By Laura Snapes
“‘My Life Is My Art. My Art Is My Life’ is a phrase I’ve adopted to define my work and life,” writes Cosey Fanni Tutti. “On paper it sounds simple, but it’s not.” Tutti’s memoir, Art Sex Music, lives up to her promise, brilliantly elucidating the 65-year-old’s complex career as one of the founders of industrial music with Throbbing Gristle in the late ’70s, and an acclaimed performance artist who used her body to probe the dynamics of pornography and S&M. (A recent retrospective in her native Hull, England, explored the scope of her work, which has influenced acts from Nine Inch Nails to Factory Floor to porn actor Sasha Grey.)
“I didn’t think of my work as acts of transgression,” she explains. “They were a means to an end and gave me an overwhelming sense of freedom, self-achievement, confidence, strength and belief in myself.”
Art Sex Music reveals Tutti’s dedication to her life’s work, as seen through her unwavering tolerance of the person who renamed her. In 1969, working class 18-year-old Christine Newby encountered the young bohemian transgressor Genesis P-Orridge at an acid test in Hull. (While Tutti refers to P-Orridge as "he" throughout the book, P-Orridge uses the pronouns "s/he" and "h/er.") P-Orridge called her Cosmosis, and they fell in love. Initially, P-Orridge comes across like a typical late-’60s revolutionary, though s/he soon transpires to be crueler than Tutti’s estranged father. Their relationship, as she describes it, is plainly abusive. She recalls P-Orridge insisting, somewhat dubiously, that h/er anger and various illnesses are connected, and Tutti accepts the blame for triggering them.
After Tutti joins P-Orridge’s Dadaist performance group COUM Transmissions, she finds genuine liberation at the group’s “orgees.” It inspires her to pull away and start posing naked for magazines to create original material for her collages, which later earn her solo exhibitions. Her work becomes immersive and multidisciplinary — she makes porn and strips to “push against existing expectations and my own inhibitions, and to understand all the complex nuances and trials it imposed on everyone in that business, including the target market.” P-Orridge, meanwhile, remains a conniving parasite in her telling. “He never pushed himself or took risks,” she writes. “He always stayed within his comfort zone, seemingly feeding off my discomfort.”
They move to London, and with the arrival of Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson and Chris Carter, COUM evolves into Throbbing Gristle, aiming for a sound that “hit people between the eyes and swirled in grinding, growling mayhem behind their ears.” In October 1976, they debut as part of a graphic exhibition at London's Institute for Creative Arts, “Prostitution,” which sees a Tory member of Parliament label them “wreckers of civilization.” Yet provocation wasn’t the point, and Tutti never revels in gory details. She comes off as a devout artist, willing to endure P-Orridge’s behavior for decades because she believed so strongly in their mission. “I felt on the brink of discovery: There was so much potential yet to be realized.”
There’s a mordant humor to Tutti’s accounts of P-Orridge’s alleged regular assaults, which worsen when she leaves h/er for Carter. Tutti writes that P-Orridge strangles her, kicks her vagina, and tries to stab her, and the scene snaps from horror to farce when she accidentally runs P-Orridge over. Later, s/he allegedly throws a cinderblock at Tutti's head from a balcony. (P-Orridge hasn’t responded publicly to the allegations in the book.) But Tutti’s withering accounts of h/er petulance might be more damning to h/er significant legacy in alternative music.
The exhaustive book occasionally lists toward exhausting: P-Orridge’s whims and the band’s contractual affairs are chronicled in draining detail. Five hundred pages on these fringe figures would be a hard sell if not for Tutti’s invigorating approach to sexuality and art. In the 1970s, she rejects trite victim/empowerment narratives around stripping, and embraces the gay liberation movement for “promoting sexual liberation and inclusiveness, unlike the radical feminists of the time who seemed more divisive and prescriptive. Freedom ‘to be’ was my thing. I didn’t want another set of rules imposed on me by having to be ‘a feminist.’”
Love is the other liberating force in Tutti’s life, and her writing about Carter is moon-eyed and charming: “His touch sent my whole body into uncontrolled shivers of lust of such intensity that I discovered another level of consciousness,” she rhapsodizes. In one blissful scene, they’re bathing their son before Tutti goes to dance at a stag night. She seems hesitant to leave, but then she goes to work and has a riot enacting a lesbian caper with a friend. “I was conquering my fears, dismissive of others’ expectations, and growing in strength of will,” she writes, sounding powerful and contented. Her art, now incorporating photography and video work, flourishes alongside this freedom, with a late-’90s career resurgence taking her to LACMA and Tate Britain.
Art Sex Music lacks a satisfying conclusion because Tutti’s work is ongoing. For her, “industrial” was a way of life, rather than a sound — “to be independent, active, productive, thorough, and committed.” She hasn’t wavered from it. For her followers, the comprehensive Art Sex Music will feel biblical. For anyone who can’t stomach her art, this memoir is a rigorous extension of Tutti’s art-as-life philosophy in its most accessible form.