Cosey Fanni Tutti has cut a singular path along the outer limits of art and music. Growing up in Hull, in northern England, she fell in with the local communal scene in the early 70s.
Nov 1 2010, 12:00am
Interview by Stephen Sprott
Portrait by Alex Sturrock
Cosey Fanni Tutti has cut a singular path along the outer limits of art and music. Growing up in Hull, in northern England, she fell in with the local communal scene in the early 70s. It was there that she met Genesis P-Orridge and joined his group COUM Transmissions. Their freewheeling musical shows (“Coumceptual Rock”) quickly expanded into anarchic and immersive happenings; by 1973, with Cosey and Genesis having moved to London, COUM pushed their live actions still further, confronting and confounding all manner of societal and bodily taboos along the way. Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson joined the group a year later, and with the addition soon after of Chris Carter, COUM reformed as a band, calling themselves Throbbing Gristle. Their music was contrarian, both menacing and oblique, and the image they projected was atypical of the punk groups of the time. Their casual feints at English domesticity barely concealed their deep interest in wayward and militant behavior. Cosey had also begun posing in adult magazines and doing adult films and striptease acts in order to help support both the band and COUM’s ongoing art actions. While these activities provided a needed source of income, Cosey made them into artworks themselves. Her explorations of sexuality, both as a commercial fetish and as an instinctive drive, have been a central theme of her work. Since 1981, with the demise of TG (they’ve since reunited now and then), Cosey and Carter have been recording albums under the name Chris and Cosey (more recently as Carter Tutti). Cosey has exhibited and performed her work worldwide, and her influence continues to grow. By way of example, this past March, London’s ICA, the site of COUM’s notorious 1976 “Prostitution” exhibit, presented a one-day event of “Cosey as Methodology,” hosting a range of artists, writers, and other practitioners with shared interests in her polyvalent life. This was properly rounded out with a late night of “Cosey Club.”
Vice: Hi Cosey, how are you?
Cosey Fanni Tutti: I’m well, doing good.
I named one of my cats after you.
Oh, did you?
I have two. Her brother is named Sleazy.
Oh wow, that’s nice.
So what are you working on these days?
At the moment, Chris and I are planning to rerelease some Chris and Cosey albums on vinyl. After that I’m going to work on releasing a DVD/CD of the piece I wrote and performed for the Tate Modern tenth anniversary. We also started a series of sound works called “Harmonic Coaction.” We did one earlier this year in May at the A Palazzo Gallery in Brescia for the “120 Day Volume” exhibition. The second one, also in Italy, was held at the end of July on the grounds of an old fortress in Ancona. We had a quadraphonic sound system for that. It was quite beautiful.
Sounds it. I wish I could have made it over there.
There’s so much going on at the moment, my mind is puddled. I had a group show in Los Angeles in mid-July. Then there’s mutterings of TG doing some shows later this year as well. There’s always something bubbling under.
Cosey in Studio of Lust, Nuffield Gallery, Southampton, 1975.
I’m interested in the way that TG began as a group. You set out with a kind of willful amateurism, like techno-primitives. But soon enough you became quite good at what you were doing. It seems there was always a tension in the group between developing a technique and stepping aside from that to allow something more primal to pass through.
With TG, we adopted the same approach we had with COUM—that anything is possible but nothing mainstream and nothing that is already there. It was a fearlessness rather than an amateurishness. We felt we had a right to make whatever sound we wanted. For us, a definition of “music” ceased to exist at the point we started making these sounds. So that’s why we used to swap instruments. But like you said, there comes a point when you realize that one person is better on one instrument than another and you like the sound they make when it comes in combination with the sound you’re making. I don’t think it’s right to cut off the creative process when you can physically feel something great happening just for the sake of the concept of “being free.” That’s quite a destructive thing to do. It’s almost denying creativity when you take that kind of approach. I think if you go into it with an openness about anything that will make sound, then you have a way that you can form a structure, designate different instruments to people, and still maintain a kind of freedom. There is a problem insomuch as you can become stuck with an instrument. Like the cornet for instance. Sleazy couldn’t blow it properly, and that was the reason I ended up playing it. I just blew it and made a sound straight away, and I enjoyed doing it.
I enjoyed hearing it. It’s a very remarkable sound that you made.
