From Throbbing Gristle to 'Art Sex Music,' Cosey Fanny Tutti Has Always Been a Fighter
We spoke to the controversial art rock icon about censorship and control (and nabbed an exclusive excerpt from her new memoir)
How much can a single person create in a lifetime? For many artists, the aspiration is to make an entire lifetime into a body of work. Few creators of our age have come as close to this goal as Cosey Fanny Tutti. For just shy of fifty years, she's been in a near-constant state of creative motion, crossing mediums and boundaries in ways that were seldom done before her time. From her highly controversial work with COUM Transmissions (which has often caused her and her cohorts to be treated as artistic threats to the public good) to her role in establishing the genre of industrial music as a member of Throbbing Gristle, her earliest works alone could fill volumes. Her ongoing work with her husband, Chris Carter, as Chris & Cosey and subsequently Carter Tutti, has been equally influential in the music world, often overlapping with retrospective glances and reimagined works pertaining to her sex art actions of the Seventies.
Still, it's not the art alone that makes a human being interesting. What drives them, what happens in the spaces between the creation—these are the things that really feed into the completeness of a person. In Cosey's new book, Art Sex Music, her activities are given the proper autobiographical treatment, but in a fashion that presents things both grand and personal with equal merit. Reading the boom is like having an old friend sit and recall stories about everything they've experienced, from it's tiny anecdotes about childhood rebellion to attending the funerals of lifelong friends. Some passages are humorous, others troubling, and some even heart-wrenching, but throughout the entire book, there's a consistent thread in the narration that keeps the pacing and atmosphere familiar and grounded.
With the opportunity to examine such a vibrant and extreme life in a definite way, I was thrilled to follow up with the artist and author herself. We spoke about controlling men, censorship, and her constant way of filling time and life with art and productivity. Read on for our conversation, and for an exclusive excerpt from Art Sex Music.
Noisey: Your book was culled from your diaries and has a very conversational tone. It seems as a direct result of the diary format. Was this intentional? What was your process in approaching the writing?
Cosey: Yeah, it was intentional. I didn't want it to be overblown or embellished in any way or pandering to myths. No analytical speak, if you like. I wanted to be as if I was writing to someone about my life in my every day way that I communicate with people. Also, the fact that there's so much in it because I wanted to bring people within my world as it progressed from being a child like to how things fed into one another. Some meetings facilitated projects years further on down the line. I wanted the style of it to be casual, and hopefully friendly, as if I was speaking to someone over a cup of coffee or something.
One of the earliest things that struck me in reading through was the importance of two major relationships early in life in Hull: your mother and your friend Les. They're two very different dynamics but they seem to be the two forces looking out for you when you needed the help early on. I know much of your relationship with your mother had to be carried out in secret.
As a child, she sort of countered my father's strict attitude towards me, and his coldness as well. She was in a difficult place because I think they were as close as me and Chris are now. I understand, in some ways, now more than then, how difficult it was for her. You do, as a child, expect your parents to sort of stand up and protect you. You don't think of the dynamics of their actual relationship and how you're impacting it. She had to, at times, lie to my dad on my behalf so that I could actually be free and do what I wanted to do. That went from childhood through to my teens. Then it all came to an end after the ICA, because she could no longer justify deceiving him on my behalf. I wouldn't say I was happy for that, but I accepted it. As an adult by then, I'd chosen my path in life and I couldn't expect her to destroy her relationship with my father. They were too close, you know. He could've made her life a bit easier and given her some more input into my life, allowed her to see her grandson and that kind of thing. He was just selfish and there's nothing much you can do with someone like that.
He seemed quite rigid.
He was very Victorian. I've learned since that his childhood wasn't the kind of childhood that would give him the skils that he needed to be in a father. So, in some ways, you can kind of forgive that. But on another level, how he was with me wasn't something I carried through to my childhood. There is a possibility of redemption, if you like, or just learning social skills and how to have a relationship with your children. I don't know how damaged he was from the war and things like that. It's very difficult. He's a very closed man.
Les was the other one in my life. We were really inseparable. We still are, he's like my brother. So, with my mother watching my back at home and Les outside the house, I was really lucky. My mom really liked Les. My dad recognized that he was the 'enemy,' because he wasn't allowed around the house. He couldn't even come into the garden.
