ART SEX MUSIC: in conversation with Cosey Fanni Tutti

Cosey Fanni Tutti, 2017, © Ross Trevail

It deals with that most basic part of us, which is our sexuality… I mean it can cripple people

Cosey Fanni Tutti and I met eye (I) to eye (I), in a quaint cafe, through the pouring rain and gusts of seashore wind in King’s Lynn, Norfolk; Cosey’s home town.. to chat all things ART SEX MUSIC and more. It felt befitting that whilst I sat waiting for Cosey to arrive, the only other souls in the room were a huddle of women who worked there, openly chirpsing and gossiping about their own secrets, intimacies and “sexual chemistry” with him at home.

Other than this, you could hear a pin drop; their attempt to chat in hushed voices bellowed in echoes through the cafe.

I smiled to myself as I wondered what more these four walls were about to absorb as soon as Cosey and I sat down with a cuppa to join in the resounding acoustics. With a tender heart and those same beautiful, deeply warm and insightful eyes that gaze out from the front cover of her memoir, just above the label that reads ART SEX MUSIC, as a unique artist; Cosey dares to see and go places far beyond the limits of many others.

She fuelled and ignited our conversation full of life for art. For Cosey in action, is evolutionary.

Cosey has generously selected 6 images from her archive of creative works to feature in this performance themed issue of Paper Journal. In the spirit of Cosey’s early Fluxus Mail Art, I responded to the images; contemplating them as symbolic artefacts in themselves, beCOUMing our portal for exchange when we met in conversation thereafter.

Choosing the images herself for us to engage in a dialogue, was a symbolic action in itself; for continued natural ownership of her own image, and her self. “I just am and my work is” is the heart and soul of Cosey’s personal and creative being.

Leyla Pillai (LP): I think in all this line of ‘performative’ work; the sex work, the stripping, everything, there’s always a fine line between the humour and the serious isn’t there?! There has to be!

Cosey Fanni Tutti (CFT): Just the people you work for are like something sometimes out of a Carry-On film…

LP: Looking at these images; I thought they were amazing Cosey, the name of this first one as I downloaded it when you sent it to me, ‘BOLLOCKS IN THE BREEZE’. Haha!

Image 1 Bollocks in theBreeze COUM Transmissions, Humber Street Gallery, Hull, UK, 2017
Bollocks in the Breeze, COUM Transmissions Retrospective, Humber Street Gallery, Hull, UK, 2017

CFT: Yeah, it was also; a.k.a Filth.. (a party organised by COUM, Art Meeting Place, London, 1974)... but the same performance. The little arrangement of that image was from the COUM Transmissions’ exhibition.

LP: The AMP (Artist’s Meeting Place) – a place where artists came to collectively just gather, to be together?

CFT: Yeah, it was Earlham Street, Covent Garden; sort of like an empty property, so it was good that it was up for being used by artists or anyone else at the time. It was quite a collective gathering of what became quite well-known artists after that, us just chipping in and using the space to do things together or just as a meeting place to discuss things. We used it a lot to try out different actions we wanted to do, and sometimes we just did them there and that was it. Like this one; (Bollocks In The Breeze) it never went anywhere else.

LP: Ah, ok, so it belonged specifically to that moment. Thinking about this arrangement being included in the recent retrospective exhibition in Hull (Cosey’s birth town and where COUM founded), is the thing of coming full-circle, returning ‘home’ and that being an integral part of the process for re-visioning life’s work in continuum. I love the image, and the first thing I thought about when I saw it was the ladder of heightened consciousness and elevation, all that kind of stuff… In terms of ‘evolution’, ‘existence’  – as it appears on the actual poster.

What made me laugh about that, is the placement of these objects with that idea in mind; I love that the G-String, as it could be opened by the zip down the front, could be like a portal; like the opening of an eye.. looking up or out into the void…haha

CFT: Obviously I didn’t have any money and I used to go down to Kingsland Road Market a lot, all kinds of places, to buy materials. I made it, this was a victorian zip, with diamantes either side and on the little zip-pull, and then I kitted it with this – I liked the idea of the eye patch. Yeah, the only thing missing from this is the..what was it?… 6 or 7ft dildo that we had. I left that behind when I left Beck Road, so I don’t know where that ended up.

LP: Bringing all that together with the floating clouds and ladder on the poster and this idea of elevation into consciousness. I often think about sexuality, the female entry point, as a portal into consciousness.

