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Cosey Fanni Tutti: Memoirs of a Woman of Extreme Pleasures (Interview and Book Review)

It was back in 2000 that I conducted the interview with Cosey Fanni Tutti published here, for a piece I was writing for datacide on women making extreme music. As a female pioneer of industrial music dating from her time as a member of Throbbing Gristle to her decades of transgressive performance art, Cosey was an obvious and important artist to include in the article. This interview came at a time when I personally was navigating the London noise scene as a young female artist; when it was mostly men on the stages and in the audiences, and women performers were regularly regarded as novelties, taken less seriously than their male peers and the focus of unsolicited sexual attention. Women were involved, but usually backstage in the organisation of events and labels, and when the female was actively presented – by men and some women – it was often as something sexualised, attention-grabbing, or mired in misogyny. As I researched the issue further, some of the attitudes I uncovered in addition to what I’d directly encountered left me so disheartened that I abandoned the piece, put my head down and focused on my own music.

Now, seventeen years later, with the publication of Cosey’s autobiographical book, Art Sex Music, it is timely that this interview is finally appearing in datacide. There has been progress in redressing the gender imbalance in noise and extreme music, but women remain a small and often undervalued component. In the years since conducting this interview, I have become increasingly convinced that the voices of women working in this area need to be heard above their music; loud and with any distortion most definitely self-applied. This is necessary to encourage more women to make music at the extreme fringe and enable those already involved to emerge from its margins where many still operate. Cosey’s body of work and reflections remain highly relevant and play an important role here, as shared both in this interview and in Art Sex Music, a brief review of which prefaces the transcript.

Art Sex Music
“My Life Is my Art. My Art Is my Life” is the phrase used by Cosey Fanni Tutti to describe her philosophy, and Art Sex Music is very much a book recounting her art as it is lived. She lays both her art and life bare through frank and straightforward accounts that use diary entries as a main source, leaving the reader to do much of their own theorising about the many intriguing facets of her practice. This spans her first creative forays with the art action/performance collective COUM Transmissions and its subsequent development into the seminal industrial group, Throbbing Gristle, to her more recent solo and collaborative music projects, many with her long standing artistic and life partner Chris Carter (as Chris & Cosey, Carter Tutti and CTI). It also includes her solo art, much of it exploring female sexuality within culture and informed by her work in the sex industry.

Cosey was 18 when in 1970, in her hometown of Hull, in East Yorkshire, she became involved in her first art project, COUM Transmissions, a fluctuating collective of anti-artists that fused influences from Dada to AMM and overlapped with Fluxus. Recently kicked out of home and living in a series of cold, squalid art squats with her new boyfriend and COUM founder Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey paints a picture of a frenetically productive period when her subversive and creative inclinations found their first expression. To COUM’s mail art and actions – which could blend offal, improvised music, adult babies and black humour – Cosey increasingly added a deeper sexual dimension. This culminated in the group’s final and now legendary, Prostitution show in 1976 at the ICA, at which Cosey’s pornographic images earned them the title of “Wreckers of Civilisation” bestowed by a Tory MP.

“Am I popular or am I being used?” Cosey writes in a diary entry she shares from 1973 following her first nude modelling job, a profession that she actively embraced and to which she soon added work as a porn actress and stripper. It was a personal and artistic quest that on one hand saw her pander to male sexual fantasies and on the other undermine them through her reappropriation of these experiences, and even the actual images of her published porn magazines, to use in her performance and collage art. Navigating a path through the outraged and the oglers, she flouted the conventional mores of the era, took patriarchy on from the inside through recontextualising the images of her own sexual objectification, and fell foul of the radical feminists. Cosey addresses the question posed by her 22-year-old self, making it clear where she stands. “I was exploiting the sex industry for my own purposes, to subvert and use them to create my own art,” she writes. “I wanted a purity in my work, to push against existing expectations and my own inhibitions, and to understand all the complex nuances and trials it imposed on everyone in that business [… ] I was transgressing rules – feminist ones included.”