With you touching on your experience with your father, it seems there's a theme of controlling, dominant men trying to put their heel down on you as a strong, self-defined woman. From moving out of your father's house and into your relationship with Gen, it seems like an ongoing thread.
Yeah, I think that a sense of entitlement has a lot to do with. And just being a product of the 1950s, even. It was a very patriarchal time. I mean, for my father, I was convinced that once I left home I was free. I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes when I wasn't around and how things were being manipulated. Well that's the whole point of manipulation, isn't it? It's under cover. But, I was used to fighting my own ground, literally at times. I didn't really think anything of it because Hull was a tough place to be and me and Les had fought our way, as children, through the estate, and in inter-estate fights. I supposed you'd call them gangs now.
When it came to living as COUM in Prince Street, whatever went on there, I was on my own path. Things that went on incidentally weren't really my top priority. I could handle that. I could handle my dad for seventeen years, trying to push me in one direction or another and trying to stifle me. So I saw no problem with this. It only became problematic towards the end because I really needed to get out then, I was so unhappy. I had so many people around me in Hull before we moved to London. Like Les, I had Fizzy and all these other people who could come around and I'd have so much fun with them. Once I moved to London, I was quite isolated. I think that made a big shift in my mindset. I had a realization of how isolated I was, whether on purpose or not. My sex magazine work meant going out and meeting a lot of new people and friends. I created my own group of friends again, outside of Hull. I wasn't going to be kept down.
That seems to be another recurring theme throughout the book. It seems that whether it's a dominant person or even your own health issues, your resilience shines through without being explicitly stated. I didn't realize how unhealthy I was until I wrote the book. Or, continually unhealthy. I always thought I was a quite fit person. Until I had my heart trouble I was always out swimming and bike riding with Nick as a child. I was all over the place. But yeah, it's just a part of life. You get up one day and you're ill and then you get on with it. There's nothing else you can do.
There's no sense in giving yourself to it. You touched on to moving to London and doing sex magazines. This seemed to be where you began defining your personal art and aims. It keeps getting revisited in galleries, in conversation, and in your own retrospective. How has your interaction and the public's interaction with these activities shifted and how has it remained the same? It's interesting for me now to go back and look at them and rework them. I see them quite differently. When you're in the midst of doing all that work, the focus is really on getting through that particular situation, because they're all different. I didn't sit and think about it as being my art when I was in the middle of doing it, because I had to do what was expected of me. This wasn't my art that I was doing, although it was, contradictorily. I was being a model and I had to deliver the goods, therefore I wasn't being an artist in action or in a gallery or anything. I was out of context. That was the dilemma that I was in. I knew that I was doing it and it was going to be taken and put in a gallery as an action, but it had to be done in the correct way for me. It's kind of quite a weird mindset to be in, having to forget the art to do the job that creates the purer art that I'm looking for.
Obviously, because I was thinking like that at the time, retrospectively it's all gone. I can see it in a different way. It's been more interesting and fulfilling than the actual action. I look at the magazines, and, just for the simple fact that I've framed them in their entirety it gives a full picture of that moment in time. You sort of get an idea of what culture was like and what the sex industry was like in the 70s when you see the full magazine laid out with the ads and everything. Like I said in my book, sometimes it's quite shocking and crass. But it is what it was, which is of its time. I can see now, looking back, why people look at it nowadays and see it as a feminist act because it was a difficult industry to be in as a woman, even if you were just a regular model. It was hard work.
It's interesting that you mention it being a feminist act. Feminism's own stance and sex work and the nature of things shifts with the times. How do you feel about your art being interacted from a feminist lens, knowing that much criticism was once leveled against you from the very same standpoint? Yes, it was critical then. I think that I just regard people as who they are. I don't want a label for me just because I'm a woman and the actions that I have. I don't know what feminism means anymore. All I know is that women are out there doing their own thing. They don't need the tag of "feminist" on top of that, because then you get into all these groups and sub-groups that have different kinds of theories about what feminism is and basically it just is being who you are in the world. The fact that you're a woman has nothing to do with it, not as far as I'm concerned anyway. Particularly now, with the internet, women are doing pornography in their own right. It's a very different world from what it was when I worked in it. As far as my work being in exhibitions that have a feminist theme, it's always about the fact that I'm just an artist and this is my work. The fact that it's been labeled feminist is incidental, because the action wasn't regarded as feminist when it was done. It's just me going out there and doing my own work, if that makes sense.