A lot of people do it now. I hear it more and more. It’s quite odd. I still enjoy playing it ever so much. It’s really a fantastic physical thing for me to play, my cornet. And my guitar.
TG had an ambiguous relationship with technology. On the one hand you used a lot of equipment—gristleizers, electronics, synthesizers—but there was always something incongruous between the mechanized sounds and the messiness of the content. I think of something like “His Arm Was Her Leg.” There’s a constant theme of mechanics being mediated through the body and mutating from your bodies to the bodies in the audience.
The whole point of doing music with TG and even now, though the music Chris and I do together is more melodic, is that there’s still a need to create a physical feeling in people, an emotion—whether it’s with electronic music or with guitars and acoustic instruments that are treated in some way, whatever means we can use to create that end effect on other people. Obviously first it’s on ourselves, because we’re the ones making it. I’ll say, “Oh, that’s nice, I’ll try and remember how to do that.” But when you’re in a live situation, you get things you can never get in the studio. You have the feedback from the audience, which pushes you to do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. It can make you really angry, which is what a lot of early TG gigs were about. There was a lot of aggression in the audience in response to what we were doing and we were throwing a lot more back at them. It’s really interesting to have this kind of sound conversation with people.
Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey in Studio of Lust, Nuffield Gallery, Southampton, 1975.
With so much music now being made entirely on computers, the idea of music as a relationship between bodies has almost vanished. But that’s something that really carries through in your music.
Well, I hope so, because I’d have broke the damn things if we didn’t manage to do that. When the ease and readiness of electronic instruments and computers take over creativity, that’s when you get that empty, repetitive, and mechanical sound. There are certain frequencies that you have to isolate to tweak the nerve endings in people’s bodies. We’ve always made our own samples or modified things so they do what they’re not supposed to.
Compared with the excessive amount of recordings and documentation of TG, which kind of approximate that experience, part of the beauty of the COUM actions is that they’re gone, that they can’t be reenacted.
Our initial approach to the performances and actions we did as COUM was a reaction against the documentation of action art. We wanted the actions we did to be shared with the people who were there. And like you said, they’re gone, and they’re living in some other form in people’s memories and by word of mouth. There is a whole society of artists that work for art institutions and therefore get access to equipment. We never had that. We never had access to any kind of film cameras, so we couldn’t document what we were doing. We were working very much on the outside. It wasn’t until TG came around and we could afford to rent a video camera that we ever documented anything.
But at the beginning you did get very meager subsidies from the Arts Council. Only so much, but never enough. So was it a conscious decision on your part to walk away from that and from the constraints they were placing on you?
Some friends recommended that we claim for some grants to help us get what we needed in terms of materials and the costs of traveling. So we did that, but then it started getting quite closed down, and there were accountabilities enforced. You had to tick all the right boxes, and that’s not what we were about at all. That’s when we decided to stop claiming government money.
Is there a particular action from that time that still stands out for you?
Probably Studio of Lust, when Sleazy came along. That was quite an interesting one. Sleazy was a none-too-many figure as far as when we did the action. He was suddenly a part of it, there were three people in there instead of two. That was more interesting for me.
And that would have changed the way you related with Genesis?
Yes, completely. When Sleazy came, he brought some technology we didn’t have—access to cameras and film and things. That was the first one that was photographed on a timed-shutter release on Sleazy’s camera.
I also understand that he was very handy at faking wounds, is that right?
Yes, he was. He was very good at that.
Cosey and Genesis P-Orridge in After Cease to Exist No 4, Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1976.
There are some pretty gory pictures of the After Cease to Exist action.
Yeah, some were real and some were fake.
So you were contrasting these deceptive or symbolic wounds with what seemed to be someone going through a really painful experience.
We improvised things. The nearest we got to planning anything was After Cease to Exist and situations like that. We were more about relating to our own personal lives and fetishes and interests than trying to make a point to anyone. Sleazy was in the Casualties Union and making fake injuries and so on, and I was into dominatrix activities and Chris was a very willing victim.
But faking wounds is also a way of playing with the emotions of whoever is watching.
