Long hand Sue Tompkins
LemonMelon 2011 \ £25 \ Softback \ 74pp \ 29.7 x 42 cm \ ISBN 978 1 908260 00 0 \ Limited edition of 250 copies
Involving music, performance, the typed, handwritten and exhibited word, Sue Tompkins practice has nonetheless remained resistant to the book. Although individual performances are formed from thick folders of loose pages, none of these have so far been bound and published in their entirety. If Tompkins gallery work can involve careful sequences of typed sheets, these too haven’t made the transition to chapbook or monograph.
When sequences have made it into print, they are often viewed in relation to performance.  The editors of F.R.David preface an extract from “Elephants Galore” by noting “the problematic nature of representing uttered words in space on a two dimensional page”, particularly when the page-stage relationship is “transitory” and any single inflection is “instructed, or a matter of whim or chance.” Which asks whether Tompkins work – involving various stages of language on a page – can find a book form that doesn’t point forward and back, illustrative of both past and future vocalisations.
Such questions can now be explored through Long hand, the 76 page A3 publication published by LemonMelon, whose structure and contents were determined through a collaboration of the artist and LemonMelon publisher Marit Muenzberg, who together refined a fixed, bound sequence of pages out of an initial blue Blantex ring binder full of loose, handwritten notes. These “prototype” pages (typed up for gallery works or the folders used in performance) here become the end product.
Open Long hand’s large pages and words appear on the recto only, excepting one appropriately turned around page on which is written “Reverse the System.” Green lined paper with a margin, although Tompkin always writes across lines. Scrawled texts, giving the impression of a swift, one take composition (actually some pages were re-written for legibility). Sometimes dense word patternings that, like the unwieldy book object and having to decipher handwriting, delay and uphold.
Whilst thinking about Long hand, I go and see Tompkins perform Hallo Welcome To Keith Street at the Hayward Gallery as part of the British Art Show, then later at the National Portrait Gallery for Electra’s Dirty Literature festival. The “same” piece in that the folder of sheets is the same, but each time a different set of decisions about what and how to read.
On a white plinth is a folder of pages each (it seems, we can’t see it) containing some written mark. Both performances see Tompkins work through the pages via an up-down bobbing rhythm of her body, forwards and away from/to plinth and text. At the Hayward inparticular, Tompkins is absorbed into her rhythm, but also open to the room, smiling at people she knows in the audience, checking who is coming in and moving around the busy space.
The spoken language unfolds out of the body, produced by its rhythms, but also having its own rhythm, which has to be mediated by the body. Maybe that tension explains the jerkiness of her physical movement. Language that, in the blurb for Long hand, Tompkins describes as “thoughts, statements, views, descriptions, feelings, emotions and things that are triggered by actual events.” In performance that also becomes a matter of timing, speech to song, formed thought and flickering synapses, mother and child…
Then Tompkins doesn’t move up and down, stands at the plinth, reads a few sentences for maybe 20 seconds. It would be a big surprise if such moments continued. Too fixed, too wholly written language, too Poetry, unmoving, which this has no desire to be, for long, if at all.
Long hand, then, elucidates Tompkins practice of the page by fixing it, closing it, however temporarily, for (her and our) consideration, doing this by not being a text that is comparable to a performance, so that language can itself be the focus (although if you go to a gig afterwards you will recognise a few pages, and there is an aspect of this book that is sampler, selected or reader).
I tried copying out texts as I read, but quickly wondered what exactly am I copying out? Each word and page is inseparable from its hand written shape, gesture, and rhythm, from its collaboration with that (long) hand (and there is a definite liking of lo———–ng letter strokes). Take two succeeding pages, both with the words Go and On, their written difference akin to two variant speakings.
Written in one take or not, the text as read asserts a present. It feels against this to go searching for art historical sources, seeing here the automatic, ascemic, found or spell (Hiller, Michaux, Porter, Artaud…), but I find them all inhabiting the space of these large pages (that perform for the reader idea of a notebook). Long hand as inhabiting Caroline Bergvall’s notion of “the midden, the middling, the middle, the meddle” of language.  Or, as on one page here would prefer to put it: “I know that sound/ HIYA.”
I’m listening to an online recording of a concert by Life Without Buildings, the Glasgow band for which Tompkins provided vocals. It is hard to make out the words of the vocals, but the tone seems clear. It sounds angrier, edgier than the two Tomkins performances I’ve seen, which have been friendly and open, the performer evidently pleased when the audience laughs, appealing to the audience through self-absorption not direct challenge.
This may be age (LWB folded in 2002) but it is also partly the band and the different dynamics of music gigs. Instead of the band there is now a lot of people in the National Portrait Gallery, uniformly sober, quiet, polite, and seated. Maybe the book is inbetween rock gig and NPG. Without an immediate audience to worry about texts can explore an unsociableness. There’s a life of this book, too, as object, sealed in its plastic wallet…
In an article on Karl Homlqvist, Melissa Gronlund argues the charisma of Homlqvist’s performances give his texts a coherence, whilst books and exhibitions reveal their fragmentary nature.  In contrast, Tompkins performance style dissolves the text into an entwining of everyday discourses – overheard comments, half formed thoughts, lists, instructions, talking to oneself, questions – never settling at or allowing one page to overly determine the next, breaking off the sonic flow at points where Holmqvist continues.
In the less fleeting book, Tompkins gives up her control of what we encounter and at what rhythm and speed (such statements about the book immediately make me think if the opposite is also possible!). I am left to interpret the written marks themselves, which stresses a consistency of form, opens up an array of more literary interpretive procedures, although hand-ness cautions against this…
Long hand’s language includes: a celebration of a misalignment with the wor(l)d “pespi pespi pespi”; a working out -“BEAR HUG,” centred page bottom- of how the non-verbal moves into letter form and page space; repetition as nervous tic, stop-start, careful working out of languages permutational possibilities “picking first/ stopping to pick first/ pick/ pick first.”
I took Long hand out of its plastic wallet, then stood trying to read it like a broadsheet newspaper. That scale is important – the size of the sheets would make them unwieldy and somewhat parodic in Tompkins usual performance style, page size and two staples deny such return. (Large) Page as obstructive membrane, where sound and movement break apart “ha aaa”.
The title explores this on the level of word and phrase, a familiarity whose weight and emphasis begins to be twisted (that capital L, both word forms rising), then encountering each reader’s varying assumptions about the meaning of capitals, line or placement. A totem of this new space declares, denies, celebrates, erases, sulks, escapes, clarifies, insists, protests, stops:
I wasn’t anywhere
I wasn’t being anywhere
 See for example, Sue Tompkins, “Elephants Galore (extract)” in F.R.David, The ”Stuff and Nonsense” Issue, Winter 2008, 204-213, and “The London Section was in stereo” in Cathy Lane ed. Playing with words: The spoken word in artistic practice CR1SAP/ RGAP, 2008), 120-124.
 Melissa Gronlund, “Karl Holmqvist: Making Space” in Afterall 25, Autumn 2010,91-97.