Cosey Fanni Tutti (born Christine Carol Newby) co-founded the avant - industrial group Throbbing Gristle with Chris Carter, Peter Christopherson and Genesis P-Orridge in 1976. Once dubbed, the “Wreckers of Civilisation” by the late Tory MP, Nicholas Fairbairn, Throbbing Gristle has paved the way for countless genres and musicians to abolish the rules and to express their true selves.
In her new biography, Art Sex Music, Tutti reflects on her upbringing, environment, and artistic career so far. I talked with Tutti about her dive into performance art and how that led to her sound enhanced career and how, despite “notions of discomfort” will always express herself truthfully.
KEXP: How did you get involved in performance art, what drove you to that world?
Cosey Fanni Tutti: It was just being on the fringe and living an alternate lifestyle really with lots of artists and musicians and poets and writers back in 1969. So we were just doing different activities and music and just strange pastiches and it just went from there. Then, someone from the Arts Council got in touch with us from Yorkshire North of where I lived at the time and he more or less said, Well this is what we're calling performance art now, because it's not art, as in paintings and everything else and it's not theatre. So that's the first time I had a performance art but I never really classify what I do as performance really. I mean some people do but I don't and it still has that name now, but I prefer the word action.
And what action did you strive for in your in the collective (COUM Transmissions) that you co-founded?
I think just opening up people's minds to art and music of a different kind and also opening them up to the idea that they can do it themselves. That you don't need a degree or permission to express yourself creatively in a public place or privately.
What were some of your favorite moments of action that you put forth that inspired a reaction to have like an audience or you know a happening affect somebody?
At the time, I didn't think about it. I was so concentrated and focused on whatever I was doing and surviving from day to day because I had very little money. It's only afterwards when people get in touch with me and tell me that what they saw me do years ago or what they've seen from documentation has inspired them and had a huge effect.
I never even thought of it in those terms, really. But as far as feedback goes, when we did the street pastiches and musical things, there was an instant feedback. Whether it was aggressive or people just coming and joining in. So that was interesting, but that kind of fed into the whole exploration of that theme of work. You kind of fed off the people's responses and what they came up to you and told you how it made them feel and could they join in next time please. It was really good rapport and feedback from different people.
I love any kind of happenings that can bring a reaction and bring people together to participate. With these musical happenings – how did that evolve into Throbbing Gristle?
It's all through different reasons because we would sort of… not grown tired, but we would explore a lot of the kind of fun aspect of things and then, politically and personally, and domestically and just where we lived started changing to a huge degree. There was a lot of strikes and things like that going on here in the UK so that the focus and what we wanted to talk about changed. It became a little bit more serious.
Also, on a personal level, I wanted to explore myself rather than going out on the streets and just to repay rinse repeat because I never think that gets you anywhere that people just end up coming for a little bit of excitement at the weekend and then they go away and come back for a bit more excitement. You just become someone that's facilitating something you'd never really set out to do.
So I wanted to change my focus on my work anyway and it coincided with us leaving the North of England and going down to London. The people I met there and the opportunities that presented themselves just made that possible.
With moving to London, having a different environment, especially a different political climate and the want to find yourself – how did you find yourself in this new experience?
[laughs] I'm still finding myself. I don't think it ever stops because you're changing all the time depending on what's happening to you throughout life. You're assimilating and learning all the time and realizing you don't know as much as you thought you did.
The arrogance of youth is something that gets you by at the time. I'm not knocking it at all. I think that it's a fantastic thing and the energy you have then is amazing and it's there for a reason to get you where you are for me to get me where I am now. But it's hard work, it's not easy. You have to face dilemmas and notions of discomfort and you have to get through difficult situations. But by doing that, I just kept focused and I just kept myself on the path that I wanted to go.
I can't describe it. It's just something you know deep inside that you have to follow this feeling. I've always done that all my life even as a child no matter what barriers were presenting for me by my father who was quite domineering. I worked around them because I knew that what I wanted to do was more important and so you kind of negotiate the situation knowing that you're just still going to do what you've been told not to do but leave them thinking that you know what they've said. I've listened to whatever makes you happy but I'm not settling for that.
So I've gone off point a bit but that's the kind of thing that I think is important to do is to just stay true to yourself and understand that it's difficult. It's not easy. Give yourself a rest now and again. I think because some things fall into place slowly.
I think that's something that I'm learning now, that it's ok to rest every once in a while. I admire your determination throughout this book, especially with tough relationships. There is this part where I wanted to scream when (P-Orridge) Genesis was writing fake entries in your diary. I know you talk about this focus – that you are going to work around these difficult situations. Was your work with music a determining factor that helped you push through these situations?
I think so, because the music and sound is a fantastic way of expressing your emotions. You don't even have to say anything. You can come across a sound that just immediately evokes something that you're trying to say. And that's why when it whenever I use lyrics, I use lyrics that don't necessarily make up a song or a chorus. They're just words that actually have some kind of expressive meaning for the feeling that I'm trying to get over to people.
