Cosey Fanni Tutti

Couming of Age (1974)

(This interview first appeared on NeoAztlán in 2006)

By Esteban Peralta and Kate Green

“Industrialists” of the ‘70s produced experimental music, film, art and prose pushing the limits of the physical and the conceptual by stressing the seemingly infinite and at times anarchic ways in which their work could be produced. In the process, they helped to invent a social movement which affirmed creativity and expression based on active voice and experimentation.

Artist John Duncan in his 1976 piece titled “Bus Ride” used fish extract and the ventilation system of a hot Los Angeles bus to expose repressed sexual impulses and the oppressive social order they create.

Monte Cazazza is said to have walked the streets of San Francisco dressed as an old woman with a “loaded revolver in holster around his waist.” In his suitcase he carried a dead cat and a bottle of gasoline. When he visited friends, he would methodically take out the dead cat, pour gas on it, and fire it up while everyone looked on aghast.

The apology wasn’t part of the industrialist’s lexicon.

“The basic inspiration or philosophy is that we’re primitive, but primitive in an urban way,” said Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder.

“We’re bullshit fighters,” added fellow bandmate, Richard Kirk.

One of those at the forefront of the ‘70s industrial movement was Cosey Fanni Tutti. It’s a matter of well-publicized debate about the significance of any one particular individual’s contributions to the movement, but Tutti’s own work as a contemporary artist and her work as one of the founding members of the seminal ‘70s industrial music group Throbbing Gristle can’t and shouldn’t be understated regardless of where the criticism begins.

In the ‘70s, Tutti also worked for a time as a stripper and appeared in several porn movies and magazines. “It was the personal experience I wanted,” she told us. In a perfectly industrial way, she wanted to understand “how men and women interact in a sexually charged/volatile manipulated situation.”

Perhaps ironically, she now uses her experience in the sex industry as part of the basis for her art. More recently, some of her sex magazine work appeared as part of the 2006 “Tate Triennial – New British Art” exhibition at the Tate Britain in London.

In March, Tutti’s work goes on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles as part of an exhibition entitled “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” curated by Connie Butler.

Throbbing Gristle releases their first studio recording in 25 years, “PART TWO – The Endless Not,” on April 1. – Esteban Peralta

Kate Green: You have been involved in so many media. What distinctions do you make between music, performance and visual?

Cosey Fanni Tutti: I don’t consciously separate any of them. They’re all means of expression and communication that I use according to each project. They each have their own nuances and unique uses and some projects like the recent ‘Selflessness’ actions have involved all three. I’ve also used music in live art actions for many years and visuals via video projection during music performances so it’s all very open and crosses over.

My main aim is to connect one on one whether it’s in a public space or in private like listening to music on CD, etc.

I’ve made a point of using all kinds of spaces for my work. The ambience of the space is important because it’s crucial to how the central issues of the work are perceived and assimilated.

So, if there’s any distinction to be made it would be in the space in which I choose to present my music, actions or visual works.

KG: Has the visual arts context enabled you to address issues you haven’t been able to in music?

CFT: Yes, particularly those involving the magazine actions as there’s no way sound could demonstrate by pictorial comparison the manipulation of self imagery and identity.

Also, the relics from my actions have a potency and physicality that cannot be encapsulated in sound. Unlike music, the visual art arena does allow for the presence of source narrative which I use very carefully as I hate to be prescriptive.

Music speaks more to the senses and particular sounds trigger certain responses. Sound is very physically pervasive so if you were deaf and blind you would still be able to ‘feel’ the work.

This is impossible with visual art, as you must be a sighted person to have entry to it. Visual art can’t evoke the same kind of physical responses as sound precisely because it is visual, so I wouldn’t use music to address any issues that rely totally on imagery.

I do think you can use music, with some vocal sounds and words, to evoke feelings of universal experiences like birth, death, sex, etc., simply because a subjective dialogue is already established through shared experience. Music is not so good for addressing issues which rely upon a shared experience or knowledge such as historic or contemporary events.

