COUM Transmissions are digging up the roots of their rebellion

© Patrick Mateer

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This year, Hull is the UK’s City of Culture, and it’s taking its duties extremely seriously. Millions have been raised and spent. And with a special focus on legacy, high-profile installations and interventions have been made around the city.

Among these is the East Yorkshire city’s tidal barrier, a huge structure built to prevent tidal surges into the River Hull, which has been customised with some interactive light art. Called City Speaks, words spoken into a nearby mic are electronically transcribed, then beamed up one of the barrier’s towers in gigantic digital text. It’s a gamble, giving Hull’s residents a voice and trusting them not to say horrible things with it. In the city centre, meanwhile, a 75-metre-long wind turbine blade has been lifted into place. It was the first one to be made in a nearby Siemens factory and juts completely across Queen Victoria Square into the air like a big bone.

At the Humber Street Gallery, meanwhile, in Hull’s freshly defibrillated ‘Fruit Market cultural quarter,’ visitors are invited to consider memory. The gallery plays host to the first major survey of COUM Transmissions – the pioneering and extreme performance art/work/lifestyle that eventually mutated into the industrial music and visual arts group Throbbing Gristle, launching the careers of two of the UK’s most radical artists: Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.

The pair performed on the opening night – separately, though on the same bill – and participated in a panel discussion with other former COUM members the following day. Onstage, with a lifetime’s practice behind each of them, they were mind-blowing. Cosey sat calmly before a projection, pumping out her soundscapes as women’s faces warped and twisted, family photos bled into street scenes and dogs mutated in the murky visuals behind her.

Genesis, meanwhile, was a striking presence, with blonde hair to h/er shoulders, giant lips, and a head torch shining like a third eye on h/er forehead. “Memory,” s/he murmured. “Let’s talk about memory.” S/he was hypnotic; spoken word in a singsong voice that muttered, crooned and growled. I became so entangled in h/er words that I was lost, snapping-to after half an hour, back into the venue to look around at other transfixed faces.

(Some context may be required here. In 1993, P-Orridge began a well-documented project of transition, alongside h/er wife Lady Jaye. The transition was not from their respective birth gender assignations, but rather a shot at transcendence; a surgical expression of love so deep the couple were compelled to step away from their individual identities, towards unity in one another as the Pandrogyne. As a consequence of the project, which has not been abandoned in spite of the sad passing of Lady Jaye in 2007, Genesis prefers s/he as a pronoun and, as a rule, refers to h/erself as “we”.)

Styling itself as a retrospective, the Humber Street Gallery show is more of a survey. It presents snippets from the COUM Transmissions archive: photos, paperwork, notes, doodles, letters, film and the odd artefact. There are also talking heads: video interviews with members of the group filmed especially for the purpose of illuminating the content of the exhibition.

COUM Transmissions ran from 1969 to 1976, across two cities – Hull and London. Initiated by Genesis, after an out-of-body experience in the back of h/er parents’ car whilst driving through the Welsh countryside, the collective set out to test the limits of creative expression, and question the legitimacy of those limits in the first place.

Things, as you might expect, took a dark turn. This is tracked in the exhibition in a shift from colour documentation to black-and-white. “It was quite frivolous at the beginning, and very colourful,” Cosey remembers, over the phone from her home in Norfolk. “Joyful, in a way. But even that in its own right at that time was confrontational, because it wasn’t a good time to be out on the streets doing things that were unusual.”

"Communicating with people is what it was all about. We didn't need to frame it around some definition of fine art" – Cosey Fanni Tutti

The collective was comprised of marginalised or peripheral figures, glued together with Genesis’s guidance and charisma. After a hellish time at a private school in Warwickshire, which s/he pinpoints as responsible for h/er lifelong rejection of any kind of human authority, Genesis spent a brief period at university in Hull (where s/he was declared to be the UK’s most promising young poet by Philip Larkin) before dropping out and moving to a commune called the Exploding Galaxy in London. The commune encouraged relentless self-analysis through peer review, and imposed a depersonalisation programme centred on the disruption of routine. Clothes were shared communally, and no one was allowed to sleep in the same place two nights in a row. Genesis left, had h/er out-of-body experience and returned to Hull where s/he met Cosey at an ‘acid test’ party, and began to implement the lessons of the Exploding Galaxy.

“In Hull we were definitely having fun, and making fun,” Genesis tells me. The group’s early actions were “about analysing the future options of the self: maximum potential”.