Of course. At the time there was a whole thing with snuff films going around. That piqued our interest, and our sexual preferences leaned toward that kind of action. The house next door to us was empty at the time and was a perfect place for us to go and do it as if someone was kidnapped and taken there. We were just playing with ideas and fantasies, making them available for people to see. It’s great as you’re going along and learning and finding reasons why you like the aesthetic of it, the feel of it, and the ideas it provokes. I think improvisation will always be there for me rather than sitting down and trying to analyze things and make something from that analysis. By that point it’s become a totally empty gesture. I like charged gestures, so the more real it can be, even if you use fake blood to try and enhance that feeling, then that’s fine with me. It’s about vulnerability as well. You’re laying yourself open completely and then seeing what happens. And that’s what you learn from. You learn from mistakes as well as from positive experiences. You don’t learn by playing it safe, that’s for sure.
When it comes to body art, naked bodies often seem to be used to show that nothing is being hidden and that what you’re seeing is objective and transparent.
The nakedness in the art actions mainly came about because I felt freer naked. My body gave fewer wrong signals to people. The minute you put clothes on, people start trying to find some symbolism in the clothes, whether it’s the color, the style, or whatever. There were a lot of performance artists who actually made costumes to do their art with. That’s another reason why I stepped away from that, because it was less like theater for me if I did it naked. And also I like the form the body makes. I like watching body forms rather than colors and costumes.
From the June and July 1977 issues of British porn magazine Fiesta. Images provided by Fiesta magazine.
How do you relate your nakedness in the live actions to that in the magazine actions?
I was laying myself open in a different way when I did the magazine work in that I didn’t have any control over what was done and what I was asked to do. That was a deliberate choice on my part. I went into it because I found the work I did in the gallery spaces had just become quite safe for me. People I’d met who were already in the sex industry said, “Do you want to do something here?” And that presented actions to me that I wouldn’t normally have pursued or even thought of, or I would have just turned around and said, “No, I don’t fancy doing that.”
In the films and magazines, you took on ready-made personas—different names and wigs—giving your body a certain anonymity. Maybe this becomes a sort of mask in contrast to your live actions.
Exactly. In the gallery and in the live actions, that is 100 percent me. In the magazine work and in the sex films, it isn’t. It’s my body, but it’s being used to make and present something that they want. It’s not me. I’m using that process to learn something about myself, the sex industry, and the people in it. You can’t do a film in the sex industry without being naked, at some point. My nakedness there was basically part of the job description, rather than me in the gallery using my body as an art object.
Much of the tension of these actions seems to come from the pressure of the people watching you.
When I do actions I go into a particular state of mind. I go inside myself and choose things out, I allow a channel to remain so I can respond to stimuli. I have to be on that plane of receptiveness and yet be removed.
From the June and July 1977 issues of British porn magazine Fiesta. Images provided by Fiesta magazine.
What do you think of the boundary between your live actions and how you act in your daily life?
I don’t think there is a boundary, to be honest. Of course I don’t do those things every day, but I don’t think there is a boundary. I don’t go out and do a nine-to-five job. My whole life revolves around my work. And having said that, even when I did do a job to fund my art, it was a functional part of my life, rather than the work and then my life. That’s why the magazine work and the film work came in handy, because they provided income for my other artworks and music, even though it was like a “job.” That was more interesting for me, even more so with the striptease work.
Have you done actions when no one was looking? How would they be different?
Yes, I have. I’ve done that more recently in the Selflessness actions that I did, starting in 2002. I did them with no audience at all.
Where did they begin and how do they end?
Selflessness is in four parts. The first part was done in Disneyland. It was done as soon as I was ready to do it and lasted two and a half minutes. The second one then took place at Beachy Head, with no audience again. It was about six o’clock in the morning, and that took about an hour. The fourth one was done in Sandringham Woods, which is Queen Elizabeth’s estate near where we live. The third one I realized had already taken place, and that was at the Hull Cemetery. I was estranged from my parents when I was 17 and then completely blacklisted after the ICA “Prostitution” show. That was it. When my mother died, I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral. Then, in 2003, I went to her graveside with my sister. That was because my father had died and the obstacles between me and my mother were gone. So that became a part of the Selflessness series, because it was such a huge part of my life and tied in with everything else I had done. So things present themselves as actions and pieces of work without you realizing they’ve already happened.