Building Narrative: Emily Speed’s Meta-Rosendale

June 13, 2015 by

17-20150603-emily-speed-172Three miniature, makeshift buildings, each with a pair of pale legs sticking out of their foundations, huddle together in the dark chasm of Widow Jane Mine. Wordlessly, they become characters, swaying and motioning to each other. In front of them is Rosendale Cultural Crossroads resident Emily Speed, filming with her camera.

“I’m really interested in specific buildings that become characters,” says Emily.People feel a certain way about [structures], or when they’re in them. It’s a really hard thing to explain, isn’t it? Because it’s a tactile, sensory memory or a feeling—when you remember being in a certain space. You collect them all in your life.”

Emily Speed works in the papermaking studio

During her six-week residency, Emily—a Liverpool-based conceptual artist whose work addresses the relationship between architecture and the body—investigates how people tell stories about the structures they inhabit, and how those stories take on lives of their own. Her new project explores the village of Rosendale as both a physical place and a collection of ideas, and will culminate in a multi-faceted site-specific work for the upcoming august art festival. This summer, WSW’s first public outdoor festival will present a month-long series of video, performance, and installation artworks.

“Rosendale has such a unique, strange history, besides its very public history of the mining industry,” Emily says. “There are all these little snippets of things. Even in my brain, it’s fragmented, quite nebulous, and the work that I’m making is like that as well.”

Emily Speed constructs one of her wearable sculptures

Across sculpture, drawing, installation, film, and performance, Emily’s work asks viewers to fill its space with their own stories—sometimes literally, through constructed spaces that the viewer can physically occupy, and sometimes metaphorically, through playful, elusive performances that evade linear narrative. Bodies become buildings, mimicking the shapes of architectural structures, and buildings become bodies, moving with personalities, desires, and legs. Emily continually returns to the wearable building, a humorously peculiar, yet deeply resonant image throughout her work.

“I really like a pair of legs in things; that’s the only bit of the body that’s ever visible,” Emily says with a smile. “There’s something about life in it, that it’s not just an object, but moving and changing—a bit like a place. It’s always in flux, isn’t it?”

Before her buildings had legs, Emily came to WSW to produce Unfolding Architecture in 2007. The accordion-bound artist’s book follows the decline of her father’s dementia through a written and visual narrative of a collapsing city. “This new project is more like folding architecture, rather than Unfolding Architecture,” she says. “It’s much more about constructing, building, and keeping, rather than all the stuff that was falling apart.”

"The Committee" walks along the Rail Trail Filming at Widow Jane Mine

Returning to Rosendale, Emily responds to the former mining town’s history to narrate the lives and loves of its buildings. She’s spoken with locals Bill Brooks, Ann Citron, Louisa Duffy, Marian Schoettle, and many others whose narratives describe Rosendale as a “very adaptable, flexible, imaginative, and creative place” with a resilient DIY attitude. Her research also led her to Ravio Puusemp, who considered his 1975 mayoral term  a “conceptual art experiment,” during which the village voted to dissolve itself. And there’s Report from Iron Mountain, a 1967 publication that satirically reported suspicious happenings in the town’s underground mines and was later spread as fact by conspiracy theorists. These narratives form what Emily calls “meta-Rosendale,” an idea of the town that supersedes its physical layers of concrete and brick.

Drawing inspiration from local architecture, her cardboard, fabric, and coroplast costumes represent three allegorical characters in Rosendale’s layered history. The home is a domestic rectangle with sewn fabric panels and siding; the municipality, a place where people of power meet, is interpreted as a church-like steeple made from archival corrugated plastic; and the industry is a collapsing cardboard structure with screen-printed orange bricks.

"The Committee" in Rosendale, NY

Emily plans for the inhabited costumes to make fleeting appearances throughout the festival. “They’ll appear and disappear around the town, above, below, and on every level—so it won’t be clear what they’re doing, but people will see and know about them, and perhaps start talking: Do you know what those things are?” Emily’s film footage of the buildings wiggling, marching, conspiring, and contemplating throughout town, paired with first-person audio narratives from people she spoke with, will screen during the festival as well.

“To me, there’s something more interesting about a structure that is suggestive of things, but is not necessarily definitely those things,” she says. What I’m interested in is the inability to grasp a place like this in its entirety. Work is more interesting when there’s a lot of room for people to make their own stories.”

Emily Speed has exhibited her work and been an artist-in-residence in the UK, the US, and Europe, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Northern Art Prize. She holds an MA in Fine Art from the University of the Arts, London. See more of her work at, and in Rosendale this August 7-29.

See Emily Speed’s upcoming performance during the au•gust art festival, August 7-29!