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Primal Evidence: The Strange World Of COUM Transmissions
Russell Cuzner , January 27th, 2017 19:26

In COUM Transmissions the future members of Throbbing Gristle would intensely interrogate the nature of art and performance, along with testing their own experiential limits, across almost a decade of unique 'actions'. Join us on a journey through their strange world where their compulsion to find a pure and honest form of expression saw them tearing up taboos, severely unsettling the establishment on the way. Images thanks to the Tate Archive / Cabinet Gallery. WARNING - SOME IMAGES NSFW

"Everything about COUM is true. Everything about COUM is false. Everything about COUM is nothing. It is by omission that we might be exact."

1976 is regarded as the birth of industrial music, when Throbbing Gristle (TG) planted a temporal seed from which a global network of outsiders would spring. United by a fervency for the arcane that tended to lead beyond 'acceptable' norms, the movement grew rapidly, cross-fertilised by sonic experiments whose abundant fruits continue to nourish enquiring minds today, particularly in the realms of what we now classify as noise, drone, ambient, synth pop and techno.

But in October of 1976 when TG played their third gig at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and were branded "wreckers of civilisation" by the establishment, the performance was merely the latest in a long, fertile history of creative actions by those involved, most notably Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Indeed, the gig was part of the opening of an ostensibly retrospective exhibition of the work of COUM Transmissions, the arts collective P-Orridge had established in 1969 in Hull, and that Tutti had joined the following year.

Over almost a decade COUM's actions would evolve from avant-garde rock shows and street theatre to transgressive performance art. By the time of its exhibition at the ICA, the group had been funded and commissioned by the British Council, had toured all over Europe (including representing Britain at the ninth Biennale de Paris), and were about to do the same in the States. Along the way they built up an infamy that an increasingly prurient and sensationalistic media delighted to bestow, and one that COUM perhaps equally delighted to invoke.

‘Omissions’ Stadtfest, Kiel, Germany 1975

The ignorant and outraged lens through which the national press tends to focus on modern art provides most of the evidence of COUM's actions. This is because the group were reluctant to directly document their own transient works, although this didn't stop P-Orridge from engineering its coverage through writing to underground publications or inviting "yellow" journalists to their events. In Painful But Fabulous, his monograph of 2002, P-Orridge explained how "Most COUM Transmissions originated in dreams… [I believed our] actions should all ways strive to be completely arbitrary, whilst maintaining their original dream extrapolations: to be an improvised primal exploration; a self-confrontational outpouring... the declared policy during all COUM Transmissions actions in the years 1969-76 was to refuse to arrange any planned, formal or in any manner preconsidered documentation that could function to compromise the 'source dream' that so often inspired the actions…"

The paucity of images and particularly the lack of videos of COUM's spectacular sounding performances help build their myth, and make their upcoming retrospective as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017 all the more vital in attempting to interpret their strangest of worlds. Light on primary, first-hand evidence, but rich on secondary, theirs is a story that describes one of the most elusive yet enduring roots in the intertangled undergrounds of modern music and art.

1968 Beautiful Litter, Mell Square, Solihull

In his last year at Solihull Public School, P-Orridge (then Neil Megson) had already decided he wanted to use actions "to make people aware of the life around them…"; but instead of exploring the notions of sex, death and decay that would consistently show up in COUM's later work, he sought to highlight life's "essential beauty and tranquillity" through poetry.

Influenced by the writings of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and going under the name of The Knights of the Pentecostal Flame, P-Orridge along with school mates Barry Hermon and Paul Wolfson, conceived of a 'street happening'. He recalled the event to Dominic Johnson in Critical Live Art: Contemporary Histories of Performance in the UK, "We scattered small cards with evocative words written on them all over town, inside cafés, bookshops, etc. and in the street. As any curious person picked up the words they were creating a haiku-like poem. All the cards picked up also 'wrote' a long poem, but one that nobody would ever see or hear complete."

