The following interview was first published in Divinity Vol. 1 No. 2 in 1992. With the publication of Cosey’s new book Art Sex Music, it seemed a good time to revisit it, especially as those three activities are the subject matter of the interview.
Cosey Fanni Tutti began her art career as both a glamour model and performance artist, alongside Genesis P. Orridge, as the notorious Coum Transmissions. Their live shows included various bodily functions, used tampon displays and BDSM rituals.
After this Cosey and Gen teamed up with Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson and Chris carter to form the seminal industrial band Throbbing Gristle. Throughout the late Seventies, TG influenced an entire generation of bands, performers and filmmakers with their extreme sound and multi-media performances.
After TG ended, Chris and Cosey began to produce a series of recordings, each different is style and approach. Often working with a variety of collaborators, they quickly proved to be almost impossible to categorise. They also continued to explore the visual arts scene.
Tell us about your start in performance art.
I was with Genesis [P. Orridge] at the time, and we were working with Coum Transmissions doing performance work. We started in Hull, when we used to do street theatre, and they were more comical scenarios really. Then they got a bit more bizarre. We thought “people will stand and watch anything, won’t they?”, so we used to do the most minimal things, and people would just stand there for up to an hour and watch us doing next to nothing; basically changing seats in slow motion or something silly (laughs). Then we did little environments in arts centres – like happenings, really. We’d make it so that people had to climb though tubes to get in, and there’s be all sorts of things going on inside. Then, we got fed up with that because you’d get people coming in and just destroying it – they’d go looney for an hour and leave. So we thought “well, that’s it. We won’t give them that kind of freedom, we’ll have to structure it a bit more.” Then we went on to do things where people would actually sit quietly and watch what we did. But all of the performances we did, art wise, were challenges to ourselves.
How did Throbbing Gristle come about and evolve from Coum Transmissions?
John Lacey was working with us at the time. He was also working on separate projects with Chris. Chris came down to the house and we were talking about doing music with the performances, because we had a lot of acoustic drums and stuff like that at the time with the performance work – we didn’t use language at all. Chris was building his synthesisers and stuff at the time, so we arranged to meet up and for him to bring his gear down, and just see what happened. TG was born, really, within a week of that.
What was the initial concept?
We wanted to do some kind of electronic music, and Chris’s ability to build stuff, and the inventiveness of it all meant that we could actually do something different – which is what we wanted to do. Because at the time we were doing a lot of contact mic’ed performances, so the actual actions were the music to the pieces. So what he could give us was quite interesting, and it would mean that we went forward with what we were doing. TG didn’t have an aim at the beginning, other than just doing what we wanted to do – they were improvised pieces. Then we said – as you do when you just sit around – “it’d be good if we had an album to show our grandchildren, wouldn’t it?”. And that is basically where it sprang from. We said “yeah, let’s do one”. That’s how Second Annual Report came into being.
So there wasn’t a grand master plan?
Not at all, we just thought we’d be mischievous and do something that, basically, people would say “oh God, turn it off!”. At the time, if you remember, a lot of what was going on was Boney M. and all that kind of music – really tacky disco stuff, and Bee Gees and left overs from that. We were sick to death of all that. Also, what was happening shortly after was all the punk thing. We knew McLaren and his rival John Krevine who had BOY down the King’s Road – they were in competition with each other and they both had a band as well. He had the Sex Pistols, who Sleazy was doing promo shots for, and we all knew Kravine, so between us we all knew the two different versions of punk, if you like. But all this energy was going on at the time, and it just fed into one another, always. You just sort of bounced ideas off, all the way around. There was Alternative TV coming up, The Cabs [Cabaret Voltaire], Clock DVA – all sorts going on. So we just went from one project to another, and got more mischievous really.
Did you ever expect what you were doing to have so much influence?