The Prostitution show also marked the first major public performance of Throbbing Gristle (TG), founded by Cosey with Genesis, Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson and Chris Carter, which set out to cause more sonically-focused subversion. “Our approach was counter to, and a reaction to, the disco and pop music, […] the culture of exclusivity, the tendency to bury the past or present atrocities and ‘distasteful’ crimes, and the political upheaval of the time, which impacted on us daily, with strikes causing chaos and the ever-present ambient sounds all around our studio, factories at work, saws, machinery, Tube trains, children playing in the park. We were creating the soundtrack to our reality […]” Cosey’s account of the band that established her as a leading figure in the industrial movement seeks to set straight the inaccuracies of Simon Ford’s book on TG, which portrays Genesis as the “leader” of TG and main victim of its break up. Cosey also details her extensive and still on-going post-TG musical projects, many of which are the fruits of the highly positive and complementary working relationship she has with Chris Carter. Through uplifting experimental electronica to darker heavier projects, Cosey’s open-minded approach has seen her music evolve over the years and embrace the new, most recently in the powerful Carter Tutti Void collaboration with considerably younger musician, Nik Colk Void.

Cosey telling her story offers a valuable uncensored insight into not only her creative projects, but also her personal and often highly challenging journey through art, sex and music. For example, she highlights the irony that behind the transgressive art of COUM lay the conventional expectations of her male collaborators on women’s roles. While she states that she refuses to be “defined or confined” by her gender, in those early days it was she who was doing the cooking and cleaning, as well as much of the practical organisation, and was often the only one working jobs to fund their “democratic collective”. She also chronicles her personal relationships, starting with a childhood presided over by an authoritarian father who disowned her when she didn’t meet his expectations, and the painful estrangement from her mother following the sensationalist media coverage of the Prostitution exhibition. Another major relationship Cosey speaks out about is her abusive one with Genesis, which reveals him as practicing in person the systems of manipulation and control he’d explored in his art. In Cosey’s early diary entries we see her regularly blaming herself for Genesis’ unreasonable and at times violent behaviour. Decades later, she doesn’t come across as bitter, more exasperated, by a new wave of disrespectful acts from Genesis, which include exhibiting past co-created works without giving her credit, while also suing her for copyright infringement, as well as sabotaging TG’s reunion activities. In stark contrast, we learn about her enduring partnership with Chris, which remains strong and productive to this day as lovers, parents and collaborators.

Art Sex Music is a tale of extreme pleasures and struggles, which as it unfolds reveals Cosey gaining confidence as both an artist and a person as her creative spirit, dedication and personal integrity triumph. For Cosey it was time to tell, and for women and anyone interested in art that interrogates boundaries, this is an important and pertinent memoir.

Cosey Fanni Tutti. Art, Sex, Music. 2017. London: Faber & Faber.


Cosey Fanni Tutti interviewed by Jo Burzynska in March 2000

You’ve worked in a variety of areas, but what is it about music that initially attracted you and has sustained your interest throughout your career so far?

Music’s always triggered a physical and emotional response in me, I loved dancing to driving rhythms and uplifting melodic tracks so much. I find music is the most all round mode of expression and I think that’s why I’ve stayed with it so long. I can ‘feel’ my way when I’m making music. I tune into inner responses to sound to create the music rather than referring to musical theory as a means of obtaining sounds that trigger particular responses I may want to achieve. I can get lost in the sound; it’s just so enjoyable and intoxicating to work with. It’s all about physical and emotional resonance to me.
I think also music is much more readily ‘shared’ with other people and I’m not into self-indulgence,
I want to communicate and music is a great way to do that.

Do you think that gender influences your approach to making music, or makes your music any different from that of men?

I hate to say it but yes. Femininity/masculinity and sexuality have a great influence on peoples approach to making music. Gender is such a loaded term that’s imbued with a sort of negativity now. The difference in the type of sounds I work with and find ‘right’ are markedly different to Chris’s. But the balance between the two of us works so well that in our case I take the gender factor as a positive element. There are times when neither of us agree and it’s a mutual decision to either make a track a solo piece or scrap it. I have found even with male gay musician friends of ours that I can still tell the music was not created by a woman. There’s a detectable subtlety about women’s music that isn’t present in men’s and I think that’s to do with the approach being about ‘feeling’ with women rather than ‘reason’ with men. It all sounds so gender-speak male/female capacities but I do think that even now those issues are regrettably still relevant. I don’t get bogged down in the technology for its sake, but then I know male musicians who feel the same way. Equipment is only a tool and I think women’s approach to the gear is different, so you could say that gender does influence the creating of music in that way. Ultimately what any piece of equipment can do is secondary to what I want the sound it can produce to do FOR me and whoever listens to the music. I know some people can get hung up on what the machine can do and yeah, I love to explore all that, it’s been part of my approach to music all along, but the effect is what I aim for.

