Few people would consider a breakwater extending out into the harbor as the ideal location for a sculpture. But the U.K.-based artist collective Still/Moving Projects thought differently. Speedwell, their most recent outdoor work, stands on the 915-foot-long Mount Batten Breakwater in Plymouth on the south coast of England.
The LED sculpture takes its name from the Speedwell, a ship built in 1577, which set out from Plymouth in 1620 in the company of the Mayflower. Originally named Swiftsure, the Speedwell had also been chartered to cross the Atlantic (after bringing Puritan separatists in exile in Holland back to England), but it was forced to turn back after it sprang a leak. The Mayflower, which took on some of the Speedwell’s passengers, continued on with its historic voyage, carrying persecuted separatists and other settlers who wanted to start anew in the Americas. Still/Moving Projects focused on the Speedwell, rather than the Mayflower, because they were “interested in that idea of failure as an interesting and rich starting point,” says Laura Hopes, “what it would mean to have all those kind of dreams and ideas of a new life in a ‘New World,’ as they termed it, and to have to come back to where you were trying to escape from, and what it means to try and make a life then among those circumstances.”
The collective’s three artists—Laura Hopes, Léonie Hampton, and Martin Hampton—first pitched their idea to the local commissioning body responsible for the Mayflower 400 cultural program in 2017. The planned anniversary events were originally to be called “celebrations,” but the appropriateness of that word was already being called into question. “In recent discussions we’ve had within the city,” Hopes says, “people are wondering if there is going to be a Mayflower 450. This year, it’s the Mayflower 400 commemorations.” As the Native-led organization United American Indians of New England states, “Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”
From the beginning, the intention of the artists, who have known each other since they were teenagers at a boarding school, was to have the work directly address “the marginalized or overlooked testimonies of the Mayflower’s voyage, while recognizing how entangled the history of settler colonization is with climatic change,” says Hopes, who is currently studying for a PhD on the subject. With Speedwell, Still/Moving Projects set out to engage people in a conversation about the questions it raises about land exploitation, resources, and Indigenous peoples.
Speedwell is the largest and most significant of the collective’s works since they registered Still/Moving Projects as a Community Interest Company in 2019. Even before that though, they had supported and helped each other in their separate projects. “As a collective,” says Hopes, “we are able to draw on our existing individual artistic practices, as well as moving into technologies and scales we would be unable to tackle individually. Our combined practice emerges from a constant shared dialogue and testing of ideas, research, and materials.” Martin Hampton set up and was a director at Squint/Opera, an architectural visualization company and creative studio, before moving to Plymouth. Over the past 20 years, Léonie Hampton has worked predominantly with photography, exploring themes related to personal trauma.
Mount Batten Breakwater, which was built in the 19th century, is a popular place for Plymothians (as people from the English city of Plymouth are known) and visitors alike to take a stroll, walk the dog, or go fishing. As an outdoor location, it is an ideal place for engaging the general public in discussions about the possible meaning of the three words—NO NEW WORLDS—that constitute the Speedwell sculpture, which is made from 3,752 bulbs, arranged in 219 “light discs” fixed to a scaffold structure. People are invited to leave their thoughts on aluminum tags that hang on the fence around the sculpture.
At 220 feet long, Speedwell’s words, composed of 13-foot-high uppercase letters, stand in contrast to the collective’s smaller-scale, LED-based signs, such as those used in touch and its offshoot, hold me, which were designed in lowercase letters. For touch, Still/Moving Projects photographed people holding portable, wireframe LED signs around the city. A State of Emergency Commission by The Box, Plymouth’s new museum, touch responded directly to the coronavirus pandemic and the U.K.’s two-meter social distancing rule, using the words “hold,” “me,” “touch,” “beside,” and “you.” Participants, all standing apart, could choose the words they wanted to hold. It was “an experiment,” says Léonie Hampton, “playing with the text, with the words, and having the chance to go out and talk to people about how they were feeling, and what was going on internally for people in light of the virus.” The lowercase letters are the visual expression of “intimacy and internal, private longing, that for us felt very present with the virus,” she says. Later, the signs were mounted, spaced two meters apart, above the entrance to a café, on the wall of the Plymouth Citadel’s former gunpowder store, as the site-specific work hold me. In this configuration, they were arranged to read “hold me beside you.”
Whereas the signs for touch and hold me were battery operated, a computer controls Speedwell’s LEDs, turning words on and off and adjusting the brightness to day and nighttime light levels in real time. “The night level is less than 10 percent of the full intensity reached during the day,” says Martin Hampton. “There are nine iterations [of NO NEW WORLDS] chosen at random in real time by the system. Each iteration fades up, stays on for nine seconds, fades out, then there is a four-second pause,” he explains. This programmed sequence of ever-changing combinations prompts viewers to reflect on the various phrases and the relationships between them. At night, Speedwell resembles an advertising sign, but less flashy and cooler in color.
“We wanted to find a way to allow the seemingly simple structure to embody some of the complexities of the subject matter [colonization and climate change] that we were coming to terms with. We wanted to take people into a space of questioning, learning, and evolving that we ourselves have been in since being commissioned,” Martin says. The breakwater, which appears as a long, linear shadow beneath the words, seems to underline the text. “It is a gift of a location,” says Léonie Hampton. The breakwater “physically emphasizes the illuminated words. It can be seen from many places within the city, without the visual clutter of an urban environment.”
The collective originally planned to install Speedwell on the larger Plymouth Breakwater, but it is some two miles out to sea. They realized that the “distance and the exposed position posed enormous logistical challenges,” Hopes explains. And, at 53 feet high, the sculpture would have been “monumental in scale,” says Martin Hampton. The words were also different; the original concept would have said, THE NEW WORLD. But early on, the collective was “in discussion with people of Indigenous North American descent, who made us aware of the wounding nature of the phrase, and that as the proposal stood, it did not sufficiently contain its own subversive intent,” he says. With this discovery and the collective’s “growing awareness of the profound complexity of being part of a Mayflower commemoration,” along with their research into the links between colonization and climate change, they finally arrived at the phrase NO NEW WORLDS and “the idea of exploring its meaning by varying the visible iterations—that is, by switching certain words on and off.”
Laura Hopes points out that “in the 21st century, there are no ‘new worlds’ or unclaimed territories to turn to. We remain constrained to the ever more populated lands beneath our fragile atmosphere,” she says. “The need to resolve differences through dialogue is greater than ever, while the very human desire to seek greener pastures elsewhere remains.”
“In relation to climatic change,” says Léonie Hampton, “the accelerating loss of biodiversity and this deadly road we appear to continue to walk down as a species, it feels urgent to find new ways of being human, ways that prioritize reciprocal relations to other forms of life and the earth that sustains us.”
The impact of the Atlantic crossing by the Pilgrim Fathers is not confined to 400 years ago. “It continues today,” says Hopes. “The commemorations are out of kilter with the times.” For her and the other members of Still/Moving Projects, Speedwell is a way of asking people to “question their received understanding of the idea of a ‘new world’ and to imagine what a world could be like that incorporates Indigenous knowledge systems within a strategy of living sustainably on the planet.”
Speedwell remains on view in Plymouth, England, through November 29, 2020.