The exhibition and related events for COUM Transmissions at the Humber Street Gallery, Hull, proposes an unprecedented exploration of the private thinking and public actions of the collective, who first started to meet and experiment in the city in the late 1960s. Curators Andrew Wheatley from Cabinet, London, and Cosey Fanni Tutti discuss the relevance of the group in light of this new exhibition.
A: Why do you think the works of COUM Transmissions are particularly relevant in today’s social climate, being that the performance art and music collective were influenced by the Dada movement and were openly confrontational and subversive?
CFT: Relevance to the present social climate is not the primary consideration and never was but I acknowledge that it may have had an influence in as much as Dada and Surrealism inspired us.
As many of the COUM members have said in the “COUM Talks” films, the ethos has remained a part of their lives and that ran counter to the social climate of the time and possibly now. The confrontation and subversion was never an act of aggression or the direct purpose behind what we did. We presented ourselves in a public forum but actions also took place in private. That those actions were counter to social norms was incidental to our personal exploration of creative expression.
A: What types of performances does the exhibition showcase?
CFT: Andrew and I decided on a chronological narrative for the exhibition. The immense task of working with the vast amount of material presented the most appropriate approach to take – to present COUM from start to finish by revealing how it evolved as a lifestyle and the actions themselves. The archival materials provide an insight into the inner workings of the collective from its conception in 1969 to its ending in 1976, and for the first time the many people that interacted as part of the collective, a paper trail of the exchange of ideas, personal letters, objects, promotional ephemera, photographic, video, and film documentation and manifestos, offering a fuller understanding of what lay behind the multitude of actions, public images and societal perceptions.
A: How did COUM Transmissions introduce an unfamiliar language of surreal and sexualised acts into social arenas throughout the UK, Europe and latterly the USA, and how do the archival materials reflect this new type of dialogue?
AW: Any sexualised or surreal (and real) language implicit in the actions was not so much unfamiliar but rather transposed to a new situation. Once the group actions involving sexual acts began to happen in the arena’s of art and academia, COUM Transmissions were, at this point, specifically infiltrating the milieu of expectant, performative art of the early 1970s. For example the action Sex Une Bonne Idée was performed at Nuffield Gallery, Southampton University in 1975 and Rectum as Inner Space at the Architectural Association, London in 1976.
The archival materials on display at Humber Art Gallery chart the prolific and multifaceted output of COUM over the seven years in which they operated. They were visceral, naked, tender and confrontational. They were monologues to audiences and if there was dialogue, then that which occurred between performers.
A: How do audiences interact with the archive materials on display? Do you think that there’s a residing social and political element which viewers are taking away with them?
CFT: From the people I’ve spoken with who have seen the show, the materials are key to an awareness of how COUM operated and an overwhelming response and appreciation for the exhibition.
A: The collective included a collaboration between Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti – what did each of them bring in terms of ideas and responses to different types of art forms?
CFT: Although we worked closely together our individual skills and means and ways of expressing ourselves were key to the actions. Source material consisted of “the personal” in addition to any possible response to other art forms. Each person brought something specifically individual to the mix.
A: How does the show make an argument for pushing the boundaries of different media, incorporating music, theatre, street performance and burlesque, breaking down borders between them all and creating a new sense of “making”?
AW: The exhibition documents the experimental modes of production employed by COUM Transmissions. The group’s artistic output crossed the boundaries of various media due, in part, to an expression of the collaborating voices involved and the expediency of individual as well as group improvisation. COUM attempted a non-hierarchical approach to artistic production and as such, could fluidly transcend the boundaries of media definition when making material work or performative action.
COUM TRANSMISSIONS runs until 22 March at Humber Street Gallery, Hull. www.humberstreetgallery.co.uk
1. Coum Transmissions, Cosey Fanni Tutti, WOMAN’S ROLL, A.I.R. Gallery, 1976. © Cosey Fanni Tutti.