Cosey Fanni Tutti
"The difficulties I’ve had in life, I could have
been a tortured artist, if I didn’t think fuck this, let’s just
get on with it"
When it comes to British badasses in art and music, Cosey Fanni Tutti is in a league of her own. As part of Throbbing Gristle in the 1970s, she helped pioneer industrial music and her solo shows, modelling work and ‘actions’, as she calls them – including those that were part of the cultish collective and commune COUM Transmissions – blurred the lines between performance art, sex and subversion. Once considered shocking, her gallery shows shut down, now her vision is celebrated.
After TG, Cosey and her partner Chris Carter formed the musical duo Chris and Cosey and moved to the Norfolk countryside, where Cosey takes great pride in her blooming garden. It’s quite a contrast with the machine-led music that comes out of their home studio, which is where Cosey made TUTTI, her first solo album since 1982, and which was released in 2019.
Cosey's autobiography, Art Sex Music, depicts a truly alternative thinker for whom acceptance is the last thing on her mind. An audience with Cosey is a real insight into a life dedicated to the decidedly unsubtle art of not giving a fuck.
This episode is produced by Alison Gardiner.
TRANSCRIPT: Cosey Fanni Tutti
Cosey Fanni Tutti: I like nostalgia because when I look back at the past it's always great. Yeah, I don't do things to be proud, I just do things that feel right.
Kate Hutchinson: What do you do things for? What motivates your desire to be creative?
Cosey: Just the desire to live as full a life as I can. If you're feeling mediocre you'll make mediocre music and art, and I'm not into that at all. The difficulties I’ve had in life, I could've been a tortured artist, if I hadn't stood up and thought, "Well, fuck this. Let's get on with it". Probably am tough, but I've had it be. But it was never, I was never a quivering wreck or felt like a victim. 67 years of learning how to deal with situations has got me in a good place. They can think what the fuck they want but I know who I am. My voice is important. Is this an alternative lifestyle? I don't know if it is. Got WiFi you know.
Kate Hutchinson intro: When it comes to badass British women in music, Cosey Fanni Tutti is in a league of her own. As part of Throbbing Gristle in the 1970s, she helped pioneer industrial music. Her solo shows, modelling work and 'actions', as she calls them - including those that are part of the cultish collective and commune COUM - blurred the lines between performance art, sex and subversion. Once considered shocking, her gallery shows shut down, now her vision is celebrated. After TG, Cosey and her partner Chris Carter formed the musical duo Chris & Cosey. They moved back to the Norfolk countryside, where Cosey takes great pride in her blooming garden. It's quite a contrast with the machine-led music that comes out of their home studio, but then Cosey, brilliantly, doesn't care what you think. Her autobiography Art Sex Music depicts a truly alternative thinker for whom acceptance is the last thing on her mind. An audience with Cosey is a real insight into a life dedicated to the decidedly unsubtle art of not giving a fuck.
Cosey: Everything you see in the garden there was tarmac when we moved in, so the garden has been created from a playground. It's just what we wanted. We knew that a smallish school would be great for a home and studio in one, and the countryside would be great, and our child would have a childhood. It's taken 34 years to get to this point. Born and bred in Hull, it was a tough city, but it's all I knew so it didn't seem that tough to me. I just sort of fought my ground in whatever way - sometimes physically, sometimes not, you know, you just had to stand up for yourself. And I think that did have a big effect on me. It made me believe in myself really, because I had to, to go out there and answer people that questioned me. You know, whether it was like face to face or just being told to know my place. There was a lot of that when I was born. But it was, it was very very difficult then and you tend to, with Me Too coming through, you realise just how unacceptable that was. But because it was the way it was then you dealt with it the best way you could, and you, um, yeah, you manipulated the situations to get through it, you had to.
Kate: You've talked about Throbbing Gristle I think in particular as being a soundtrack to the state of the UK in the 1970s. Did that in any way come from your love of protest music as a young girl?
Cosey: I think the protest music, protest songs and that activity in the 60s had a lot to do with the way I am now, because it kind of gave you, you said, "Yeah, I can. My voice is important". You know, and you don't have to accept what a small group or small percentage of the whole population thinks is right for the world. Which we're in that state now. You know, how many billions of people are gonna suffer because of what's going on now. You know, at what point do we suddenly say enough is enough, and how do we say it without making appointments with the police to do a protest? Demonstrations now by appointment only. It's very very difficult, the level of control at the moment is frightening, and the internet can be helpful but it's also, that's another level of control as well. It's difficult.
