art sex music (with a bit of Hull Time Based Arts)

Cosey Fanni Tutti’s  new book art sex music has received widespread acclaim in 2017. It has coincided with Hull’s UK City of Culture title and a retrospective at the Humber Gallery in earlier in 2017. This review aims to show connections and links, in the area of English experimental art, although the book deserves some in depth consideration aside of this. Mostly, this has been done elsewhere.

The book has its title embossed as a red block banner across the author’s mouth mimicking the Dymo tape embossing processes of the late 1970s. The words art sex music are displayed lower case and the letter-spacing closed up (unlike the Dymo tapes that produced relatively poorly spaced letters in upper-case text). The effect of the cover image is to ambiguously suggest censorship and the author’s intentions with the book.

I briefly met Cosey and Chris in Hull at the Humber Street Gallery in March of this year. I was with performance artist Gillian Dyson (from Leeds and ex-Hull Time Based Arts). Cosey and Chris were carefully wrapping objects from a vitrine and Gillian purposefully introduced herself and said how much she enjoyed the work. I stood by Gillian and picked up on the quiet intensity of Cosey and Chris. In true Hull Time Based Arts fashion, the aim was to install the whole HTBA show in the same space in one day, following the COUM show. Andrew Wheatley, of Cabinet Gallery was consumed with the late arrival of the shipping van from somewhere else in the North of England and became increasingly apologetic towards us (and frank on the phone to the shippers). The Humber Street Gallery curator, we were told, had been ordered off sick by his GP, which seemed entirely in-keeping with my experiences of working in Hull. An observation made in hindsight is that Gillian and I were unwrapping our documented performance histories, as Cosey rewrapped hers. (For Gillian Dyson see Lines of Desire, 1995 and for me see UK Ltd 1994/95.) I hadn’t met Gillian since the late 1990s and we shared a few moments enjoying eachother’s company as the two shows collided.

A common problem and hallmark of performance art is the documentation and preservation of it; if indeed it aspires to that. Many of the best performances are carried around in people’s heads and recounted through word of mouth – this is certainly true of Hull Time Based Arts, although there is a book ‘Out of Time’ edited by Andrea Phillips. More recently, Rob Le Frenais has placed every issue of Performance Magazine online. Cosey’s book is therefore refreshing in describing the build up, delivery and get away for some of her and COUM’s performances. It also fills in her role as an important artist, aside of Throbbing Gristle.

art sex music exists in several dimensions – it recounts the early work of COUM Transmissions, it lines up the derivations of the ideas in the work of David Medalla and Transmedia Explorations and it digs deep into the relationship between the author and Genesis P. Orridge (Neil Megson).

Sources and derivations of ideas come from common points – William S. Burroughes, Bryon Gysin and Marcel Duchamp – the later the most influential with his alter-ego Rrose Sélavy (Eros, c’est la vie). The book tilts towards and reveals Genesis P. Orridge’s reference points without being snide. There is clearly room for another book on men in performance who like to dress up as women and the ‘trans’ scene.

In art sex music, Cosey Fanni Tutti frames her entry into the world of COUM Transmissions by recounting her family upbringing in Hull. This is a world apart from the conceptual art world, with vivid descriptions of Hull’s tribes in the late 1960s (Hell’s Angels, Skins and Hippies). The early part of the book reveals vulnerability, sexual awakening and sets the overall tone of honesty; which is integral to some of the main assertions later on.

Cosey Fanni Tutti describes ‘COUM to be far more than just a band that played ‘music’: it was a concept, a democratic collective and an all-embracing lifestyle.’ Generationally, COUM and its members spanned the 1970s and relatively effortlessly worked across media, largely following what would now be regarded as agile methods. Clear tensions existed, but were often translated into actions and on first read you are left with the impression that Cosey’s role was to hold things together back at the shared house, while Gen ‘networked’.

Bruce LaceyThe Preservation Man (1962) – is cited in the book, as a catalytic figure in the English experimental art scene. This he was, with characteristic ability to build machines, run things and motivate people. Bruce, also became a Norfolk citizen living in Wymondham, connecting into the Albion Faire scene, where he performed alongside Lol Coxhill and Ian Hinchliffe. COUM moved to London in 1973 and rapidly connected into this underground network of performance artists. Cosey points out that Hinchliffe could be ‘wild, dangerous and uncompromising’ – anyone who saw his performances would agree with this. Ian was the performance artist’s performance artist in the way that Simon Munnery is with stand up comedy. Somewhat, on his own track.

The book includes a whole section on Cosey’s experiences in the sex industry and working as a stripper. The infamous ‘Prostitution’ show at the ICA in 1976 highlights some of the ambiguities around male and female representation and this in many ways is a core concern of the writing. It is also a key contribution to performance writing.

Genesis P. Orridge is gradually dismantled and his behaviours are shown to be self-absorbed, guided by money and largely mercenary. The communitarian aspirations of the early COUM years are revealed to be contradictory and posturing. The author is at pains to demonstrate the collective’s evident patience in dealing with someone who only comes online when it suits them. The performances of the band, Throbbing Gristle, are the high points, where everything comes together. Gristle innovated with music technology, the limits of sound and created a whole new genre of industrial noise art. There are some honest insights on the roles of Chris Curtis and Peter Christopherson (‘Sleazy’), building bespoke pieces of music kit and designing the ‘merch’.

Cosey Fanni Tutti’s estrangement from her mother and father projects across the book and acts as marker of her working class roots. The death of her mother is only conveyed to her after the funeral.

The final chapters chart the reforming of Throbbing Gristle in the early 2000s and the angst ridden dealings between the band and Genesis P. Orridge. Again, he his shown to be inadequate, self-absorbed and driven by the need for cash. Readers might wonder why anyone would put themselves through another round of such indignity and sure enough things do fall apart.

art sex music is an excellent insight into the workings of a seminal art collective and band; written with dead pan honesty and structured to show how the author and her contemporaries have lived through fundamental shifts in English culture, which in turn they have shaped and impacted upon.

art sex music, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Faber and Faber, 2017

Simon Poulter, December 2017