Industrial 2: Coumtamination

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A few months ago, I attended the launch of Cosey Fanni Tutti’s autobiography Art Sex Music at London’s Rough Trade East. To my frustration, and much like during the COUM exhibition’s opening weekend, I had a cold. The receiving and transmitting of bacteria, never mind art, makes me reluctant to open my mouth to speak in case I breathe on anyone, stifling my attempts to communicate. After a Q&A and book signing, I spend an hour on the bus home. I learn through an opening Author’s Note that the book is intrinsically entangled with the conception of the Humber Street exhibition itself:

As I was researching for an exhibition, going through some of my old diaries to fact-check, I got totally distracted and drawn into my past and ended up reading for hours. I finally closed the diaries and put them back in the cupboard, all chronologically lined up, like my story in waiting. I knew at that moment what form my book would take. If I was going to enter the lion’s den of my past, it would be by using my diaries as my primary source. They offered an unblinkered view into my mindset of that time, and I could avoid the misty goggles of retrospection. [1]

Bringing the reader right up to the present, the Humber Street exhibition is discussed on the book’s final pages:

A combination of what seemed unrelated factors had come together, fulfilling all the necessary conditions for me to begin work on writing my autobiography. I’d come full circle: from Hull, the place where my life and my art began, and where my book would begin, and now back there, marking where my book will end as I enter into a new dialogue with Hull, in recognition of my life and art. [2]

Elsewhere, Cosey details the extent to which she has been sidelined and undermined throughout her artistic career due to sexism (amongst other things). She details many personal and private attacks—most shockingly made by Genesis P-Orridge whose track record of emotional and physical abuse towards her is truly abhorrent—as well as elaborating on the curatorial decisions made on her behalf. Discussing curatorial decisions made prior to Prostitution’s opening, she explains:

it was decided that my sexually explicit magazine works could not be shown on the main gallery walls for legal—and what was described as ‘diplomatic’—reasons. Not just that, but they would be housed in boxes and form part of a members-only exhibition in a separate room at the back of the main gallery—to be viewed ‘on request’ and only by members of the ICA. […] I always felt this was, intentional or not, like relegating the magazines to a place comparable to their original context—in a back room, an under-the-counter situation like a Soho sex shop. Sex shop to gallery to back room. All it needed was a dusty velvet curtain in the doorway. [3]

The atmosphere at the Humber Street Gallery could not have been more different. The police were apparently called to the gallery during the opening weekend but, in contrast to Prostitution, “as soon as the police heard the word ‘Tate’ it was alright.” [4] Chased from the city for their old associations, now welcomed back under the wing of their new friends, the disjuncture of COUM’s newfound acceptance has not been lost on Cosey:

“[…] I don’t like acceptance, I distrust it completely, I think I’ve done something wrong, like I’ve gone off on a bad tangent and need to get back on track.” She pauses. “I mean, I understand why certain things have found their place in history, so I can accept that. But I don’t see it as acceptance of what I did then, because it wasn’t. It’s still loaded with that unacceptance.”

Still following Paul Mann’s thought, he notes what he calls Bataille’s “second death”: following his first death; his physical death, ending the immediate and literal continuation of his thought, his second death occurs at the hands of the reifying thesis mill of accepting academia:

Even as it is theory’s task to disrupt every system it has proposed, even as we depend on it to do so, it is also theory’s task entirely to close off the ruptures on which it entirely depends. This endless, exhaustible circuit constitutes the fatal exhaustion of theory. There is no means of taking transgression into account that does not endorse it as a restricted economic term in the first place and subject it to a perpetual, garrulous, undying death. And since this cycle repeats itself compulsively: still the mute and irrecuperable trace of the second death. [5]

I wonder if this folding of the unacceptable within COUM’s newfound acceptance results in their “second death”—or perhaps a second life. Prostitution was their first retrospective; their first death—a self-immolation that the press sought to extinguish and disembowel on their own terms, making COUM martyrs for their cause and engendering decades of misunderstandings. The Humber Street exhibition is a second retrospective for which COUM’s restless corpse has been reanimated so that it might continue to wander with the gait the group had intended for it. Is the exhibition successful in this regard? To rephrase Mann’s questions, do the visitors to the Humber Street exhibition become the coummunity the group envisioned by being present at their second death? Or does this exhibition reassemble COUM for another use, ruining them for good?

COUM are, of course, being reassembled by one of their own and it is arguable that the previous iteration of COUM should be ruined—at least the lingering idea of it in the minds of their fans. During the opening weekend panel discussion, when the audience were called upon to ask questions, many romanticised COUM’s hardships and miseries—and there were certainly many of those. Most of the group were adverse to viewing these difficult personal circumstances as an extension of COUM’s performative activities. Those circumstances led to the group’s various fractures after all. Unavoidable, perhaps, considering the group’s practices, but unenjoyable nonetheless.

