Artist Interview: Emily Speed


Sharna Houghton talks to Emily Speed about her practice, and ‘Littoral Zone,’ her commissioned work installed at Plymouth Arts Centre until 25 May 2014.

Initially the work was commissioned as a video piece, could you explain how it has evolved and what the 3D element brings to the work for you that couldn’t perhaps be expressed within two dimensions?
I had the idea of the windbreaks in my head but nothing else was very fixed. I don’t find the sharp, flat rectangle of projected film very easy to work with, so if I have been pressed early on then I probably would have expected to have a support or structure for the film. The structure that is in the gallery came about through the shapes of the windbreaks and wanting to make something that had no real inside or outside. It also allows movement too (via the fan blowing through) and that’s vital to the work.

How important do you feel it is for contemporary artists to experiment with a range of media and try new ways of working?
I don’t know that everyone needs to constantly experiment with new media, I think pushing the ideas behind the work are more important and the material is somewhat secondary. That also depends on your means, in terms of finances, space and time. Works like this (for me at least) just aren’t possible to make without the support of somewhere like Plymouth Arts Centre, so I was able to take some risks and experiment, but I didn’t know what it would be like until it came to install the thing. That’s a bit nerve-wracking.

As this work is a commissioned piece, could you explain how the commissioning process works and how this work came about?
I was very kindly invited to do a talk for PAC Home by Vickie Fear, who I ended up working with on this project. I knew her performance work and was a fan, so I was really happy to come down to Plymouth at her invitation. Caroline then followed that up with a studio visit and the conversation went from there. These things are always a bit fluid, mainly because every artist is different and so even if you know it will be a solo show, the time scale, level of involvement and budget will be different every time.

Drawing is key within your work, has this always been the case and how do you use it to develop your ideas?
I did my MA in Drawing (and made mainly sculpture) and I see it as an important part of developing the work. Drawing is not secondary; they are not preparatory things for sculptures for example. Littoral Zone is a bit like a drawing don’t you think? Perhaps it would make more sense to say that drawing is the way in which I think about all the work I make, whether it is on paper, in wood or a bunch of acrobats in a pile.

Can you explain why the link between Plymouth and the sea is important for this work?
I had an idea about windbreaks lingering after a day spent on St Ives beach a while back. As soon as we began this conversation about the project at PAC, I knew this would be a brilliant opportunity to make this happen. Getting several performers and cameras and props to a beach is not simple, so to have the support or an organisation was key. I was interested in the beach as a liminal space and the windbreaks as an extremely temporary version of architecture or shelter, so the sea was central to the idea and it seemed perfect to be on the south coast – making the work up near Liverpool would not have been quite right, despite the New Brighton sea defences making an appearance in the end.

Could you describe your artistic process in terms of how you develop your ideas into finished works?
Not really! It changes so much from work to work depending on the circumstances, whether it is a site-specific commission for example or just happening through me faffing around in the studio. The constant thing is that some ideas just stick and I know that I will need to make them happen at some point. I think I am fairly slow and so I do better with plenty of time to mull things over. Sometimes I start with drawings or models and get chance to do trial runs of big works, but other times I just have to trust in measurements, get straight into the final materials and hope it works out.

You often use social media sites; do you think social media is important for publicising your work?
I use a lot of social media, but not really in a very strategic way; I am myself rather than ‘Emily Speed Art’ or anything like that. Promoting my work is not a priority on social media, although I do link to things I have going on. What I find social media best for is networks, conversations and meeting other artists. Twitter is my favourite for that and has expanded my artists network massively, both online and then in real life meetings.

Could you talk about your bookworks and how they fit in to your practice?
Artist’s books are really important to me and I see them in the same way as I might see a massive sculpture – just another piece of work; no hierarchies. My first residency after my MA was at Women’s Studio Workshop in New York State in 2007, where I spent 7 weeks intensively making an edition of books. This brought together imagery, sculpture and text and was such an important experience. I am working on two new books at the moment, the first I have had time to do since 2010. It’s important to have a change of scale and detail and that shift between installation and paper feels like a break somehow.

How do you choose which projects to apply for or accept?​
I am getting better at deciding, but I still choose badly occasionally. My work as part of AIR Council has been pretty key in terms of the working conditions I feel are necessary, but I will still do projects for nothing, it just depends on what it is and who is asking. I don’t want to be in a situation where I am working for nothing and reinforcing the idea that it’s ok not to pay artists so there needs to be a valuing of what artists do. For example. I might contribute something to an artist’s project for free, but if it involves a situation where there are paid institutional staff and I am not getting paid, then I can’t be involved because that’s just (perhaps not intentionally) taking advantage of artists. I used to apply for so much stuff, most of which was not relevant to me or my practice. I am better now at trusting my instincts and letting my work dictate what is a good opportunity, depending on what would be most useful for me at the time – I still get plenty of rejections mind!

Interview by Sharna Houghton
Plymouth University Placement Student

Artist meets Architect  Thursday 24 April, 6pm, Plymouth Arts Centre, Free
Emily Speed and Director of Gillespie Yunnie Architects, Phil Yunnie will be discussing their interest in each other’s practices and how both art and architecture can inform one another.


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