Architecture can be understood by everyone. You can feel gravity, therefore you can begin to feel architecture. Buildings experience the same stresses and strains of gravity that man does himself. For this reason, it is possible to translate the basic laws of building into physical feeling.
Forrest Wilson – What It Feels Like To Be a Building (1969)
Emily Speed is an artist whose work comprises of documented performances, installations, drawings, artists’ books and sculptures. Her new work Build Up, to be exhibited at Castlefield Gallery, is a sculptural piece which incorporates stills and moving image, and has been developed with acrobats inside the Toastrack.
Speed explores the psychology of space and the idea of the body as a building for housing the mind. Working with bodies and the architecture itself, the piece features a series of exercises in construction, wherein the body becomes an element in a cyclical repetition of movement, developing a rhythm of building and collapsing.
Manchester Modernist Society spoke with Emily Speed and curator Clarissa Corfe about the making of Build Up.
MMS: You’ve chosen the Toastrack in which to film a part of Build Up. What were your reasons for wanting to use this building particularly?
ES: The arches are just beautiful, but the real reason was because it is about to be abandoned by its current inhabitants. I’m really interested in the life cycle of buildings and the points at which certain buildings become redundant as needs and uses change.
CC: We had discussions about which space in Manchester Emily could work with acrobats in, and were considering a range of buildings as well as historic buildings like the Castlefield Chapel or the John Rylands Library on Deansgate. I was really excited that Emily chose to use the Toastrack, and was intrigued to see what kind of interplay she would create between the modernist architecture and the ephemeral and volatile nature of the acrobats’ compositions. The brutality of the concrete and gracefulness of the arches and windows, the suppleness and strength of the bodies, were all contradictions and tensions that I was interested in.
MMS: So there’s an integral connection between the building and the concept behind the piece?
ES: Build Up features the acrobats’ bodies building structures, but also collapsing in the same way which buildings are constructed and pulled down. Does that all sound incredibly morbid? I don’t mean it to, but I suppose that is part of it, but also the balance, tension, strain and the dependence upon the cooperation of several people to make something work.
CC: It will be interesting to see what effect the overlapping of the different architectural styles will have in the same installation. The buildings are both very different – Castlefield Gallery is much more angular, it has a much more masculine feel to it in a way, so they are well contrasted. I think Emily was interested in responding in a building in the real world that is used, in a sense that this is evidenced within the wear and tear of the fabric of the place, rather than a gallery space that is groomed with a new layer of paint after every exhibition, erasing all human trace and history after every show so to speak.
MMS: As you were being given a tour of the faculty prior to filming, what were your first impressions of the Toastrack?
ES: The building is so considered, so unique and so shapely. I can imagine that it’s a very special place to study and work. It’s not something easily put into words, but I feel certain that the university being in a new building will change something about the courses that are currently run on the Hollings campus. I’m sure people naturally become desensitised the longer they spend there, but it’s the kind of place where you notice the details; the subtle curve of a wall or the font used for the push/pull signage. I don’t mean that in a sentimental or nostalgic way either, but because it is so anti-bland.
CC: I have lived in Manchester on and off for 10 years in total and never had the opportunity to explore the Toastrack. The details of the interior were particularly revelatory; the signage like the push/pull and fire extinguisher signs, the old sewing machines, the science lab benches. And also the use of space in the building – that your experience of the space on the lower floors is expansive in contrast to the top floors, like the very narrow corridor on the 7th floor that felt like we were going to have a Charlie Chaplin moment. This all makes for such a dynamic building, and really enhances your perception and experience of the architecture.
ES: There is a lot of space in the building with plenty of room between things so that the threshold spaces like stairwells and the part between the buildings feel vast. I suppose to leave all that negative space would be quite impossible in a new city-centre build. The top floor is different of course, because it narrows in shape. That slimline corridor on the 7th floor in particular is very odd, it made me feel like anything might be possible at the other end, a bit of an Alice in Wonderland effect.
MMS: Did the structure of the building influence the performance in any way?
CC: As far as I could see from what Emily was shooting it did, yes.
ES: It limited the performance, but I do think that boundaries can actually be very liberating because you have to push against what you have to work with.
CC: Emily and the acrobats responded to the lines and contours of the architecture, creating what seemed like a dialogue between the two. And I am really excited to see how the sculpture that Emily is producing in her studio, and the visitors to the gallery, will become implicit in the video/photography work.
ES: I asked the acrobats to respond to and mimic certain features of the architecture, so in those terms it certainly shaped their movements. I had an incredible book as a child called What It Feels Like To Be a Building, which explains the forces at work in structural engineering with images of people (and goats) in precarious formations. I think you can imagine a body stretched out in a bridge trying to make the shape of the arches from the Toastrack for a minute or so at most.
MMS: Emily, you are due to exhibit with Hayley Newman at Castlefield Gallery. How will Build Up relate thematically within that context?
ES: It’s about the relationship between the body and architecture I suppose. Hayley and I also seem to have something going on in our work which is about minor things. None of the work is really loud, and Hayley manages to use domestic and quotidian materials in a very funny and subversive way. I really admire how she can be so political in her work and it seems effortless. The bank rubbings for example, that just cracks me up even saying it out loud to myself. I also like that she is giving objects like dishcloths faces and feelings and commenting on our anthropomorphism of so many things, and I am maybe doing it the other way around; merging bodies into architectural elements so they become more like objects.
MMS: By the summer of this year, Hollings Faculty in its entirety will have moved to the All Saints campus, the Toastrack will be emptied and its future usage remains uncertain. What would you like to see happen with it?
CC: It must have been such a very exiting place for student to be. Of course ideally it would have some public use, dance studios, gallery, roof top urban garden. I’ll be keeping a close eye on it.
ES: I would like someone to show it some real love and appreciation and make it amazing again. It will need some serious cash and imagination, but just imagine how great it could be…
Build Up can be seen as part of the exhibition Hayley Newman & Emily Speed at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.
Preview: Thursday February 28th 6-8pm
Exhibition dates: Friday March 1st – Sunday April 7th 2013
Castlefield Gallery, 2 Hewitt Street Manchester, M15 4GB (behind Deansgate train station)
Tel. 0161 832 8034
Opening Times: Wednesday-Sunday 1pm-6pm
Admission: FREE. The gallery is fully accessible.
Emily Speed’s sculpture Build Up is commissioned in association with Manchester Modernist Society’s creative residency at the Toastrack.