Saturday, May 23, 2015

Blued Trees: the significance of participation, Part II of a series

Testing ultramarine blue pigment on tree bark in preparation for the launch of Blued Trees.

Yesterday, I was heartened by the important news that some landowners directly in the path of the Algonquin pipeline that is planned to be installed alongside the Indian Point nuclear facility, will be participating in my new project, Blued TreesThat was the green light I'd been waiting for since mid-February for the official launch June 21, for the summer solstice to make the event more than an act of protest or art alone. 

It will be both. 

News that a number of landowners who own forested property in the path of the Algonquin natural gas pipeline will actively participate in Blued Trees is critical.

The Algonquin pipeline would be positioned within 115’ of the Indian Point nuclear facility. Should there be a leak from that pipeline, a Fukushima scale "accident" could annihilate the entire East coast of North America, including New York City, Boston and Washington DC. 

The participation of these brave landowners means Blued Trees will establish the legal basis to litigate against land condemnation under eminent domain law by pitting copyright law against the present basis for eminent domain. Presently, eminent domain routinely takes land for the purpose of the “public good” to effect various corporate purposes, in this case, natural gas pipelines. Blued Trees will contest the present definition of “public good.” Confirmed participants for Blued Trees are in Portugal, Mexico, and various locations in the United States, includingTexas.

There are several aesthetic strategies to implement Blued Trees. I will briefly present some of those strategies here and in a later text, detail them further. The first is a distribution of marked trees along 1/3 mile corridors in the path of fossil fuel activities.

Test of Blued Trees mark. Photo by Frank Spinelli based on painting by Aviva Rahmani

Trees painted with an abstract wave shape and a slurry of ultramarine blue mixed with buttermilk to create a permanent casein mark on the tree trunks. Painting and photo by Aviva Rahmani

Blued Trees participants will paint non-toxic ultramarine blue marks on an intercontinental series of trees in the path of natural gas pipelines. The painted trees will create a copyrightable pattern with both spatial and acoustic aspects. The pattern will be effected in collaboration with the landscape, and could preclude eminent domain takings for natural gas pipelines or fracking. The copyright on land would elevate the “public good” of ecosystems over fossil fuels.

Blued Trees is intended to stop the proliferation of fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure at the expense of the entire earth, for the profit of a very unscrupulous few, while starving alternate energy systems of support. As I write, clean-up crews are struggling to contain the damage of the Santa Barbara oil spill. Reports are that the clean-up of oil in Santa Barbara has recovered 10% of the spill. CNN estimates there are about 130 spills a year. This must stop

The distribution pattern of marked trees will comprise an installation that also corresponds to a musical score. The numbers correspond to a rhythm of perception for a walker passing through the forest.

Approximately 20 artists will simultaneously launch affiliated events internationally ,with visual, performative and musical aspects. Alyce Santoro is one of those artists. May 20, Santoro participated with Dr. Eugene Turner and myself for a Gulf to Gulf webcast about her participation. She states about their planned actions that: 

In solidarity with Blued Trees, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance is initiating a blue ribbon campaign. Residents of far west Texas will tie cobalt blue ribbons along the proposed route of the 42" high-pressure Trans Pecos Pipeline, set to bisect one of the largest intact bioregions in the country. 

The rhythm of perception of painted trees and the pattern of distribution has been transposed into a melody that can be repeated and interpreted by various musicians on the day of the launch, June 21.

We are hoping to take the message viral that beauty and health for all must take precedence over fossil fuels, climate change and death.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

VARA and the public good

This will be the first of a series of posts explaining the logic behind the new project I will be launching June 21, 2015. In this post I will discuss one simple question. Briefly, where might there be a point of confluence, a trigger point, between public policy and ecological art practice? Could ecological art drive a wedge into unfair policies about eminent domain being used by fossil fuel corporations to destroy the environment? The logic I came to is based on a novel, untested aspect of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which is based on the term "moral" in the legal language of VARA, which refers to the conceptual integrity of an artwork.

I will preface this discussion by explaining that there were several aspects that inspired my thinking about the project I will be launching. One was circumstantial. Mid-February 2015, a small group of activists opposing the Constitution pipeline planned to go through New York State, including the New York State watershed, inspired by the apparent legal precedent of sculptor Peter Von Teisenhausen in Alberta, Canada, put out an open call through artist Lillian Ball, to a another small group, the ecoart dialog, which I co-founded in 1999. They wanted to know if trees might be copyrighted?