What is apparent from Cosey’s autobiography and other recent public appearances is that she has often worked silently amongst these hardships, in accordance with an ethics of her own. Her subjective views of events and materials, no matter how critical and damning, do not interfere with the collective work itself. The artwork has long been completed but in moving forwards into a new era of acceptance, COUM’s original rupture is held open by Cosey through her curatorial activities as she reshapes it for new encounters in the present. Whilst the group stands by its experiments and its attempts to push interpersonal and societal boundaries, it does not do so facetiously, and it is now Cosey who has taken it upon herself to clarify the personal difficulties that have followed in their wake.

During the Rough Trade Q&A, Cosey spoke about Industrial Records—the record label begun by Throbbing Gristle in 1976 that went on to release records by themselves and others as well as giving name to the genre “industrial music”. The sound of the genre is often described as reflecting the sound of factories and machine work; of industry, taking its name very literally. Cosey, alternatively, described “industrial” as an ethics— “to be industrious” as a folding of life and work ethics. Cosey’s is perhaps a “work” ethic that stretches far beyond our traditional conceptions of work— immediately apparent in her sex work [6]—and extending in particular to other gendered forms of labour that she undertook whilst a member of COUM, particularly the ephemeral work required to hold the group together, whether that be housework, sex work, factory work or emotional labour.

Chris Gemerchak, in an essay reflecting on Bataille’s ethics of community, writes:

[Bataille’s] rethinking of ethics thus shifts from the expression of moral ideas about the best way to act in order to achieve the greatest good—or normative ethics—to a manner of relating to exceptional, ostensibly meaningless moments that happen quite independently of a subject’s intentions. Furthermore, by being open and attentive to these moments—not for the gain they might bestow on us but for what they are in themselves—the possibility arises to generate a new type of relation to being itself, to the “truth” of being(s) in communication. His ethics is in effect an ethos, a manner of being in the world. It is not, however, merely passive, but involves a distinct method of “contestation”: it repudiates the economy of goods insofar as it “really wants that each of us go as far as possible in the direction contrary to interest”. [7]

Gemerchak positions Bataille’s ethics as attempting to exist outside of capitalism and its centralising of self-interest and self-preservation. What is described seems to apply very well to stereotypical “women’s work”—“work” unrewarded by capitalism that Cosey’s art has often highlighted and challenged; “work” that is currently central to many contemporary feminist postcapitalist discourses. COUM’s improvisational practices—like the practices of many of their peers—invoke this relating to “exceptional, ostensibly meaningless moments” but COUM alone use these practices to critique, directly and indirectly, notions of value and labour. Cosey emerges as the individual who is most communally minded within the group, as the central Bataillean figure within COUM who, through her curation of the the exhibition and the writing of her autobiography, mirrors Bataille’s own problematic entanglements of individual perspective and collective being.

The stakes of Cosey’s work brings to mind the central conversation that has emerged around Bataille’s sense of community between Jean-Luc Nancy and Maurice Blanchot, particularly their conceptions of “work” and “worklessness”. Defining the latter, Blanchot writes in his book The Infinite Conversation:

The absence of the work nonetheless always cites the work outside itself, calling it always in vain to its own unworking and making the work re-cite itself, even when it believes it has its sights on “the outside” that it does not fail to include—rather than working to exclude it. [8]

Here Blanchot seeks to challenge the paradoxical concept of the Work, used in the sense of a completed project. Blanchot is referring specifically to the book as the literary work which fails, in itself, to capture the work of the writing that has gone into it.  Blanchot’s exploration here is poetic and reads like a literary ouroborus—his is a book that eats itself. Performance art and its recording shares many similar problematics but the diagnosis of the problem could not be more poetic and enchanting than within the literary. Nevertheless, the Humber Street exhibition undoes itself in its inability to share the very activities that constituted COUM’s works. The correspondences instead attempt to illustrate this unworking; this worklessness.

Jean-Luc Nancy uses this concept of worklessness to articulate an “inoperative community”—a community which undoes the singular beings that constitute it, so relevant to COUM. He articulates—via Bataille—the role of communication in this process:

Community necessarily takes place in what Blanchot called “unworking,” referring to that which, before or beyond the work, withdraws from the work, and which, no longer having to do either with production or with completion, encounters interruption, fragmentation, suspension. Community is made of the interruption of singularities, or of the suspension that singular beings are. Community is not the work of singular beings, nor can it claim them as its works, just as communication is not a work or even an operation of singular beings, for community is simply their being—their being suspended upon its limit. Communication is the unworking of work that is social, economic, technical, and institutional. [9]

