Cosey Fanni Tutti: ‘I was lucky I got thrown out of home. I see it as a gift’

There was a time when the performance artist and musician Cosey Fanni Tutti was persona non grata. In her late teens, when she was still Christine Newby, her father threw her out of the family home and cut off all contact. Later, as leading lights of the art collective COUM Transmissions and experimental noise-makers Throbbing Gristle, Tutti and her then partner, Genesis P-Orridge, were driven out of their home town of Hull by police who were scandalised by their live “enactments”, which involved buckets of offal and P-Orridge dressing up as a baby.

Relocating to London, they mounted an exhibition of COUM work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1976. It featured magazine spreads from Tutti’s two-year foray into the porn industry as part of her art practice, along with a 5ft dildo and a Perspex box containing her used tampons, which were crawling with maggots. The show, entitled Prostitution, prompted outraged headlines and a discussion in parliament where the duo were called “wreckers of civilisation”.

This month Tutti, who is now 70, will appear at the ICA once more, though there will be no giant dildos or maggoty tampons. Instead, she will host a comparatively genteel talk about her new book Re-Sisters, the follow-up to her critically lauded 2017 memoir Art Sex Music. Less a cultural pariah, Tutti is now widely hailed as a musical trailblazer and elder stateswoman of the avant garde. Over the last decade, the demand for Tutti – via talks, reunions and retrospectives – has barely let up. That she can no longer be classed as an outsider feels odd, she says, “because I’ve been one all my life. I found my own comfort zone in being ‘other’ and in being criticised. So when I get compliments, I don’t know how to deal with it. But I like that there are young people coming across my work. I feel good for them that they’ve got something from what I’ve done.”

What links all three of us in this book is we didn’t want to submit to what was laid out for us. We wanted a way out

Tutti is talking from her home in Norfolk, a converted school that she shares with her partner, former COUM and Throbbing Gristle member Chris Carter. Her look is the same as it ever was: dark crimson hair with a heavy fringe and a don’t-mess-with-me expression. In reality, she is warm and thoughtful, and is appealingly matter of fact about her outre history. When I ask what prompted her to seek work as a porn actor, she says she had been researching pornographic imagery for her COUM collages, “and I thought to myself: ‘I’d quite like to do some of that.’ I wanted to find out what it was like behind the scenes, and what the women were thinking and feeling. And so I did.”

Tutti and Carter have continued to make music under the monikers Chris and Cosey, Carter Tutti, and Carter Tutti Void (with Factory Floor’s Nik Colk Void), though much of Tutti’s time in recent years has been taken up with writing. Her new book is an impeccably researched meditation on womanhood as viewed through the lives of three firebrands: the electronic musician Delia Derbyshire, best known for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s; the medieval mystic Margery Kempe, who wrote the first English-language autobiography; and Tutti herself. “This book is not simply about the likening of one person’s life to another’s,” Tutti clarifies in the author’s note. “It’s about individualism. What we choose to ‘say’, why and how; and when other less troublesome options are open to us, why we seek out alternative ways of living and expressing ourselves despite the difficulties.”

cosey fanni tutti: ‘i was lucky i got thrown out of home. i see it as a gift’

Discomfort zone … Cosey on stage with Chris and Cosey at Denmark’s Click festival in 2014. Photograph: Gonzales Photo/Alamy

The idea for the book arrived after Tutti was commissioned to write a soundtrack for a BBC film about Derbyshire called Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes. In the course of her research, she was able to delve into Derbyshire’s archives and immerse herself in the story of a musical innovator. While hers and Derbyshire’s time in London overlapped in the mid-70s, Tutti notes their paths never crossed: “We were in a different kind of alternative creative fringe. I often think: ‘Would we have got on?’ I would think there would be parts of my work that she wouldn’t understand but, at the same time, I think she’d be quite open to it as she had some very strange friends.”

In between reading up on Derbyshire, Tutti also began researching Kempe, who, burned out after giving birth to 14 children, vowed to live chastely with her husband and devote her life to God, and embarked on hazardous solo pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. “These were women struggling to be themselves and find their place in the world, and who did not give up whatever life threw at them,” Tutti says. “What links all three of us is that we didn’t want to submit to what was laid out for us. We wanted to find a way out.”