Cosey: Some groups from way back in the 70s, or even late 60s, who started in bands when they were 15, 16, 17, they kind of have an authority about what they're singing about, which I don't see now. You know, I look at their faces and I hear their voices and they know what they're talking about and they believe in it. And that's what I blame X-Factor for, it's because what do they believe in? I don't know. The Voice, you know, I mean get your own voice. The reason you're copying that is because it's a unique voice that isn't trained necessarily, like Bowie, people sort of like being Bowie or whoever else, um, and copying that idiosyncratic way of singing. And I think well, you love them because they are themselves, and just you'd probably love yourself more if you could be yourself.
Kate: What do you think when you see artists who are being bohemian for the sake of it? I use 'bohemian' loosely - who are putting themselves forward as ‘alternative’ or ‘outsiders’?
Cosey: People have always done that. Yeah, we used to call them 'weekend hippies' in the 60s. 'Weekend punks' in the 70s. You know, so you have 'weekend bohemians' or, um, um 'bohemian-for-the-sake-of-my-career' bohemians. Being something you're not, I just don't see why would want to do that? It's hard work, being something for the sake of your art - what value does your art have then? It's a little bit empty and not very truthful I would think. I'm just doing what I want to do in the way I want to do it and, um, that makes my life full and rewarding. And I doubt I could say that for someone else that does that.
Kate: Growing up in a performance art collective...
Kate: Which is quite unusual. What were those early days in COUM like?
Cosey: Getting into Prince Street and renting our own place, we could just do it up as we wanted and it just became an art work really. It wasn't about being decorative, it was um, documentation really. Just first of all making it habitable to some extent, because it wasn't really - pigeons lived in the first two floors from the roof down. It's very hard to describe when people ask me what it was like because it was just the way we lived. I've always lived, other than here because I have a separate office, with my desk nearby which has all my creative materials there. So it was, you get up, didn't switch the telly on or anything like that, didn't go on the internet, just went to my desk and all my pens and paints and all that material was there and I would be writing in my diary and then doing drawings and doing mail art. And that was just the lifestyle, and going out would be spotting things that would be really useful for actions or things that I could send in the post even. And it was just all about that - it was observing the world and bringing it into a creative environment and then taking it out to the world again. It was a very industrial setting and with all the factories around it in the arches that's all you could hear, was industry, and we were amongst that being very industrious experimenting with sound.
Kate: What did industrial music mean to you?
Cosey: You took no prisoners really. The sound was just like it was gonna be what it was gonna be.
Cosey: The scientific use of sound, not necessarily as entertainment, but then turning it round sort of to introduce, yeah, to introduce to people to say, you know, "This is sound and it's legitimate in its own right, and it's expressive of something that we're going through at the moment", and that's what, for me, that's what I feel music should represent.
Kate: Your stripping work complemented your music work, because those were running concurrently at the same time, right?
Cosey: Yeah, one track immediately, Chris & Cosey track Stolen Kisses was from my stripping. Guys used to come up and try and kiss you or whatever, you know, because I used to have these fans that would follow me around from pub to pub around London, and they would always turn up to see Scarlett. They would ring up my agency, "Where's Scarlett dancing today?". That was specifically from when I was stripping, because, you know, it would be like a back off, you know. So yeah, it does feed, it all fed into it. Everything in my life is in the lyrics of Chris & Cosey, Carter Tutti material. And it might sound like a nice pretty love song but underneath there's all sorts of things that have inspired it that aren't particularly pretty.
Kate: How did nudity become your form of expression?
