Cosey Fanni Tutti: 'I don’t like acceptance. It makes me think I've done something wrong'

As a member of COUM and Throbbing Gristle, Cosey Fanni Tutti made art that was so shocking, the police ran them out of Hull. But now they’re being invited back – and celebrated in galleries. Here she talks about how they survived

‘I smeared Gen in flour paste and whipped him hard’: read an extract from Cosey Fanni Tutti’s new autobiography

There’s no getting around the fact that meeting Cosey Fanni Tutti after you’ve read her autobiography is a slightly disconcerting experience. It’s not just that she’s so nice, in a way that’s entirely at odds with the fearsome reputation of notorious 70s performance art collective COUM and Throbbing Gristle, the groundbreaking, wildly influential band COUM begat – although she certainly is.

At 65, there’s a certain formidable doesn’t-suffer-fools air about her. Even so, it’s hard to square the woman in whose kitchen I’m eating biscuits and drinking tea with the person who did the more shocking stuff described in Art Sex Music: performances so transgressive that other transgressive performance artists tended to walk out in disgust (“We ended up locked together, lying in piss, blood and vomit,” ends one characteristic description); exhibitions involving used tampons and blood-smeared dildos that caused one fulminating Tory MP to dub Tutti and the rest of COUM “wreckers of civilisation”; game plunges into the world of porn modelling and stripping as part of her art practice; music that screamed about serial killers and death camps and frequently caused uncomprehending audiences to erupt in rage and horror.

It’s more that she seems so normal, so unscathed by the extraordinary life depicted in the book. There are moments of deadpan humour in it – not least when her then-teenage son Nick comes face-to-face with some of her old work during an exhibition at the ICA (whatever parenting problems you may have encountered, it seems doubtful that you’ve ever had to, as Tutti puts it, “explain to Nick a film in which I castrated his dad”) – but it is an often harrowing read, pockmarked by familial dysfunction and violence. Between the art actions, the Throbbing Gristle gigs at which audiences tried to attack the band, the striptease bookings in dubious pubs and her turbulent, abusive relationship with COUM founder and Throbbing Gristle frontman Genesis P-Orridge, it’s hard not to be struck by how much physical danger she regularly found herself in. She looks a bit surprised when I mention it. “I didn’t think of it in the way you say it,” she shrugs. “It’s funny, isn’t it, when someone outside points it out?”

She says she’s not sure where her non-conformist streak came from, although it was there from the start, when she was still Christine Newby, the daughter of a fireman and a wages clerk from Hull’s Bilton Grange council estate. Her home life was strained: her father was emotionally distant, domineering and frequently violent; moreover he refused point-blank to let her go to art school. “That little thing I can thank him for,” she nods, “because it meant that I had to go out there and do it, not be taught it, which was brilliant. My imagination was free.”

Tutti with Throbbing Gristlein the 1970s
Tutti with Throbbing Gristle in the 1970s Photograph: -

She immersed herself in Hull’s late-60s counterculture. It was at an LSD-fuelled happening in Hull University student union that she first met Genesis P-Orridge, who announced that he had rechristened her Cosmosis and that they should be together. Within weeks, she’d been thrown out of home by her father, was living with P-Orridge in a commune and was an active member of COUM. In many ways, she says, it was a liberating social and artistic experiment: “Just working with what presented itself, you know, going to jumble sales and finding these fantastic hoards, bringing it home and creating a small art work in the house, or costumes that would suggest something we could do, all ad hoc, based on chance, the way I still like it.”

But it’s hard not to notice that, despite the supposedly liberated lifestyle of the commune, it still fell to Tutti, the most prominent female member, to do all the cleaning, cooking and washing. “Another member of COUM, Spydeee, said to me recently, ‘People don’t realise how rife sexism was then, the misogyny there was even among liberal people’,” she says. “I was doing everything. Not that I didn’t see anything wrong with the role, it’s just that I was surviving. I had no home, no family to go back to, so I had to make my home as near as dammit to what was comfortable to me, and if that meant cooking, cleaning … I saw a photo from back then recently and thought, ‘What’s that around my neck?’ It was a police whistle that somebody had given me because I was always making sure that everybody did what they were supposed to do. Someone had to organise at some point.”

Initially, COUM’s art was funny and playful. There is footage of them, covered in tinsel, performing actions on the streets of Hull to crowds of apparently entranced children; they formed a band in which “everybody got on stage and did what they wanted, which was absolute chaos”, entering talent competitions and chanting “off, off” to pre-empt the inevitable audience reaction.

But gradually, their tone changed. By the mid-70s, their performances often involved nudity, live sex acts and bodily fluids: crowds of entranced children were noticeable by their absence. Tutti thinks her increasing fascination with and involvement in the world of pornography had something to do with it. She’d been including images from porn magazines in collages, she says. “I just thought: ‘It’s a bit rotten using them like this.’ I’d sooner get in there and do it myself, so I know the background behind it and how it’s made. And then, once you enter that world, things do change, they get less playful.”

