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The Mystery Of Things: An Interview With Sue Tompkins
Robert Barry , April 21st, 2018 11:37

At Borealis Festival in Bergen, Robert Barry catches up with visual artist and former Life Without Buildings vocalist Sue Tompkins

Sue Tompkins at Lydgalleriet, Bergen, for Borealis Festival Credit: Thor Brødreskift/Borealis

Is it possible to flick it?” Sue Tompkins jogs-dances back and forth in place, grinning, gesturing, making shapes with the mic. “Door!” (she points at the window) “Slid, slip, shore…” Sheets of A4 fly from her hands, rifled through a massive ringbinder stuffed with scraps and crumpled pages. She flicks through, picking out odd phrases and bursts of asemantic vocalisations. “Vz – d – k… I can’t not more, not more that I can add” Thought in streams, stripped of its connective tissue. “mainstream! Main! Stream! MAINSTREAM! T – t – t –

We are in the Lydgalleriet in Bergen on the weekend of Borealis Festival. Tompkins bounds to and fro amongst her own installation of text works. Typed sheets, on the walls and in vitrines, each page a glitching of language from within, bursting apart the semantics of word and sentence into a wild polyphony that slips, at times, into a pure asemic pattern-making through overtyping and sheer error. The arrangement of words and lines repeat and superimpose in a way suggestive of rhythms, noise and silence that is doubled further by the gleeful music of Tompkins’ live performance.

After graduating from Glasgow School of Art in the mid-90s, Tompkins and fellow students Will Bradley, Chris Evans, Robert Johnston, formed the band Life Without Buildings, releasing their debut album Any Other City on Tugboat in 2001. In the same year, Tompkins held her first solo show at the Modern Institute in Glasgow and took part in group shows at the ZKM, Karlsruhe, and St. Vincent St, Glasgow (curated by Karla Black and Katie Exley). In 2003, her groundbreaking early performance Country Grammar showcased the freewheeling, freespirited fusion of word and voice and movement that has characterised, albeit with considerable developments, ever since.

Fast-forward to the spring of 2018. The afternoon before her performance at Lydgalleriet. I sat down with Sue Tompkins in the lobby of a hotel in Bergen to discuss postcards, process, and thinking in tangents.

Can we talk a little bit about how a work like this begins. How do you start to create your texts?

I think I’m quite generous with time with myself. I don’t generally give myself a hard time over how long a performance is taking. There’s a process. You know you’re gonna do something. And then just this process of making notes – and they can be anything. They can be just little scribbles. I might just shove something in my phone. But they can be anything, they can be literally one word: red, green, anything. I think I give myself a lot of freedom to not really think, at that point, what I think about that phrase or sentence or thought or maybe just some sort of music or some song or something.

And then I just sort of accumulate those scraps of paper, which tend to be A4 type of things. I’m always getting through paper. I use a lot of paper. I suppose I’m trying to describe some sort of allowing yourself to not be too judgemental about it, not too hard on myself. Sometimes I will look at it and go, bloody hell, there’s nothing there.

And then it’s a time thing, of getting nearer – so, like, a month ago, I might have gone, right ok, what am I really thinking about what I’m going to do tonight in the gallery? And then there’s a process of writing up these scribbled pen and pencil things. And the writing up is at a typewriter, so it’s much more sort of formal.

Do you mind talking a bit about the difference between the way you generate text and vocal performance parts now and the way you would do that when you were in a band, Life Without Buildings?

I think they’re really similar, which might seem quite a strange thing to say, but I think, something about, when I was with a band, and working with other people, I didn’t do the music, so it really was – I mean, I expressed my opinion about it – but it really was, they were doing the music, I would go to rehearsal, and they would be playing these chords or whatever, and then I would, again, just have reams and reams of – actually it was all typewritten –

The same typewriter that you have now?

Yeh. And I would take a plastic bag. They would turn up with all their equipment and I would just have a plastic bag with papers and stuff. I think that my part in the band came out of listening, actually. Even though it might not sound like that. I tried to weave in and out of what they’re doing. But the listening was quite important. I remember, we used to have rehearsals and they would play for quite a long time and I wouldn’t do anything. I would just listen to what they were doing. And I used to go through moments where, I remember, initially, I would go, what am I going to do? What am I going to do? I sort of would play about with stuff in my head. And there used to just come a point where I would just stand up and try something. And I think, what was probably the thing with the guys in the band, I don’t think, really, they heard anything I was actually saying. Really. I think they didn’t. They were really loud.

