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Other, Like Me

COUM Transmissions performance outside Ferens Art Gallery, Hull (1971)
Image: Cosey Fanni Tutti

Marcus Werner Hed & Dan Fox (Directors)
Willow Glen Films 2020, 82 min 

COUM Transmissions was a multidisciplinary art collective whose practice evolved from carnivalesque performances on city streets to transgressive actions in art galleries. Originally commissioned by the BBC, Other, Like Me was conceived as a documentary about COUM only, beginning in late 1960s Hull and ending with their infamous Prostitution show at London’s ICA in 1976. Somewhat inevitably, the project evolved to encompass Throbbing Gristle (or TG) – the pioneering industrial band that COUM mutated into as the collective’s experiments in music, electronics and performance art developed over time.

Founded in 1969 by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, COUM was influenced by Dada and aimed to disrupt the humdrum order of daily life through theatre, music and the construction of situations by exploring taboo subjects like sex, violence and the manipulation of the human body. Making reference to the aforementioned ICA exhibition, Conservative MP Nicholas Fairbairn famously described the group as “wreckers of civilisation”, but this film shows the collective’s participants, in the words of its core member Cosey Fanni Tutti, as “even more civilised” than their detractors.  

COUM’s other prominent early members included Spydeee Gasmantell, Les Maul, John Lacey and Foxtrot Echo, all of whom appear in the documentary. Notably absent from the film are Chris Carter, who declined to be interviewed, and Dr Tim Poston, who accepted but passed away before the filmmakers were able to speak with him. The late Peter Christopherson is present mainly through stills, although some archival interviews were also used. P-Orridge died during production, in March 2020, making these interviews some of h/er last.

Many of the members maintained rich archives documenting their work and Other, Like Me makes great use of these materials. Forays into mail art, photos of early performances and images of Genesis and Cosey’s Merzbau-like squat at Prince Street, Hull are all worthwhile windows into their developing art practice. Throbbing Gristle’s 1980 gig at Oundle School also makes for entertaining viewing, particularly when a chorus of students start singing ‘Jerusalem’ in an effort to reclaim their social space back from the band. 

Those who have read Cosey Fanni Tutti’s 2017 memoir Art Sex Music or visited COUM’s retrospective at the Humber Street Gallery in Hull that same year would be familiar with the narrative of how COUM and TG are inextricably intertwined. 

Personal relationships between members, while discussed, are sidelined in the film. P-Orridge’s tendency for angry, violent outbursts is briefly alluded to by Les Maul, but the alleged abuse experienced by Fanni Tutti at the hands of Genesis, during their romantic and professional relationship, is relegated to a title card at the end. Both COUM and TG regularly used violence as their source material. It might have been useful to further interrogate the dynamic between abhorrent human behaviours and the art actionism that draws its power from them.

The post-TG worlds of Coil, Psychic TV and Chris & Cosey are skimmed over in around a minute. This is a pity, but understandable, too, as including those projects would have bloated and confused the principal narrative arc.

Ultimately, as John Lacey points out, “the idea of COUM is about companionship”. Other, Like Me is a concise and compelling story about dropouts and autodidacts who infiltrated the art world and changed music culture indefinitely. TG’s emphasis on timbre, frequency and volume, coupled with transgressive lyrical themes, deconstructed established notions of musicality and gave the world Industrial music. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, February 2022

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