By using chance to insert text fragments into everyday life, this schoolboy dérive was arguably a 'cut-up' in the mode developed by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs – figures whose philosophes and methodologies would have a great influence over COUM in the following decade.

Leaving Solihull for Hull University to study Social Sciences, P-Orridge was already digging the rich curiosities of the 60s counter culture from John Cage and Aleister Crowley to Andy Warhol and Velvet Underground having been introduced to them by his close school friend Ian Evetts (aka Spydeee). But it was a performance at Hull University by the Exploding Galaxy collective (a cross-disciplinary arts group) that inspired him to drop out of university in 1969 and tune in to the world of experimental art.

Following the Exploding Galaxy (now called Transmedia Explorations) to their London commune P-Orridge said he was subjected to the rigours of their alternative lifestyle. This would include wearing shared clothes from a central "box", then changing names, character, and sometimes gender accordingly to cut through societal conventions and help deprogram the resident artists. Inspired yet frustrated, P-Orridge returned to Hull just a few months later, staying with friend John Shapeero where they formed COUM Transmissions. Talking to Julie Wilson in 1994 P-Orridge revealed that "COUM was kind of my extension of my interpretations of Transmedia and Exploding Galaxy, but pushing it… further".

Shapeero and P-Orridge along with various friends including Ian Evetts (Spydee) and Peter Winstanley (Pinglewad) from Solihull and Timothy Poston and John Krivine from university, would improvise with acoustic instruments regardless of their musical abilities in local pubs, clubs and the University Union. It was at one such event that P-Orridge met Tutti.

By the beginning of 1970 most of them had moved in together in an old fruit warehouse Krivine had leased in the docks of Hull, which was named 'The Ho-Ho Funhouse'. Genesis and Cosey then moved to Prince Street and were joined by Ian Evetts. The COUM collective now included Genesis, Cosey, Ian Evetts, Tim Poston, Tutti's best friend, known as the Reverend Cheese Wire Maull and Ray Harvey, who lent his bluesy vocals to COUM shows until he was sent to prison for assaulting a police officer. They were later joined by Greg Taylor (aka Foxtrot Echo) Tony Menzies, Fizzy Paet and Ian Goodrich (aka Biggles) amongst many others.

1971 Edna and the Great Surfers, supporting Hawkwind, St George's Hall, Bradford

Brushes with the law would continue for COUM, and get them banned from most of Hull's venues in 1971, but this in no way diminished their actions. Their growing notoriety had spread such that they started to get bookings from beyond the local town and, in October, they ended up supporting space rockers Hawkwind in Bradford.

Their line-up included a "John Smith from Bridlington" singing while stood on a surf board balanced on buckets of water. The offbeat show was recalled in Just Glittering fanzine by future COUM member Foxtrot Echo who was in the audience at the time: "most of the bands playing were boring twelve bar blues cliché type bands… and suddenly this band came on stage that was absolutely bizarre. They were all wearing orange PVC capes and the drummer had this enormous double drum kit and it had a sun shade over it, and there was this very long legged school girl, and a dog and it just seemed extraordinary. They went into these strange songs that I don't know how to describe really, but they were sort of slightly reminiscent of Captain Beefheart…"

Genesis, Cosey and Spydee lived together in Prince Street, joined by a revolving cast of COUM members. Here, COUM Transmissions really started to take off. The old Georgian house, the ground floor of which was used by the landlord to store market equipment, was called the 'Alien Brain' by COUM Transmissions, a name they also used to the multimedia happenings that took place there. It was all neatly described by Pru Clark in Hull Daily Mail in May of 1972 as "a derelict building… transformed into an Aladdin's cave environment... Garish paint covers the walls… and black plastic drapes form tunnels… chords from an unseen piano break eerily from behind a covered cubby hole. Overhead orange and black plastic hangings across windows and walls cast a night club glow on solemn tailors' dummies."