Encouraged by P-Orridge, she began modelling for top-shelf magazines, then appearing in both hardcore and softcore films, and stripping. The 70s porn industry sounds pretty grim, but she says she thinks it might be worse today. “Back then, there was an unwritten code, that you treated the girls as good as you could. Nowadays … I think I expected it would be different, because of feminism for a start, and because now there are female porn sites; it seems quite liberated. But I watched that documentary about [latterday porn star] Annabel Chong that came out about 15 years ago, and it really shocked me. It might have been bad in the 70s, underground and a bit seedy, but it wasn’t violent in that way, it wasn’t treating you like a piece of meat, literally.”

Cosey Fanni Tutti 13/1/2017.
‘We were playing with ideas all the time’ … Cosey Fanni Tutti. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

She included framed centrefolds from the magazines in COUM’s 1976 retrospective show, Prostitution. When it opened, the tabloids went berserk – as a result of the coverage, Tutti’s mother never spoke to her again – questions were asked in the House of Commons and the ICA’s public funding was threatened. In her telling of it, Tutti and the rest of COUM were genuinely hurt and bewildered by the furore: “COUM were never confrontational,” she shrugs. “People might think we were, but we weren’t, we were just … sharing something, if you like.”

Oh, come off it. It was an exhibition full of used tampons and photos from porn mags. You must have realised it was a provocative thing to do? “No. Strange isn’t it? That’s the bubble, I suppose. It was what we did every day in the studio, it was just part of my daily life, my routine: saving my Tampax for it, trying to stop the dog from eating them.” She laughs. “She was terrible for that.”

The opening of Prostitution marked the launch of Throbbing Gristle, the band formed when Tutti, P-Orridge and fellow COUM member Peter Christopherson met electronics wizard Chris Carter. If the musical results were no closer to traditional rock and pop than COUM’s free-for-all experiments, they now had a new potency and focus: the churning, terrifying noise they created gradually attracted an ever-increasing group of intense devotees, much to the band’s apparent horror. “We wore uniforms because we were playing with ideas all the time, investigating that concept of how uniformity sells a product, that was fascinating to us,” says Tutti. “That started out as an interest and then it actually worked: eventually, we played the Lyceum in London and the whole audience was wearing military uniforms. No, no, no, no: we don’t want followers.”

For all the talk of investigating concepts, Art Sex Music makes their sound seem less like an artistic exercise than an expression of the chaos in their personal lives: Tutti and Carter fell in love, which caused her relationship with P-Orridge, always fraught, to collapse in acrimony: at one juncture, he threw a breeze block at her from a balcony, narrowly missing her head. It seems a miracle the band managed to achieve anything, let alone a series of albums that spawned an entire musical genre named after their record label, Industrial: “Well, it was a struggle, it really was. I don’t know how it held together.”

Throbbing Gristle finally split up in 1981. (An attempt to regroup in the 00s was an acclaimed artistic triumph but, by all accounts, as much of a psychological nightmare as the old days.) Tutti and Carter continued to work together, as Chris and Cosey, CTI and Carter Tutti. And after almost a decade’s absence, Tutti made a triumphant return to the art world in the mid-90s.

In the interim, something deeply improbable had happened. Her work had gone from reviled to revered. In recent years, her art has been widely exhibited, bought by the Tate and the subject of a day-long festival at the ICA. Throbbing Gristle are routinely hailed as one of the most important bands of their era, while – initially unbeknownst to the pair – the music she and Carter made turned out to be a huge influence on subsequent electronic music: shows they played revisiting old material and their “cross-generational” collaboration with Nik Void of Factory Floor were rapturously received.

Most recently, nearly 45 years after COUM were effectively run out of Hull by the police, they were invited back: an exhibition of their work and a series of events based on it form a major part of the programme for Hull’s year as UK City of Culture. When I mention that she seems to have become accepted, Tutti frowns and says “I know,” in the way you might say “I know” if someone pointed out you’d just stepped in something disgusting. You’re not keen on the idea?

“I look at it like it’s retrospective acceptance, so what I feel about the work when it was done is still there, it still has meaning for me. Of its time, it was unacceptable. I don’t like acceptance, I distrust it completely, I think I’ve done something wrong, like I’ve gone off on a bad tangent and need to get back on track.” She pauses. “I mean, I understand why certain things have found their place in history, so I can accept that. But I don’t see it as acceptance of what I did then, because it wasn’t. It’s still loaded with that unacceptance.”

• Art Sex Music by Cosey Fanni Tutti is published by Faber & Faber on 6 April at £14.99. Order it for £12.74 at bookshop.theguardian.com. COUM Transmissions is a series of events at Hull 2017 UK City of Culture

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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