The Von Teisenhausen case stopped a pipeline from going though his ranch by asserting copyright protection. He claimed that his land was one work of art and could not be damaged by a pipeline. The case decision was indeterminate because the pipeline company withdrew their plan before the "moral" basis was tested in court. In developing the legal basis for the project I will launch, several other cases came to light. In one, there was an attempt to copyright a community garden. The judgement in that case, was that the nature of a garden is ephemeral and therefore could not endure as a statement of art. The third case, was a site specific art work on land taken over by a developer. Once more, the artist withdrew pressing the case and the judgment was that although the work was designed for the site, it could, in fact be moved, and once more, as in the case of Von Teisenhausen, VARA was not tested. The fourth case, I haven't had a chance to study in detail, and only know of hearsay. In that case, an Olmsted park was taken for eminent domain for a private developer to make a shopping mall. Without studying the case in detail, my hunch is that the effective copyright had expired, and neither Olmsted (deceased sone way to become ineffective) nor local supporters, had the wherewithal to prevail against the developers deep pockets. In the case of natural gas pipeline developed, such as Kinder Morgan, the pockets are very deep indeed to persuade local policy makers to go along to get along. I found these cases very provocative about relationships between copyright, eminent domain and what defines "public good," on which eminent domaine is ostensibly determined.

What was an interesting issue in these legal cases, as the late Emily Caigan pointed out in discussing what would become my project, was that the definition of "moral" in VARA, has never been tested.

The second issue that caught my attention was that landowners in the path of eminent domain takings live under the threat of arrest should any behavior be deemed "protest." This is interesting for three reasons. The first is that "public good" is being defined by fossil fuel corporations  and then enforced by publically elected representatives, whose political campaigns are often financed by those same companies. This gives fossil fuel companies the power of a police state to work their will for profit at public jeopardy and often, private ruin. The second aspect that caught my attention, was the fate of trees in the path of this pipelines, estimated to be 700,000 that would be felled. The irony of those trees in jeopardy of destruction is that we know fossil fuels are causing global warming and we also know that trees mitigate those effects. Therefore the pipelines, in addition to seizing private property for dubious "public good," which several studies contend actually destroy local economies for the shot term benefit of a very few, will be responsible for accelerating climate change, and will also reduce mitigation. That makes it arguable what the long term public good might be. The third reason this caught my attention is that for some time, the aesthetics of public art and social practice have circled around an indeterminate distinction between "art" and "protest.' defense of copyright under VARA requires drawing a clear line between art and protest.

Ecological art purports to pursue a "moral" or ethical, deep ecology based world view. It often strives to effect that world view as a coherent vision, through public art and social practice. The problem the original band of activists presented me with, therefore had several challenging aspects. The most basic challenge was a question underlying their original outreach was also one all of ecological art concerns itself with: what is the possible relationship between "good art," and public good when it comes to environmental protection?


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Considering paradoxes

There is a new debate about having children, questioning the motives of those who choose not to have children and judging them as selfish. However, when we consider the scale of the human population explosion against the dwindling lives of other species and the impacts on weather and climate for all living beings, I have to question the logic of those judgements.

It is a paradox, however, that humans experience their own personal drive to have a child as somehow exempt from the planetary consequences of billions of humans with similar drives.

Recently, my attention has been focused on another paradox, that many who staunchly oppose fracking, are cheerleaders for natural gas. It is a similar disconnect between wishful thinking and logical consequences.

In the sketch below from my journals, I have contemplated the paradox of how North America plans to deliver energy to a burgeoning and demanding population, while, incidentally crisscrossing the continent with fracking wells, pipelines that could explode, right thru the third largest watershed in the world. Earth Day, Tuesday afternoon, April 22nd, in discussion with Jim White and Gene Turner, we will discuss those disconnects in a Gulf to Gulf webcast.

The yellow horizontal she across the United States indicates the swath of fracking and natural gas destroying watersheds and habitats in its wake.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Connecting dots

I first used the term, "connecting dots," in 1997. At that time, we'd just daylighted the salt marsh for the Ghost Nets site. For the first time in 100 years, fresh water was meeting salt water.

The line of rocks in this picture was the highest known storm surge line, noted from a 1994 flood. When the Ghost Nets estuary was daylighted, I marked the line to track the effects of sea level rise.

More recently, on the www, website, we've been creating a map that has entered some sites that have been restored and discussed on the website. These have been intermixed with some of the locations of our Gulf to Gulf guests. That is another kind of connecting the dots.

Screen shot from the website locating some of the webcast participants and some of the restored sites.

