22 Sep 2016

Who are COUM Transmissions?

A guide to the performance art collective formed in Hull

Name: COUM Transmissions.

Formed in: Hull, 1969.

Occupation: Performance artists and musicians. According to Conservative MP Nicholas Fairbairn in 1976: ‘These people are the wreckers of civilisation’.

Core members: Genesis P-ORRIDGE and Cosey Fanni Tutti.

Their work in brief: COUM Transmissions were a music and performance art collective. Openly confrontational and deliberately controversial, they were pioneers in live art and experimental music-making. Their performance events happened in galleries, clubs, in their warehouse in Hull, or out in the street – often taking Hull’s Saturday shoppers by surprise. At their most extreme, COUM performances included sex acts and displays of painful self-mutilation. They also created music and soundscapes, as well as using photography and print to create collages. COUM were multi-disciplinary artists, out to disrupt what anyone thought art could be.

Why? From their former toffee apple and pickle factory off Dagger Lane in Hull – named The Alien Brain – COUM forced the art world to think about its purpose. Why do we make art and what does it mean to sell it for money? Heavily influenced by the chaotic ethos of the Dada art movement, and taking inspiration from the experimental Fluxus movement, COUM created work that was shocking and playfully disturbing, making their contemporaries in the punk movement look pedestrian and tame by comparison. Their events sometimes bubbled over into full-scale riots, including one in 1971 which (so the tale goes) permanently closed the Gondola Club in Hull and resulted in COUM being banned from performing in the city.

Best known for: Prostitution, their landmark exhibition at the ICA in London in 1976. The show was a retrospective of the work they’d created in the previous seven years, giving the artists a chance to sell their work – explicitly “debasing oneself by selling”, according to Genesis P-Orridge at the time. Cosey Fanni Tutti had worked extensively as a pornographic model during these years, and the show featured her appearance in soft porn magazines from her modelling career. The exhibition also included cases containing used syringes, bloodied bandages and other detritus from the artists’ lives. Alongside all of this, COUM displayed newspaper clippings and reviews of their previous work in Prostitution, adding to these with new press clippings during the exhibition as an increasingly hysterical press denounced the show as a waste of public money.

Later known as: Throbbing Gristle. Cosey and Genesis formed Throbbing Gristle alongside Chris Carter and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson in 1976, giving birth to a new musical genre in the process – industrial music.

Where are they now? Genesis and Cosey are both still artists, working in music and performance. Genesis lives in New York while Cosey lives in the UK and has recently written her autobiography, which will be published in April 2017.

Find out more about COUM Transmissions and the radical art revolution they started in Hull at COUM Transmissions, a retrospective exhibition with live performance at Humber Street Gallery, part of our opening season in 2017 – Made in Hull.

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