No, not at all, we were quite shocked. I mean, we did seven hundred and odd copies of the first album, thinking “well, if it takes us five years to sell ‘em, that doesn’t matter, because all we want is it just to sit in our record collection as an album by us”. And they went really quick! (laughs). We couldn’t keep up with demand in the end. So that’s why we licensed it to Fetish, so they could carry on doing it and actually bring another label into being, independent to anyone else – again, like spawn all these little independent camps going on all over the place. That’s what started Rough Trade Records as well, because they were just a shop at the time. It inspired them to do their own label. It was a hive of industry, the late Seventies (laughs).
So what brought it all to an end?
Because it became something it was never meant to be. We were quite anti pop heroes, or and cult heroes like that, even to the point where punk became what we didn’t like in the end. People started putting everyone on a pedestal, thinking they were something special, and the whole idea was that anyone could do it, you know… music is like anything to all different people, it doesn’t have to follow a formula at all.
You found yourselves becoming rock stars?
Yeah! Which was not what we wanted. We wanted to open up all horizons, for information as well as music, any kind of thing – performance work, art – just so people knew that they could actually take part and participate rather than sit and be fed. That was the whole idea of TG in the end. Me and Gen at Coum Transmissions were thinking like that anyway, and a lot of our performances were around expanding our own souls, if you like, as well as experiences, and making ourselves more complete as people. And that’s what TG became in the end. It became a vehicle to let people know, because people seem pick up on music easier than performance art, it’s a different audience totally. You could get the message across to different people – and younger people. There were some very young people slotted into TG and what it was about.
I know, I was one of them.
Yeah (laughs). But it became a beast in the end. We did all these spoofs – we took all these advertising gimmicks people did for Abba and all those people, and used them for TG, and it worked. I mean, it was a nice experiment for us, but it meant that we were overloaded with work, and we couldn’t get down and do projects. Me and Chris were working in the mail order dept, doing all the office work – it was just crazy. So we said “look, let’s call it a day”. There were personal reasons as well; we couldn’t work together any more.
Which direction did you want to head in, post-TG?
Whatever happened at the time. As long as I’m active creatively, as long as I feel inside that I’m doing something to expand myself, I’m happy, whether it’s music, or performance, or writing – anything like that. But we’d already started working on an album of our own anyway, me and Chris, before TG did the last gig in America. When we got back, that’s when we did Heartbeat.
So it was a natural progression…
It was, yeah, because with TG, there were times when Chris would start something off, because he was the main instigator of the music, the sounds came from him because he was the technically able person to produce them. Although he’s not trained musically, he had a long history of using electronics and music. Sleazy used to often work with him towards the end as well – they used to start rhythms off. But – we’d be working on some tracks and we’d want them to go in one direction and, more so Gen than Sleazy, didn’t want it going that way, or we had to accommodate Gen’s vocals that didn’t really go with what we’d envisaged the track being like. So we were already beginning to compromise. That was one of the reasons that D.O.A. was done, so we could all do our own thing.
So how does your post-TG output compare in your mind with the earlier work? Is there any connection?
I always think of TG musically as being exactly what I wanted it to be for other people. It’s knocking down all the preconceived ideas of what music is or can be, or what you expect it to be, and starting from scratch really, but using modern day instrumentation – and old stuff; using anything you like to make sounds. As long as you get something out of it. That’s what we wanted to do, and we did that. We experimented with sounds on all levels – psychological, physical. Then we learned from what we did, and we experimented doing more poppy things. It’s an experience, and everything we do, we do it for that reason.
That’s what making records should be about – self expression, rather than having to stick to a tired formula, simply because it sells.
Yeah. I just don’t want to do that. There’s no point me doing that, there’s enough people out there, churning it out. I don’t see the point in doing that, you’re just treading water for the rest of your life. You don’t get anything out of it, other than money in the bank. It’s comfortable, but… money means nothing when you’re not happy with yourself.
I’m surprised you haven’t done more video?