CFT: Exactly. This one had vaginal and anal (live sex) in it, so it was about both. That’s why it was a double-ended dildo. This was the furthest we’d ever gone with a performance; people were shocked when we did it. Even looking at the poster you can see what kind of people were performing that night.. poetry and film.. so it was quite strange to have this going on in the middle of all that.

LP: How did you feel the other artists responded to the extremity that you guys would go to in your performances?

CFT: The guy that was meant to document it for us, he didn’t take any photographs, I think he was too shocked. But by chance another guy did so after he read ART SEX MUSIC he got in touch and he wrote and said “.. it was me!” He sent me some photographs, which was fabulous. The original guy we asked to do it was another artist friend of ours, who did actions as well, but he wasn’t quite as liberated as us I don’t think, and ‘cause he had his eye down the lens, it was really quite a big image to cope with… but never mind, we did get some documentation from this other guy, thankfully!

LP: Looking at the next image; there’s so many layers to this one. I was really fixated on your mention of the colour blue in ART SEX MUSIC, as your colour. It made sense to me a lot for what the colour symbolises – vast depths of sky and sea – evocative of expansion. Then as I read on, you completely defined that yourself, that’s how you saw it. So I look at this image and see your blue eyes. Again, eyes;  like the eye patch featured in the previous image too. And the one nipple here; another portal? – could you call that a third eye?!

Magazines, Hasselblad Camera, ICA Framed work, Cosey’s Personal Archive

CFT: This whole thing came to me when I was working on this exhibition that I’m doing in September, so I had to go into my archives and I just came across all these objects. This pile of magazines here represents, I would think, about a fifth of the ones I’ve been in; there were over 150 magazines altogether, and I had them stacked up in my archive cupboard.

But then I had to get them out to get something else, and I also had this Hasselblad which was given to me by a friend. I don’t think he realised what it meant to me to get that, because the photographers I worked with – like you’re talking about portals; this is where my view of the world was when I was modelling; in the lens of these Hasselblad’s they all had.

And just the noise of opening up the viewfinder, ‘cause it all collapses down, and it has a wonderful mechanical sound to it, almost like a cue to start, like, you know ‘here we go’ the sessions beginning…I had to be model now… So when he gave it to me I said ‘You’ve no idea what this means to me’. It takes me right back there!

So I just stacked it up there on top of these magazines, with the one of me on the front ‘cause the guy that took that, had one of these. (a Hasselblad camera). He was the source of all this; the magazines, photographs, then at the back the actual magazine that I took and framed for the ICA in ‘76. It was one of the original ones for the ICA Prostitution exhibition.

So it just encapsulated the whole experience for me; here’s the start, there’s the image, there’s the stacks of images that came from these starts, ended up here at the ICA, and now a revisiting.

LP: Coming full circle, then starting a whole other new cycle and experience again, entering into a complete other world each time with it all. So interesting…

I don’t know if it was intentional that the placement of the camera itself in the image pointing directly at you, has blocked out the face of the other? (girl on the cover of the magazine underneath the Hasselblad camera)

I find that really interesting in terms of your own experience in that situation, where you were possibly exploring something that might have been quite invisible to other girls in the same ‘role’? You didn’t go into it blind, by contrast?

CFT: No, no I didn’t, and yet when I was in there, I was conscious that I had to be like them. In the language I used, the body language, everything, the posing obviously, but also in the rapport with the photographer, because that relationship with the photographer is absolutely crucial to getting the desired end result. Your eyes are really important, so I had to be very careful when I was modelling.

So in that respect it was quite exhausting, the more I think about it now..’cause I had to turn into someone else, and fit into someone else’s world; the photographer’s, who was going through a process to deliver something to a whole other ‘eye’; who was the editor of the magazine.

You have to work really hard to make sure the two of you get what you really want, so that you do get in the magazine.  It’s not a done deal at the point of having your photograph taken.

LP: A constant adaptation to, and sussing out of what all these fantasies and desires are, and how to be that for someone else’s eye? These magazines are so down-to-earth really, which is so significant. They’re thought to be produced to serve a specific ‘basic’ purpose, but actually are so strategically thought-through and catered-for it sounds.

And here are the same images protected in white wrapping, where they’ve also been exhibited in a gallery. I love that you mentioned in your book how you found it amusing that the curators of one particular exhibition were handling your framed works with white gloves! Funny to consider, when it’s the white substance of a completely different nature that’s more commonly associated with the ‘handling’ of these kind of magazines isn’t it…?! The irony!

