Book Review: Cosey Fanni Tutti – Art Sex Music (Drowned in Sound)

We were outsiders and we commented from the outside looking in” Cosey Fanni Tutti told ‘The Wire’ in 2007, reflecting back on the spirit of industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle in the mid to late 1970s. “And that’s what a lot of people have difficulty doing nowadays. There is no longer an ‘outside’”, she added. Throbbing Gristle’s “post-war kids” idealistic commitment to change the world informed their unique approach to theory, music-making, and distribution in ways that feel weirdly unimaginable today: starting from scratch with very little money; establishing a record company and information channels; confounding listeners’ expectations to the point of ‘self-sabotage’; breaking new ground in the process. Is there really no ‘outside’ anymore? Is it because everything has been tried and done before, or is it our chronic interconnectedness that makes it nearly impossible to imagine a rupture effect of the same magnitude? These and other questions are likely to obsess the reader of Cosey Fanni Tutti’s autobiography Art Sex Music, a fascinating document of her more than forty years work at the intersection of the three titular domains.

This book certainly is a treat for fans of Throbbing Gristle, adding much information to what is already in print, notably Simon Ford’s monumental Wreckers Of Civilisation and, more recently, Drew Daniel’s 33 1/3 monograph on Throbbing Gristle’s classic album 20 Jazz Funk Greats. The band’s story, although well-documented and meticulously archived, bursts with myths and alternative versions, especially with regard to their 2004-2010 reformation era and the complicated relationships between Genesis P-Orridge and the other members, the late Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, Cosey herself, and her partner and collaborator Chris Carter. In Art Sex Music, Tutti’s clarity and poise help set the record straight on many episodes in the oft tormented life of the band. Yet, it would be wrong to posit the ‘Throbbing Gristle connoisseur’ as the implied reader of her memoirs. Tutti’s recollections, triggered by the rediscovery of her diaries, touch on so many aspects of her personal life, her solo and collaborative work in the fields of performance, photography, pornography, and music, that they succeed in welcoming the casual reader just as much as the Throbbing Gristle completist. Art Sex Music will captivate anyone with an interest in the evolution and contradictions of cultural value: the ways what we regard as “good” art and/or music can be challenged – a risky business often rewarded only much later on, when acceptance brings the revolutionaries of yesterday straight into the canon. In the introduction to the Industrial Culture Handbook, published in 1983, two years after Throbbing Gristle’s announcement that “The mission is terminated”, V. Vale wrote: “These are not gallery or salon artists struggling to get to where the money is: these are artists in spite of artThere is no standard or value left unchallenged”. Between being hailed as a musical innovator and having her art bought by the Tate and continuously exhibited all over the world, you can definitely say that Tutti’s work has by now received all the recognition that it deserved both from the music and the art world. But as her book exposes in great detail, the journey has been all but straightforward.

It began in Hull, of all places, “The most violent city in England”, she writes, where Cosey was born Christine Newby in 1951. Still scattered with post-War debris, Hull offered very few escapist routes to youngsters, but rebelling against the reprimands of her strict father, Christine soon began to find ways to express herself through art and music. While the much-hated piano lessons worked more to lay the foundations of her career-defining distrust for learning how to play an instrument, her father’s home experiments with radios and circuit boards, she points out, must have had an impact on her future fascination for “unorthodox sounds”. Against the background of her late teens, American hippy ideas and music started to filter through to the UK: Tutti immersed herself in the counterculture of the time and expanded her music taste, appreciating anyone from Joni Mitchell to the Velvets and Captain Beefheart. By 1969, her “pivotal year”, Hull had transformed into a creative hub of sorts. Indulging in gigs and drugs led to a final confrontation with her dad, who threw her out despite her mother’s attempts to make it work. It was at a gig that recent Hull Uni-dropout Genesis P. Orridge, “the archetypical revolutionary-cum-bohemian artist”, she recalls, took notice of Christine, baptised her Cosmosis, and eventually found his way into her heart. It would be the starting point of a turbulent artistic and personal “adventure”, one that for all its achievements in the pursuit of art and an alternative lifestyle often degraded into a draining and at times plain abusive affair for Cosey, who joined Gen’s commune (but in a room of her own) at the start of 1970. Make what you will of the story of their relationship up until their final breakup and its repercussions on her and Throbbing Gristle’s life, but Genesis’ impact on Cosey’s life and work is a pervasive, inescapable undercurrent in Art Sex Music. It must have been an impossibly complicated task to recollect and account for such a concoction of conflicting emotions and destructive behaviours. It’s uncanny how mutual respect and appreciation seem to transform into disrespect and resentment in the space of a few paragraphs. Theirs was a gripping dynamic, for sure, but it can also make for a rather frustrating and shocking read.