Video? We’ve got lots of videos here (laughs)
Yeah, but not commercially available.
Well, it’s distribution for a start, that’s difficult, to get the videos out. We could do it ourselves, but that means you have to start advertising, and we’re going to be in the same position as we were with TG, running a big mail order office and not having time to do much else. Doublevision did it, but went bust, so you start thinking “who’s gonna do it, who’s actually going to get it out there and pay us at the end of the day?”. So… we’ve actually got plans to put videos out. We’re going to remix the original videos we did (European Rendezvous and Elemental 7) on one tape, because they need enhancing now. And we’ve got other tapes we’re going to put together as well. But we also want to do another video with its own soundtrack. It’s just finding the bloomin’ time (laughs).
You’ve also stopped touring. Why?
Well, for a few reasons. If you go out there to the clubs and you’re on the road, the only thing that makes it pleasant is the people you’re with, and some of the people who run the clubs are wonderful. But eight out of ten of them, it’s just “what’s your name? Oh yeah, the band’s here…”. You’re ‘a band’, and that’s not what we’re about. We didn’t want to get wrapped up in that environment. It’s just not what our music was done for.
I guess it’s also very time consuming.
An incredible amount of time – and such stress as well. It’s unbelievable. Because we don’t have managers… we have a tour manager and agency in America and Europe when we tour, but you still have to coordinate here. You just take the studio apart twice a year.
The reason I mentioned video was because the visual aspects of your work has always seemed just as important as the music, and not touring would leave a big gap there.
Yeah, they are, and that’s another reason we said that’s it with touring now, because the clubs are geared up for video, but they’re all on these little monitors around the club – monitors in the bar, or in the toilets or wherever – but there’s no visual display. A couple of clubs are fantastic. There’s a club in Chicago and they have three twelve-foot screen across the stage. Whenever we play there, it’s exactly how we want it to be, and that’s our perfect venue if you like. They have fantastic PA and these three huge screens, so you know that the visuals you’ve prepared are actually going to have the dynamics that you wanted them to have, instead of this little 4 x 5 screen that’s got to be put to one side because they can’t get it high enough, or the ceiling’s too low, or stupid things like that. But it means a lot if someone hasn’t seen you for five years, and they come out and it’s just a make-do, makeshift gig. I’d just sooner have not bothered.
So you were being treated as a run-of-the-mill band?
Yeah… but any standard band deserves better treatment than that as well. I’m not saying we’re anything special. It’s just that we do actually demand more facilities than most bands. But attitudes are all wrong at the moment. There’s got to be a happy medium between the spectacle of Madonna and just the drum kit and guitars. There is scope for different kinds of shows.
You were among the pioneers when it came to presenting a more visually stimulating show.
We always thought it’s weird that people come and sit and more or less say “go on then” as you’re up on the stage. It’s not what shows for us are about. It’s about “here we all are then”, not “here I am, watch me”. We’re all there together, and part of what they feel is going to come out in the music. Even more so when we improvised, but there’s still an element of improvisation in the work we do now, even though we use more structured tapes and things. If the audience are strange, you get a strange atmosphere. You’re very aggressive towards them (laughs), well, I am anyway. It depends how the audience are, still, to how you are on stage. But visuals are important, and I’d still like to just be behind the screen, because being a woman on stage, people do look and expect you to be a certain way, and you still get the equivalent of the man up there on stage and the girl stood there gobsmacked. You do get that and it’s really quite disturbing. It trivialises things for me, really, when people are like that. I wish they’d keep it to themselves, you know (laughs).
What sort of audience reaction did your shows generally get?
It’s strange. I mean, in America, they’re crazy. You immediately know that they’re having a good time because it’s bedlam and they’re all over the place. But in Europe, it’s very cerebral. It’s a very quiet, respectful audience. And then, at the very end you’ll hear what they think of it. It’s very unpredictable, it’s weird.
It must be quite unnerving.