In the article P-Orridge explained COUM's approach to performance: "We try to do things… which everyone could relate to no matter where they were placed in the universe… I paint with people, involving people, and it is very simple… We try to give people back the right to entertain themselves and at the same time partake in a new experience using strong visual metaphor, mime, ballet, music and kinetic environment…"

1973 'Ministry of Antisocial Insecurity' Fanfare for Europe, Hull Arts Centre

To commemorate the UK joining the EEC in January 1973 Hull Arts Centre put on a group show of Yorkshire artists and invited COUM to participate, suggesting the group had re-established some degree of respect from their home town.

COUM contributed several pieces including 'Ministry of Antisocial Insecurity' that satirised the social security process by installing a mock border control desk in Hull's Ferens Art Gallery replete with spoof forms. Compared to Monty Python by Pru Clark in her preview for Hull Daily Mail, it caught the interest of BBC Radio Humberside who invited P-Orridge to discuss the work:

"[As the] top manager, I won't be there because the manager's never there when you want it to be…" he drily explained.

Their playful staging of anti-establishment theatrics saw them awarded a grant from the Arts Council in April, and the following month they reached new heights of absurdity in a film for Granada Television as part of Manchester Arts Festival. There, COUM member Fizzy Paet, dressed as a roller skating clown, was seen to marry Tremble, Cosey's dog, in a derelict church. A brass band, Morris dancers and coloured food are said to also have featured in the surreal ceremony.

But, around about this time, there was little else to celebrate. With the combination of pressure from local police suspicious of COUM's ties with local criminals, Tutti and P-Orridge were about to leave Hull for good.

1973 FLUXshoe tour, various venues

Around the time Tutti and P-Orridge relocated to a squat in London, COUM was part of an exhibition touring the UK in celebration of Fluxus, the contemporary radical art movement. Fluxus broadly confused the irrationality of Dada with the revolutionary philosophies of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage to investigate and reject the limiting definitions of what is and isn't art. This defiant questing through collage, performance art, mail art and experimental music bore strong parallels with the work of COUM who provided many diverse actions for the tour: from 'Snail Trail' where P-Orridge crawled from one Nottingham venue to the next under a plastic sheet while secreting a trail of stickers, to mailing John Lennon a Blackburn phone directory riddled with drilled holes to physically embody the lyric "4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire" from The Beatles' 'A Day in the Life'.

FLUXshoe was followed by an appearance at Edinburgh Festival which saw COUM share gallery space with the Viennese Actionists. Their often gory, abject productions against "laws and social rules no longer founded in reality" could involve self-mutilation, ingestion of bodily fluids and masturbation. This extreme approach would influence COUM whose actions would darken, trumping their whimsical humour with more shocking displays. At the end of the year, live maggots and used tampons went into P-Orridge's contribution to a mail art show in Vancouver – queasy ingredients that would continue to be incorporated into COUM's upcoming actions.

But the turn they would gradually take across the next year or so wasn't an unconsidered, one-dimensional desire to shock. As Cosey explained in a 1982 lecture to fine art students at Leeds Polytechnic: "Genesis and myself were always interested in that the basic thing in life is sex, and peoples' obsession to hide it and to hide as many bodily functions as they could. It seemed like something to fight against. That's why the Tampaxs were shown, because so many women deny that it actually happens… We did quite nice little things with them, they're fascinating as objects and all that they represent".

'Bollocks In The Breeze’ Art Meeting Place, London, UK 1974

1974 Orange & Blue, Art Meeting Place, London

Now settled in their squat and with studio space in Hackney and working with John Lacey, who later introduced them to Chris Carter, Tutti and P-Orridge would take advantage of the expansive art network the capital offered. In May, in Covent Garden, a new venue called AMP (or Art Meeting Place) opened, where COUM would reside on several occasions throughout 1974. The first of which was their debut of 'Orange & Blue' which questioned gender roles. It began with P-Orridge, dressed entirely in orange labourer's clothes, and Tutti, in blue evening wear, standing either side of a table, itself half-orange and half-blue. They proceed to methodically swap their clothes and modify their body language. Tutti saw the piece as having "a strong sense of humour, [going from] tongue-in-cheek [to] serious" and as a "crossover from experimental theatre".

