Throbbing Gristle Founder Explores Porn as Art in Memoir

Industrial music pioneer Cosey Fanni Tutti on why she was called one of the "wreckers of civilization" by government official

"One of the things that interested me was pornography, and I investigated it," says Cosey Fanni Tutti Credit: Courtesy of Cosey Fanni Tutti

A young woman, naked except for a pair of thigh-high nylons and a fur stole draped between her breasts, reclines on her back. Her dark hair is mussed, her mouth hangs open and her left hand curls suggestively over her pubic hair. It's an alluring photograph, but also an unremarkable one. The stockings and the orgasmic facial expression and the natural body hair easily date it to the 1970s, when porn was both more innocent and more artful than it is today.

But this isn't just any clipping from a vintage dirty magazine. The woman in the photo is Cosey Fanni Tutti (née Christine Newby), the British artist and musician who co-founded the pioneering industrial band Throbbing Gristle and redrew the boundaries of performance art as a core member of COUM Transmissions. Tutti's motto is, "My life is my art, my art is my life." And in the mid-1970s, as she recounts in her absorbing new memoir, Art Sex Music, her life and art revolved around her work in the smut industry.

Tutti's interest in sex work stemmed from a lifelong fascination with sexuality, which she'd already explored as a young adult in private orgies and X-rated public performances devised with her former lover and partner in COUM and TG, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. (The most upsetting revelation in Art Sex Music is that P-Orridge was abusive towards her. Tutti writes that when she finally left their home for good, Genesis "leaped on top of me, grabbed me by the throat and started strangling me.") But her foray into nude modeling, which she documented in a series of artworks known as "magazine actions," was an entirely independent project for Tutti. When she debuted the images, as part of COUM's notorious 1976 Prostitution show at the ICA in London, they sparked a public uproar that spread from the scandal-hungry pages of British tabloids to the House of Commons, with one Tory representative labeling Tutti and P-Orridge's collective "wreckers of civilization."

In the beginning, her objective was simply to smuggle herself into the clandestine world of pornography. To secure work, she disguised herself as a "bookable glamour girl," shedding her artist's wardrobe to blend in with the other models. "I wouldn't say it was hugely competitive, but there was a kind of standard. Photographers didn't just take pictures of anyone that was willing to do it. I had to go to auditions and through modeling agencies," Tutti says over Skype. "It's not a case of just laying down and opening your legs or putting a hand on your head. There's all kinds of things that have to go on to make sure they get the shot they want, that's appealing to the reader." She soon found that she was capable of satisfying that fantasy.

At first, she intended to repurpose the images of herself as collage material. But, as she posed for dozens of shoots and began to appear in publication after publication, Tutti realized that her modeling jobs constituted artworks in their own right. The magazine actions became an investigation into the way a photographer's sexualized gaze could transform her identity. In Art Sex Music, she reflects that, "Relinquishing control of my image and identity was an important part of the project, and that intrigued me as much as the experience of the process of co-creating those images. Whether I was 'Tessa from Sunderland,' 'Slippery Milly from Piccadilly,' 'Geraldine,' 'Susie' or 'Cosey,' I was just like the other girls, sexual fantasy material for illusion." She made a point of diversifying her portfolio, attempting to get her picture into both the highest-class and the lowest-rent magazines to see how far her image could stretch.

Tutti collected over 50 published photos of herself for the Prostitution show, a COUM retrospective that also featured artifacts from the collective's performances. In her memoir, she recalls, "I extracted all the images of myself and the associated text from each [magazine] – those pages were my 'action,' to be framed as my work, thereby subverting the 'male gaze.'" Named after the first spread her photos appeared in, Prostitution (whose title was also intended as a subtle dig at the way the art world exploits talent) brought the magazine actions out from under the counter and into the highbrow setting of the ICA – well, sort of. In deference to obscenity laws and under pressure from the Arts Council of Great Britain, they were stowed away in a back room, to be viewed by request only, rather than hung on the gallery walls.

