Art / Books / Music

Postcards From The Edge: Cosey Fanni Tutti’s “Art Sex Music”

If Cosey Fanni Tutti’s life and work could be summed up in a quick sound byte, it would be, “My Life Is My Art. My Art Is My Life” (115). From her performance art and musical work in COUM Transmissions, Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey, and Carter Tutti to her solo performance work and her jobs as a stripper, nude model and porn actress, which made frequent appearances in her photo collages, Cosey has, since the 1970s, successfully blurred the lines between art and life.

And, as she shows in her recently published memoir Art Sex Music, this aesthetic dedication is not an easy road to take. Through 500 pages, Cosey documents, with unwavering honesty, the highs and lows of the uncompromising creative life from disownment from her family over her art to her unstable relationship with COUM and Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis Breyer P-Orridge to her continued creative collaboration and love affair with her partner Chris Carter.

In an interview with Rich Juzwiak on Jezebel’s The Muse, Cosey observed, “Art was my life. A career, as such, has never entered the picture for me ‘cause that would be a consideration and a responsibility. I’d have to consider and then compromise my work. And I don’t like doing that.”

The Birth Of Cosmosis

“‘Yours was a difficult birth,’ my mother told me. I was born with my left elbow bent and my fist firmly wedged against my chin like Rodin’s The Thinker. Then she added with a smile, ‘You’ve been difficult ever since’” (1).

In many ways, Art Sex Music begins disarmingly typically with Cosey’s birth in the city of Kingston upon Hull, which she describes as, “then the most violent city in England.” In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Cosey would become a founding and essential member of the industrial band Throbbing Gristle as she grew up playing around the bombed-out shell of a city. “The sheer destruction,” she recalls, “caused by the bombings of Hull meant that bombed-out buildings were everywhere me and my friends wandered as children. These bomb sites, which held such fascination for me, were our playgrounds and we’d fantasize about the people who had once lived there” (6).

As she gets older, Cosey begins to explore the psychedelic music scene of the late 1960s to the ire of her overbearing father, becoming more and more alienated from her family: “I continued to disobey Dad, with invaluable and much-appreciated assistance from Mum. She’s the one I thank for being who I am now. She believed in me and encouraged me by finding ways around the restrictions imposed by him, and smoothing things over whenever possible. She was in a difficult and unenviable position, in the middle of a battle of wills between two headstrong people” (34).

Cosey describes these moments with a blunt clarity. Rather than reveling in her struggles, which range in the memoir from a miscarriage and an abortion to an ongoing heart condition to her violent relationship with Genesis, Cosey lays these events out point blank, drawing largely on her diaries and filling the rest in with very little analysis. In some ways, this makes reliving her experiences through text feel more present; the writing lacks the historical revision that can happen often in memoirs.

Speaking of Genesis, the memoir picks up steam once Cosey meets Genesis in early November 1969–another birth of sorts when she acquires her pseudonym Cosmosis or Cosey. Her diary entry reads: “Cosmosis he named me after seeing me just once.” During an acid test at Union at Hull University, Cosey recalls, “As I went to leave, I saw what I thought was a hallucination–a small beautiful guy dressed in a black graduation gown, complete with mortar board and a wispy, pale-lilac goatee beard” (50). Leaving without meeting him formally, Cosey later remembers:

“About a week later, I was out with Rick and another friend, Wilsh. We were at a gig-cum-disco event, laughing and dancing to ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies, when a guy came over to me and said, ‘Cosmosis, Genesis would like to see you.’

‘What?’

It was explained to me that a guy called Genesis had seen me and named me Cosmosis and wanted us to get together. I didn’t know what to think of it.

‘Oh. OK, then,’ I said, meaning to deal with it later’ (50-51).

“To Say The Least, An Adventure”

Throbbing Gristle in 1980

Now, I’ll admit Genesis does not come off particularly well in the book. In a relationship with Gen during COUM and Throbbing Gristle, until she left Genesis for fellow Throbbing Gristle band member Chris Carter with whom she’s still partnered, Cosey depicts Genesis as clearly manipulative and, at worst, abusive. However, she also refrains from labeling herself as a victim or Gen as an abuser. Cosey frankly states, “My relationship with Gen was, to say the least, an adventure” (57).