Around this time Tutti was working as a model for adult magazines and photography clubs, experiences that would provide COUM with raw materials with which to continue to focus on gender in their new actions. In 1988 Tutti reflected how "I was placed in situations which I did not feel happy or comfortable in… where what was demanded of me revolted me and I had to learn to cope… I spoke with men in an environment where they were being 'men'… their wives never saw this side… a more surprising attitude of 'respect' and 'admiration' was just as predominant. I think one of the most fantastic and frightening lessons was the ability (as a means of survival) to manipulate and control the responses of the men…"

1975 Couming of Youth, Melkweg, Theatre Zaal, Amsterdam

'Couming of Youth' was performed over four consecutive nights in Amsterdam in 1975 and was the first COUM action that involved Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson. His interest in the group had been piqued the previous year when he saw their 'Couming of Age' show at London's Oval House, performed largely nude in front of childlike drawings of a house and tree, with Nico, John Cale, Lou Reed and Vera Lynn as the soundtrack as Foxtrot Echo, playing The Photographer, captured images of Tutti in a metal cage.

Sleazy worked for the voguish design agency Hipgnosis, and, in his spare time was a member of the Casualties Union, a company of actors who play accident victims in training sessions for the emergency services. His experience in working on visionary LP sleeves and crafting fake wounds would serve COUM well; later, he said he felt he amplified their more "visceral" side.

'Couming of Youth' was preceded by a statement from the group: "Performance Art is not 'about' entertainment, nor does it claim to produce an art-form which is concerned with beauty, aesthetics or a high standard of moral life. It … is concerned with Experience – direct, first-hand, individual interpretation of action. It uses as its base the imaginative interpretation of life itself, the raw material being drawn from the everyday." Every evening began in darkness until Foxtrot Echo in an SS uniform lit the torches either side of the stage with a full power blow torch.

The performance itself is described by Genesis in the Industrial Culture Handbook published by RE/Search in 1983: "… we played tapes of Charles Manson's LP Lie, cut-up with soundtracks of trains going through thunderstorms, and we went through all different kinds of fetishes. Sleazy cut his throat and had to kind of do a tourniquet… and Cosey and I did this thing of spitting at each other and then licking all the spit off, and then licking each other's genitals, and then having sexual intercourse while her hair was set on fire with candles. There was an audience of around 2,000 people. And each day it got heavier..."

'Towards the Crystal Bowl', Galleria Victor Emanuelle, Milan, Italy 1976

1976 'Prostitution' ICA main gallery, London

Hindsight shows that the inevitable aggravation of the media's 'moral crusaders' by COUM's 1976 exhibition, 'Prostitution', was a few months ahead of mainstream punk's similar results at the end of the same year. But by the time of the launch event on 18 October, the national press had thoroughly primed the public to interact with modern art with taste, decency and public funding in mind. Carl Andre's 'Equivalent VIII' at the Tate had hit the headlines in February, its partially exhibited structure (that, when complete, explored shape and mass) angrily dismissed as "just a pile of bricks". Then, directly preceding 'Prostitution' at the ICA was Mary Kelly's 'Post-Partum Document', an assemblage of ephemera that expressed the artist's fresh reflections on motherhood was filtered down to "soiled nappies" by an outraged press.

The focus of Prostitution was to be on Tutti's curation of her work in "tit magazines", framing them with the same care afforded all other exhibits. Unfortunately the ICA lost its mettle insisting the images were only to be made available 'on request', hidden away elsewhere in the gallery. "The fact I couldn't hang them up on the wall pissed me off because all of a sudden the main items of the exhibition weren’t there, they were in the back room," Tutti said recently. "The relics from the Actions were an annex to the magazines, that was what the concept of the exhibition was going to be, but they caused so much trouble that they had to be put to one side. It had a big impact on the exhibition and how I envisioned it would be. But, then it became something else completely - which is very COUM. You sort of run with it and think 'hmm that’s alright then'."

