The Speedwell project invites us to consider what a ‘world’ is, and how this concept might be distinct from notions such as ‘earth’ and ‘planet.’
Dictionary definitions mostly tend to collapse these terms; the OED’s first definition of ‘world’ is ‘the earth, together with all of its countries and peoples.’ However, the origin of ‘world’ is the Old English w(e)oruld, from a Germanic compound meaning ‘age of man.’ So intriguingly, this etymology points to an age – a span of time – not the space of the earth, and it is centred on ‘man’, or humanity. World, then, is inherently an anthropocentric concept – it places humans at the centre.
Worlds are realities that we collectively make by inhabiting the earth in certain ways. Anthropocentrism is one mode of inhabitation with a long history. Western imperialism is another. The concept and the history of the ‘New World’ comes from a colonial imperative to expand a particular Western, capitalist model of worlds to cover and appropriate – and profit from – the entire earth. However, the Speedwell installation indicates that this process has reached a limit. Even if there are still ‘new worlds’ to exploit (such as in space or at the bottom of the ocean) there can be no justification for exploiting them. But at the same time this work indicates a kind of hopefulness. Perhaps, precisely because there are no ‘new worlds’ in this colonial-capitalist sense, we’ll need to collectively make new worlds by making new relationships with the earth – the biosphere – we inhabit. If worlds are something we make by inhabiting the earth, perhaps there are possibilities for making new modes of inhabitation, and therefore, new worlds?
If we make worlds by inhabiting the earth, then one of the ways that we do this is through shared languages, which have a powerful role in forming perceptions, structuring our modes of collective thought, and social and ecological relationships. Worlds are at least partially constructed through and in the medium of words. Language can create strange, new, unsettling and inspiring worlds, as anybody who has ever read a sci-fi novel or an experimental poem will know. By intervening in language, then, art can provoke us to think and perceive differently.
The Speedwell project both proposes and participates in this activity. This artwork engages with a tiny slice of language – just three words. But these three words carry with them a substantial and fraught historical and conceptual freight. By reworking this fragment of language, this project provokes us to think deeply and broadly about the worlds that Western, capitalist humanity has created, and how and why we now need alternative modes of world-building.