The book is sometimes hard to take as violence pervades their relationship. “Gen’s moods and sometimes violent outbursts were a feature of our relationship and because I loved him so much at that time I accepted them as being part of who he was–alongside his intimations that I was usually to blame for his anger and sadness,” she reveals (99).

It’s no surprise that Cosey and Gen’s relationship–both personal and creative–takes up a significant part of the text. Now, the criticism of Gen, particularly toward the end of the hefty tome, becomes a bit tiresome, especially when getting into the details of the later Throbbing Gristle revival in the 2000s. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t warranted or fair, especially when Genesis seems hell-bent on usurping Cosey’s role in these historical performance groups. But even I, a lover of all things gossipy, was ready to cry uncle.

And this isn’t to say Cosey doesn’t participate in some shady behavior herself, namely in the pronoun usage in reference to Genesis. Throughout the book, even after Genesis transitions into the pandrogyne with Lady Jaye, Cosey refers to Genesis as “he” rather than “s/he,” which is h/er preferred pronoun. I’ll refrain from passing judgment since I know Cosey has her reasons.

Despite their rocky relationship the book, though, the creative collaboration in COUM and Throbbing Gristle was beyond fruitful and remains wholly influential. Beginning with COUM, Cosey, Genesis and a roving band of other performers and musicians put on surrealist, subversive performances that transcended the boundaries of discipline and often good taste. “I’ve often been asked what COUM meant–to explain it,” Cosey writes, “The definition of COUM was intentionally elusive. That allowed for total freedom of expression and interpretation (including by the ‘audience’), which was a core value of COUM and created a forum for debate and sometimes brought new members. COUM was not just a ‘group’ but also more of a movement, a collective family of diverse people from all walks of life, each of us exploring and living out our fantasies or obsessions with the aim of achieving creative and self-awareness and confidence as artists regardless of, and in opposition to, the convention skill sets and criteria by which ‘artists’ are defined. COUM was about giving free reign to ideas, about not being limited by rules or self-doubt–which lead to some confrontational situations as we challenged and broke established rules and cultural and social conventions” (81).

COUM’s performances became more and more extreme, moving from hippie dippie “fantasy costumes and frivolity” to more sexually confrontational works. In one performance, Cosey remembers, “I strode on stage dominatrix-style, in high heels and naked save for a strap costume that didn’t cover much. I’d made it from strips of black PVC and gold buckles I’d found in a bin outside a handbag factory nears Martello Street. I felt the part as I stood watching a naked Gen being chained and tied to a large wooden X-shaped cross that was placed centre stage, where he would await my treatment. I daubed him in flour past and chicken’s feet and whipped him hard. He pissed on my legs, I inserted a lit candle in my vagina, cracked the whip and left the stage.” (167).

Sounds unforgettable.

COUM was even too much for so-called performance art bore Chris Burden who “stormed out in disgust” at a late COUM performance in which, as Cosey reflects, “I syringed my pussy, stitched my arm. We ended up all locked together lying in Gen’s piss, blood and vomit” (214). Burden could handle getting shot, but apparently, even he had limits. Cosey remarks, “I don’t know what they expected, but they shouldn’t have assumed anything other than the unexpected” (214).

Eventually COUM transformed into Throbbing Gristle, a paramilitary-uniformed industrial band more focused on the physicality of sound: “As TG we wanted a sound that hit people between the eyes and swirled in grinding, growling mayhem between their ears. A sound that caused and involuntary physical response in the body that would make people feel and think rather than just listen, dance and get drunk. In the studio, we experimented with extreme frequencies; one of us stood at the ‘kill switch’ to cut the power if the effects became too much. We experienced tunnel vision, our stomachs going into spasm, and our trouser legs flapping” (241).

Writing Her Own History

In many ways, Art Sex Music feels more than a memoir. It’s not just a record of her experiences, but a seminal female performer’s reassertion of her own place within art, music and performance history. Sometimes, women in the arts have to do this–it’s up to us to write our own history.