Having said all that I must say my work isn’t gender specific. I never address male or female, I address the person and any lyrics I write are applicable to all, whether the subject is murder, love or sex. And this is an unconscious thing. I’ve never made a deliberate point of doing that or wanting to speak to or about just women or men. The relationship I have with Chris has a lot to do with gender not really being an issue for me because like me it never occurs to either of us, we are who we are. If I think about it I’ve never really identified myself particularly with ‘femininity’ even when I worked as a model and striptease dancer I always felt I never really fitted in. I could do what was required, I pulled it off well but it was always more about what I felt, what my aims were. It’s almost like looking down on yourself from your true self position.

Many people still appear to feel that women are not really interested in using technology. What is your relationship with technology and has it changed with time and experience?

My relationship with technology has always been about experimenting with sound in different ways from radical sound as actual physical assault, like in creating tunnel vision, spontaneous vomiting or orgasm etc. but also a way of transporting you from one state of mind to another, inducing a state conducive to conscious dreaming where the mind flits from one thing to another as the sounds shift.

The assumption that women aren’t really interested in technology is bollocks. Women’s interest in and use of technology is just different to men’s. I’m very impatient. When I get an idea, hear a sound in my head, I want it now, and I find non-physical sound sourcing frustrating at times. When I’m trolling through banks of sounds I can lose interest. It’s back to that ‘feeling’ gender thing again in one way. I do like the immediacy of the action/response of hitting, scraping, stroking something. On a gender level Chris is more readily up for a recreational relationship with gear whereas for me it boils down to utility. That brings in gender issues of ‘spare’ time and how you choose to use it. I prefer to swim through cool water, and catch up with myself.

Music aside, even with photography, painting, video etc. my approach is still the same. Equipment is a means to an end. Over the years I suppose I’ve acquired the skill of assessing more quickly the potential of any piece of technology in terms of what I want to achieve and if it can deliver. Whereas before Chris would have to build or modify equipment to enable the realisation of our ideas, things move so fast now we can dip in and see what’s around and if it’s useful.

While your early performances explored the extreme edge of experience, much of your more recent work is somewhat ‘softer’. How do you feel your work has developed and are you still interested in making people look at or listen to things that make them uneasy?

I’ve experimented publicly with myself, my feelings, my hang-ups. It’s been like a public self-discovery and as much as people would have you continue to do the same things I’m afraid my work, my life is about development, moving on. What’s the point of doing the same thing the same way? Any shock impact is lost as things move on. I don’t ram it down people’s throats, that was a tactic relevant to the time. To make people look or listen to so-called sensitive issues I use different tactics now because the knee jerk reaction is no longer enough. I think it’s healthy to make people work a little harder. I don’t give it on a plate. I hate the passivity of consumerism. What real use is that to anyone? It breeds acceptance of taking and never giving or participating on any level other than a superficial one.

I aim for the music and lyrics we produce to be enjoyed on different levels. That gives choice instead of dogmatism rammed down people’s throats. I like to provoke questioning in people not sycophantism. I’m not that arrogant to declare that I’ve got the answer to anything. I present an idea like ‘Trust’ (which was about rape in every sense of the word), written initially as a poem about the pain of trusting and being used and abused. Using soft melodies to express despair at the indifference of the perpetrator to the pain caused brings home the feelings we have to deal with. Pain is physical, it can’t all be ‘thought’ out. It points out that if we want deep relationships we still have to trust again. But it applies to all relationships, all forms of abuse. It’s about us as human beings and how we get through life with one another.

It’s the same with ‘Sleeping Stephen’, which was about Nielson murdering all those young men. That’s a ‘soft’ song but extreme subject matter. I could see how he had come to reconcile his actions with his feelings and what he perceived as the needs of the victims (releasing them from a meaningless life). I could go on about what other more recent tracks are about but my point is as before really, ‘extreme’ can be presented in different ways and for me I find the subtle way is more conducive to people considering the issues (or other issues triggered by it). I like interpretation to be open not closed because we all have different life experiences which affect how we perceive things including music, art, video etc.