I like lyrics that are sort of a little bit ambiguous as well because for me, I can't write a line that is just totally centered on myself because I'm trying to express to people how I feel and how they might feel as well. Certain emotions are universal like betrayal and you know, your trust is betrayed and you know, even with dancing on your grave when you know that whole thing of people just basically dancing themselves to death on the back of drugs or whatever else. You want to get over to people how you feel.
The sadness there or the elation in something else like with "October (Love Song)" which was a totally amazing feeling and I wanted to get that across. The music and the lyrics are all about that. It's my story, but it can relate to you as well. It's my feeling, but it can relate to you too. We can share that and know that we're not going mad, we're not different.
Everybody has these kind of feelings and it's okay and it's valid. I think that's really important with music, with going from something quite flippant with the COUM Transmissions. What we used to call "do-dahs" --acoustic and then into amplification and then onto Throbbing Gristle because of the situation at the time was pretty dire and dark a bit like people were fiddling while Rome burns almost you know with all the disco music going on and real hardship at this end. So the soundtrack of our life was industrial music.
I love the way you talk about connecting with others – creating something universal especially in dire times. I feel like situations in the UK and USA are in dire times but then again, when is it not a dire time? There's always stakes. How do you find those connections and dismantle boundaries at the same time? What do you consciously think about when working towards breaking those those boundaries?
You don't allow them to exist. You just don't give them. He doesn't have them there. Why would you except that they're there? You can't. You have to speak to it. To people laughing. That's some of the problem now is that that directness on a humanitarian level. I think we're losing that a little bit. Not to say we haven't lost it in the past. But when you said there's always dark times, I mean I tend to think I've never known a time as dark as this.
Difficult times, yeah, strikes and all kinds of thing going on in the seventies like power cuts but the hatred and venom and the corruption now worldwide is just phenomenal. I find it very, very difficult to understand how we got here. I mean, I can guess. I mean we all know there's always been corruption and everything but I think it's some Yeah I think both you and those have got some of the West governments going at the moment. Not to say that other countries haven't, but it's pretty desperate.
I would say yes, the situation is depressing and at the station, we've been trying to focus like how can we heal and push through that by connecting with people. I think that's why I love your book so much because you intentionally connect yourself with others through sound. How do you keep that alive through your work today?
The tactics are still the same. I do tap into that inner energy that I have for what I want to say with sound. Definitely, and I know what I when it's not the right sound as well. It's recognizing what isn't so great.
You know, it's difficult to talk about the creative process. I know people want answers to it, but there really aren't any because everyone is totally different. You go inside yourself and you bring that that inner emotion and feeling and faith in other human beings out and you just hope that they're there and they listen and they feel and I think that's all we need from one another.
We have to keep denying the rest of the shit because it's basically a very small percentage compared to all the decent people in the world. It's just that the decent people in the world are trying to survive.
I like that emotion and connection are synonymous with sound for you. At one point, Throbbing Gristle were called the Wreckers of Civilization but not to sound biblical, because I just can't think of a better word at the moment, but I feel like you are the Saviors of Civilization by forcing people to look at themselves. Did you always see that as an intention?
I think something new always scares people because they've got a handle on it. With industrial music and things that me and Chris have done together musically and with my art as well– is that it all comes from the fact that that particular thing does not exist and I feel a need for it.
So I have to make it. I have to create it because it goes back to how I feel. It has to be expressed in a particular way, or else it doesn't work for me. That's how industrial music came about is because how we felt about the world and everything around us, we couldn't hear it in music and it wasn't necessarily music anyway. It's just sound. It doesn't have to be formulaic.
Your latest record, TUTTI, you described as the “totality of your being.” I was curious if you could elaborate on that.
I use that phrase because the music came from my life. It came from audio clips of my life going way back and it came from voice is music I'd made and they also came from visuals from my childhood onwards. So in that respect, it's a complete piece of me and it was performed live as a audio visual autobiography that came along with my written autobiography the same year.
And the exhibition of COUM Transmissions as well. It just think absolutely perfect and that's what I'm talking about when I'm saying when you're doing something to express yourself is that that was almost like a perfect storm in 2017 where everything just came together--- in the city where I was born and the history of that area, going to London and doing the exhibition, doing the books, talking about the book, and then doing an audio-visual presentation of that whole experience, which was my life up to that point. I really enjoy that.
It's like this full encapsulation of you in all of your art mediums. What are you working on currently to express yourself?
We just funnily enough yesterday finished the final Carter Tutti Void studio album. So that's what we've been doing for the past few months. It's finished and it's going to be released at the end of August that's exciting.
I can't wait to hear that. I was wondering what advice do you have for people to dig deep and find themselves?
I think you just have to believe in your inner feelings about what feels right what feels good. Use your sensitivity to everything the world about you people that you're in contact with and you know, just take time to be with yourself.
That's the biggest thing now is turning everything off and just assimilating where you've been what you've done how you feel how you would want to express yourself with all the information that you've just accumulated. Don't rush into it. The biggest problem I have now is that it's almost like fashion--the turnover is so fast and that as I think, gone into lifestyle as well.
I think that's one of the biggest mistakes at the moment is that we do as human beings we need time to develop and be who we are supposed to be and be who we are supposed to be with one another. We can't just rush through life and expect to know all the answers because the answers come from time spent considering things from your point of view from other people's point of view.