In 1970 Cosey became a core member of the COUM Transmissions art collective, whose ‘happenings’ were influenced by Dada and surrealism as much as Genesis’ interest in Aleister Crowley’s occultism and ideas shared with certain strands of the avant-garde/experimental music field. “Total freedom of expression and interpretation” were key to the COUM ethos, which led to a constant challenge of social conventions and ideas of what an artist is. Freedom to explore without prior skills or expectations made the collective experience of COUM an ever-expanding, anarchic project, epitomised by slogans such as “COUM. We guarantee disappointment” and live actions that merged music accompaniments with disorienting, but (at least initially) rather playful performances. Through mail art COUM garnered much more visibility and established an international network that ultimately led to familiarisation with festival circuits, the Arts Council grant scheme, and a strategic use of the ‘performance art’ category to be acknowledged within its system. Nevertheless a critique of all things bureaucratic (government forms, unemployment benefits requests, grants) ended up playing a big part in COUM’s ‘attack’ on cultural value, perhaps culminating in the mock questionnaires and application forms distributed to their audience during the 1973 performance ‘The Ministry of Antisocial Insecurity’.

In the COUM chapters Cosey achieves something noteworthy. Not only does she describe and contextualise the collective’s countless performances across the UK and Europe, but also correlates the ideas and spontaneity of the project with the reality of being artists on the dole. Right from the start her role as photographer, props-builder, theorist, and designer went hand in hand with working full-time jobs. Recounting the story of her personal struggles to make ends meet and take care of the household, she reveals the effects of the gendered division of labour and the rampant sexism that even hippy communes and art collectives of the 1970s couldn’t shake off. The inventively adorned pram used as a prop in some of the earlier ‘deCOUMpositions’, just to give on example, turned into a sculpture called ‘Wagon Train’: “That was all very well”, she writes, “But the pram was my only means of transporting our bags of dirty washing to the laundrette, which was a good four-mile walk from Prince Street”. It’s in light of details of this kind that Cosey exposes the easier-said-than-done nature of what would become her motto: “My Life Is My Art. My Art Is My Life”.

That phrase came to be extremely pertinent when Tutti approached the world of nude modelling via photography. She had already been using cuttings from sex magazines for her own art when she realised she could be the very subject of her own collages. Modelling, and later on, pornography, became work and covert “research” at the same time. She was infiltrating the two worlds, but learning their inner workings and experiencing them in the first person. More so in London, where Genesis and Tutti moved in 1973 to boost their COUM activities, initially settling in a basement studio on Martello Street, Hackney and later dividing their time between the studio space and a squat on Beck Road. Tutti’s ventures into the sex and modelling industry propelled COUM’s exploration of sex and nudity in their live actions. In the London performance ‘The COUMing of Age’, for example, (where they met future COUM and Throbbing Gristle member Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson), Cosey appeared on a pink swing hung center stage, embodying the ‘innocent girl’ fantasy, until she started to pee on the audience through a heart-shaped hole cut in the swing seat. In ‘Studio Of Lust’, performed in Southampton, Genesis, Cosey, and Sleazy, each in separate corners of the room, would start to play with objects and their own bodies, including cutting and urination, only to later unite and get entangled into action at the center of the room. COUM’s unorthodox methods garnered them more attention and a peak of recognition when they were chosen to represent Britain at the 9th Paris Biennale and in Milan for the ‘Arte Inglese Oggi 1960-1970’ exhibition. In Paris they presented a Perspex box filled with soiled tampons, maggots and pieces of red meat: Cosey had been collecting her used tampons in preparation.