How has censorship shifted throughout time in regards to your work? Well it's not as bad as the ICA anymore, the response isn't that bad. My magazine works actually get on the walls of galleries now, which is good. I have come across instances where they have to put a warning up there, which I suppose is okay. I reject it I there is another work similar to mine that doesn't have a warning. Usually when that's happening it's when it's male artists' work. I don't understand why there's a difference between my work and someone else's which deals with the same subject matter but has to have a warning or a subtle return as you enter the space so that it's not viewable from the main area where people enter the gallery. I suppose you have to be careful not to have a full-frontal open crotch shot right in the front of a gallery that's viewable from the street. I just want equal treatment. I don't even ask for it because I expect it. It shouldn't be an issue, but sometimes it is.
It's clear that Throbbing Gristle operated on a foundation of tension. Do you think it would've been possible to function or become what you became without the inherent trouble of your interactions with Gen and the inevitable dissolution it caused?
No, I don't think it would. If you think about the lead-up to Throbbing Gristle with the other people involved in COUM. Even before Chris arrived, there was nothing near what Throbbing Gristle sounded like. It just wasn't possible at that point. I think that the four of us were such strong personalities as well. We weren't going to just bend to another's will very readily. It was a democracy more than COUM ever was and it remained so even the second time around. It had to. The majority vote would make it what happened. Or sometimes we'd just not even vote, we didn't have an official formal vote. We'd discuss what we were going to do and if one person didn't want to do it and the other three did, then it happened. If it was two and two, then we'd shelve it for a while and come back to it. We all brought different things to Throbbing Gristle, for sure. It was the mix of the four of us that made it what it was and it was also the tensions that we had between us as well.
I'm intrigued by the regrettably short-lived X-TG work you mentioned, which there's some documentation of obviously. You'd have continued working with Sleazy as X-TG had you the option. How did it feel for the first time to work as the three of you?
It was great. At first Sleazy was a little bit, not hesitant, but he just didn't know where we were. We hadn't been in the studio together in a long time. He'd listened to the Chris and Cosey stuff but I don't think he'd listened to much of the other stuff we did CTI-wise. He was wondering where we'd come from. If you go off of Chris and Cosey and then back to Throbbing Gristle, it's a huge leap. He was used to being the boss in Coil. There was a point at which we were in our studio and he was sort of relaxing into being with us again and there was a point when he said "we'll do this and we'll do that." Chris is very polite and wouldn't say anything but I'm not so polite and I said "you can't come in here and order us about like this, you know. We're supposed to be working together." He was fine though. We all put it together intuitively and we were no threat to what he wanted to do. We just wanted to be working together and that particular day it all fell into place so wonderfully. He was back and we were all back on that wave of intuitive response to one another once we started making sounds.
Him and Chris obviously got back to their relationship of having ideas for new pieces of equipment or how to use different things and sounds. They were working together on that all the time, even during the second grouping of Throbbing Gristle it was like that all the way through.
We had a sort of parallel thing going, with Throbbing Gristle live, and then the album obviously. When we were in the studio though, the three of us, we were basically functioning as X-TG, jamming all the time. Then we'd all have to go out and do the Throbbing Gristle stuff. I think it was what kept us happy though was that we had this other side to us that made us feel it was good to regroup. Once it fell apart again then X-TG came through and Sleazy was so excited. That was the tragedy of it was that he never really got to do it beyond the two gigs that we did and the few recordings in the studio. I mean, there are recordings of X-TG that we will release at some point.
I wanted to ask about Gen's lawsuit against you and Chris following the final breakup of Throbbing Gristle. How has that impacted you in the last few years? It got resolved in its own way, which enabled us to go to Mute and have them look after our catalogue. There's no way Chris and me want that kind of angst in our lives, it's just unnecessary.
It seems stressful, which isn't good for anyone. It's not, especially not for me, for sure. I just didn't want that in my life. I didn't see the point in allowing it to be in my life. That's the other thing. Enabling someone to do that to you is not a positive act. A positive act is not allowing it.
You went from performing in small, deliberate art spaces in the 70s to ultimately performing at Coachella. How was that experience for you? It's not typically a bastion of experimental or challenging art.