It is. I remember a gig in Berlin, and they’re very aloof – a ‘seen it all’ kind of place, Berlin is. And they were going mad! Someone said “I’ve never seen people behave like this before”. And then you can go and play there again and they’ll be pretty quiet, then applaud and go mad at the end. Unpredictable, totally.
Your work has a lot of ‘taboo’ images.
Yeah – I think the audience reaction has a lot to do with what visuals we’re showing, because you notice them looking – they stand and their eyes are open, their mouths are open and you think “I wonder which bit of the video they’re looking at now?” (laughs). We use a lot of random chance in the videos sometimes. Some parts are structured to particular pieces that we do, and other parts we go for accidental images coming in, which are really weird, because they work perfectly sometimes. It’s really good. You get people asking about them afterwards – “why did you use that? It’s sexist” or something like that.
What offends people mainly? Sex or violence?
We did one video, I think it was about two or three years ago, and we showed a lot of sado-masochistic images – male and female, they weren’t just in one direction at all.
Always guaranteed to upset people.
We also showed with them, all mixed together, all the best clips that people always remember from all the horror films. Simulated gore, if you like. Nothing was real. And all these things were mixed in to make people realise that what’s accepted on one level as entertainment, they don’t accept as reality on another. Obviously, they missed the point completely. Some people knew, they saw the conflict of the images, but others didn’t. We had a girl track us down – she followed us all the way to the hotel in Frankfurt, quite distressed about it (laughs). I said, “look, what’s the problem? It’s not gratuitous violence. If it was, we’d have shown you real violence with no explanation at all, one after the other”. That’s a real assault to me, and quite insulting as well, to expect people to see that kind of imagery. What we wanted to show them was the way filmmakers manipulate them emotionally, where they won’t accept reality in the same way. Here’s the reality of sado-masochistic sex and the normal sex, we had all the different variations you could think of, so that every nuance was catered for – and then we played our music.
People do seem terrified of seeing real sex. It’s like it should remain hidden, unseen and undiscussed.
That’s right. Violence and sex are real triggers to people. But when people come to see the show, all that we are about id the reality of life. If we want to make some kind of statement, then we’re going to make it. We’re not going to insult or assault anybody’s senses in that way. I don’t see it like that. I think Skinny Puppy do that; I think that bands go out and are very violent in their presentation. You can see that the only thought that’s gone into it is “what will shock?”. What will make people, not gasp so much as even be sick. That, to me, is destructive, it’s not creative at all. And it doesn’t take anyone anywhere. It doesn’t make them think, it just makes them shut off, and that’s why we like a little bit of subtlety in our videos, so that people actually go into a thought process instead of a shut down.
Have you had any legal problems with any of the video presentations?
Yeah, we did in England. We did UK Electronica, of all things (laughs), I think it must have been five or six years ago. It was the last gig we played in England because of all that. We showed one of the videos that we’d taken all around Europe, and into Canada and America – we had to submit it to the authorities in Canada to be able to show it in the clubs, so you can see what kind of hypocrisy there is. Some bloke came to the show – it was in a bar, and you have these stupid rules that if it’s a club, only over-eighteens can go in. He took his ten-year-old kid in, and complained that there was an erection in there. So the police were called, and we’d gone by then. Two days later, the police came to our house, searched the place and took stuff away. Six months after that we got the stuff back saying there’d be no prosecution.
Six months is long enough to put a lot of people out of business.
I think they thought we were producing pornographic videos. That’s what the guy had more or less told them. When they came here and they saw the equipment and everything, they realised that we were quite serious about what we did, and we weren’t some kind of porn video merchants. The police here were actually very nice; they’re different to the police in the cities. But the police in Stafford – they wanted to prosecute us.
The problem is that the whole legal process is so long-winded and confusing. It seems to depend on the personal whim of whoever is in charge at the time.