Cosey’s narration of this shift to sex and the naked body raises questions on the nature of transgressive art and the limitations of ‘transgression’ as a concept. Caught in the moment of recollection she still seems in the process of figuring ‘transgression’ out. “I didn’t think of my work as acts of transgression”, she writes. “They were a means to an end and gave me an overwhelming sense of freedom, self-achievement, confidence, strength, and belief in myself”. Only a few pages later we find her stating “I was transgressing rules – feminist ones included”. Far from merely contradicting herself, she seems to point at the possibility of reading her work both ways. There is no definitive answer here, and that, I suspect, is key to the Cosey methodology. Tutti was working with modelling and pornography at a time when feminism saw the two domains as inherently degrading for women and antagonistic with the feminist cause. “But I was no ‘victim’ of exploitation”, she says “I was exploiting the sex industry for my own purposes, to subvert and use them to create my own art”. In this sense, especially by presenting her modelling work in actions and galleries, away from its original context, Tutti confounded and continuously challenged the subject/object distinction, short-circuiting simplistic ideas of exploitation and power and anticipating positions that came to be seen as ‘feminist’ only much later.

In theory, it might not have been ‘transgression’ so much as the process of exposing how boundaries worked and how they could be challenged. In practice, though, you know you’re effectively transgressing when sanctions come at you from every angle. Genesis’ use of nudity in his mail art led to a trial for dissemination of pornography, some people (some peer artists too) stormed out of their performances in disdain, and when the legendary COUM retrospective exhibition PROSTITUTION took place at the ICA, the press reacted with a torrent of scandal. Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn infamously exclaimed: “These people are the wreckers of civilisation” in ‘The Daily Mail’ on 19 October 1976. The title of the exhibition, where Cosey presented her magazine work as her ‘action’, was not just a reference to the association of the sex industry with prostitution, but it also represented, she writes, “our thoughts about the art world – talent being touted and sold for a price”. It seems all the more ironic that PROSTITUTIONprompted a discussion on the public funding of arts in the House of Commons.

PROSTITUTION was a farewell to COUM and the official launch of the musical entity (“we weren’t a band”, Cosey points out) Throbbing Gristle, the synergetic encounter of Cosey, Genesis, Sleazy, and gear mastermind Chris Carter. By the time of the ICA event, Chris and Cosey’s love relationship, despite the many frictions with Genesis and Chris’s ex-wife Simone, had officially begun. The press coverage of the event, on the other hand, signified the end of Cosey’s relationship with both her parents. Tutti’s narration of the Throbbing Gristle years is a page-turning epic of trial-error achievements and brutal honesty. “Throbbing Gristle was dysfunctional and always on the brink of collapse”, she writes. “Much like the equipment, it teetered on the edge of breaking down from being pushed to the limit”. Tutti traces the evolution of their sound, pays due credit to ‘who came up with what’ in terms of ideas and instrumentation and explains the ‘moral’ urge behind Throbbing Gristle’s use of vivid imagery and references to the darkest corners of humanity, like the Nazi death camp used as a logo for Industrial Records, their slogan ‘Music From The Death Factory’, or the continuous references to systems of control and manipulation (including, of course, sex) in songs like Persuasion or Convincing People.