KG: A central concern in much of your work presented in the visual context has been sexuality and the objectification of the female body. Do you find the contemporary moment more able to take on or discuss these ideas than previous decades? Has “progress,” in terms of the feminist agenda of de-objectifying the female body, been made?

If it is safe to say that your performances, modeling, and stripping had transgressive and progressive agendas toward the de-objectification of the female body, do you feel these projects would impact issues of de-objectification as potently today?

CFT: My intentions in the ‘70s were not to address feminist issues on the objectification/de-objectification of the female form or the sexual exploitation of women but to explore my own sexuality and the sex industry as part of my existing art work. As a consequence of my sex magazine and film actions and stripping I discovered first hand a great deal about the very issues feminism sought to address but it was the personal experience I wanted – how men and women interact in a sexually charged/volatile manipulated situation.

With the increase in female-run pornography businesses and Internet sites, it’s difficult to say what degree of potency (and in what sense) my projects would impact today. There is a tendency towards a view that women have more sexual freedom today than we did 30 years ago and in some regards this is true, but at the same time I’m not sure that many women actually relate to or recognize this freedom and whether what they do with it is “progress” or liberating.

De-objectifying is such a complex issue. It’s like being forced into a damage limitation exercise and a hard compromise between being non-prescriptive selves at the same time as not pampering to or fueling objectification – dressing how we want to, understanding why we want to dress that way and how we put out sexual signals. Pressure on top of pressure.

KG: Do you think today’s Institute of Contemporary Art in London would/could mount your “Prostitution” show of 1976? If they did, how might it play out differently?

CFT: I have absolutely no idea. So much has happened since 1976. Maybe such a show would actually be hung on the walls this time round rather than hidden away with viewing on request. Possibly because there have been more female artists working with sex and their own bodies as their subject matter it’s not an “unknown” anymore. And I dare say the press reaction (which was assimilated into the show) would depend on current events or whether it was a slow news day.

KG: I read a quote where you mentioned that you never identified yourself with “femininity.” Did you mean that you have never really felt feminine (versus masculine) or that you have never identified with feminist issues?

CFT: I meant that I’ve never made a distinction between myself and others via my gender. But also I never felt “feminine” as it’s defined in terms of being a female attribute. I’ve always been more inclined to male behavior – being bold and unconsciously accepting – that I have access to all areas.

I never thought of myself as feminist per se, but by default I could be perceived as such because my approach to life and my work is what I would regard feminism to be – an equal co-existence of both genders. There has to be recognition of abilities which are not always determined by gender.

Basically, I’m against the misuse of power on any level and that applies as much to feminism in its radical forms as it does to patriarchy.

KG: What was your reaction when Connie Butler approached you for the upcoming “Wack!” exhibition? Connie mentioned that many artists didn’t want to be associated with a feminist exhibition for fear of being pigeonholed a feminist artist. Do you have any concerns in that regard? Do you, or have you ever been, hesitant to describe yourself or your work as feminist?

CFT: I have never described my work as feminist art. I hate labels of any kind as they tend to constrain and exclude and set rules by implication. I’m all for challenging rules and breaking boundaries and am driven as a person to explore, experience and create. This is how I understood Connie’s explanation of the show to me.

I’ve always regarded my work as not defined by my gender and unrelated to the general definition of feminism. At the same time I acknowledge the importance of feminism in all its forms. During the magazine actions I wasn’t aware of their potential to shock nor their significance to feminist issues because my primary goal was to pursue every opportunity presented to me – as a person who had the freedom to choose.

Fundamental to my work was gaining first hand knowledge of how the sex industry works and how both men and women operate and feel within it, in pursuit of the aims of the finished product. In hindsight, I regard my actions as valuable in terms of feminist issues and indeed that by their intent, could be seen as feminist because I’m a female artist. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.

KG: What work of yours will be included in the show?

CFT: A selection of my sex magazine actions and related material from the early ‘70s through to the ‘80s.

