On 'Art Sex Music' and Working as an Avant-Garde Artist With Genesis P-Orridge
Throbbing Gristle and COUM Transmissions' Cosey Fanni Tutti's autobiography reminds us that the destructive forces of misogyny and exploitation infiltrate even the most admired of forward-thinking movements.
It’s worthwhile reading. Many know Cosey from her work with the experimental art-music-performance group Throbbing Gristle (credited with the founding of ‘industrial music’, although their work by far transcended any narrow genres which may have followed), as well as its artsy and provocative precursor, COUM Transmissions. Following Throbbing Gristle’s initial demise in 1981 (the group went through several torturous attempts at a regrouping in subsequent years, which are recounted in fascinating detail in her book) she and her partner (and former TG bandmate) Chris Carter went on to produce further music under a range of guises, including the well-known Chris & Cosey and Tutti Carter.
Cosey’s contribution to the world of art and creative thought transcends music, however. She’s a visual and performance artist who has excelled at the capacity to turn her purposefully unconventional life into art expressed through a wide range of mediums, from film to photography to broader multi-media work. It’s ironic and telling that materials from her earliest controversial exhibits (for instance the ‘Prostitution’ exhibition, originally showcased in 1976, which featured photos from her sex magazine work, used tampons, and other materials) continued to garner controversy and require warning disclaimers even when reworked and exhibited in the 21st century. It’s a sign of how truly challenging her early work was that even now it still defies mainstream norms.
Cosey’s autobiography chronicles, in straightforward diary-like fashion (it frequently draws on entries from the diaries she painstakingly kept throughout her life) the development of her life and her art. Its principal drawbacks are the lack of either an index or reference notes, both of which would have been invaluable, given the complicated array of bands and artists with which Cosey and her colleagues engaged over the years. Nevertheless, the book is a deeply rewarding and insightful snapshot of the period, and of a great artist’s struggle to succeed in spite of all the challenges arrayed against them.
A Different Art in a Different Time
Cosey’s violently patriarchal father kicked her out of the house at the age of 17, and it wasn’t long before she met fellow art provocateur Genesis P-Orridge and they began living together in an old fruit warehouse-cum-artists’-commune whimsically named the Ho Ho Funhouse. Her book offers a valuable chronicle of COUM Transmission’s early days in the appropriate yet unlikely industrial landscape of Kingston-upon-Hull, where the avant-garde art troupe’s early audiences were often comprised of skinheads and Hell’s Angels, in what was for a period the most crime-ridden city in England. The city’s mosaic of violent subcultures provided a strange backdrop for the ambiguous and undefinable COUMmune of artists gathered around Cosey and her then-partner Genesis P-Orridge. Yet the melange of street gangs were not unappreciative of the strange artists within their midst. One of Cosey’s final memories of living in the city was of her and Genesis being menaced by a skinhead gang at the local cinema, and of a gang of Hell’s Angels coming unexpectedly to their rescue.
Then it’s off to London for the pair, where they continued their work as aspiring, struggling artists. Cosey’s memoir does a tremendous job of evoking a bygone era; one in which it was possible for artists to struggle along, surviving hand-to-mouth and off-the-grid (yet at the same time networked with other artists in an intensity of contact that seems all but impossible in today’s virtual world). Cosey and Genesis and their colleagues struggled along, squatting in abandoned houses, making art-spaces out of abandoned factories, scrounging abandoned fruit at the local market, subsisting on porridge and the occasional slice of toast and tea.
Cosey doesn’t glamorize this existence -- one gets a real feeling for how tough it was to slog along as a struggling artist. The occasional few dollars that come in go toward art materials; there’s never enough food or warmth. When success finally starts to arrive, the lesson is clear: they’ve earned it.
While it’s important to remember that this telling -- and the artistic achievements it recounts -- are primarily Cosey’s, much of the content concerns her (and others’) troubling relationships with Genesis P-Orridge. Long revered as a countercultural cult figure and artistic genius, Cosey’s autobiography reveals that much of P-Orridge’s cult is contrived; her former partner and co-founder of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle had a rampant addiction to h/er own ego and stole ideas and material from others, without giving credit or due compensation.