This isn’t to say Cosey isn’t widely respected or institutionally renowned. She is, but let’s be honest, not as much as her counterparts. In particular, COUM and Throbbing Gristle have been largely attributed to the singular genius of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (then, Genesis P-Orridge). While Gen is, of course, a Filthy Dreams favorite, that is not the entire story.

Asked about writing her own place into history by Rich Juzwiak, Cosey admits, “That wasn’t my main priority, but it was one of the reasons why did it. On a day-to-day level, as everything unfolds, you can see my role within whatever I was doing. It was instrumental in what happened it was one of the main role in everything we did. And that has been written out. That in itself reveals the sexism. I do mention it just in case people can’t see it. It’s pretty clear.”

The Art Life

Flyer for ‘Prostitution’

Ultimately, though, Art Sex Music documents the tough yet gratifying realities of the complete merging of art and life from her near constant financial troubles to her daily life at collective dwellings like the Ho Ho Funhouse. “Contrary to what others may have said, the Hells Angels never had three-day parties at the Funhouse, they just popped round now and again. But their visits did upset our fellow housemates and some of the locals,” she bluntly recalls (71). Ok then…

In particular, Cosey’s work as a stripper, nude model and porn actress became the epitome of combining art and life. A natural progression from the sex magazine collages she was already making, Cosey decided to get into her own nude modeling: “This all fitted in with me using more and more sex-magazine images in my collages and diaries. As I sat cutting around the naked bodies, the idea of cutting around my own body and collaging myself as a nude model from a sex magazine struck me as having an honesty and potency that I felt could be the embodiment of a consummate artwork. I would have created the very image that I then used to create a work of art. That approach and process seemed to epitomize what I wanted from my work–‘My Life IS My Art. My Art Is My Life.’–and I’d get to enter a world that intrigued me and was (at that time) shrouded in mystery” (115).

These pornographic images would continue to enrage institutions, who clutched at their pearls for decades. The most infamous being the 1976 COUM exhibition Prostitution at the ICA, named for Cosey’s “first appearance in a sex magazine…but it also represented our thoughts about the art world-talent being touted and sold for a price, the relationship between high art and money” (198). Because of Cosey’s collages, the ICA became entrenched in outrage for “exhibiting ‘pornography”(201). The institution decided to remedy the situation by hiding Cosey’s work in a back room, to her own delight: “I always felt this was, intentional or not, like relegating the magazines to a place of comparable to their original context–in the back room, an under-the-counter situation like a Soho sex shop. Sex shop to art gallery to back room. All it needed was a dusty velvet curtain in the doorway” (202).

Even though Prostitution was decades ago, her collage work still comes under fire now and again, even in 2005: “Everything had gone so well, then on the eve of the opening an ICA moment raised its ugly head. One of the museum staff took exception to the framed work in particular as being too controversial and said that the museum could be closed down by complaints. I couldn’t believe that revisiting the ‘Prostitution’ works and resulted in the same censorship issues. Me and Andrew remained calm but firm and suggested a warning sign stating that the lower-floor area of the library contained pornographic material, and that there was no access to anyone under the age of sixteen. What made the situation worse was that there was a retrospective of a male Dutch artist in the main museum space, which included pornographic collages. There was no demand that he install warning signs for his work. That male/female artist hierarchy prevailed. Just one guy had caused the unnecessary angst. The other museum staff and the director were very apologetic and supportive” (390). Nothing really changes, does it?

It’s these occasional controversies that show just how transgressive it can still be to be an uncompromising artist. Overall, the book reads as a necessary reminder for our currently stagnated art scene (I’ve been around Chelsea. SNORE) that truly experimental art can and does happen, but you have to be willing to throw yourself into its abyss. Cosey emerges as a role model for those of us who still want to push boundaries beyond the fleeting and empty concerns of career, social capital and financial gain. As Cosey says, “It’s not an easy life, just living off what you create, but it’s so rewarding and fulfilling. I couldn’t live any other way.”

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