'I never bothered talking about everything I'd done, I thought it might encourage judgement': Cosey Fanni Tutti on swapping Art Sex Music for rural north Norfolk
PUBLISHED: 16:32 12 April 2017 | UPDATED: 08:51 13 April 2017
In 1984, having scandalised the art world, outraged the music scene and been branded one of the "wreckers of civilisation" by a Tory MP, Cosey Fanni Tutti did something even more shocking. She moved from inner-city London to rural north Norfolk.
“People in the village were lovely,” she says. “I had to start the garden from scratch and they came over with flowers for me to plant. Really welcoming.” But, she adds, “I never bothered talking about everything I’d done before. I thought it might encourage judgement.”
Her newly-released autobiography explains why. A candid and compelling memoir, Art Sex Music spans a life spent exploring the extremes of all three, detailing how Cosey turned her work as a stripper and adult magazine model into performance art, how she helped invent the industrial music genre as part of hugely influential cult band Throbbing Gristle, and how she survived a manipulative and ultimately abusive relationship with collaborator Genesis P-Orridge.
“I never saw myself as a victim, because I rose above it every time,” she says. “People have asked why I put up with it; well, I put up with a hell of a lot as a child, I was used to it. You cope and you try to stay yourself , because that’s what you are fighting for, fighting against somebody’s bad behaviour to remain who you are.”
It’s a typically blunt statement from someone whose book records sexually explicit performances, violent confrontations and porn film appearances in the same direct manner with which she discusses recording sessions and studio equipment. “I’ve always been matter-of-fact, it’s my Yorkshireness,” she says. “Why say it any differently from how it happened and what we did?”
Her candour, she believes, also comes from the era she grew up in and, more surprisingly, her otherwise strict and controlling father, who spent time in the Navy before joining the Fire Brigade.
“He was always in a big boys’ club,” she says. “My dad would go to the club on a Sunday, come home at chucking-out time at three and be quite open about going upstairs for a bit of sex with my mum, giggling happy sex. Then we’d have a big Sunday lunch. I thought it was perfectly normal.
“He treated me like you’d treat a boy and that gave me a feeling that the world was my oyster. That was combined with the sexual freedom of the era I was entering. Suddenly I’m in the 1960s and I’m behaving like my dad, like a sailor. There was free love with no thought of consequence then.”
Cosey, born Christine Newby in Hull in 1951, is clear that she’s never used shock for shock’s sake. Even when her performance collective Coum Transmissions staged a show featuring live sex and copious bodily fluids, causing audience member Chris Burden - who’d recently had himself crucified on the bonnet of a Volkswagen Beetle in the name of art - to walk out in disgust.
Coum had begun life dealing in far gentler, surreal hippyish happenings and Cosey explains: “Me working with my body in magazines turned into the art actions being about the same thing. That’s when it became less entertainment and superficial and more obviously about exploring yourself and presenting that to people to open these things up for discussion, because sex is something everybody does and it’s good to share.”
There was method too when, joined by Chris Carter and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, Cosey and P-Orridge became Throbbing Gristle and wove references to the Moors Murders and the Holocaust into their pulsing, unsettling electronica. The more you talk about things, the easier it is to understand why they happened,” says Cosey. “I think there’s a tendency not to assimilate things and figure out how it affects us, and that is how we’ve ended up with Trump and Brexit.
“We were trying to make sense of horrifying things instead of hiding them away. There was a kind of a need to make sense of something which affected our families, the traumas of our parents and grandparents. We talked about the Holocaust because my father was in the Second World War and never said anything about it. Myra Hindley and Ian Brady was something that was going on while I was a child, even miles away in Hull you felt that they could reach out with a big hand and take you.
“We said, ‘can we deal with this and give it the soundtrack it deserves, which is horror?’ To recreate the feelings of what it just have been like - the fear, the adrenaline surging through, which is what TG music was like.”
A bridge between both projects was Prostitution, the 1976 exhibition featuring Cosey’s magazine work and used sanitary products, which briefly made her a tabloid hate figure and so offended Conservative Nicholas Fairbairn. “We couldn’t understand why people were shocked,” she says. ”In a closed circle like we were, it all seemed quite reasonable - until we put it out into the public eye. When we saw the ‘wreckers of civilisation’ quote, I thought, ‘well that’s a bonus, thanks very much!’” The euphoria didn’t last long, however. Newspapers unearthed Cosey’s work in adult films and her mother never spoke to her again.
Her long relationship with P-Orridge broke down too as Cosey began a relationship with their bandmate Carter which endures 40 years on. The split was acrimonious in the extreme, and harrowing scenes recount her former partner coming at her with a knife as she leaves their home for the final time. Later, on a trip to San Francisco, Cosey is sunbathing when a concrete breezeblock thrown by him lands inches from her head. “It wasn’t a very pleasant departure,” she says with considerable understatement.