The parallels between the three women’s lives underline the extent to which patriarchal attitudes have persisted across the decades. Their respective rejection of creative and social norms, and the pursuit of their passions, often came at enormous personal cost. When Kempe embarked on her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, fellow pilgrims mocked and heckled her, and stole her food and money. Meanwhile, after studying mathematics at Cambridge, Derbyshire applied for a job at Decca records, only to be told they didn’t employ women. Landing a job at the BBC, she fought to be taken seriously and her achievements, such as her creation of the Doctor Who theme tune, went uncredited for years.

As a child in the 1950s, Tutti felt stifled by the expectation that she would grow up, find a husband and settle down. “I wanted to go out and discover things,” she says. “I was lucky I got thrown out of home. I look at it like a gift no matter how difficult it was for me at the time, as I was free to be who I wanted to be.” But while she found creative freedom after leaving her family behind, a new tyranny arrived in the form of the charismatic but cruel P-Orridge (who died in 2020 and who latterly favoured ‘s/he’ and ‘he/r’ pronouns). In Art Sex Music, Tutti wrote at length about P-Orridge’s abusive behaviour, which involved isolating Tutti from her friends, refusing to use condoms (which led to Tutti having an abortion) and fits of violence. P-Orridge once dropped a cement breeze block off a balcony, missing Tutti by inches, and on another occasion ran at her with a knife.

In Re-Sisters, Tutti recalls sitting in the back of a van one summer’s day with P-Orridge and a COUM associate, Gary, when, out of the blue, P-Orridge suggested she and Gary have sex. Tutti said she didn’t want to, though the fury on P-Orridge’s face made it clear what was expected of her, and that she had no choice in the matter. In the book she doesn’t use the word rape, but she says now: “It was rape. It was non‑consensual sex. But I wanted the experience to be what people read, rather than that one loaded word.” Tutti was moved to write about it after reading about Kempe, who wrote about having unwanted sex with her husband.

“It immediately sent me back to being in the back of the van and that feeling of wanting to be out of my body,” says Tutti. “But what happened also fuelled my resistance. To think that two so-called alternative-thinking men could think it was OK to do that to me, and feel that I’d given them permission in some kind of way. It awakened me to my position in that relationship. After that, I was free to think differently about our relationship and navigate it differently.”

I can’t be me through someone else’s work. I’m giving something of myself to people that’s come from a true source – me

Tutti ended her relationship with P-Orridge in 1978, though Throbbing Gristle continued until 1981. In 1986, Tutti performed her final art action Ritual Awakening Part 2 at an Amsterdam arts festival, and for the next few years concentrated on making music with Carter. But in the 1990s, much to her surprise, major galleries began getting in touch about her work with COUM; suddenly she was being exhibited alongside the likes of Gilbert & George, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys and Marina Abramović.

In Re-Sisters, Tutti writes: “Whatever I do, I have to do it to excess, to explore it to the very edges, step over into the unknown, affirm my existence.” What unites all she has done, she says now, is a desire to be entirely herself and “not located in other people’s ideas of who they are and what they do. I can’t be me through someone else’s work. I’m giving something of myself to people that’s come from a true source, which is me.” This purity of ideas, and her sense that she was different from others, goes all the way back to childhood: “Right from being a very young child, I never followed people. At school I was more a leader, and if people didn’t want to go along with it, I wasn’t bothered,” she says.

Given Tutti’s extraordinary life, and her impact on art and music, it’s little wonder there is a film of her life in the works. Based on her memoir, it will be directed by Andrew Hulme, who made 2018’s The Devil Outside, about a Christian teenager’s crisis of faith. When I ask Tutti who is playing her, she smiles and shakes her head emphatically: “No, no, no, I can’t tell you. But I love her, she’s great.” She has been closely involved in the script development and says that watching the casting process moved her to tears. “Because you kind of relive it,” she says, “but through someone else who seems to fully understand the feelings going on behind the words they’ve been given.”

It is odd, Tutti goes on, because when she finished writing her memoir she imagined she would be able to stop looking backwards, though for five years that is pretty much all she has done. “But it’s a good thing,” she decides, adding: “Although I’ll let you know if I still feel that way when the film is done.”

Re-Sisters: The Lives and Recordings of Delia Derbyshire, Margery Kempe and Cosey Fanni Tutti is published by Faber on 18 August. To buy a copy for £16.14, go to guardianbookshop.com

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