'Art, Sex, Music,' 'After Kathy Acker' and 'Down Below,' reviewed

Cosey Fanni Tutti | Chris Kraus | Leonora Carrington

Freaks for chaotic confessionals, visceral noise and the surreal will recognize that the insights most worth having sometimes require deep dives into disorder. "I can help you find the buried treasure," as Kathy Acker wrote in Pussy, King of the Pirates, "but I'll have to take you down to the bottom of the world." Three new biographical texts stand as the most complete histories of the lives of and testaments to the contributions of their subjects, filtered neither through male contemporaries nor cultural mythos.

In keeping with her approach to industrial music and confrontational performance that challenged '70s feminism as well as social mores at large, Cosey Fanni Tutti aims to confront hard-to-face realities in her "unblinkered" memoir Art, Sex, Music (Faber & Faber, May 2017). Throughout an incredibly readable chronicle of a young life in Hull, the beginnings of COUM Transmissions in a disused pickle factory, and street fights between Hells Angels and skinheads, Fanni Tutti incorporates more intimate episodes like rewinding cassettes with pen caps in strip-club dressing rooms and caretaking her collaborators while maintaining a rigorous creative schedule often as the only gainfully employed member of the collective.

Fanni Tutti dives into the opportunity to correct myths and reclaim rightful authorship from her former COUM collaborator, Throbbing Gristle bandmate and partner, Genesis P-Orridge. Fans of the pandrogyne psychick pilot should expect a challenge, but admirers of COUM, TG, and Chris and Cosey are promised a flood of delightful histories drawn from diaries and conversations with lifelong collaborators and friends, detailing a practice defined by the reflexive motto: "My life is my art – my art is my life."

Chris Kraus' literary biography After Kathy Acker (MIT Press, Aug. 18) also aims at revised historical and critical recognition. At a moment less hostile to Acker's digressive first-person fiction, Kraus – a writer, filmmaker and founder of Semiotext(e) imprint Native Agents – channels an influx of popular attention from the television adaptation of her novel I Love Dick – which shares a psychosexual confessionalism with Acker's best known works – to redefine the disruptive intensity in her subject's perceived vulnerability, shining a blacklight over the white lies of her self-made mythologies.

It's impossible to overstate the monumentality of these minds side-by-side. Keen Acker readers are familiar with the semi-autobiographical tales recycled across her works, but Kraus dodges those magical thoughts and focuses on examining Acker as a "semi-controllable continuum" who worked with her memories until "they became conduits to something a-personal, until they became myth." Kraus combines biography and philosophy, exhibiting intimate familiarity with not only French critical theory – one of Acker's primary inspirations– but also the punk poet's vast "constellation of influences." Reading tarot, interpreting astrological signs, Kraus mimics the disjunction of Acker's identities by intercutting diary entries and excerpts from her correspondence, embracing fragmentation as a method for inquiry.

Leonora Carrington's memoir Down Below (New York Review of Books, April 2017) – a dreamlike text by the painter, novelist and exalted femme enfant of the Surrealists – frays identity to the furthest extent. Originally journaled over the course of five days in August 1943 and later reviewed together by Carrington and Marina Warner in the late '80s, Down Below is Carrington's account of a descent into total dissociation following not only the imprisonment of Max Ernst, but more importantly her own paranoid paralysis over encroaching automatons and a World War she feared was "being waged hypnotically."

Treated with an epilepsy-inducing drug intended to prompt "therapeutic" convulsions in a Spanish sanatorium, Carrington's "inner turmoil became a cosmic problem" as she imagined "goings on of her body" directly impacting physical reality. To survive the sadism of her environment, she discovers cosmologies in personal effects, gives "alchemical life" to objects, and establishes motifs and landscapes that she would continue to code into her paintings and stories. A far cry from the "deliberate derangement of all the senses" sought by the likes of Rimbaud, Carrington writes herself back from real trauma with astonishing lucidity: "I know that once I have written it down, I shall be delivered."


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