The ICA was right to anticipate a backlash, although its decision to hide Tutti’s works hardly prevented the show from inspiring a furor. It began immediately after Prostitution’s opening, on October 18, 1976, which featured Throbbing Gristle’s first performance and a strip show that involved a performer named Shelley writhing naked on a floor that was slick with the fake blood TG had spilled during their set. Predictably enough, the tabloid press directed the brunt of its indignation towards the magazine's actions and Tutti’s soiled tampons, which had been props in COUM actions. Although the group had intended to stage performances throughout the show's weeklong run, the chaotic scene at the museum forced them to cancel. "Can't do any more performances now, it's impossible, they'd all be there again," Tutti lamented in a journal entry that is excerpted in Art Sex Music. “The reporters chased me through the gallery and nearly broke the door down." Word of the scandal eventually reached Tutti's beloved mother, who never spoke to her again.

COUM elected to incorporate the hysterical public reaction into the show, posting the breathless reports and indignant reviews alongside their artworks. But, for her part, Tutti was mystified. "I didn't know what the fuss was about," she says, noting how ironic it was that they faced such controversy amid the unprecedented sexual liberation of the ‘70s. "The only thing I put it down to was the fact that I was a woman doing this, and I brought a very male activity into an art gallery – and showed it for what it was. I think that uncovering of the private world of men wasn't very well received."

That transgression should have endeared Tutti to her feminist contemporaries, but they saw her magazine actions as exploitative. In her book Renegotiating the Body: Feminist Art in 1970s London, Kathy Battista quotes the feminist art historian Lisa Tickner's assessment that "those who claim an art form out of being 'intentionally' exploited like Cosey Fanni Tutti of the COUM group… shift the meaning of the work, however serious its original or possible intentions, from parody to titillation."

The mainstream feminist agenda didn't resonate with her, either. "I didn’t identify with 1970s feminism: it didn't speak for me or the diverse and complex nature of women," Tutti writes. "I was a free spirit and didn't want yet more rules and guilt thrown at me about my actions. Yes, by doing my sex work I was contributing to, but not necessarily endorsing, the thing they were fighting against. But I was no 'victim' of exploitation. I was exploiting the sex industry for my own purposes, to subvert and use it to create my own art. It was my choice."

Over 40 years later, however, feminist discourse and the art-world establishment have begun to catch up with Tutti and her work. The Tate has acquired some of her magazine actions, the ICA threw a 40th-anniversary celebration for Prostitution and she has exhibited, written about and sat on distinguished panels to discuss her sex-work art. In the 1990s, a sex-positive strain of feminism that encouraged women to use their bodies in whatever way felt most empowering emerged victorious over the anti-porn rhetoric of the '70s and '80s – not that it made much of a difference to Tutti, who was never particularly concerned with having her work interpreted as feminist. "I didn't sit down and think, ‘Right, what can I create that's something only a woman can do and is against what women should've been doing at the time, and shouldn't be in an art gallery?'" she says. "The fact that everyone else then started analyzing [my work] in terms of feminism or objectification of women, that came after the event."

Tutti does, however, hope that her work encourages younger artists – and particularly female ones – "to express themselves and try to make sense of the world and your position in it." Her magazine actions are sometimes compared to Cindy Sherman's self-portraits, in which the artist disguises herself as mid-century movie stars and fashion models and aging socialites. What makes Tutti's work more courageous, though, is that they were created not in her studio, but in the context of a real subculture in which she immersed herself and grew to understand. They are a record of an artist's engagement with the outside world.

"One of the things that interested me was pornography, and I investigated it. And I did it not as a research student or as an artist just doing a few magazine shoots and then coming back and talking about it. I spent a lot of years doing it and getting to know the people in the industry, who became friends of mine," she says. "Life experience is really important for artists. I don't think isolating yourself gives you any honest or full perspective on life."

Like P-Orridge, who attempted to claim credit for her magazine actions when they were exhibited at the Tate in 2006, Tutti is thought of as a provocateur. Her work in the sex industry may be remembered as the most shocking period of her career. But, as she sees it, the driving force behind everything she does is a desire to fuse art and life through eliciting real responses from audiences of real – not exclusively art-world – people. "It was always about going out and communicating with other people, and embracing other people's ideas and experiences and views of the world, and sharing them with one another," Tutti explains. "Because that's all we do as human beings: we're here to think with one another."