This was at the time when they were changing a lot of the laws on videos, they took Straw Dogs off the market, and things like that. I thought “oh God, here goes”. It’s a weird one. I don’t want to be a test case for a new video law (laughs). I’ve got other things to do.
You use a lot of fetish imagery…
I don’t think of it so much as fetish imagery. That’s what I really like. It’s not something like I like black tights rather than red ones, or anything like that. It’s just something that is part of me. It’s an extension of what appeals to me, because that’s what I am like. I’m not into these Ann Summers type rubbish, you know (laughs). Nylon nighties just don’t turn me on! But I don’t know what… it must’ve been in me at some point, but a lot of that came out during the performances that I used to do. We did one called Coming of Age, years ago – that’s when we met Sleazy – at the ICA. It was all to do with sexual imagery, and all the nice side of sex, like a pretty girl on a swing, and all the things that you get. Then we took it to Amsterdam and did the other side of the sex scene (laughs). That’s where Sleazy came in. We had whipping on crucifixes and all things like that.
It was! And I realised that I actually enjoyed that much more than anything else (laughs), so that was that. There was no turning back after that.
BDSM is still widely misunderstood, especially here in Britain. The whole concept seems to freak people out.
I think that’s where a lot of people’s problems arise, people go to far, because they’ve not learned to enjoy a more physical, painful side of sex. The pain of sex is part of the pleasure. People say sex isn’t painful, but it’s a kind of pain you can’t define. The pain of penetration is a pain in itself. You can’t say it tickles you, can you? (laughs)
It’s a naturally violent act.
It is, yeah. It’s a pleasurable pain. But people can’t handle that, and if anything goes further than that, they think it’s being brutal and someone is being violent towards you, and that’s not always the case. They don’t know how to handle pain, and what degrees give certain satisfaction. They often go over the top because they’ve never had the experience of dealing with it for long enough or experimenting with it, so they’re frightened. They think you’re immediately going to tie them up and whip them until they bleed to death (laughs). That’s not the case at all.
Of course, according to the law, you don’t have the right to be whipped silly anyway.
No, it’s someone else’s decision whether you should want that, isn’t it? That is totally wrong. There must be loads of people around the country that are actually doing something illegal just by saying “hurt me”.
Unless you’re a boxer, in which case it’s fine.
Exactly. I think it’s because it’s men being Men, knocking the hell out of each other. Years ago, men were supposed to do that. But it’s not acceptable if it’s meant to be pleasurable, if you know what I mean. As long as you don’t enjoy it, that’s the weird thing. Someone once said to me about someone I know that they enjoyed doing something until they found out that the person they were doing it to enjoyed it… then they felt like they’d been really had. They felt they were getting their high on doing something to someone who didn’t want them to do it. In actual fact, they’d been manipulated themselves. It was a nice double twist… I thought that was quite nice.
The dominant partner is usually the one who has to do all the work, so to speak – putting all their effort into giving their partner what they need.
You have to know how far to go as well. And also, if you’re not in the mood at the time… if you want to be submissive yourself, I think that’s perfect, if you can switch roles completely. That’s necessary for me. I couldn’t take a submissive person, they just bore me to tears. I have to have someone who can be both people to me. It’s important for me to know that a man can be submissive as well, and it’s also important to know that he knows what it feels like to be penetrated and to be submissive to me. Because that, to me, means a man is more rounded in his sexuality as well. He has knowledge all the way, then, of what pleasure a woman can have and what pleasure he can give to a woman, because he knows all the sensations in both respects. But not all men would agree… (laughs)
Can we talk about your modelling days? What was that like?
It was weird at first, because I did all different sides of the modelling scene. I did these seamy camera clubs they used to have. That’s where I started out, and that was really dodgy. You’d feel really seedy and quite horrible.
Was it lots of stereotyped Dirty Old Men without any film in their cameras?