With a stripper and an early performance by TG added for good measure, COUM's detractors seemed to be queuing up to report the exhibition. Along with the Daily Mail using MP Nicholas Fairbairn's "Wreckers of Civilisation" pronouncement as its headline, we got "every social evil is celebrated" from the Daily Telegraph, "State aid for Cosey's travelling sex troupe" from the Daily Express and "Mr Orridge is prostituting Britain and sending us the bill" from The Sun. In fact, The Sun seemed to enjoy covering the event so much its reports ran for several days running, in turn providing more material for COUM to present. Meanwhile, when exhibited the cutting from the Daily Mirror ("Bust-up at Gallery of Porn… staged just a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace") conspicuously retained another small story, footnote in size, on the same page: "Earth-shaker… China exploded another underground nuclear bomb yesterday…", giving a sense of the editorial balance the publication fed its readers.

'Prostitution's timely genius was in inviting the media to view these provocative images, along with photos and props from COUM's previous actions such as the tampons and syringes, and to then add each ensuing piece of coverage to the exhibition. This turned the apparent 'anti-art' retrospective into an evolving piece in its own right, concerning "media control of information to the mass of people and the inevitability of corruption of information by reporting it." As the press outrage intensified, Tutti and Chris Carter would visit the gallery each day, pasting up newspaper cuttings in the ICA. Prostitution was therefore a kinetic exhibition, evolving in real time. "Now I look back retrospectively, I think that was fantastic," Tutti has said. "It had that underlying philosophy of COUM of letting things happen, throwing it up in the air and seeing where they will land and that is what happened with the ICA."

‘Sex Une Bonne Ide, Nuffield Gallery, Southampton, UK

1978 Scenes of Victory, Antwerp University

The aftermath of 'Prostitution' saw questions asked in parliament, the Arts Council reviewed its funding of the ICA whose chairman resigned, and Tutti was boycotted by editors of the magazines she modelled for.

However, COUM's activities didn't end when the 'Prostitution' exhibition closed – the very next month they were touring the states with 'Cease to Exist'. Although largely a series of actions seemingly designed to disgust (involving bloodletting, urine and milk), the last show in Santa Monica reportedly closed on a more muted note. P-Orridge and Tutti gradually gathered up their props, cut down the string columns that defined their space, then dressed and kissed before leaving the stage in, would perhaps have been a neat of ending for COUM.

But their final live action, around a year and a half later in Antwerp, ended abruptly for P-Orridge. Talking at a conference at the University of Central Lancashire in 2001 he recalled 'Scenes of Victory' as a "time I was disenchanted with the context of art and theatre and I was trying to push the boundaries…". Describing the performance, P-Orridge said how he had ingested plants and tree bark collected from the University of Antwerp's agricultural department, along with a bottle of whiskey, and with "loads of nails… began to cut patterns into my skin… and then of course I collapsed and was taken to hospital… at that point I decided to stop doing performance art…"

In the same year COUM released what was likely their final statement before TG totally eclipsed their collective actions. Its last paragraph reads "…All that we look at is false. In an age where the image is pillaged, only the anonymous survives. In an age where order is power, think what chaos provides. COUM do not believe that the nature of the final action is important."

Together with Sleazy and Chris Carter, P-Orridge and Tutti would continue to focus on TG. Using a rock group format as their media, their 'happenings' were now in the mode of gigs and records, but constructed with the perspective of modern artists rather than musicians. With a new 'pop culture' framework in which to operate attracting a 'street-level' audience that art galleries risked passing by, they became one of the most creative and inspirational bands of the twentieth century.

Find out more about the COUM-related events planned as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017 here.

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