CFT: Yes! What you call totally ‘hands-on’! Dirty hands – if they’re not at the beginning, they will be at the end! haha… Yeah, I love that sort of transition from something which is, like … erm … I was gonna say hobby, but it’s not really is it?!

LP: haha … natural instinct!

CFT:Yeah, natural instinct! They’re hugely loaded and powerful little objects, because the amount of work that goes into them to deliver a particular message and experience is phenomenal… And the girls – different girls for different issues. It is a considered thing … and that’s what’s fascinating for me. The interesting thing for me was that I think I only ever worked with one coloured girl.

LP: So interesting. I guess that was such a sign of the times wasn’t it?

CFT: Very much so, the ‘70s was really really weird, very strange. It’s something that I look back on now and even at the time, and I’m thinking; well ‘where is everybody?’

LP: Hearing you speak about it all in this way, it’s rare that pornography gets considered, or spoken about like art..

CFT: It’s an art form in it’s own right and porn films are. It deals with that most basic part of us, which is our sexuality; I mean it can cripple people. And it’s such a sort of volatile subject as well. It exists.

LP: It’s our very being isn’t it?

CFT: It’s existed for ever and every culture deals with it differently, which again is really interesting. It creates a dialogue around the thing of how damaging is it, or not? It’s a massive, complicated subject because each person has not only their own viewpoint, but their own connection to it.

LP: It’s so subjective isn’t it, yet we’re also so influenced by culture and society at the same time?

CFT: And whether we’re suppressed or not by that, or that suppression is something deeper, you don’t know.  It’s very, very difficult. It’s one of the things that fascinated me about it that made me want to get involved as well; that it was one of those things that I was steered away from and told, you know, like.. ‘that’s not for ladies’. Well, it’s for men, and you can’t have it without the ladies, so how come it’s nothing to do with me?

LP: Yes, absolutely. We’re both Scorpios, Cosey. So I understand this thing in our nature for wanting to go to all depths and lengths to investigate the spaces in between; places we’re not apparently supposed to be inclined to go. That’s exactly where we head first. It makes complete sense to me; you wanna go there, take yourself to the very edge and explore…

This was the furthest we’d ever gone with a performance. People were shocked when we did it.

CFT: Well, it’s the thing; how do you know you don’t like it, or you won’t gain something from it unless you try?

LP: The extent to which you took yourself into that place within pornography – you weren’t just pretending, you really did engage in sex for the films and magazines, it wasn’t always all just a ‘pose’. I wonder what you might feel constitutes a difference between art and pornography – or could they be one and the same thing if the situation raises the same deep questions we need to ask, or strive to understand about ourselves?

CFT: I think so, yes, that’s what my work and magazines have done I think. And was just about me exploring, in a world that fascinated me. Because my art was all about that anyway, that’s how it came about. It really was no big deal for me, and suddenly became a big deal, which has turned out to be a good thing I think, in retrospect.

LP: Yes – a great example of how lived experience can be art itself. It’s that process that you go through to come to know something or understand something about yourself isn’t it?

CFT: Yeah, we watched a programme last night and this guy said “the illusion of separation” which is the same thing…everything is connected. And for me, I was led up to doing this magazine work, from my art, and I did the magazine work, and the films, and then that fed further into my art.

LP: This genuine level of integration is part of the secret to the longevity of what you do I think, because it’s this that enables things to keep evolving isn’t it? As you move, so does your art move with you, and vice versa … so long as you’re living, art is constantly happening… It’s all about taking the risk isn’t it?

CFT: It is all about risk, and I’ve said for a while now that’s what lacking in some work – the risk factor has gone – like, what risk was involved in this? Even so much as not putting it in a gallery.

LP: The sex industry and the art industry … they have more in common than meets the eye…

CFT: They’re all about business aren’t they. They’re businesses first and foremost.

LP: And I think what you did was subvert the both of them, at the same time, all in one – how amazing is that?

CFT: Well, you have to make it personal. Because, I mean, artistic expression is personal. Pornography is very personal. You take the business out of it, and bring the personal forward again, and you have more of an understanding then, you can make it work. For people, rather than for capitalism, if you like. Everything you do feeds capitalism. You’ve got to counter it in some way. Bring it back round. We’re in a real shit state.