It’s an unflinching and extremely unflattering portrayal of P-Orridge, but Cosey had no interest in sugercoating the pill for followers who admire them both. She asks: “Why say it any way than how it actually happened? In the end I only put in about a tenth of what he did.
“People ask me, as if it was my fault, ‘why didn’t you leave earlier?’ Why don’t they ask the person who caused the problem why they behaved like that? I dealt with it and TG was able to continue.”
The band finally split in 1981, at the height of their popularity, with Tutti and Carter producing new material as Chris and Cosey. In 1984 the couple moved from Tottenham, a few weeks before the rioting on the nearby Broadwater Farm estate claimed the life of PC Keith Blakelock, to an old schoolhouse near King’s Lynn.
“I don’t think the neighbours believed we were musicians at first,” she laughs.”When I said we had to go to America for six weeks touring they just nodded sympathetically. But when we got back they’d mowed the lawn and everything. My neighbour had thought to stock the fridge, put milk in it. I’d never had that in life, it was like having a mum. I’d been so self-sufficient all my life it was quite a special moment.”
Despite years of acrimony Throbbing Gristle reunited in 2003, recording acclaimed new work and selling out a series of concerts at venues including London’s Tate Modern gallery and the Coachella Festival in California, America’s Glastonbury. “We hadn’t really changed as people and Gen is a fantastic performer,” Cosey says. “Give him the right platform and he’s off.”
Nevertheless, old tensions with P-Orridge soon resurfaced. “It was just relentless,” she says. “During the regrouping there was always something to ruin the day. Some days you couldn’t bear to go to your emails, some days you couldn’t sleep.” In 2010, the frontman walked out of a European tour after one night and shortly afterwards TG concluded in the saddest fashion imaginable as Christopherson died suddenly at his adopted home in Thailand. There’s now little contact between Cosey and P-Orridge, although they appeared together in Hull earlier this year at a Coum retrospective. “I haven’t heard anything from him about the book,” she says.
She wrote it, she says, “because with my underlying health condition and losing Sleazy, I got to the point where I thought, ‘I may never be able to do this if I don’t do it now.’” Cosey has had heart problems since the early 1990s, and at one point “in Papworth Hospital it completely stopped and I was gone. Chris said it was like an episode of ER as they came in with the shock pads to restart it. I felt nothing and that was a big epiphany for me, because until then I’d always been a believer in reincarnation. A light just went out and you’re no longer there and you aren’t going anywhere either. It is not like fainting or falling asleep, it’s like a switch going off. Which a I suppose is reassuring in its own way. I know there’s nothing else there now.”
Though her ongoing health problems mean live work is near-impossible - “by 2pm each day I’m challenged and my heart starts skipping,” she admits - Cosey is determined to keep creating, experimenting and, in her 60s, continuing to challenge the norm. “I’m kind of full-on, i’ve always gone at 140bpm through my life,” she says. “It’s the opposite now but I’m still here and there’s lots of stuff to do. I’ll just have to do it at my own pace.”
The essential Cosey Fanni Tutti
Tabloid- and Tory MP-enraging art show held down the road from Buckingham Palace at London’s ICA. “When Nicholas Fairbairn was later exposed as having a very colourful private life of his own, I wasn’t surprised,” says Cosey. “It’s usually the ones who protest too much who have something to hide.”
20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979)
Throbbing Gristle’s most celebrated album comes complete with ‘nice’ photo of the band, taken at notorious suicide spot Beachy Head and a misleading title (there are 11 tracks, none of them approaching jazz-funk). “TG hits that sweet spot, you can’t ignore it,” says Cosey. “It’s not just noise constantly, it shifts. It moves through your body and triggers different thoughts and emotions.”
Heathen Earth (1980)
Powerful live-in-the-studio set. Initial copies on blue vinyl change hands for £100 today, but Cosey burned several as part of a “cleansing ritual” after moving to Norfolk. “I took some photos of the flames licking across the records and we were thinking, ‘these look really gorgeous’. Then later on when we had no money, we thought ‘bloody hell...’”
Poppy, accessible love song about Carter and Tutti’s affair while she was with P-Orridge. “I never doubted Chris and I would be together, I never doubted we would be out and free,” she says. “I just wanted it to happen quicker than it happened. It was just a lie in the end, what was going on, it was madness. ”
After 23 years of recriminations, a reunion gig at London’s Astoria with P-Orridge, now with breast implants and cosmetic facial surgery as part of an art project to look more like his wife Jackie. “As people we hadn’t changed a bit,” says Cosey. “It had the same dynamic as before. You could never dance to TG but at the Astoria I even saw people dancing.”
Pulsing, insistent, award-winning collaboration between Tutti, Carter and sometime Norfolk resident Nik Void of Factory Floor. “Our music hasn’t become much calmer since we moved here,” says Cosey. “In some ways it’s become even more raucous.”
Art Sex Music (2016)
Acclaimed autobiography, released this month by Faber. Says Cosey: “It took a hell of a lot of energy and nine emotionally draining months but I couldn’t let anything stand in my way. I had to set the record straight.”