No, it wasn't, but it kind of suits our ironic sense of humor as well. We did one of our first gigs at a small-town festival where children make little hats and bonnets and we played that. That was the other side of the spectrum. Playing Coachella as well, they paid us for our work permits and allowed us to come to America and play to our fans. We'd have never had that opportunity if it wasn't for Coachella. It was a one-off thing, I mean. In service to our fans, it worked nicely.
That must've been a spectacle. While Throbbing Gristle has had a legacy of self-created bootlegs of gigs, you responded to digital era piracy in a really unique way. You made an art piece that couldn't be pirated with Gristle-ism.
As I explained in the book it came about with our soundman Charlie having a little Bully machine, a little loop machine. He'd play it before and after our gigs. I think Christian, the maker of these things, got in touch with Chris after he'd tweeted about how great it was. There was a correspondence about making one with Throbbing Gristle sounds and that's how it started. Me and Chris talked with Sleazy about it and we said "well they can't bootleg this if we do it." It was a very typical project for us in that it just emerged from what we were doing and the opportunity was there. It was a chance to do something new and we made it our own. Christian was in London at the time and Sleazy was in Thailand but we kept in touch and Christian came here to our studio in Norfolk and discussed the packaging and sorted out the right frequencies and technical aspects of the loops. It wasn't an easy thing to do and it was really exciting. We absolutely loved doing it. It's still around now and people are still using them live. I think Gen uses one live, actually.
Easing out on a lighter note, you've obviously got a constant in the book and in your life in Chris. You've lived a hell of a life and he's been there throughout it. So how do you make love last?
I don't know. If I knew the secret, I could market it, couldn't I? I'd make a fortune. It's just that we have a deep love for each other. So deep that we allow each other to be ourselves. Neither of us consume one another. We have been together 24/7. When I think of it like that, it is quite unusual. Most couples work away from home during the day or something. I don't know why, but it just works for me and Chris. We had a struggle to even be together, and I think that has a lot to do with it. Trying to get through days not being able to just touch one another was really difficult and quite depressing at times. I'd sit on the tube in London and think "I can't even do that in public." So, yeah, we're constantly celebrating the fact that we managed to be together and we're free to love each other and it's as simple as that. On top of that, we can create music together as well. We always support one another in our solo projects as well. That's always the case. When I was writing my book Chris was recording his new album. I was upstairs in my office writing my book and he was underneath me in the studio doing his new album. We'd meet for lunch and supper and have the evening off together. It worked out brilliantly well. I'd go downstairs and listening to what he was doing and he'd come upstairs and I'd read passages to him. It's just a way of working on our own stuff but helping each other out as well.
Now that you've finished writing your book, you've obviously got a press cycle, but what are you most looking forward to doing in your free time?
I find it very difficult to do nothing. Even if I'm watching TV I'm doing something. Life's short, isn't it? Can't just sit watching telly. In the summer, I love to sit in the garden. I read a book, have a nap, read some more, have a nap. The cat will come and sit in my lap and we can listen to the birds singing. That's my ideal summer and I'm aiming for that. But I've got music to do first, which I'm really eager to get on with. I've got solo projects to do and we've our own Carter Tutti work to do as well. There's a lot of things in the pipeline. I've got an exhibition coming up in London in September. I have to finish a short film for that. There's a lot going on, but it's all good. It's a continuation of my book, it's all full-on.
Excerpt from ART SEX MUSIC by Cosey Fanni Tutti
When we opened the doors to the main gallery people flooded in and the place was heaving. We were to play first as most of our equipment, being self-built by Chris was best left set up and undisturbed once it was all working. We took up our positions. Chris on rhythms, synths and machines, me on Raver Lead guitar and effects, Gen on vocals, violin and Rickenbacker Bass guitar, and Sleazy using his tapes. I wore my leather biker jacket, hung open with nothing underneath. I had Sleazy apply his casualty make-up to my boob so it appeared to be gashed open and bloody and during the performance I took my jacket off. Gen had the front of his hair shaved into an inverted 'V' (Peter Gabriel style) and had a bottle of Sleazy's fake blood to hand which he proceeded to pour into his mouth as he sang, spitting it out as he screamed apocalyptic lyrics into the mic.
The set began slowly, building intently into 'Very Friendly' (the Moors murderers song), 'We Hate You (Little Girls)', 'Factory', 'Slug Bait', 'Dead Ed' and finally letting rip, no holds barred, with 'Zyklon B Zombie'. Throbbing Gristle's official launch was complete and we were pleased with what we'd done. I didn't know, or care what the audience thought.