Tutti makes a distinction between mere shock value (the kind of sloppy symbolism you’d often find in punk, for example) and Throbbing Gristle’s idea to “address the full spectrum of human behaviour”. The transgressive potential of Throbbing Gristle’s work is not so much mythologised here as thoroughly contextualised and even deconstructed in the process. By 1977 it was clear that Throbbing Gristle had nothing to do with punk, let alone with the ultimately rockist essence of its sound. Technology was always key to the band, with Carter’s self-built synths and special-effects units (such as the Gristleizer) being center stage. They showed a predilection for machine rhythms, improvisation, heavily saturated sounds at the intersection of noise, and ambient – the kind of factory sounds which, perhaps simplistically, ended up being associated with industrial as a genre. The result was a tough listening experience, even more so during their live performances, which were both a way to challenge their audiences and to stimulate them to find their own entry points. As Matmos’ Drew Daniel eloquently put it, Throbbing Gristle “literally were no fun: after my first encounters with Throbbing Gristle, I felt exhausted and oppressed, as if I’d inhaled antimatter. It was a bummer to listen to, but you somehow felt stronger afterward because you could take it”. Cosey played guitar with whatever objects she could find, filtering it through the arsenal of pedals and units set up by Chris. She also started playing the cornet and on ‘Hot On The Heels Of Love’ (1979), her voice appeared in full sensual splendour, singing “I’m hot on the heels of love / Waiting from help from above”. It was a particularly key Throbbing Gristle moment for Cosey, as the track seemed to channel, musically and lyrically, her experience as a stripper, which started in late 1977. Under the pseudonym Scarlet she developed a “love-hate relationship” with stripping, finding power in her own desirability but dreading, as you’d expect, the often obnoxious folks she had to perform for. Tutti would soundtrack her go-go dancing to “good” disco as well as Beefheart or Pere Ubu. In that sense ‘HOTHOL’ much anticipated what, after Throbbing Gristle’s implosion in 1981, Chris & Cosey would explore musically in the field of experimental dance music. Her singing alone predicted the mystifying, breathy vocal delivery adopted on many C&C tracks: ‘Synaesthesia’, ‘Driving Blind’, ‘Rise’, you name it. There’s a peculiarly Cosey way of interpreting a track halfway between sensuality and disaffection, resulting in something which is steamy, ominous, and ironic at the same time. If there’s anything I would have loved her to expand on in Art Sex Music is exactly that: her ever-puzzling vocal style.

Compared to the Throbbing Gristle story, the Chris & Cosey chapters are a balm. The founding of their own label The Creative Technology Institute (also a moniker for any collaboration and non C&C project); the unexpected success and critical acclaim of their first records; the birth of their child, Nick, whose heartbeat featured on the title track of Heartbeat (1981); the retreat to the countryside; the countless collaborations and live sets that continue to this day under the names Carter Tutti and Carter Tutti Void (with Nik Colk Void of Factory Floor). Cosey depicts an unstoppable creative process facilitated by freedom, the belief in artistic independence, the embrace of technology, and an absolute complicity with her partner. Of the cover of their much celebrated record Trance (1982) she writes, it was “as easy-going as the music”. And that’s something to celebrate here, that ‘easy-going-ness’, to the point where you could say that a certain openness to love and joy is what Chris & Cosey have kept investigating in their music and the source of resilience that kept them going in spite of economic setbacks, illnesses and personal losses. Her story of the genesis of their iconic track ‘October (Love Song)’ is probably one of my favourite passages in the book. While laying down the vocals for the track, communicating with Chris through her headphones, Cosey started to reminisce about their love story: “You took my hand on the stair / You said we could be lovers / I just had to say the word”. Less than 10 years before, Cosey could be seen ‘castrating’ Chris in the film After Cease To Exist, with some help from Sleazy. Now they’d whisper eternal love into each other’s ears in a quintessentially kitsch music video. Coming full-circle, no value or expectation left unchallenged.

Published on Drowned in Sound

2017-04-05

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