“There is no opportunity in our normal life circumstances to experience that magnitude of speed in such close proximity.” - Mitch Benoff
Here in Boston, the Earth is rotating at over 700 miles per hour. While “sitting still,” here in my living room, I am rotating with it. I’m also traveling around the sun
at 67,000 miles per hour, and around the galaxy at 483,000 miles per hour, and “on from there,” as Otto Piene used to say. And so are you.
Yet, although I “know” that I’m not really sitting still, I don’t feel a thing. All of that motion embedded in motion is simply an abstraction to me—something I learned in elementary or junior high school and then forgot, while I attended to the really important issues like whether my hair looked stupid.
I have managed, over time, to move a little past those important issues, and to become a big fan of works of art that help us to understand our relationship to scales much larger and much smaller than our own. Mitch Benoff’s The Speed of the Earth is one such work.
On a June night in 1993, I walked onto an athletic field at MIT and saw the work, a ball of light that appeared to travel very fast down a 600 foot-long path. The motion of the ball of light, 700mph, matched the speed of the earth’s rotation at that exact place on the surface of the planet. The effect was to make clear to viewers that although our planet seems stationary to us, it is in fact moving at a great rate of speed. But it did a whole lot more.
The work was astonishingly beautiful and utterly unlike anything I’d ever seen before: a white light streaming past me at tremendous speed. (Look at the images on Mitch’s website—you’ll see what I mean.) Many people reacted as I did: awestruck. One MIT student spent two nights on the athletic field where Mitch had installed The Speed of the Earth, just to be closer to the experience.
I live in the hope of running across works like The Speed of the Earth. How amazing it is that a human—a being seemingly so insignificant in the big universe—through exerting the combined force of his imagination and his ability to organize things, can and then does create something so poignant and so emotional from a single, solitary fact. That’s what art can do.
 Speed of the Earth: The Illusion and Experience of Speed and Scale, MIT Thesis, 1993. http://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/64515/28737748.pdf?sequence=1
 The Speed of the Earth has been installed in several locations and venues, including the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The MIT installation was in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, where Mitch and I both studied.