in any kind of relationship, but when you go over the full period of it and then when I look back now it has a name for that kind of personality now, it didn’t have one then. And you just work through things. I was so happy to be in and amongst like-minded people which included him, to be able to explore things in my own right rather than be forced down one particular direction as a woman, particularly. I was of the mindset then of every woman, that you just made the best of your situation, you made sure that you did what you wanted to do, even if it took longer than it should, you jump over the hurdles on the way.”
The tone of COUM’s work changed with Tutti’s interest in the sex industry and their move to London in 1973. Throughout her encounters with modelling, stripping and film work, she maintained a clear-eyed view of how she wanted to subvert the porn industry through art. “Obviously it was new territory to me,” she laughs, “and a very strange territory because back then it was very under-the-counter. Now you’ve got the internet and it’s all over the place, it’s in everyone’s house at the click of a mouse. Back then it wasn’t, but part of that clandestine view of the industry was what was fascinating. What fascinated me as well was the situations behind the photographs, what circumstances brought these women to that point and how the industry worked.
“Even now I just follow things that present themselves to me. I don’t sit down and work out, ‘Right, I’ve got a strategy, this would be good if I did this’. I didn’t have any notion of career, I had no notion of where this was going to lead me. It was just a fascination that I wanted to explore and it had its advantages and it had its dangers but other than that it was something that I really felt driven to do.
“At the time it wasn’t something that women did. They were criticised heavily for it, and even more so with the feminists rising in the 70s. I was out there doing my thing, whether I was a woman doing it made no difference. My gender had nothing to do with it other than I could get the jobs. But the world is free for me to explore.”
In her book, Tutti says she didn’t see her work as acts of transgression, they were simply a means to an end. Today, she reflects: “I didn’t have a list of things that I should trangress and then go out and do it to annoy people, that wasn’t my intent at all. Also when you get into that kind of work ethic you’re just doing what you need to do and you don’t realise that some people might find that transgressive. It seems quite a natural progression for you as you go through from one thing to another that you’re just doing the full exploration of it, and you want the full experience and you don’t stop short of that because someone else disagrees with you.
“My benchmark was as long as I’m harming no one else then I will continue to do that. I would never harm anyone else in pursuit of what I want to do.”
By the mid-70s Tutti and P-Orridge were dabbling in music. In 1976 they formed the industrial electronic band Throbbing Gristle with Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson and Chris Carter (who would become Tutti’s longtime partner). Tutti believes Carter’s strength of character gave the project a sense of equilibrium.
“I think he was the person that more or less amongst us was the first one to say no to Gen,” she explains. “Because he’s so quiet I don’t think that was expected, so it was more powerful, in a way. I think he was expected to just do what he did and shut up but he didn’t, Chris isn’t like that. He’s very liberal and easygoing, when you’re on the cusp of discovery everybody is, but he didn’t want to be closed down and he saw the potential as much as I did. I think that’s what brought us together in a lot of ways. His approach to work is so disciplined and I picked that up from him.
“At that point before I met him if I was doing something and it wasn’t working out I kind of would move onto something else. I remember him saying to me once ‘Why don’t you go back and revisit it and make it work?’ I said ‘It’s a waste of time’ and he said ‘No, it’s not because you’re learning something. You think you’d discover what you’d done wrong and then put it right and then it’s great, you’ve fulfilled the project’. I’m always someone who’s thinking time is the essence of things but he’s very disciplined and he will sit through something and work it out.”
The same year COUM staged their Prostitution show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Tutti says she had not expected the media furore that the event, which included erotic images and sanitary products, would provoke. “By the time we did the ICA, especially the art part of it, hanging all the framing and getting it all ready with the artefacts from our actions as well, we’d already moved on to Throbbing Gristle so it was like we’d left it behind almost by the time we got to the gallery. I was in Greece finishing off some modelling for Men Only so when I got back and I heard about all this I found it quite confusing. When you’re doing these things you don’t find it transgressive and suddenly when you put them in a gallery and there’s all that storm of protest you realise some people don’t quite understand what this is.
“There was a misunderstanding about it, for sure, but I also think it was about not just the pornography. It was about it was a woman that did it. I think it had a lot to do with that. The Press always referred to Gen first and me second even though it was my cuttings and my tampons in the exhibition that were causing all the trouble. It was not attributed to me but I was to blame, ‘the girlfriend of the artist’, not me as an artist in my own right.”
Conservative MP Nicholas Fairburn declared the collective ‘the wreckers of civilisation’. Tutti says they “embraced” the comment as a badge of honour. “We knew his outrage was so hypocritical so it was loaded with all kinds of meanings, that phrase. And especially from COUM to Throbbing Gristle it was the same thing, it’s more or less been taken as a Throbbing Gristle phrase rather than a COUM one. I don’t think he knew where to place us even. We were in two parallel things at the time – there was COUM on the wall and there was Throbbing Gristle blasting out the sound. I don’t think he knew where to aim it.”
Although there was a crossover at the time with London’s nascent punk scene, Tutti, Carter and Christopherson believed it had a different purpose to their own work. “It was commercial and we weren’t commercial,” Tutti explains. “We knew the people involved, Malcolm McLaren and John Krivene, they both had bands to promote their punk clothing shops. It began in New York anyway but when you saw it beginning in the UK you didn’t think of it as anything new, really. I saw it as a business opportunity but having said that, I’m so glad the the ordinary people that really bought into it actually took it over and made it their own and I think that was really what punk was about.”
Throbbing Gristle’s existence was chaotic and often acrimonious. Tutti thinks that “kind of fed” their music. “I think some of the angst and all the rest of it came through the sound. You’d exorcise that frustration between us all but also in the political situation at the time and the cultural situation. That fed a lot into the sound of Throbbing Gristle. It wasn’t all negative, it was just hard work but that’s why it was called industrial music.”
After Throbbing Gristle split up in 1981, Tutti and Carter went on to form the electronic duo Chris and Cosey (later CTI and Carter Tutti). She found the credit they received odd, given their background. “I think I still do,” she says. “I’m just doing what I want to do. My end goal isn’t acceptance or commercial success. I suppose I see success as when we meet people and we’ve touched their lives in a really positive way then they’ve gone on to do something themselves. That’s what I think is my purpose in doing anything, really. I’m working with everybody else, I’m not working for my own self-gratification in any way whatsoever.”
With a paperback edition of Art Sex Music having just been published, Tutti, now 66, is contemplating where she goes next. “I had people saying to me the other day ‘What are you doing now?’ and I couldn’t even focus my mind to say because there’s a lot going on and it’s all crossing over as well. I’m trying to make space so that I can do music again. I’m working with a gallery in Paris, it’s a group show that’s happening in May and then I’m also in another group show in Germany later on in the year, so I’m working on those at the same time as writing pieces for people, but I just go with whatever’s happening at the time. That’s what my life and my art’s about, opportunities and exciting propositions from people.
“I don’t plan anything because obviously planning didn’t work because I’ve still got a black book full of things that I want to do and I’m doing other things. I’m not someone that dismisses something that presents itself to me that I’ve never done before, like the book. That’s turned out really well and it’s been exciting and a completely new experience for me, writing and publishing. It’s been fascinating to discover that.”
Art Sex Music is published by Faber & Faber, £9.99. Cosey Fanni Tutti appears at Leeds International Festival, in conversation with Chris Madden of Chinwag at Outlaws Yacht Club, Leeds on May 2. leedsinternationalfestival.com