LP: The key to life – being your own person; that was something I thought about on looking at this next image of you wearing the silver. The silver emphasises the sense for me that your body could be a reflective surface to others outside you, who gaze on you, and contemplate your body as you were dancing or stripping… I thought about your diaries as well also being a reflective surface, but, by contrast, for your own self, like a mirror for you, and you only – your own on-going process of intimate, personal reflection.

Cosey in Silver Stripping Costume, photographed by Sleazy

CFT: Because I know the person that’s looking in the mirror… I am in the mirror. And I’m the one who causes the reflection, like with the diaries, or with this, you know… I remember making this costume … I’d acquired this material from remnants somewhere..and you know, you need very little material for stripping outfits…

LP: …a bit of string, dental floss…

CFT: haha yeah, I thought, I’ll do it with that, it’ll just about fit, you know…

LP: Amazing! What does this image conjure up for you in the way of memory? Where was it taken?

CFT: I mean, that was taken either probably Martello Street, or it could have been in Denmark Street at Hipgnosis Studio. I got Sleazy to do it; I haven’t shown them yet, that’s another project waiting to happen but I have a whole photograph of every stripping outfit I’ve ever had, and he took them of me. So this was one of them…

LP: I love how the outfit entwines your body..

CFT: I like the diamond’s eye being the stomach and belly-button

LP: That’s really interesting –  what would you call that … that’s almost quite a tantric shape?

CFT: It is, yeah.

LP: Again, you channelling potential esoteric things through your body…

CFT: It’s all about the form, I just loved using my body in the stripping or anything else… I suppose like a canvas really, just to use it, it was my art material And I wanted it to be aesthetically pleasing. First of all, it didn’t matter about the blokes, I wanted to … you gotta feel good to project that.

LP: That’s a really interesting point in relation to actually living and feeling the experience, in contrast to the image. The image can only go so far can’t it, but feeling the experience, that’s when something’s actually happening isn’t it?

CFT: Yeah, ‘cause I always remember … I never felt beautiful. I never thought about feeling beautiful.  It was just – ‘I can do this’. People would say ‘you look beautiful’ but then I’d come home and put my army fatigues on, and I’m in T.G with my guitar and a dirty leather jacket and screwdrivers and stuff, so this was just another aspect of me. It was nothing I aspired to being.

LP: A last thought on your Silver Stripping costume as well, this reminds me of the action ‘The COUMing of Age’ – the striptease action that revealed nothing! I thought that was amazing – genius! Lights off, glow in the dark underwear worn over a black bodysuit, slowly stripped off to reveal NOTHING!

Moving onto the Gristleizer! An amazing piece of gear…and if I’m right, it was completely self-built by Chris? He’s a genius… I wouldn’t know where to begin with it, but I guess that’s part of the trick… a completely experimental forum for sound…

Cosey’s personal Gristleizer Box, Throbbing Gristle, Made by Chris Carter

CFT: Yeah, it is and I mean, if you just look at these; it basically just completely changes the sound of whatever you plug into it, and you can alter the different aspects of that; like shape, depth, speed, and so on. The effect here is that this is the Gristleizer – you’ve got the minimum one and then you can really crank it up.

So he made all of us one, this was mine; I’ve still got it.

That was the defining moment of T.G. COUM had finished and T.G was the focus of everything and Chris’s involvement in what we were doing, and personally we were all really close at that point. The Gristleizer was the one that kind of cemented it…once we plugged it in and that was the T.G sound – there was just no turning back.

LP: Something I notice – the angular shapes of the waveforms marked on the dial; I know they’re standard symbols, but it made me think about how curved waveforms, by contrast, in sound, are smoother on the ear, so they’re more passively heard as a result. I like how maybe only angular waveforms are intentionally inherent in the Gristleizer’s design for the opposite effect here?

CFT: Exactly that. That is not smooth!

LP: So that was intentional? Everything designed to disturb and distort?!

CFT: Yes, the ultimate distortion tool.

LP: The whole thing could also be based on a sex toy…

CFT: Oh yeah, everything in there; rhythm, speed and depth

LP: And call that a performance! The next image brings us to you performing an action at the AIR Gallery. In your actions, you work with your own body directly, and I thought about the body as something sacred, like a temple. I liken the body to how you describe your perception of churches, from playing in them as a child, in your book, as; “…old places of ritual, that had an atmosphere of mystery, and a point of access to another world.” Because I’m guessing that this might be essentially what you’re doing with your body through action; exploring it as a mystery to go further into something. There’s no boundaries to the body is there?