It’s good to make people feel uneasy, it shakes them out of complacency but now I prefer to seduce them into an uneasy state, it has a more lasting effect. It’s a similar effect with the Library of Sound series, which some people have found quite menacing. The series has no lyrics as such to latch onto as a way in. The only entry is via sound and surrendering to how that sound makes you feel, if you’re willing to take that journey. Same applies to the videos we do mainly for live shows. We don’t tell a visual story or make any specific statement. The visuals, like the music are raw material to interpret as you will. What I want is active contemplative consumption, that way it’s a two-way thing. The videos have provoked all kinds of accusations over the years but we only use ‘everyday’ images, as in all kinds of everyday activities from the banal to the bizarre. The images presented on mass brings home more clearly just how fucked up things are, how we bury unpalatable things thinking they’ll go away. Also it shows how bizarre the banal can be and vice versa, which addresses issues like what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and who decides anyway.

What would you say to the opinion held by some that women lack the aggression necessary for producing extreme music?

I think aggression can be counter-productive, especially now, it’s almost passé. Women, as I’ve said, are subtle and music doesn’t necessarily have to be aggressive to be extreme. The word extreme is often used against women who are overtly sexual or dominant. I think that’s because such women are regarded as a threat to some men, other men love it. In that context women are aggressive. As for aggression as a prerequisite for extreme music, that smacks of animalism and posturing and it’s not that simple. Extreme music is about much more than that. I regard extreme music as having something to say, a protest almost and whether we like it or not men have been privy to the soap-box and voicing themselves publicly much, much longer than women and have more experience at it as well as dictating how it’s done. Maybe it’s just that women have had to find their own way of expressing extremism. Just because it’s been marked by aggression and because aggression has been marked as a male trait doesn’t mean women must express themselves in the same way. Nothing is written in stone.

What is more important in your work, the personal or the political?

What’s the cliché? The personal is political. I agree with that. So if my emphasis was on the personal I would be emphasising the political to the same extent. You make a political statement through your actions (or inaction).

Has motherhood affected your art and outlook?

I don’t see how anyone can say parenthood hasn’t affected their art or outlook. Motherhood is a very grounding experience, you’re made aware of your own mortality but also the responsibility you have as a mother affects you and what you want to do because you are now a part of your child’s life. What you do or don’t do will affect them and influence them. You have to balance that with artistic freedom somehow. It’s a bit like when you do things when you’re young and then think what will my mum or dad say, but it’s in reverse. Then you think, I can’t let this prevent me from realising my ideas, so just as when you’re young you do it and explain your way out of it when and if you need to. I always wondered how I would explain my past work and exploits to our son but it hasn’t been a problem at all, everything has gradually been revealed over time by our work, interviews etc.

Motherhood has been the hardest thing in my life. It’s an emotional roller coaster. You love so deeply and give so much of yourself knowing that at some point you have to let go. I’ve never done any tracks about motherhood or my son, maybe because I was comfortable with it all. The only reference to motherhood is the cover of ‘Heartbeat’. The ‘birth of a new life’ implication was also connected to us working as C&C [Chris and Cosey] and CTI from then on.

Have you experienced much sexism/misogyny in the music scenes you’ve been involved with, and if so, how have you dealt with it?

The fact that we’re independent of the music business as far as recording, producing and releasing our own work is concerned means obviously that we have control but also that I don’t really come into direct contact with the type of situations where I’d encounter sexism/misogyny. But yeah, even so I’ve encountered it among friends surprisingly enough. It’s insidious but when the gloves are off sexism raises its head. When push comes to shove, comments like, ‘well you would say that, you’re a woman’ etc. Or because I’m the woman in the band, I was expected to make food and drink for everyone after a gig.