Cosey: Well I suppose, yeah, I started off using images from sex magazines. And also the whole liberation thing going on in the hippies into the 70s, because it got even more liberated in the 70s. Sexist as well, misogynistic more, because everybody expressed themselves so it was like, [confused/ repulsed noise] "Uh!", all at once you know [laughing]. Liberation and sexism all in one fell swoop. But I think it was the fact that I was allowed to be free about my sexuality, and because I was sort of disowned by my family I had no one saying, sort of pecking in my ears saying, "Your mother wouldn't approve of that. Your dad would go mad if you did this". So, I was like, yeah, that's good. It's that whole thing of when I was young you were, yeah, I was told to cover up, like you know, when I was in my vest on my uncle's motorbike and I got told off for that - I wasn't even naked and I was only about four. So there was a bit of people being prudish when I was young, and yet at the same time it was really weird because my mum and dad were very open about being half-naked in front of me as a child. Like I remember my mum and dad both, you know, my mum used to be in the bath naked, my dad used to walk about just in his like Y-fronts, so it wasn't, I think I grew up with that, that it was acceptable, flesh was acceptable, but in a private situation obviously. And then kind of like you get into communes where you're all living together and there's free love and all this going on, so you've got, um, that sort of like fed into my whole approach to being naked and my experience in sex in different situations, you know. And that theatrical thing that was going on with art at the time and it was called performance art, which immediately takes it to theatre for me, and costumes, which we did at the very beginning, we had costumes. But then it changed a lot when I started dealing with my own body in terms of how I felt and how I wanted to express myself in my art or just in my actions. And it just became my body was the focal point and it just seemed right that it should just be a blank canvas, and it had nothing to do with nudity so much as just being me and my body, present.
Kate: I wondered what you think your art would've been like, or what Throbbing Gristle would've been like, without that strong link to sex?
Cosey: I think sex was very important within TG. It was every version of sex you could think of I think, you know. And it did drive it.
Kate: Do you think if more bands had raunchy threesomes they'd be making better music?
Cosey: Not necessarily! All depends on what the approach is. I mean we were close, we didn't just sort of like go out at a gig one night and say, "Anyone wanna come back for an orgy?". There were, possibly at parties it was like that, but yeah, I think for me particularly as a woman I have to have a connection with someone. Definitely. I mean even with all my, my, my um, my work in the porn industry, in stripping and everything else I've ever done, I haven't had tons and tons of partners. I think I've probably had less than 20, because I'm quite choosy. I'm choosy about who enters my body.
Cosey: People tend to, I don't know, they don't belittle it but I think they tend to underestimate the importance of sex and the drive that you have and lust and the importance of that emotional exchange, that physical touch. It's really important - you can't sort of put it in a box and get it out when you want, because I think that's, you're heading for trouble then. Sex and experimenting with it, is it kind of like the new bucket list or something? I don't know. I've no idea. I do wonder if that's what it's about. You gotta swim with dolphins, you've gotta do this, you've gotta have anal sex, you've got to have so many partners and three way penetration or anything else - then you've lived, and you can settle down and have a kid and not forget about it, but you know, you've qualified. I don't understand. Or is it a personal drive from a real need? Sex to me is about a really emotional connection and, and a full body experience, it's not just in and out and thank you ma'am.
Kate: Did you feel back then that people were taking away your sense of agency?
Cosey: No, because I always felt that I had it. I had this thing, they can think what the fuck they want but I know who I am and they'll never have it. Often though when I got pissed off in situations where it's obvious because I'm a woman I'm being treated differently - then I get really angry. But again, I work around it, because it's the best, I think it's the best solution really. Because sometimes I don't think people are even aware they're doing it. It's so endemic. And then I sort of think to myself why should I give you the benefit of the doubt? Constantly women are giving people the benefit of the doubt! You know, "I better not mentioned it, it'll upset them" - you know? And I'm thinking I've been upset for 67 bloody years! When can I be allowed to upset someone else? Because I was, yeah I was really focusing on myself at the same time as dealing with whatever was being thrown at me. But I, I'm, yeah, people say, "Oh, you're tough" - yeah I probably am tough, but I've had to be. But it was never, I was never a quivering wreck or felt like a victim at all.
Kate: The sense that I get from the book is definitely of someone who's got bullet proof armour. If it was ever the end of the world, Cosey, I'd be coming up here to Norfolk.
Cosey: Yeah I'll look after you.
Kate: [Laughing] Moving here. If the apocalypse happens I'm coming here.
Kate: Prostitution at the ICA, that went completely...
Cosey: Yeah that was a bit...
Kate: Weren't you chased?
Cosey: That was violent. Yeah, chased and Chris was thumped by journalists, and sworn at and the opening was violent. But again, you know, we kind of half expected that, but we didn't, yeah, it was just all aimed at Gen.
