A few years ago I found myself in Hull, on a first date, at an exhibition of the work of COUM transmissions – the art collective that spawned Cosey Fanny Tutti. We watched her inject a milk enema into the asshole of a younger Genesis P-Orridge, convulsing on the floor naked and I thought “this will be a great test for the potential future of this relationship”.
Hull is a working-class, shipping town in the north of England where Cosey was born, raised and joined COUM, it’s bleak and it doesn’t take any shit, the ideal backdrop for the gestation of what eventually became the birth of Industrial Music. Cosey, too, has none of the bullshit, pretence or ego that usually comes hand-in-hand with those considered innovators, transgressors and icons of cult following.
From 1969 she made work with the COUM collective who, influenced by the rejection of cultural standards in Dadaism, merged theatre, collage, performance, comedy, sculpture, sex, and anything they could get their hands on to make work that pushed any and all boundaries wherever they found them. They were frequently in trouble with police for obscenity violations for their subversive and often sexual performances and experimental, surrealist imagery. This was the gestation of what they eventually went on to become, Throbbing Gristle, a band that changed the face of heavy music.
Cosey’s autobiography is titled ART / SEX / MUSIC and her impact on each has been huge. While her innovations in art and music are rightly celebrated, it’s the sex that still sometimes remains overlooked in her story. A topic of fascination and dysfunction in society, sex is something the respectable art world often wants to situate itself as above, passing cool, cultural criticism from a distance rather than getting into the muck. This wasn’t something that bothered Cosey, working in a time when porn panic was at an all-time high she defiantly utilised the sex industry – both as a source of income and a deep wellspring of experimental, creative potential.
“As I sat cutting around the naked bodies, the idea of cutting around my own body and collaging myself as a nude model from a sex magazine struck me as having an honesty and potency that I felt could be the embodiment of a consummate artwork” (Cosey Fanni Tutti, ‘Art / Sex / Music’, 2017)
Dancing in clubs as a stripper and fucking in films as a performer became fuel to further her own explorations. To be an artist and a woman in the 1970s while openly shooting porn and even using it in artwork was unheard of. While the mainstream feminism of the time was campaigning for women’s agency and autonomy outside of ‘sex object’, Cosey instead revelled in defiantly giving up the control of her sexual image to be used, sold and manipulated and then reclaiming, repurposing it and reforming it as her own artwork. A different kind of power.
In this way, she reminds me of Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ in which Haraway poses that freedom for women will come through rejecting a fixed identity and sense of self, instead embracing adaptation, morphing and change – using what selves benefit us at the time and discarding any that no longer serve us without sentimentality.
Her name came from the Italian opera ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ meaning “That’s What All Women Do” and her position as often the only woman in male-dominated cliques, shows and bands was unquestionably groundbreaking but she rejected identifying with the feminist movement of the 70’s – “It didn’t speak for me or the diverse and complex nature of women. I was a free spirit and didn’t want yet more rules and guilt thrown at me about my actions” –
Working just after the birth of the Viennese Actionism which reframed art away from fixed, static objects as commodities towards transient performative events, Cosey called her porn shoots ‘actions’ – a word that detaches emotional or political context and frames something purely in the ‘doing’ – physical, functional movements, reflecting her desire to exist outside of the expectations of gender and the politics of feminism – Is porn good? Is porn art? Does it matter? It just is and is done.
Porn was her tool, an experimental paintbrush to make art and to get paid to make more art and have experiences to inform life which, in turn, informs more art making. Every shoot and film is listed in her gallery exhibitions and performances to this day positioning herself as the artist the same as any other work. This seamless merging of life and art and the unashamed positioning of sex work as artwork serves to demonstrate the absurdity of a high art / low art dichotomy. The common perception in polite society would be that the men directing these backroom shoots were in charge and the performers only passive, exploited props, Cosey staked her claim over every action without apology.
This peaked in 1976 when COUM’s show ‘PROSTITUTION’ opened at the ICA and went on to make headlines, cause walkouts and inspire a debate on obscenity in government. It is still seen today as one of the most controversial shows in British contemporary art. The name was as much a comment on the art world as the sex world, it featured gay sex, bloody tampons, strippers, and Cosey’s porn magazine spreads, asking ‘who is using who’ and ‘who is exploiting who’ in commercial art and commercial sex. They added clippings from the hysterical press articles demonising them as ‘wreckers of civilisation’ to the gallery walls every day as new artworks for display.
The debate about ‘what is porn’ and ‘what is art’ often gets mired in who and what is considered worthy of our respect? Cosey Fanni Tutti didn’t care about winning respect and only aimed to experience. She found the limit, the boundary, the line and pushed from there. She wasn’t interested in sanitising or demonising the porn world for the respect of the art world, she saw the potential and the limitations of both and used them accordingly. Her sex work continues to remind me that our bodies are our tools, existing in service of our experiences. Ours to use to build the life we want outside of expectation.
“My actions are myself and not a projected character for people’s entertainment, when I am gone they are yours.” (‘PROSTITUTION’ exhibition press release 1976)