Next up was Shelley the stripper who enthusiastically took to the 'stage' for her striptease, playing to the audience and ending up rolling on the floor naked in the spilled fake blood left from TG's set. People loved it. LSD then took over from Shelley and thrashed out a punk set, to the cheers of their friends (including pre-Banshees Siouxsie Sioux). Their little crowd were all garbed out in their punk outfits, some undoubtably bought from SEX or even John's shop, BOY, and as expected were rather stand-offish about the art.
There was a lot of alcohol consumed that night, including Gen who liked a good tot of Whiskey prior to performing. The bar had been very busy, the evidence of which was all over the floor of the gallery. We'd put our equipment to one side and as far away as we could from the main hub of party people, and went to join our friends. We were no strangers to violence or trouble so we thought nothing of the agitated atmosphere. I was glad to see Kipper Kid Brian — I always had such fun times with him. He was very drunk when he walked up to me and Gen accompanied by Ian Hinchcliffe, who was also drunk as a skunk.
By this time Ian had gained a reputation for his spontaneous, aggressive verbal and physically violent outbursts, either against property, himself or others. He had issues with Gen. Ian hated pretension, and had previously squirted Gen in the eye with washing-up liquid. As he approached I could see blood on his mouth: he was in the throes of his glass-eating trick. I don't know who threw the first punch at Gen but the language was vitriolic against Gen's 'use' and deplorable treatment of me. All hell let loose as fists, feet, bottles and glasses flew in all directions, and they all ended up in a writhing heap on the floor. People stepped back, some left, Ted Little tried to intervene and in the tangled web of fury, got kicked in the balls so hard that he had to be taken to hospital.
Gen sustained a suspected broken finger and we ended the evening with a visit to Charing Cross A&E department. The doctors were immediately attentive to Gen's bloody face fearing serious injury, only to discover the blood was fake. They became rather dismissive about his finger, which turned out not to be broken. While I was at the hospital with Gen, Chris and Sleazy stayed at the ICA to pack away the gear and load it into the van. When me and Gen returned we all drove back to Martello Street, unpacked the gear, carried it down the narrow basement steps into our studio, locked up Doris and trudged across London Fields back home to Beck Road.
We thought that the previous night's dramas would be the end of it, but we were in for a rough ride. The show opened officially the next day, Tuesday 19th October, and that's when the eruption of press 'outrage' began. Me and Sleazy were due to perform together at the ICA on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We'd decided on a kind of demonstration of casualty make-up, in part to disappoint the press who were expecting a nude sex action, and thereby remaining true to our COUM slogan, 'COUM, We Guarantee Disappointment'. When we arrived at the I.C.A on Wednesday for the one o'clock action, the audience, including artists and a heavy contingent of the press were already in place. We only did the one performance.
20th October 1976
Fucking ridiculous today at the ICA. So many reporters and so aggressive. Can't do any more performances now, it's impossible, they'd all be there again. Three pics were broken today, reckon there'll be none left by next Tuesday. The reporters chased me through the gallery and nearly broke the door down. They punched Chris and called him a cunt. We had to be sneaked out of the back way, and went off to have some lunch with Paul (Buck). He's been so good to be with."
The explosive media response to the exhibition was totally unexpected but ironically fed well into our show which was primarily based on how COUM was perceived by others and how our image was at times distorted. What a gift, what a spontaneous collaborative work, forming itself via the media day after day after day. We seized on the new material and me and Chris went to the ICA each day to collect the press cuttings, photocopy them and pin them to the wall of the gallery alongside the existing documentation. What had set out to be a retrospective exhibition had been transformed into an evolving show that was increasing in size as the press fed their own hysteria.
It was my and Chris's closeness during the harassment and intense stress of the ICA that cemented our relationship. The ICA show was pivotal in determining all our futures. It proved to be not only the end of COUM and the beginning of Throbbing Gristle but also the beginning of the end of my relationship with Gen as Chris and I fell deeply in love, and also through chance meetings that led to Gen's pernicious liaisons with a girl called Soo Catwoman. It also caused the end of my relationship with my Mother and Father.
Excerpted from ART SEX MUSIC © 2017 by Cosey Fanni Tutti. Published by Faber & Faber. All rights reserved.
Ben Handelman is art-hunting on Twitter.