Blanchot and Nancy’s joint exploration becomes in itself a conversation; a correspondence that lasts for decades. Nancy was to have the last word in his essay The Contested Community, written shortly before Blanchot’s death in 2003:

Juxtaposed yet also opposed to the “inoperative” in the title of my essay, his adjective [Blanchot’s “unavowable”] invites one to think that beneath the worklessness of inoperativity (désoeuvrement), something—an unavowable work—is at work nonetheless. [10]

What is touching about this essay in particular is that Nancy’s writing is far more open in comparison to his more familiar, difficult style of writing. It is punctuated with self-reflexive moments that shine a light on the time within which he is writing—specifically alluding to the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks of September 11th 2001. He positions himself inside his own thought and Blanchot’s also, reflecting specifically on the intimacy of their shared thinking. Through the very process of their communications, whether in articles and books or in private correspondences, the thinking of community truly reveals itself.

Later noting the commingling of texts in The Unavowable Community—Blanchot writes not only on Bataille’s theoretical texts but also on Marguerite Duras’s short fiction La Maladie de la Mort—Nancy asks:

What has been shared? Probably something—the “unavowable,” then—that Blanchot points to in the second part of his book and in the very fact that in this book he pairs some reflections about a theoretical text with others about a tale of love and death. In both cases Blanchot writes relating them, and he writes his relation to these texts, which he also relates to one another in this way. He keeps the two texts distinct, it seems to me, by offsetting one with a negative consideration of “inoperativity,” whereas the other would give access to a community, albeit one that is not “worked” or “achieved” [“oeuvrée”], but one that is carried out in secret (an unavowable secret) in the sharing out of an experience of limits: the experience of love and death, of life itself exposed to its limits. [11]

This pairing of distinct texts brings me back to Cosey’s entangled work on both a second COUM retrospective and her own autobiography. These texts—their developments and emergences overlapping—communicate with each other, at once individual and collective. I find myself considering the design of the book’s cover. It features a portrait of a young Cosey, her mouth covered by a red rectangle containing the book’s title—Art Sex Music. A humorously reductive title, there is similarly a humour to the visual suggestion that Cosey is gagged on the cover of a book totalling 500 pages, but it also suggests an honesty with regards to the futility of telling her own story.


Whilst Cosey’s diaries form the basis of the book, they are revealed only in fragments. The book steams ahead, recounting memories, feelings, encounters, and then ends unceremoniously—no rose-tinted conclusions, just an empty space where the story could continue. For a book that says so much, telling such a compelling story, there still seems to be so much left unsaid; so much that cannot be said—experiences that reveal themselves between the lines of text, much like the experience of reading between the lines of the Humber Street exhibition. For all of Cosey and COUM’s transparency, the group still harbour a wealth of secrets. Nancy writes:

The secret is unavowable because it is incommunicable. But it is unavowable and not just incommunicable. If it were only incommunicable, it would be a mystery reserved for some divinity floating outside of the common and concealed under the veil of a prohibition. As unavowable, it is of the order of what is effective and well known by those who take part in it—well known by all of us and evident in its own way, manifest in all our communications, our commerce, our contracts, and our sexual intercourse. [12]

I feel I know this well. Nancy too later articulates the influence of his correspondences with Blanchot on his thinking with community. He continues:

I have not gone farther, until now, to resume this analysis, as I could have done specifically by responding in my turn to Blanchot’s text. I have not done so in my few letters to him, since letters should not be mixed up with texts; there is an appropriate order for texts to communicate among themselves. (Moreover, what is a correspondence? What kind of co- or com- is engaged here?) [13]

When Nancy speaks of a secret it seems to warrant the application of aforementioned extensions—extensions perhaps worth establishing as a rule for reading Bataille if rules were not counterintuitive to his thought—namely, that what is truly meant by a word ruptures the boundaries of the word itself. What happens when I try to answer (briefly) Nancy’s question of correspondence? The co- and com- remain ever present and perhaps articulate this secret best in the linguistic insufficiency of the isolated prefix. They require something else to activate their latent “togetherness”. To deconstruct the word “correspondence” in particular is illuminating. Not only is it the word for written communication but it also refers to a close similarity, connection or equivalence. Its etymological parts speak to the “with”, “together”, “in association” of co-, the act of responding and a state of being respondent. It speaks directly to a collective state of communicative being. Nevertheless, all this analysis resembles—to borrow from Bataille—is the dissection of a lifeless organ. [14]

As I fight the temptation to ruminate on individual words I become increasingly aware that I am transplanting longer and longer quotes from other readers of Bataille. I feel critical of the community I am myself entering and appropriating but feel there is no alternative but to quote others at length. The end of Blanchot’s book in particular looms large for me:

The unavowable community: does that mean that it does not acknowledge itself or that it is such that no avowal may reveal it, given that each time we have talked about its way of being, one has had the feeling that one grasped only what makes it exist by default? So, would it have been better to have remained silent? Would it be better, without extolling its paradoxical traits, to live it in what makes it contemporary to a past which it has never been possible to live? Wittgenstein’s all too famous and all too often repeated precept, “Whereof one cannot speak, there one must be silent”—given that by enunciating it he has not been able to impose silence on himself—does indicate that in the final analysis one has to talk in order to remain silent. But with what kinds of words? That is one of the questions this little book entrusts to others, not that they may answer it, rather that they may choose to carry it with them, and, perhaps, extend it. Thus one will discover that it also carries an exacting political meaning and that it does not permit us to lose interest in the present time which, by opening unknown spaces of freedom, makes us responsible for new relationships, always threatened, always hoped for, between what we call work, oeuvre, and what we call unworking, désoeuvrement. [15]

Is the naming of these responsibilities a worthy exercise? Are these responsibilities the secret of an immersed communal praxis? The exquisite corpse of Bataille’s thinking—Nancy and Blanchot and Mann’s also—evokes an anxiety within me as if, at any moment, it will emerge as a cognitive Frankenstein’s monster, necessary to set adrift and yet nevertheless threatening to enact its revenge on my own readings and arguments. This anxiety looms larger in my use of COUM. I have promised that I will share this essay with a number of those involved in the Humber Street exhibition. I shudder at its inherently reductive nature. Returning to Bataille himself I find his writings the most elucidatory as I try to grasp my own academic anguish.

The very fact of assuming that knowledge is a function throws the philosopher back into the world of petty inconsistencies and dissections of lifeless organs. Isolated as much from actions as from the dreams that turn action away and echo it in the strange depths of animated life, he led astray the very being that he chose as the object of his uneasy comprehension. “Being” increases in the tumultuous agitation of a life that knows no limits; it wastes away and disappears if he who is at the same time “being” and knowledge mutilates himself by reducing himself to knowledge. [16]

This problematic of this topic is, of course, of little trouble to anyone but myself. Written initially for the requirements of my postgraduate degree, it nonetheless feels like a testimony addressed to those within my immediate community and beyond. COUM extend far beyond my own concerns. Despite their associations with the Tate and others, COUM continue to hold their “secret” aloft. In 2017 they have revealed more of their secret than many can possibly hope to process in a single gallery visit or reading. Correspondences and texts are kept separate here too—exhibitions and autobiographies communicate amongst themselves—but the presentation of the two once again opens up ruptures; wounds that drift across each other. COUM’s secret invites each viewer, each reader to navigate their very secret for themselves; to infer the incommunicable that lurks in the shadows of the communicated.

To do this, however, requires precisely an industriousness—one that comes naturally to so many post-industrial towns. Hull in particular.

Part 3 →

[1] Cosey Fanni Tutti. Art Sex Music. (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), pg. ix

[2] Ibid., pg. 498

[3] Ibid., pg. 202

[4]  Cosey Fanni Tutti. Live Q&A with Luke Turner. Rough Trade East, Brick Lane, London. April 5th 2017. The Tate purchased Genesis P-Orridge’s archive in 2008 and many of the Humber Street exhibition’s materials were borrowed back from them.

[5] Paul Mann. “The Exquisite Corpse of Georges Bataille.” Masocriticism. (New York: SUNY Press, 1999), pg. 70. See also: Paul Mann. The Theory-Death of the Avant Garde. (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons., 1991).

[6]  The phrase “sex work” is, of course, a recently popularised decisive nomination of practices that campaigners continue to struggle to be classed—legally—as a form of economic labour, as work. It is a fitting turn in phrasing considering COUM’s own play on the word “prostitution”, exacerbating the wider labour struggles faced by other outsider groups of “workers” by aligning and entangling their artworks with the word’s more generally negative connotation.

[7]  Chris Gemerchak. “Of Goods and Things: Reflections on an Ethics of Community” in The Obsessions of Georges Bataille: Community and Communication (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), pg. 66-67

[8] Maurice Blanchot. The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pg. 420

[9] Jean-Luc Nancy. The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pg. 32

[10] Jean-Luc Nancy. “The Confronted Community”, trans. Jason Kemp Winfree in The Obsessions of Georges Bataille: Community and Communication (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), pg. 24

[11] Ibid., pg. 26

[12] Ibid., pg. 24

[13] Ibid.

[14] Georges Bataille. “The Labyrinth” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pg. 172

[15] Maurice Blanchot. The Unavowable Community, trans. Pierre Joris. (New York: Station Hill Press, 1988), pg. 56

[16] Georges Bataille. “The Labyrinth” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pg. 172


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