23 May 2011

Interview : Cosey Fanni Tutti

Photo Credit: © Paul Heartfield
Cosey Fanni Tutti is likely best known to you as one part of the highly influential band Throbbing Gristle and through her music projects with Chris Carter: Chris & Cosey and Carter Tutti. To me, Cosey is a boundary shaker who has inspired us with her continuous activities over the past few decades across multiple creative streams. Much has been written about Cosey's life, so I will leave that to existing sources. I recently had the opportunity to ask her some questions which I've often wondered about, having been a fan since the 1980s. Despite being very busy with her current projects, Cosey was kind enough to respond.

What first encouraged you to pursue music as a form of creative expression?

My father's gift of a tape recorder when I was about 10 years old. 

I've read you studied piano - begrudgingly - as a teenager. Although you felt the lessons were boring at the time, did they become useful to you when you became involved in music? How do you feel formal lessons enhance or restrict creativity?

Strangely the boredom I felt in playing the set pieces prompted me to open the piano and play with the insides. I could have been a pretty competent pianist - I have the hands for it, apparently, and I found the music theory very easy - but the rules were frustrating to me. The freedom in not being taught how to play music has been invaluable to me because I can improvise solely on the sound and my brain doesn't drag up learnt chords etc.

Did Pop Art and its associated ideals surrounding the promotion of mechanical means of reproduction in art have any influence on you musically?

In some ways the philosophy had some influence and was in keeping with my own attitude of accessibility and non institutional interference of creative practice, as well as the notion of challenging established practice. But overall I felt it was rather decorative and wasn't 'dirty' enough. 

As an artist, how do you find visual and performance art elements complement music or vice-versa? How do you utilise these different forms of expression to engage your audience?

I don't think they can necessarily be a good fit. Most of my art actions are done in silence (except for the ambient noise). Music brings another possible interpretation to the action that is not always helpful or constructive. It's a little bit like determining the outcome and interpretation of the performance via the sound. Conversely, if the sound is part of the action then it's very different - such as in some of the COUM pieces using contact microphones, or in the sound piece 'Marcel Duchamp's Next Work'.

Watching live performances from decades ago, your gigs were so primal. How much of your performance is about tension and release? 

All of it. And as much for the audience as me. 

Do you feel there's an elemental connection between physicality (sex, death, pain) and your music performances?

Yes, that's what my music is about: the human condition, our relationships, empathies both good and bad.

How much of your performance art has been inspired by the Surrealist explorations of sado masochism and gender stereotypes?

It sounds crazy in this age of information research approach to art but I had little knowledge of Surrealism when I did my early work. My overarching approach was for freedom of my own expression, an avoidance of 'influence'. When I later studied for my degree in late 2001, I was very satisfied with my original approach when I read Kant etc and compared and contrasted their writings to my own findings and ideas.

Over the years - in part due to your nude performance art and exploration of identity through pornography - you have earned a reputation as an anarchist and feminist icon. How does the tag 'feminist icon' sit with you, as a woman who loves men (as sometimes, in feminist circles, this can be an oxymoron)?

I've never seen the point of labels of any kind. I can see why people would say I was a 'feminist' but it would be a very specific definition that would apply to me. I've always approached life as a human being; the fact that I am a woman has never seemed an obstacle or consideration and gender should never be to anyone, male or female. It makes me sad to say that even the most 'enlightened' male artists I've worked with have misogynistic tendencies. I see that as their weakness and, unwittingly, my strength.

What are your feelings about the current commoditisation of women's sexuality in the music industry?

It's also about desexualisation and desensitisation, which worries me more. Women have always had commodification but add the present across-the-board approach to everything, then it becomes even more damaging. Life is about subjective experience: that's how we evolve. Homogenising is a dangerous path. It leaves people feeling largely unfulfilled and does nothing to enhance or empathise with the human spirit.

Has it been easy, being a woman in the music industry? Do you believe you've challenged gender stereotypes?

I don't regard myself in that way. The only time it comes to mind is if it is blatant sexism. I guess I've challenged gender stereotypes by subconsciously not acknowledging their existence. 

Back to your music, what do you think of the genre tag 'industrial' and has your association with its beginnings limited or expanded your development as a musician?

The association with industrial hasn't limited what I want to do as a musician. What industrial was when we first founded the genre is very different to what passes as 'industrial' now. The ethos is not the same. It was always more than the harsh sounds of machines; we had such subtleties of the use of sound that aren't present in the genre today. 

What have advances in technology meant to you as a musician and performer, and what are your favourite instruments?

Freedom and endless possibilities. I'm in a state of ecstasy when I have so many options at my fingertips and in such a small, portable format. [I like] Ableton Live, Alchemy, Guitar Rig, guitar and cornet. They all inspire me as soon as I interact with them and fulfil that itch I get when trying to find a sound that matches my inner emotions and external stimuli.

Lyrically and musically, what are your main themes these days?

I guess we have a more sensitive and seductive style in our Chris & Cosey and Carter Tutti music and lyrics. The themes of life and death and all that passes for life in between remain the same but are cloaked in more accessible musical arrangements and lyrics which have double meaning and ask questions.

What current projects are you working on?

I have a number of projects in the pipeline and I can't tell you all of them. I have a number of works exhibited at Tate Britain in June, Carter Tutti's series of 'Harmonic Coaction' which we hope to release in 2012, numerous live shows coming up this year and TG's last official album 'Desertshore'. So 2012 will be a busy year for releases.

Can you tell me briefly about last year's Cosey Complex and how you felt about that entire experience?

It was a momentous event having all these wonderfully talented artists come along and take part. I was rather humbled by it. The works were amazing and there's a book on the whole event being published this year.

Is there anything/anyone around at the moment which you find particularly inspiring?

The fact that people are beginning to access their inner selves more and moving away from the superficial culture that has dominated for far too long. That inspires me and makes me sigh with relief.

Many younger musicians I speak with on Twitter are very inspired by TG's music. How does it feel to still be an inspiration to others?

Inspiring others is an amazing honour that I don't take lightly. 

What achievements in your life are you most proud of and is there anything you would've done differently, in retrospect?

Life is too short for retrospective regrets or pride. I have too much to think about and too much to do.

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