KG: “Wack!” will open in the U.S. this spring, and the show, coupled with the imminent opening of the Brooklyn Museum’s Center for Feminism, has generated significant critical discourse, particularly in American art magazines. Could you imagine this show being presented in the U.K.? How do you think audience reactions or discourse around it might differ in these two contexts?

CFT: I would love for this show to be presented in the U.K. and see no reason why it shouldn’t. The discourse it generates is crucial whether it’s academic or popular press as it all reveals just how far we’ve progressed (or not).

Certainly for the U.K. I feel there’s a need for an engagement with feminism just to put the present female perception of self in perspective. I’d welcome a debate on the purpose of “ladism” which has curiously been defended as women exercising their right to behave like men. How anyone would aspire to want to regard that base behavior as the level at which we define equality escapes me.

I think it’s imperative that feminism has a higher profile.

KG: In a large survey show like “Wack!”, inevitably some are not represented. Do you know of any artists you felt should have been included but were not invited?

CFT: It’s a comprehensive list of artists so none really spring immediately to mind.

KG: What visual artists do you see as your colleagues or kindred spirits?

CFT: John Duncan is a kindred spirit. Like me, the self and the work are one.

I have a real affinity with the work of Lucy McKenzie and Skot Armstrong.

KG: With whom have you had the greatest dialogues about your work?

CFT: Close friends.

KG: What artist, dead or alive, would you like to talk to about your work, but have not?

CFT: Helen Chadwick. We lived opposite each other during a particularly intense period for us both and never really sat down and discussed our work. We had an empathy despite differences in artistic interests and practice and the circles we moved in.

KG: What would you tell her about their work?

CFT: That it says everything she could not.

KG: What three words sum up your work (visual, music, performance)?

CFT: Honesty, Experiential/Sensual, Communication.

Esteban Peralta: The April 1 Throbbing Gristle studio release is the first in 25 years. Describe the creative atmosphere on the first day of recording for “PART TWO – The Endless Not.”

CFT: I can’t remember the first day of recording “PART TWO” as it was a fragmented process. A work in progress really as Chris (Carter) and I did a lot of initial work with Sleazy then all four of us prepared for live work in Mute’s studio and returned with some of this work to continue work on the album at our own studio.

EP: Despite the obvious hiccups that the Internet brings, what are your thoughts on how the appeal of your work and that of your bandmates might have been affected had the Internet been around in the ‘70s.

CFT: Every era has its big cultural and technological shifts which result from previous experiences and knowledge and the ‘70s had trouble handling TG with the limited exposure and distribution available so I’m not sure the ‘70s mind set could have assimilated a virtual world that would in turn bring TG into their homes. TG was (and still is) about physicality and one to one engagement and exchange – getting your hands dirty – which is one thing Internet culture cannot provide.

EP: I attended a lecture three years ago about electronic music and it was suggested that electronic music would not exist the way it does today with Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and Kraftwerk. What are your thoughts?

CFT: In retrospect I tend to agree. We all just experimented, got out there and did it, and as a result provided examples of how sound could be composed, played around with and presented. “Electronic” music is a strange phrase to use regarding TG because although Chris built a lot of electronics and modified existing equipment we were not purely “electronic” and neither were the Cabs. We had/have guitars, I played cornet, gen violin and so on. But yes, electronic music as such had a sharp injection of alternative approaches from which to evolve.

EP: Are there things that are still left undone for Cosey Fanni Tutti?

CFT: Masses to do. I’m still so restless and eager for new experiences. Now the basics are done with it’s even more exciting.

Kate Green holds an M.A. from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. Her experience includes work at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and Dia Art Foundation both in New York. Green has developed single-artist shows with Trisha Donnelly, Kota Ezawa, Luis Gispert, and Frances Stark, among others. She is presently Curator of Education and Exhibitions at Artpace in San Antonio where she is working on a group show titled “Power Play.”

NeoAztlán editor and founder Esteban Peralta is a native of Denver and graduate of the University of Colorado at Denver. He has been creating content for print, Web and some radio for over 13 years. Past projects include work with the former Sony Interactive,,,, and Capitol Underground pirate radio, among others.

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