The colour photos on the walls of the gallery testify to the playfulness of COUM’s early exploration. Cosey made the group costumes, each of which took on its own identity – became a skin for participants to step into and share. The pictures record hippies in macs and buttons, pushing prams and engaging a bemused public in street theatre.

© Patrick Mateer

The material on show becomes heavier as it plots the collective’s more insistent probing at the border of personal and public. Cosey and Genesis left Hull in 1973 and headed to London, where they used sex and tampax to assert their indignation at socially constructed shame. Videos in the exhibition show Genesis gamely wanking, or stripping down and pissing into a bottle, brazen attempts at examining the dark honesty of the private in the glaring, conservative light of the public. Cosey, meanwhile, experimented with her own personal boundaries as a nude model.

In 1976 COUM’s efforts culminated in Prostitution, an exhibition at the ICA that acted as a retrospective of the work of the collective. The show, infamous for featuring pornographic images of Cosey and a variety of bloodied props, is still considered one of the most controversial exhibitions in British art history. The show whipped the tabloids up into a froth, MPs raged about it in the Commons, and it left COUM with nowhere else to go. “With that amount of notoriety we were kind of stuck,” Genesis says. “Because if we carried on doing things that were intuitive, it would seem like spectacle and be viewed as spectacle.”

Though by the standards of the day they clearly transgressed, transgression was never what motivated them. Rather than cause offense, they sought to engage deeply with creativity, and through that to question. “When you work so intensely with yourself in the way that I did you tend to think that it’s normal, because it’s your own little world,” Cosey explains. “It’s only when you get out into public that you realise, actually, people think this is a bit odd.”

"When the establishment mutates to become more tolerant of alternative views of life, even then it's still rooted in corruption at a very deep level" – Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

For all the material on display in the Humber Street Gallery, there are remarkably few artworks. If you were to measure COUM Transmissions by the standards of conventional art exhibitions, the retrospective could be considered a disappointment. What it offers, rather, is a two-layered perspective on the endeavour and times of a group who shocked society in a way that now seems impossible.

The exhibition presents nostalgia and memory side by side; the talking heads gush with sentiment as they recount their experiences as members of COUM. They are balanced by the frankness and objectivity of the archive, which, like memory, contains holes – gaps, negative spaces where the art should be.

It’s interesting to think about whether Hull’s City of Culture programme’s proud showcasing of COUM Transmissions represents a success, or a failure. The group worked tirelessly to challenge society’s boundaries; does its newfound spot in the bosom of the institution demonstrate its struggles were a triumph? That it made a difference and legitimised the questioning it engaged in as acceptable part of social discourse? Or, did the institution simply expand enough to smother, label and dis-empower fringe actions?

“Communicating with people is what it was all about,” Cosey argues. “We didn’t need to frame it around some fine art definition of fine art… It’s just that now the art world has recognised what we do. Everything has caught up with us, if you like.”

Genesis goes further. “There’s obviously a brief, but pleasant, vindication that what was written off across the board as degenerate insanity is now appreciated as actually having meaning and reasoning within it,” s/he says. “[But] even when the establishment mutates, and sometimes it appears to become more beneficent, understanding and more tolerant of alternative views of life, even then it’s still rooted in corruption at a very deep level. And therefore its accolades and its negative criticism are equally invalid, by nature of its moral corruption.”

"COUM was just one step in a lifetime's cultural conflict with the status quo" – Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

These answers go a little way towards further invalidating the show’s formal success, at the same time as reinforcing its importance. While formally fairly incoherent, this exhibition offers an invaluable portrait of a sort of philosophy of protest; a willingness to explore alternative modes and systems of living, and to question orthodoxy, of a sort that can’t really exist in an age where the establishment has come to shield itself, taking cover behind the cooly ironic detachment of its citizens.

What’s more, COUM is far from the pinnacle of either Genesis or Cosey’s achievements. It was a beginning, not an end. An environment in which two unique artists began to define their parameters and hone their techniques. As such, maybe the exhibition shouldn’t be approached as a retrospective, so much as an introduction. For Genesis, “COUM was just one step in a lifetime’s cultural conflict with the status quo.” This show, s/he therefore declares, is simply “a snapshot of a beginning of a war of attrition between creativity and dogma.”

COUM Transmissions runs at Humber Street Gallery, Hull, until 22 March

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