A Whirr Like A Heart Working

The funny thing about writing is how it can sometimes separate you from a living, breathing person, saying what they want to say, but in the work of Sue Tompkins the text is full of pulse. Within it is a recognisably fractured world of modern communication, riddled with distortions, distances and typos, but it’s fed back through a more tactile world of writing - hammered on typewriter keys, scribbled in pen or cut through canvas.  You can tell there is a body at the beginning of it and this written presence isn’t just a trace, it’s fully realised in the room, as soon as Tompkins picks up a microphone and opens a lever-arch file.

Like her typewriter works on paper and more recent paintings, the pages hold text that is alive, vernacular, questioning and funny - familiar in snatches but newly woven into bright, rhythmic writings. Having got them on the page Tompkins then throws the words into a performance space, broken sentences falling into verse - her vocal storm forming the fantastic racket of life that can be tuned into daily. In it you can recognise your own voice, echoing back at you in the good acoustics of the bathroom, but it’s also choral, collective - what Yve Lomax calls “pure, mixed –up, multiplicity on the move.”[1]

In the early 1990s at Glasgow School of Art, Tompkins studied painting but was already working with a typewriter and developing performances. She then collaborated with Elizabeth Go (an art collective formed with her sister Hayley, Cathy Wilkes, Victoria Morton and Sarah Tripp) before becoming, in 1999, lead singer of the band Life Without Buildings. The lyrics of their songs (captured on a single, shimmering album) arose in much the same way as her performances do now - sheets of paper covered in collected notes, spread out on the floor and reshuffled as the band played, with Tompkins editing and refining the selection over time.

Both on paper and as a performer, Tompkins’ relationship to language is kinetic and textured. Equally steeped in the flurry of words as in the silences - the breaths - that buffer them. Some works on paper bear the scars left by the artist folding oversized sheets in order fit them into a typewriter – seemingly not to make room for more words, but to create bigger gaps. In others, words are visually soundproofed within patterns created by repeatedly stabbed punctuation keys - gestural trails that could well tip over the edge. In live performance her speech is couched in the same kind of space - the flow occasionally halted by a pause,  a moment to stop and smile or to visually underline a word with a gesture. In both mediums, words are: “...the start of an event that keeps going, off the page...”[2]

From here a line can be drawn back to concrete music and poetry, through performative writing and Fluxus, but also squarely and joyfully to the worlds of punk and pop. There’s a beat happening in the motion of the performance, sounded in the click of her heels and the doubling of words - in the time it takes to turn a page. It’s the same pulse that helps pop music get under your skin, transmitting messages straight to the heart by coming at you from all fronts. Emotion, energy, action and exaltation - repeated to fade.  There’s also a clear expression of love in Tompkins’ handling of words - a love in the spoken that helps us to deal with the lack of writing - that closes down the distances and isn’t embarrassed to look you in the eye.

This text was commissioned by Tate on the occasion of a performance by Sue Tompkins of her work Mob de Mob, alongside a screening of Tony Conrad's seminal 1966 film The Flicker. The event took place on 15th February 2018 as part of Tate's film programme, and was curated by Linsey Young.

[1]Yve Lomax, “A Twittering Noise” in Sounding the Event: Escapes in Dialogue and Matters of Arts, Nature and Time, (I.B Tauris. London. 2005) p 13.
[2]Vito Acconci, “Early Work: Movement over a Page,” 1972, in Words To Be Looked At, Liz Kotz (The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007) p 165.


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