Kate: Can you recall a performance or a show where things got completely out of hand?
Cosey: Yeah, TG at Rafters got out of hand, where Gen did the cutting on the girl's arm and she was a haemophiliac, so that wasn't good. I think we did have [that] on a Chris & Cosey tour, we had a support band on as well that was swinging chains and cracked someone's head open. Being industrial, you know, and going a bit too far. That could've been worse. Different things like that really.
Kate: Reading the book, I got very frustrated. I think you've probably heard that from a lot of people.
Kate: A real sort of rising anger. How did either not yourself or Chris or Sleazy just lamp Gen[esis P-Orridge] in the face? Hard.
Cosey: Yeah I think people probably think that we were scared, but it wasn't anything to do with that at all. I've always, even when I left I looked at him as a very needy person. I was just so much stronger. I didn't need to hit anyone, I didn't need to hurt anyone, because I knew that I was ok. It was, I was the one that was ok, I was the one that was going to be fine, and I had something really fantastic waiting for me. So until we needed to split TG you just managed the situation. And it's not unusual in bands - there's always someone in a band that people put up with. It just so happens that I was also in a relationship of a kind.
Kate: Was he in touch after the book came out?
Cosey: Let's not make it about him. No he wasn't, no, not at all. But then that's how [long pause] you know, you don't mention so. There's a particular psychological thing you do when you don't wanna deal with something you never mention it. It's a known thing. I think it was more difficult second time round, because I knew it would be like that but I was outvoted, so... Some people never change, and I knew it would be what it was, so there's nothing cathartic about just revisiting something like that. What was fantastic about it was that we got to bring TG to people that had loved it first time round and people that learnt or felt they loved it this time round, you know. And working with Sleazy again was just amazing - that connection was just instant once we got in the studio and he was just, like, blown away by it as well. The excitement of sitting like, cos he came and stayed with us a lot here, sitting in our studio and talking things through, "What can we do next?", you know. "Well I've got a really good idea, I think because of this we need to do that", you know, and it's how we used to work years ago. Taking the now and then presenting it in the way that we wanted to, yeah, that was really really nice.
Kate: So those recordings that you made then during the regrouping - would you say that that was a very fair snapshot of the now? Reflecting all of those turbulent feelings or the turmoil?
Cosey: Yeah. It was.
Kate: So the secret to great collaboration?
Cosey: I think the nearest thing I've seen to anything like that was when I watched a documentary of Gilbert & George and they were like each other's left and right hand, and that's how me and Chris are, really. He called me the other day, "Oh you're witchy", because I say something and he's, "I was just going to say that!". But yeah you have that, yeah, you just lived with each other so long and you're so close that, um, it's not claustrophobic at all, and people often think that. But I mean we are together more or less 24/7 unless I'm away on something or coming back.
Kate: I remember reading an interview with you where you talked about collaboration and the actual reality of collaboration - do you think that all the best art is about collaborating?
Cosey: No not always, no. Because I, I, some of the art I really like has just been from one person, and because it's, the deep feeling is externalised in such a way that it's so powerful - because it's just the one it comes through like that. Whereas with a collaboration it can be powerful but it's got many sources which are sort of, which is great because the energy is there. I think the audiovisual piece I did for Hull City of Culture, someone said to me, "It's your self portrait", and I thought that was a lovely thing, and that was in February last year, 2017. And it was, um, taken from the COUM exhibition which was the story of COUM starting in Hull, or the idea starting before Hull and then going out through an ending at the ICA 76. I took samples from COUM way back from the early 70s and I used all the different sounds that I'd gone through doing all my music and also spoken word, talking to people. I did a video of images from going in that same arc of time but they were all bleeding and melting into one another, so it was just a visual representation of what made me and the sound was the same. And it was just so powerful to just sit there and watch, and it was just all me.
Kate: Do you see that as being far removed - or maybe not at all - from, you know let's say doing three-way anal on stage covered in piss and vomit?
