Emily Speed and the Unbuilt Libraries

Issue 15 features Gary Erskine and the ROLLER GRRRLS.
Issue 15 features Gary Erskine and the ROLLER GRRRLS.

Dawn of the Unread is a celebration of reading and libraries. In our current issue a book by Margaret Cavendish encourages a ROLLER GRRRL to strive for more. Emily Speed is an artist who explores the relationship between reading spaces and books. Here she tells us about her Unbuilt Libraries project. 

Tell us who you are in the form of a Tweet…
I am an artist, based at The Royal Standard in Liverpool. I love swimming outdoors and have a book problem.

How would you describe your art?
I’m interested in the relationship between the body and architecture, our experience of spaces and places and precariousness. The materials I use really depend on the idea I am working on, but costumes often feature, as well as the architectural model and bigger spaces, made for one person.

What’s the Unbuilt Library?
I have made a couple of full-size reading rooms (always just made for one person) but I read a lot and literature feeds into my work as an artist a great deal, so I had a huge list of reading rooms I wanted to make. I started making them as models, for financial and spatial reasons, and after a while I had enough that they started to feel like a collection. Because each space is made for a specific book, they seemed to belong in a library of their own. I guess the next step is to make a specific storage/display structure for them. I don’t have any plans to exhibit it in the near future, but I have been approached to possibly do something in early 2016, watch this space…

Reading Room (Box Man)
Reading Room (Box Man). Source Emily Speed.

One of your Reading Rooms was commissioned for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Can you tell us how this came about and why you chose The Box Man by Kobo Abe?
I had my first solo exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2011 and that reading room was part of the show. At the time, The Box Man was a really important influence (a man who lives with an empty fridge-box over his head, but it really tackles the ideas of psychological space, the power of being invisible and being a voyeur as well as being outside of society) so there was no doubt I should use that book. The space being big enough for just one reader had an important relationship to this text too.

DH Lawrence featured in Issue 7 by Kevin Jackson and Hunt Emerson
D.H. Lawrence featured in Issue 7 by Kevin Jackson and Hunt Emerson

If you were going to make a Reading Room for D.H. Lawrence (or any other of the featured writers in Dawn of the Unread) what would it look like and why?
I’m not sure which book I’d choose of D.H. Lawrence’s but I think anything made for his work would have to involve a great deal of patina, a space with clear traces of use and personal history – also thrift. I think about his working class rooms and descriptions of domestic spaces the most I suppose and his short story ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ is the one that particularly comes to mind. That misses out the sex, verdant growth and musk though, perhaps it could involve a fragrance, the Lawrence room!

Unfolding Architecture
Unfolding Architecture. Source Emily Speed.

You’ve been creating books too…
I first made a book, ‘Unfolding Architecture’ during a residency at Women’s Studio Workshop in New York state in 2007, which is actually where I am working from at the moment (so nice to be back). I have made other books since, such as Slow Magic with poet Nathan Jones, and Place for Hiding, although these are very small editions and also made at home so very low-tech. Artists’ books are such a great way to incorporate some of the words and ideas around the work that have no place in a sculpture or installation. I really enjoy the symbiosis of the text, paper and form that makes these kind of book works so special. Recently I was at The British School at Rome as the Derek Hill scholar, and I am currently compiling a series of Rome files; a loose collection of papers (including photography, watercolours, scans of found items and writing) around certain themes like colour, layers, stone and food.

Recommend three books to our readers?
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
Eccentric Spaces (or anything in fact) by Robert Harrison.

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Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.



  • May/June 2015, Rosendale Public Art Residency, NY State with Women’s Studio Workshop
  • Concrete Dreams, part of Art Across The City by LOCWS, Swansea. 21st March -1st June 2015
  • Indefinable Cities, 10th April – 16th May, Airspace gallery, Stoke-on-Trent and touring to Osaka in summer 2015
  • Sfogliatelle a print for sale at the Bluecoat, Liverpool