That was some time ago and my life is nothing like that now. But I remember one particular incident back stage at a Yellow Magic Orchestra gig and we were asked to pose with Ryuichi Sakamoto for the Japanese press. The guys were all lined up together and I was pushed behind the photographers because, I was told, I was a woman and consequently couldn’t possibly be a member of the band. (!?) The photos didn’t get taken until I was in place, both because of my very vocal objections and the guys too. I’ve had other instances where I’ve been made to feel like dirt just because I’m a woman but I’ve never let it go by unchallenged EVER. On the whole my attitude is one of, I am me and if people can’t get past the fact that I am only my sex then they are of no interest to me whatsoever. Actually when I reflect back I’ve spent most of my recreational and creative time in the company of mainly men. I still ponder why I have so few women friends; I suspect the reasons are deep and many as to why I love the company of men (gay and straight) so much.

Do you think “all women” projects/labels help or hinder the acceptance of women in music?

Some specific ‘all women’ projects can work but a deliberate policy of exclusion is wrong and damaging all round. Music should be all embracing in all aspects and shifts the focus away from the creating of music when we dictate the sex of the creator as the criterion for inclusion on labels and projects. It’s the music which has to be accepted first and foremost, the fact that a woman or a man produced it should be irrelevant. OK so that’s the ideal situation but we should aim for that rather than providing a stick for people to beat us with by defining music in terms of the sex of the creator and feeding the male/female divide. I think the difficulty women have faced in getting music released or even heard is one of the reasons for such labels and projects, but it’s sexism and ultimately defeats the object which is the acceptance of women in music and I think that can only be done by integration not segregation. It’s limiting too, because I may find working with a particular man more inspiring and productive than a particular woman.

Do you feel that the abstraction of more experimental music makes it a suitable tool with which to challenge the traditional and limiting ideas that have been used against women and female creativity, or do you think it can obscure these issues?

I didn’t get into abstract music as a deliberate challenge to traditional ideas on women in creativity so it’s difficult for me to say. If you go into a project with a particular agenda do you get a different result than if it was creativity’s sake alone? Abstraction is great because it does seem to remove associated male/female ideas of creativity but you could ask whether it also adds to it rather than obscures it because it may be discernible that women approach abstraction and experimentation in a different way to men. Ultimately we set our own limitations on ourselves and it’s up to us whether we accept tradition. I just find that the kind of music I make is the most expressive of myself, I can’t identify with someone in Steps [manufactured 2000s’ pop band] etc. It’s all so devoid of self-energy, it’s transient and of no interest to me at all. I want music that makes me think and feel, that’s all embracing and I can get that from female and male musicians.

You have said that everything has a history and that it’s through investigating this that we gain more understanding of what we’re dealing with. How would you apply this to your role as a female artist?

When I wrote that it was in response to people who are in denial on both a creative and personal level.
I think denial is a negative activity, it demands so much more energy than acceptance and consequently creativity is not given the open channels and free thought processes it needs. When we accept who we are, what we’ve experienced ourselves and through others, we reach an understanding and we can move forward. I think this is so important as an artist. To me, art is all about communication, sharing the information and life experiences I’ve assimilated. It sounds like I’m against free expression but it’s how you interpret ‘free’. There’s a difference between creating a work in total ignorance of anything similar being done before (which has happened to me) and knowingly creating a similar piece but denying the original ever existed. Unknowingly producing similar work can provide a new take on something, move things forward, because it has a different context and we gain more understanding from the new and similar works. When an artist denies the existence of their inspiration they are not only effectively rewriting history but undermining their own and others understanding. It’s not the progressive art it’s made out to be, but retrogressive. It’s basically down to being honest with yourself and your work and willingness to explore, experience, experiment, accept and express.

Do you find yourself being viewed as a specifically “female” performer before being anything else?

I know that I get tired with being seen as a woman before musician, or as a ‘female’ artist rather than just a musician and artist. It seems that women haven’t yet reached the position within society where they can just be artists or musicians. It should be seen as an amazing achievement that as well as all the other things we’re expected to do as part of our female role in society like being a mother, lover, nurse, cook, provider etc. that we have any energy left to be creative! There is an assumption that women are puppet performers with men pulling the strings or as in abstract music that the men are the technicians and therefore in control. These are fallacies because such generalisations don’t take into account or give credit for the input of the woman and the fact that the creative process is a collaborative process.

[images courtesy of Faber & Faber (1,2), and Ian Cinnamon (3)]


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