William H Hoover’s original vacuum cleaner was little more than a set of bagpipes and a biscuit tin, but with canny marketing his name became synonymous with the efficient extraction of dust, everywhere, forever. The idea Maria Fusco floated at the ICA—‘Cosey Fanni Tutti’ as a ‘methodology in and of itself’—was not aiming for this degree of synonymity, but it did risk presenting Cosey’s iconoclasm as an accredited practice: an Alexander Technique for the counterculturalists. In her opening address, Cosey quickly scotched this notion: for her, methodology is ‘a contrivance that interferes with the creative process’, better to set something in motion and allow things to emerge.
Though concerned with the politicologistical frameworks of art, Cosey Fanni Tutti has never sat easily within the canon of institutional critique, with its somewhat parsonly assumption of critical distance, preferring the shopfloor insights gained from actually becoming the object of critique. ‘Industrial Critique’ would be more apt. ‘Industrial’ has two meanings here: it’s an aesthetic descriptor of her work with the band Throbbing Gristle and a political descriptor of her undercover operations in the porn industry. Uniting both is the idea of industry as a mode of becoming: when listening to TG, we ask ourselves not what this sound is, but what it will turn into; and when considering CFT’s magazine actions, we think about how one might become a glamour model, about what must occur in a life to make someone take this route.
In the opening paper, Diedrich Diedrichsen suggested—uncontroversially—that pornography is an ontologically different thing to art, governed as it is solely by mechanisms of attraction, and that CFT explores how this attraction is produced industrially. There was no mention of how attraction is processed by users of pornography, of how CFT’s magazine actions (eg, her appearance in Park Lane, Issue 12 as ‘Tessa from Sunderland’) détourne this process, reifying the male attempt to imagine what it would be like to be the exploited one. As users of pornography know, stimulation doesn’t hinge on the ability to block out this exploitation; on the contrary, it is the knowledge that someone has compromised themselves to this extent that is so reprehensibly thrilling.
If pornography is a pact of elective humiliation between producer and user, then the digital age, with its steady normalising of sexual taboo, has cemented it. Formerly a tundra of machine code, the computer screen is now a safari of images. Clunie Reid’s film ‘Somebody to Love (Squirt as Method)’, made especially for this event, is like an ice core drilled through the internet: a four-minute montage of appropriated images—talking tomatoes, squirting pussies, doubleheaded llamas, explosions, enemas, car ads, Spongebob Squarepants—is set to Boogie Pimp’s eponymous soundtrack and heavily fortified with postproduction (the solarising effect makes it look like all this is happening in a vat of Smirnoff Ice). It sounds tailormade to annoy, but the images feel genuinely plastic in Reid’s hands, as though she has found something elemental in all these megabytes. Digital primitivism, anyone?
Other contributions ranged from the theoretical to the fictional. Anthony Elms’ impeccably delivered ‘My Master’s Voice’ was a performative paper examining the idea of CFT and Sun Ra as ‘business names’. Corin Sworn and Rob Stone gave more didactic papers, the former commentating on a set of slides ‘mislaid’ by an experimental horologist, the latter examining melodrama and why Throbbing Gristle fans are so hard to get on with. Martin Bax got our attention with a story about a man whose cock snaps off during sex (his lover pulls it from her vagina and flings it disdainfully to the floor), while Chris Krauss read with gusty enthusiasm from her novel-in-progress, Summer of Hate . John Duncan’s 20-minute composition ‘Cosey: Yes’ was a personal tribute to CFT, and a fitting one it was too. Basically, he’d recorded the sound of ogres hawking up phlegm during evensong, then slowed it right down, so that it resembled a rocket on the launchpad. As the piece came to a close, John fixed Cosey with a reverent stare, which he held for ages before letting us clap.
Graham Duff’s hilarious ‘My Life With Cosey’ was a tribute of a very different kind, a monographic enumeration of all the works she might have made had she ‘sold out’. In this metafictional universe, Cosey has found a middle-brow audience, voicing TV ads and endorsing the British Pumpkin Association. Once the laughter subsided and you remembered you were in the ICA, you realised that Duff’s parody had a serious subtext: the relationship of artistic counterculture to the mainstream. As Diedrichsen pointed out earlier, bands of the post-punk era had a ‘distanced relationship to their own radicalism’, sometimes epitomised by a preference for institutional-sounding names (Tubeway Army, Test Department…) that anticipate the assimilation of their work by an Industry. Visual artists often eschew this distance, revelling in the peripheral, fetishising radicality. It was here that Duff set out his stall: What if the peripheral were brought centre stage?
Sean Ashton was formerly on MAP’s editorial advisory board