The Misogyny of the Avant-Garde
Cosey and Genesis were romantic as well as creative partners for several years. P-Orridge (who has since come out as ‘pandrogyne’ and uses the pronouns s/he and h/er), although a clever experimental artist and someone Cosey professed to love and respect at the time despite h/er less palatable qualities, is revealed to be manipulative, violent and abusive. While undoubtedly intellectually provocative and insightful in h/er own right, Genesis also took ideas from others without giving credit and engaged in typically misogynist manipulation techniques within their relationship. It proved, nevertheless, an artistic growth period for Cosey, who found a musical and artistic partner with whom to explore their shared experimental and artistic performance interests. But as the years passed, Genesis’ negative traits became more pronounced.
“He placed himself in a guru-like position, one that was resistant to any questioning of the fact that he (as guru) wasn’t true to ‘himself’. If anyone questioned him on things he said or did that didn’t seem to ring true to what he claimed was COUM ethos, he’d respond with a reason why it was OK for him in that instance, that you had got it wrong, or he’d recite a COUM slogan to counter the criticism -- or make up a new one to add to the ever-growing ‘1001 Ways to COUM’ list. He could never be wrong, or maybe he just couldn’t see it.”
Calm and collected, soft-spoken and introspective in interviews from the period, Genesis’ temper emerged behind closed doors. Manipulative and jealous toward Cosey (while sexually promiscuous h/erself) Genesis’ temper would often flare at the slightest notice. During one fit of rage toward Cosey, Genesis smashed their only typewriter (a gift; they had to prevail on friends from then on to type things up); on occasion hurled their cats against the wall or down the stairs; and yet still demanded that h/er porridge be hot and ready on demand (it was their favourite food as well as the origin of their stage name). Genesis was both manipulative (she later discovered Genesis had secretly been opening and replying to her fan mail on her behalf) as well as violent.
Cosey’s account also reveals that the emergence and success of Throbbing Gristle (as well as its precursors and re-iterations) was dependent on Cosey in more ways than one. Her artistic contributions notwithstanding, she was also the sole breadwinner for Genesis and the other artists within their circle. Without her alternating employment gigs and unemployment insurance, the artists would never have had even the very low-scale financial wherewithal to do anything more than talk about the music and art they wanted to produce. Indeed, in the early years, it was Cosey’s hard work that not only kept them fed but also provided much of the money they used for their artistic productions. As the book makes clear, without Cosey’s ability to fuse nonconventional artistic thinking with very practical decision-making and financial planning, neither COUM Transmissions nor its various subsequent groups would probably ever have gotten off the ground.
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The sexism inherent in their communal artistic living space and in the broader art and music scene is striking and recounted in numerous grim examples. Cosey was the sole member of the household who looked after laundry, which involved a four-mile walk to the nearest launderette. She used a converted pram to transport the laundry, until Genesis decided to convert it into an art sculpture, making her task even more difficult. She reflected on this in her diary.
“I was also pissed off that so-called radical thinkers and supporters of ‘liberation’, like Gen, Greg and the others, couldn’t see that they assumed my role (as woman) to be the washer, cook and cleaner, in addition to everything else I did within COUM. When it came to sharing domestic work, equality of the sexes seemed to escape them. It didn’t matter whether I’d put in a full day’s factory work or done a day of maths at college.”
Later, Cosey’s emotional labour came to include her key role in keeping Throbbing Gristle together as its members grew increasingly apart.
“I sometimes felt my role was as much about sorting out the squabbles and sulks as it was about being a collaborator. Whether it was a male/female thing, I don’t know, but I felt like ‘Mother’. Sleazy even called me ‘Mum’ at times -- the boys got to play while I was Ms Domestic Goddess, food shopping, cooking, laundering and making friends when they argued, bringing them and TG back together to keep it from imploding…”
When her eventual partner Chris Carter joined the group, he was shocked at “Gen’s treatment of me (and others) being regarded as subordinate to Gen and facilitators for his needs. That, and my needs always coming second to Gen’s, shocked Chris. He couldn’t reconcile Gen’s declarations of being unconventional, ‘enlightened’ and into magick with his sexist, cruel behaviour and dogmatic insistence on maintaining domestic routines like specific meals on certain days and watching New Faces, Coronation Street and Doctor Who. How did all that sit with how TG were promoting themselves?”
Even after the group parted ways, Genesis continued to cultivate the image of h/erself as the key force behind Throbbing Gristle and COUM Transmissions, a false image that worked its way into Simon Ford’s seminal work on TG and COUM, Wreckers of Civilisation. That further entrenched the popular perception of Genesis as the key creative force behind those projects, much to the chagrin of everyone else who had been involved. Cosey and Carter, among others, refused to attend the launch, feeling betrayed after having contributed so much to the book by way of time and research materials.