Cosey: Yeah, cos she's kind of working towards that. This is um, all that stuff early on was sort of building up and forming who you are, and then I suppose this was me showing me fully formed at that point in time. This is where I am now. A bit like my book, that was 2017, the show was 2017, this particular self portrait, audiovisual self portrait was 2017. And it was just like, right, I'm here now, full circle back in Hull, it's almost like giving myself permission, yeah, now I can go on. Maybe in 40 years when I'm not here anymore that will happen again, but, nobody will understand what I'm doing now but maybe in 40 years it'll have some resonance. I don't know. But I don't look for that.
Kate: Why is Prostitution as relevant now as it was back then?
Cosey: The show?
Kate: The show.
Cosey: The exhibition? Because of the motivation behind people's actions. You have to go back to the whole thing of why do you do things? Why do you want to do this particular music or this particular art? How do you feel? And if it's a bad feeling then try and, just understanding yourself, because until you understand yourself I don't think you can really begin to put yourself out there for someone. I mean I've met some of the most interesting people in my life when I've worked in factories, not in the art scene. Because they know what life's about - they've faced it full on and they're still facing it day by day and they've got fantastic experiences. And not only that, but their interest intellectually and creatively goes way outside the workplace, whether they're young or older, because of the way they look they're dismissed as not having any relevance in cultural situations, which is totally untrue. That's something I think people in the arts need to realise - they're not talking to an uninformed audience by any means. Some of the people that are going to see their work have probably been through far more in their life and had more interesting lives than they have by not going to art college.
Kate: Has the best art in your life happened when it's been at the most turbulent or the happiest?
Cosey: Oh gosh.
Kate: Is there a distinction between the two?
Cosey: I think the two is the fact that they're either hyper-happy or hyper-bad. And it's the hyper of each extreme that makes it the best. Yeah, because you've got October (Love Song), which I think is one of the happiest times of my life which created a really great song. And then you have TG which was a really down time. But yeah, having said that, I mean we did an album probably six years ago or more now, Feral Vapours, where there's a track on that, Woven Clowns, which was about when we nearly lost our son. Chris can't even listen to it now, he doesn't play it. I think it is either one extreme or the other creates something great. Where you want something in the middle it'll always be mediocre, won't it? If you're feeling mediocre you'll make mediocre music and art, and I'm not into that at all.
Kate: What do you make of this archetype of the tortured artist? How has that sat with you over the years?
Cosey: I mean it's a funny thing, do you have to be tortured to be an artist? No. I mean I just find the difficulties I've had in life, I could've been a tortured artist, if I hadn't stood up and thought, "Well fuck this, let's just get on with it", you know, and it's a bit self indulgent. Depression as such is something totally different, and I know what that is, it's a black hole you don't ever wanna enter. And you can't ever explain to people unless they've been there what it's like. I had shingles and I had paralysis and I was on, the medication I was on was so strong that it completely depleted my serotonin, and I was just down, completely down. Yeah, I could see no way up. But I had a really really good GP, he's amazing. And he just said, he explained to me what it was, and he put it right which was amazing. But having gone through that and then depression on top, yeah, you learn a lot.
Kate: [Talking about Cosey's cornet] There she is.
Cosey: There she is, there's my cornet, yeah. She's beautiful.
Kate: Does she have a name?
Cosey: No she doesn't, that's funny init? My guitar doesn't either. Are you supposed to? Yeah because it's me I don't need to add a name on as a, that's kind of a separation isn't it. No, that's not me at all. No, she's beautiful.
Cosey: I've sort of moved away from laptop at the moment and doing that, but then I also have effects units. Mouth organ I love at the moment as well, so it's a little bit like my breath comes through. It all goes back to that I have to be physically present in the sound that I generate in some way, it's not enough for me to just move a knob, or, yeah. That's a thing with me I think.
Kate: What are you working on at the moment?
Cosey: My new solo album.
Cosey: It's done. So that'll be out this year.
Kate: How do you feel about it?
Cosey: I can't say too much about it because I'm not doing a press release yet. But yeah I'm really happy with it, and you'll know why when you know what it is. But um, yeah, I'm really pleased with it. I've wanted to do it for a while, but then I just suddenly decided I think two weeks ago I'm back where I needed to be. I'd gone off somewhere, and now I'm back where I need to be - with me.
Ali Gardiner: This episode was produced by me, Ali Gardiner. For more in The Last Bohemians series follow us on iTunes or see the portrait series at thelastbohemians.co.uk.