And did that give you a sense of freedom, knowing that you couldn’t really be heard?

ST: Yes. In retrospect, yes. Because otherwise, I think, I’d have been much more shy. I suppose I’d probably be scared that they would stop me, and say, what do you mean when you say…? But they didn’t. They really did just let me do anything.

Sowhat kind of work were you doing at art school, before you joined Life Without Buildings?

I studied painting. And then by the fourth year at Glasgow School of Art, I remember really thinking, I really don’t know what to paint. I really have no idea. I just don’t know what I’m doing. There was a patch where I remember thinking, god, I just want to go and sit in the library and look at stuff. I was really into looking at art. I really liked looking at art books. So my degree show ended up being this big tissue paper installation, really quite big on the wall. I used to go the library and they had these little rooms that you could book. And I used to just book a room and take a massive stack of books off the shelves, really random, but everything I liked – it could be Frieze magazine or Artforum or it could be Picasso’s greatest hits. I would go into this little room and I had a dictaphone and I used to just record myself looking.

You’d read bits from the texts in front of you?

It was extracting what you want or what you need from what was in front of you. But just really visual. Trying to describe what you’re seeing. But with the dictaphone, you know you can pause it all the time? So I got into that. So I could say something. Or part of a word. But I wasn’t listening. I was really still looking at painting and artists that I really liked. It wasn’t really poetry or music. It was really visual, coming from that visual art background.

But kind of translating it into an acoustic medium?

Yes. Now I see that. But at the time it was much more sort of – well, it felt really good, actually. That was the first time I found something that made sense to me – even though I didn’t know quite what anyone else would think of it. So my degree show was about six hours long. These collated dictaphone tapes that were played in front of this big sculptural thing. And I haven’t ever listened back to them. But I think if I did – it’s not that it would sound like the performance now, but this fragmentation and distortion or gaps, I think that that’s still there.

So where do you think that comes from, this interest in gaps and glitches?

I really don’t know. I think I think in tangents. I wouldn’t say I’m the most linear thinker. So it’s quite habitual or normal for me to sort of start here and then start to go off and then keen on going out. Which has its pros and its cons. In real life, I think it can be really annoying. Just in normal conversation, my boyfriend might say, just stick to the point! Can you just – What were you saying again? But I think in my work, I do that a lot. I usually leave mistakes – definitely when I’m looking at the text. I enjoy mistakes. Things that take you in a different direction. I want to say something that has suggestion in it, or atmosphere, or tone. And then I like to distort it in some way. I always allow for confusion and mistakes and change.

But maybe actually you are capturing something that is quite common to the way people think. Thought naturally goes off on tangents and loops back on itself in unpredictable ways, but we’re taught to discipline ourselves into this linear way of thinking and expressing ourselves.

I mean, I really think like that. Especially if performances get longer. But I do try to think in terms of order. Order is really important to me, actually. I do want to have a sense of a beginning and then a middle…

There is a narrative

Yeah, there is a narrative. And then there is an end. And a lot of that is all joined up with itself.

Can you think of any sort of formative experiences you had with art, when you were younger that sort of pushed you towards becoming an artist?

I wasn’t brought up surrounded by art or music or really anything – TV? I think for me, just going to art school actually was the first break. just that environment, really. But at the same time, I always really liked shops in galleries. It sounds terrible! But at the National Gallery, on school trips and things, I use to love –

Looking at the postcards?

Yeah. There’s the painting, but I can have some of that. I can take it home. I’ve slightly got out of the habit now, but I used to buy a few of the same postcard, if I liked it. So I used to buy – I can think of a Warhol postcard I had – one of the piss paintings – and I remember buying four of them, with the idea that I would send one to a friend, but then just keeping all of them. And I used to do that quite a lot. I remember having that poster for the Hacienda. It’s maybe Peter Savile. And I just had a couple of the same postcard. It was just very important to me, even though I hadn’t really heard Joy Division or New Order. I was just somehow attracted to this design. I do like to have things around me that I don’t understand. What I mean by that is to have a postcard that you really like but you don’t know the band or don’t know who the artist is. Just that thing of maintaining that appeal, the mystery of it.

Sue Tompkins is at Glasgow International this weekend