A further source of irritation to the former members was the fact that Genesis had released bootlegs of Throbbing Gristle performances and recordings, without permission from the others (who were upset at the poor quality of the releases) and without sharing any of the royalties with them, at a time when they were all struggling financially. Genesis also sold off h/er “private collection” of TG-related materials, including personal letters and items belonging to Cosey.
Later, when Throbbing Gristle attempted to regroup (the demand and creative interest was there, and the reissuing of earlier material alone showed considerable financial potential for the still financially struggling artists, especially given that Genesis was already releasing and profiting off of it without the others’ permission), Genesis proved to be a recurring nightmare to work with. Unpredictable and unreliable, last-minute extortion demands from Genesis became a regular occurrence. Faced with the threat of having to cancel Throbbing Gristle reunion shows because Genesis would suddenly refuse to participate -- and unwilling to let the fans down in this way -- Cosey and the others even agreed to forego compensation in order to meet the unreasonable demands, such as allowing Genesis to fly across the Atlantic first-class; Throbbing Gristle member Sleazy (Peter Christopherson) slept on a friend’s floor while Genesis demanded four-star hotels. And even so, Genesis would randomly abandon tours or refuse to show up for expensive studio recording sessions. Genesis’ manipulative personality then blamed others for h/er actions, or tried to gaslight them into thinking it was all their fault.
Indeed, Cosey’s story is a powerful and poignant indictment of the virulence of patriarchal misogyny writ large. Genesis proved the source of misogyny in her romantic and work relationships, and her father was the source of violent misogyny in her family relationships. Her autobiography is important on many levels, not the least of which is its chronicling the pervasive sexism of this period (much of which lingers, tragically), and its revelations about the misogyny, manipulation and abuse (primarily from Genesis) which lurked within Throbbing Gristle, a project that inspired so many through its uncompromising efforts at artistic integrity and future-oriented, creative imagination. Credit is owed to Cosey for setting the record straight on these matters; it serves as an important and critical reminder that the destructive and abusive forces of misogyny and exploitation infiltrate even the most admired of forward-thinking movements.
A Life In Art
But there’s a lot more to Cosey’s life story than merely the nightmare which was Genesis P-Orridge. Cosey’s story is of someone whose life has been driven by art -- and whose energetic, relentless devotion to that cause has produced some of Europe’s most challenging and creative art in modern years.
Cosey’s discussion of her sex work is also honest, insightful and fascinating. Out of personal interest as well as the need to earn money, she began modeling after moving to London, including nude modeling and posing for sex magazines; she became quite successful in the field. Life was art was life for her, and her sex work became integrated into her performances -- both solo as well as with COUM and Throbbing Gristle. She worked at striptease as well, and offers an insightful and deeply personal reflection on the experience of working in that field. She has been, and remains, a staunch defender of women’s rights to do whatever they want with their bodies for whatever reasons they want, but is also quite honest about the hazards and dangers and exploitation that occurs in such work. Drawing on her years of personal experience in the field, she provides one of the most balanced and interesting discussions of the reality of sex work, particularly during the late '70s and early '80s.
Her autobiography has its touching moments, as well. Despite the abuse and violence she experienced in her relationship with Genesis, her subsequent almost 40-year relationship with former Throbbing Gristle bandmate Chris Carter has all the makings of a fairy tale romance. It’s an empowering and inspiring story of an artistic couple whose love for each other emerges not only through their music and art but also powerfully from the pages of her autobiography. The story ends with many touching thoughts around the fourth Throbbing Gristle member, ‘Sleazy’ (Peter Christopherson), who tragically died in 2010. His death marked the true and final end of Throbbing Gristle, although they would go on to release one final album featuring the new material that he had been working on with them (and, true to form, Genesis tried to scuttle the tributary release when it looked like some of his own vocals might be cut, going so far as to sue the others).
Cosey Fanni Tutti is an astonishing creative artist whose appreciation is certain to continue growing with time. From her musical and performance works to her visual and multimedia pieces to her theoretical contributions (the Institute of Cultural Affairs even held a symposium in 2010 organized on the idea of ‘Cosey Complex’, or “Cosey-as-methodology”), her accomplishments deserve to be celebrated, and Art Sex Music provides a useful reminder of what those accomplishments have been. Her autobiography is not only a valuable reference source for an important time, but it’s an inspiring story of life, love, and a complex relationship with art. "I don't like acceptance," she writes, "It makes me think I've done something wrong."