COUM TRANSMISSIONS – GUARANTEED DISAPPOINTMENT

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE January 2011 issue.

 

One could hardly image how Yorkshire slang and Turkish cyclamens would conjure up a glimmer of excitement in the eyes of industrial music aficionados and art geeks alike. But the answer is clear cut: Throbbing Gristle and COUM Transmissions.

The starting point of this legendary mess of performance art, experimental music, pop culture and of course scandal, would be the Northern England city of Hull in 1969, where Neil Andrew Megson (Genesis P–Orridge) and Christine Carol Newby (Cosey Fanni Tutti) stirred things up through their artistic happenings that included everything from improvised music to street theatre. Or more precisely, if we were to quote a COUM flyer, their activity included “Coumusic, Lightshow (film and slides), Folk, Inflatables, Catastrophe Machines, Vaudeville, Music Hall, Tapes, Bingo, Ballet, Trained Animals, Puppet Show, Street Theatre, Fashion Show and Pass the Parcel.”

Being immersed in the late sixties avid search for alternative lifestyles and means of expression, they joined the Ho–Ho Funhouse commune in Hull, while Genesis left for London to collaborate with the performance group Transmedia Explorations. Needless to say, these experiments proved unsatisfying for both Cosey and Genesis, thus determining them to intensify their activity in COUM. But how would they define their group? “COUM is the sum total of everything said, thought and written about it, plus everything in all media it does, plus everything it never did, thought of doing, might have done, etc. COUM is defined by TOTAL INCLUSION.” One of the main interests of the group was to always contradict expectations, something that could also be observed in Throbbing Gristle’s unrelenting desire to avoid labels and preconceived ideas.

Being heavily involved in mail art and consequently, in contact with a growing network of artists, they developed fictional organizations such as L’ecole de l’art infantile or the Ministry of Social Insecurity. But soon enough, Hull had become too provincial and limited for COUM’s creative energy. In 1973, Cosey and Genesis moved to London and found a studio at 10, Martello Street, in Hackney, where Death Factory would later be located.

Drawing on influences from the Viennese Actionists, a group of artists that sought through ritualistic and often violent performances to break the taboos of a highly conservative Austrian society, COUM staged numerous happenings such as “Art Vandals”, “Marcel Duchamp’s Next Work”, “Couming of Age” or “Throbbing Gristle” and participated in several group exhibitions like “Fluxshoe”, “Hygiene de l’art”, “Postal Art” or “Kitschmas 73″ in Europe and North America.

In Genesis P–Orridge’s words: “COUM theatre is intensely honest and accessible. Disarmingly simple. Intellectually complex, reconciling conflicting levels and attitudes. COUM combine intellectual force, popular culture and sheer comedy.” Genesis further explains: “We expand ourselves to boundaries, even destroying, condemning ourselves to forms of madness and isolation”, also tracing a parallel between COUM and sexuality, undeniably a central theme of their work. “Sex is sensual, delirium, escape, key to magick, joy, excitement”, quite similar to a COUM performance, as they wanted “people to be themselves”, abandoning “all thee false ideas one has of oneself.”

From the very beginning, the group explored notions such as the male/female binary and set out to blur fixed gender roles, while Cosey developed her own type of performance art. By working as a model for pornographic magazines and as a stripper, she subverted the male gaze that objectified her, through conscious approval. In a sense, Cosey was well ahead of her fellow artists that pertained to the same feminist struggles, since she acknowledged the performative aspect of gender identity and its culturally–constructed quality.

As one can imagine, dealing with repressed emotions and social taboos wasn’t exactly what the public and art institutions were expecting. Often dismissed as nonsense, COUM Transmissions was described as an “anti–human piece of evil” or to quote the infamous remark of a conservative politician “these people are the wreckers of civilization”. But the constant controversy surrounding COUM escalated to massive proportions in October 1976, when they had their solo exhibition “Prostitution” at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London. The deliberate purpose of the show was to scrutinize the relationship between money and art or the importance of representation and to subvert high art expectations. The exhibition showcased pornographic images with Cosey (available on request), props and photographs from previous performances and press cuttings. In some way, it was conceived as a retrospective of COUM and possibly as a shift to Throbbing Gristle that performed at the opening. However, the heated debates it stirred, ranging from public spending on arts to the state of contemporary art, surpassed the initial scope of the show. Reactions were violent and the exhibition was described as “squalid rubbish”, “sickening outrage” and a “celebration of all social evils”. Disgruntled and frustrated by media pressure and the lack of support from the art world, COUM members decided to focus their energy on Throbbing Gristle, comprising Genesis P–Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter ’Sleazy’ Christopherson. Wanting to address a larger and more diverse audience, TG expressed their desire to “subliminally infiltrate popular culture.” TG was at the same time an attempt to “popularize academic concepts and blend them into what people thought was a popular culture medium. A rock band which was actually not a rock band.”

What followed next is a piece of music history, which will only be explored very briefly in this article. In 1981, Throbbing Gristle is disbanded, each of its members continuing separate projects. P–Orridge and Cristopherson formed Psychic TV and the religious organisation Thee Temple ov Psychic Youth. Three years later, in 1984, Cristopherson leaves PTV and forms Coil, along with his partner John Balance. During this time, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti performed under the name of Chris and Cosey and initiated the projects Creative Technology Institute and Conspiracy International. In 2004 Throbbing Gristle reunited, but the current situation of the band remains unclear due to the unexpected death of Cristopherson in November 2010.

In their words: “The archetype has been investigated, the information is stored.” TheMission is Terminated.

Further reading: Simon Ford, Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle, London: Black Dog Publishing, 1999

Artwork: GENESIS BREYER P-ORRIDGE COUM Transmissions action at Kielinie/Spielinie art fair. Kiel, West Germany. 1975. Courtesy of Genesis P-Orridge © 1975.

by Simina Neagu

Full article here.