Yeah, exactly… and dressing up in those nylon Baby Doll clothes and shit like that. You’re basically there for someone to go and live out their fantasies to a certain extent, without any sort of physical contact. They pretend to take photographs, and go away and wank, I presume. I remember a girl saying to me at the time, “if you do this for a month, you will never get anything as bad as this again, everything from then on will be great!”. And after a month, I said “you’re right, everything else has got to be better than this!” (laughs). But it was an education, to say the least. I went from there onto doing magazine work I did films as well… I did the car show – you know, bikini-clad on cars – doing little dance routines at the exhibitions, jumping out of cakes…
That must have been quite a strange experience.
It was all strange! But you become someone else, and that’s what I liked about it, being able to be a chameleon in a way. And the education that you received sexually is really good, I found. What I got out of it was the fact that I learned so much about men, and it was really good. I remember a lecture I gave in Leeds and someone said to me “how can you say men are like that?”, because I’d said that you see some men the way their wives would never, never see them – and they wouldn’t want to see them like that either. He thought I was being very derogatory towards men, but I said “no, why would I be? They are as they are with male friends. They’re relaxed at that time, talking about sex and looking at sex”. I loved seeing men like that. Sometimes it was bloody awful, but a lot of the time it was nice, because I wouldn’t have seen blokes like that.
What do you think of the current performance art world?
I don’t think we’ve changed an awful lot since we were doing it in the Seventies. They’re just churning over the same old ground. The only stuff I see now is stuff that I hated then, which is pretentious crap, pretending to be political or pretending to be aware sexually, or aggressive performances… but they don’t really say much to me at all, other than the fact that these people think “well, this’ll be interesting, this’ll stir a few people up… it’s a good venue to be taken seriously in and I can do a lot of art-documentation with this and sell a few photos” (laughs). I’m very cynical about the art scene…
Do you think people are still taken in by the same things as they were twenty years ago?
I hope not. That’s one of the reasons we stopped doing it, because people weren’t seriously questioning their motived or what they were doing, they were presenting things that could be sold rather than things that said anything and did anything. You’ve got to have something they can sell in the art business, and our performances you couldn’t sell. All you could sell were the remains, and they would rot within a few days (laughs), so they were no use. There’s one person I do like – Helen Chadwick. I like what she does.
And what about music? Do you keep up with modern trends? Do you care about what’s popular at all? Does your work have any connection to it?
Only in maybe some of the rhythms, but the lyrics and structure I don’t think are anything like it. I can appreciate some of the records that are out – not many, about one out of every thousand, I think (laughs) – but they don’t do much for me at all. I have to be moved emotionally when I play music. I do like some of the rave stuff they do, from a physical point of view. It makes you want to move, and I love that – just to forget everything and physically drain yourself is great. I think that music has more purpose than some of the other stuff that’s around.
It’s made for a specific purpose.
Yeah, exactly. And it does its job, and I think that’s great. Some of the sounds I think are naff, but for an energy kind of sound, I think that’s good. I don’t mind that at all. The original house music got me like that as well. Not what it became…
Is there a glib label that we can attach to your music?
We tend to have a thing where we want to do whatever feels good to us at the time, and if it doesn’t feel right, we just dump it. If we’re working on a piece for more than three days, we say “that’s it, let’s go on to something else”, and maybe come back to it later, or completely restructure it. But we don’t work on anything that isn’t happening at all. It’s very difficult, because you do get pressure from people, labels that you work with. They want another Exotika or whatever, and you’ve moved on since then. You’re talking about that formula again, you know – “we liked that formula, it worked well”. But that’s not what we’re doing it for.
So what’s next from Chris and Cosey?
We just finished doing a remix for Erasure, actually… talking about the charts… that was an education, that was good fun, we had to do a hard mix that you want to dance to, so it was really nice for us to do that. It was an old Abba song, so Chris was really in his element there. We had four to choose from, so we picked SOS and did a remix of that. It was a rush job, but it was good fun.
INTERVIEW: DAVID FLINT