Throbbing Gristle's avant-garde icon gets stuck into Andy Stott, Captain Beefheart and The Haxan Cloak – and reflects on her provocative artwork
From her work in music to her Dadaist performances, Cosey Fanni Tutti has been a pioneer of counter-culture throughout her career. Alongside her position at the forefront of the industrial music scene, she also worked as a stripper and adult model in the 70s – and her fascination with confronting female sexuality is a theme that has permeated her confrontational art ever since. As part of the collective COUM Transmissions (later reformed as the band Throbbing Gristle) and now recording as Chris and Cosey, her work has consistently explored what it means to exist simultaneously inside and outside of cultural norms. To celebrate Carter Tutti Void's live shows in London this week, we spoke to her about how her work both as a model and as an artist both engaged with and subverted conventions around the norms of cultural acceptability.
The response that you elicited naked as a stripper and glamour model seems so different to the response you got for your nude work in art action: why do you think that is?
Cosey Fanni Tutti: It’s all about how people perceive what you’re doing in different places. Stripping is very different to modeling because, with modeling, you are there to provide your body to produce a product for sale. With stripping you’re there live, you’re the one who’s producing and creating. Although it’s prescriptive, like modeling, the prescriptive element of modeling is down to the photographer and then the editor and the magazine owners, who are working to a particular formula that works for their readers. I was in that position when I was stripping, I knew that a particular formula worked with striptease and I had to express myself within that, in order to let myself feel that I was getting anything out of it. And then when you have pieces like at the Hayward, where I was naked and doing performance work, that’s different altogether because I was totally expressing myself, it was me coming through there and communicating with people about things that interested me. The others things were very much a job that I was doing, I was working my way through them. That is what really interested me, and that fed into my art action – and into the music, as well. I had a full-on, firsthand experience of what it was like to produce sexual product; both live as a stripper and in magazines. And I didn’t go into those things as anyone other as a stripper or a model – I never went in as ‘Cosey Fanni Tutti, the artist’, it just wouldn’t work in that situation.
I know that you had different names and personas when you were modeling…
Cosey Fanni Tutti: They assign you those names and those characters. You’re literally just the material for them to work with, and that’s what interested me most, that the control element of my work was totally relinquished. It was very important to me to be treated the same as everyone else because it was the only way I could get a true experience of that situation.
Did you ever find that uncomfortable, having that agency stripped away?
Cosey Fanni Tutti: No, I found it quite liberating actually. I could become someone else for that particular purpose, which was challenging. In fact, when I was stripping I did have a couple of occasions where people came along as Throbbing Gristle fans and I found that really uncomfortable. I’d gone in anonymously and suddenly I was being recognised as someone that I wasn’t in that situation. There was a conflict going on there that wasn’t very comfortable for me.
Why do you think you found it uncomfortable when Throbbing Gristle fans would come to see you stripping?
Cosey Fanni Tutti: I know it’s a strange thing to say, but it was like a different kind of voyeurism on their part. I was Scarlett when I was stripping, I wasn’t ‘Cosey Fanni Tutti’ but they were stood there, projecting my TG persona – my ‘real self’, if you like – onto me. So that’s where the conflict came in. I remember it quite clearly; it was in the West End, in a pub at the back of Charlotte Street. Someone shouted something and I thought, “Oh Christ, they’ve tracked me down!” And the other guys in that situation just knew me as Scarlett… I was Scarlett to them, and then those people really spoiled their fantasy. I suppose I was a very conscientious stripper and model but I had an advantage over some of the girls that I worked with because it wasn’t my life. My life was my art and my music and this was an appendage to that and contributed to it. The experience was of value to me and I was aware of that a lot. I used to get on really well with the girls, we had some good times…
There’s often a sense of feminine camaraderie in those places. Backstage changing rooms can become almost like safe spaces to exist as women…
Cosey Fanni Tutti: Yes, they are. You build up a mask that you have on when you’re doing those kind of things – not just physically, but also emotionally. I think that has to be there as a protective thing – every girl that I knew protected the personal side of her life.
“For me... retouching and surgery strips the subject of beauty – because beauty is in the whole package”
In your art, the idea of liberating yourself by removing clothes and the messages they convey is very significant. Do you think that the meaning of nudity has changed with how ubiquitous retouching, surgery and make-up is now, where it is rare that anyone is ‘truly’ naked in public?
Cosey Fanni Tutti: For me, all that retouching and surgery strips the subject of beauty – because beauty is in the whole package. It’s about seeing the blemishes, because they are part of the person’s life and part of who they are. When you look at someone who’s got that weird foundation, that Gaussian blur sprayed on their face so that you can’t see any features or any blemishes or anything, it’s bizarre. As a human being reading someone… well, when you get a frozen or filled face or all that makeup, what are you reading? It’s so important for me to see people’s faces and eyes light up; that’s how we communicate with one another, through the minutest little movements of doubt in the brow, things like that. When you talk to those people, those things are no longer there. Maybe that’s what people want, anonymity… but, to me, it diminishes people.
I know you said there’s a visual image in your mind when you compose so I wanted to ask you about the aesthetics in your music: is there a conscious dissonance between the beauty in the music and the meaning behind it? To me, TG is so intense and yet beautiful at the same time.
Cosey Fanni Tutti: Yeah, it’s like how the pleasure of pain in sex is as beautiful and intense as in the soft moments and tenderness… It’s about leaving behind any preconception or expectation, stripping everything down to you and your response to the music. It’s a very physical use of sound and that’s what I’m interested in because that’s where I find beauty, in physicality, in my emotional responses.
One of my favourite pieces is "Hamburger Lady" where there’s such beauty in the sound and yet the hard, ugly issue of the story…
Cosey Fanni Tutti: ‘Hamburger Lady’ was about a friend of ours who was nursing a lady who had burns so severe that she literally looked like a hamburger. When you’re in that much pain, you exist on a different kind of level: you take in sound in a completely different way and the atmosphere itself becomes about sounds and the people that are making your condition as bearable as possible. Our friend said that they used to come in and clean the ward, so that’s where the sound, the ‘brrrr’ comes from. So, you have this background noise while you’re in this haze of painkillers and medication, coming in and out as you communicate with the nurses while they try and make you comfortable. It’s sets up a weird kind of atmosphere because you’re not an observer: you’re bang in there with some otherworldly consciousness.
I love that discord between the beauty in a lot of what you create and the complication and difficulty behind it. Like, the pretty cover and title of 20 Jazz Funk Greats. It’s funny, too… how did you come up with the idea for that?
Cosey Fanni Tutti: The concept of the cover came from seeing something like that in Woolworths, in a bargain bin. We thought it’d be really nice to do an album cover like that because it’s totally opposite to what the music is when you put it on. And then we thought, 'Where shall we take the photo?' Obviously, we took it at the suicide spot, Beachy Head (one of the world’s most famous suicide spots). There’s a twist in the cover and then there’s a twist in the music: you don’t get 20 Jazz Funk Greats at all. Like, you go to a beautiful cliff and you don’t get just a cliff, you get a suicide spot.
I really hope that someone just picked it up in Woolworths, that’d be amazing.
Cosey Fanni Tutti: (laughs) We should have done that, really. Put a couple of copies in the bargain bin…
Maybe a couple of copies ended up in charity stores or second hand record stores at some point.
Cosey Fanni Tutti: That’d be great! Ended up where the idea came from!
Carter Tutti Void play Incubate Festival, The Netherlands (Sep 18); Unsound Festival, Poland (Oct 16)