Image 5 Womans Roll A.I.R GALLERY, London UK 1976
Woman’s Roll, A.I.R Gallery, London, UK, 1976

CFT: No. But it’s also like constantly having to have an out-of-body experience, in order to regenerate how you feel about yourself and in relation to your body as well, ‘cause that’s what carrying you through life. You have to keep dipping out and bringing in; that’s what it’s about with me; you do need to do that. You need to access the outside, to build yourself from the inside out. And it does reveal itself; you think about how faces change over time, they are a mirror of who we’ve been in our life. That’s why it’s so weird for me to see all this cosmetic surgery; you’re wiping out your self, your whole history is in your face, especially your eyes..

LP: That’s so interesting. Are these eggs, am I right, in this image? That’s quite symbolic if they are.

CFT: Yes it is; and I found those on the street.  This was all found material, some fur and feathers; it was all about a sort of ritual, as a gateway into my accessing a different level of consciousness really. With the audience round here, particularly with these actions, I would start off in the foetal position, it was a curl up, so I could concentrate and take in the atmosphere and everyone else, let everyone settle down before I uncurled and then started to do my piece. It was the opposite to T.G.. total opposite.. very very paced and gentle.

LP: The title of the exhibition ‘Woman’s Roll’ – that’s a great play on words; for body and life forms and also the ‘roles’ that you were either experiencing, exploring or were challenging in your life up to that point in various different ways. I love how you also collected these objects; the act of that in itself a sort of mapping of your journey through the spaces or places you’re passing through or inhabiting in London, in synergy with mapping the traces of your own body as well. It implies fluidity to me and movement; bringing us back to your original name ‘Cosmosis’ again – suggestive of transformative exchange..

CFT: Well this is what this is about; it defines my area here; the source of my energy and what I’m doing in relation to the people that are there. But the arrows are pointing out, like a kind of current, if you like, so they’re kind of carrying this thing out to everybody.

LP: Transmission

CFT: Yeah, yeah, exactly. This is me gaining energy totally when I did my actions, whether I did them on my own, or whether I did them in conjunction with anyone else. It was all about that creating, consuming and storing of energy.

LP: And how all that ‘moves’ in a spontaneous environment?

CFT: In making an exchange with the people in the room. It’s an old fashioned term, but you know; the ‘vibe’ is really important..

LP: The subliminals on which all that works, but we can’t always understand logically. Our last image Cosey; this one I absolutely love and I have to say that the first thing I noticed in this photograph was how this guy’s demonic red eyes correspond to your squashed tomato nipples!

Image 6 'ACTION' 3 day performance, Hayward Gallery, London, UK 1979
‘ACTION’, 3-day Performance, Hayward Gallery, London, UK, 1979

CFT: Yeah, they do don’t they. They’re strawberries! And there’s the eggs again and the arrows. Certain things carry through, so there’s like a metamorphosis going on through actions. These bows here were found as well in Martello Street. I think this image sums up the sex, the body, doing things to the body…the fake injuries if you like, menstrual blood and things like that.

But by this time I was into Reichian therapy, so I was doing small little chemical rituals. I understood the release of energy through chemical reaction, and it made sense to me, to involve those things within my actions, because then I had the physical and human, with the chemical thing going on, especially like with the strawberries…the aroma was amazing.

So one moment you’ve got this thing that looks horrendous; gashed legs or whatever else, but the smell tells you something totally different. So then you’ve got the femininity of all the bows, but they’re blue and white; there’s no pink there.

Yeah, it was really interesting for me to do all that, and I was really into these sort of injuries; I’d always been into this since I was a child and now I look at it, I can see it!

I just thought it was beautiful it wasn’t a traumatising image for me..

LP: An inclination towards a kind of ‘healing’, potentially in the symbolism of that there maybe? This brings us full-circle to one last thing I love, that I quote from your book, relevant to everything that I feel we’ve explored throughout this amazing conversation. It’s in relation to how you describe a bruise following your own surgery….

“Like a painting in constant flux, all shades of blue…”

It feels like such a beautiful and metaphorical way to sum up your whole life in a way, your art, and the real Cosmosis effect in action Cosey. That brings us full circle quite profoundly… You’ve taken me on a real journey here…Thank you Cosey.