Each restored site reconnects habitat. But when we start restoring more sites, we can reknit entire bioregions. The dots that I can see connecting include, restoration locations, people active in restoration issues, virtuality, which allows us to talk to each other and generate new ideas, without adding air travel to global pollutions. These purple dots are only a handful of those locations. If you go to the site and click on each dot, more information will come up. I hope for a day when this pale green map turns purple.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Personally, I find it very hard to be hopeful when I'm exhausted. It has been an exhausting year. But as we approach the last hours of 2014, I happen to be rested today and can think more lucidly about hope. Jim White, one of the scientists I work with always points out to me, when I feel gloomy about our environmental prospects, that there is always hope. It just gets harder.

At dawn this mooring I looked out my window to my Manhattan viewscape
to see a workman flexing his muscles for my camera.
The image I snapped this morning of a man on the roof across the way, looks like a small King Kong on the skyline. He may or may not have seen me taking shots, so may or not have been posing. But at this early hour, this man represented to me how humans stand on top of all we have created and look out to one another, or the future. But perhaps, we might more profitably consider what is below all we create, for example, soil or water and how fish might reflect the health of either.

The future many of us want to see these days is just something hopeful. I have written often here, about how fish are indicators of aquatic habitat health. Soil is a material that stands at a confluence between animal life,  geology, and water. It reflects the health of all the relationships that make clean water possible. It is what the quality of our food depends upon.

As the year turns, we have a few days to rest up and regather our stamina to go forward, to consider the basics that support us and build our "hope" muscles. As rested as I am, at least today, I think it is just a question of work and not impossible.

In other posts, I have written about Maxwells Demon, the premise from thermodynamics that implies that the energy of work can change the most closed systems on earth, by presenting new data. So, rest means we can do the work of that data transmission.

The task we build our hope muscles for, may be to identify that critical data that can make that critical transformation.

In the new year, I wish us all enuf rest to feel hope, to exercise the work of environmental transformation, to see more fish, that we may enjoy clean water and fertile soil.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Collapsing silos

This week, I was very proud that WEAD published my article, "Communities of Resistance" in their Issue 7. It is about how science and scientists have informed the evolution of my thinking as an ecological artist.

Now that progressive thinking lost the American election, we can start rethinking how to go forward, which must include some bold advances in ecological art thinking. I think a fundamental aspect of going forward is going to come from collapsing the silos between disciplines- not to abandon the disciplines, but to open the doors and windows of the silos and let in the fresh air of some new thinking.

I wrote to my Foundation Drawing Stony Brook University students (who are primarily science majors) tonight:

"At least one person has asked to speak to me about how to combine art and science as a career. I am wondering if this is a topic others might want to discuss, perhaps next Thursday in class? It is a topic I know a great deal about and have been immersed in thruout my career. I would be happy to share my experience and encourage anyone with this interest. I think many of you are very talented and clearly serious in both directions. The world would do very well with a new generation that looks at the world in a more spacious way than just silos of art on one side and science on the other. Stony Brook might be an ideal place to explore how to go about that."

All semester, I have returned my students to the idea that to make a mark, the artists "tache," we must first pay attention to how we observe, how the rods and cones function in our eyes and how being an upright animals inflects our thinking. Now, I will try to talk to them in more depth, not just about how formal aesthetic ideas like chiaroscuro, line and depth are related to physics, mathematics and community biology, but also, what transdisciplinarity is, what it means in our world today, what has come before and how their "mark," might transcend artificial separations between art and science … and earn them a living.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Collapse of Time Part II

The hope

Sunday October 26, the second day of the Techno-Utopianism & Fate of the Earth conference was more hopeful, despite the dire news of the first day. I had come away on fire over how critical the American election will be next week. Scroll down to read more.

Vandana Shiva
Coming into the conference on the second day, my greatest worry was the steady drip drip of news about the global proliferation of failed states, under the confluent pressure of over-population, dwindling resources to support life on earth as we know it, such as clean water, and the need for rapid adaptation to radical biogeographic change. As a citizen, I have no faith that Republicans have the courage, wisdom or intellectual integrity to cope wth any of those pressures. As a teacher, what nagged at me, were a series of conversations with my students this past Fall, about how daunting life is now and how even more daunting, the world may be that they will confront on graduation. They will live deeper into the twentieth century than I will, well into the brave new world of the Anthropocene we have created for them. I worry for them all. A week after the second day of the conference, I’m not sure whether the worries that had carried over from the day before, were answered.

As an artist, my questions are all about form. What is the best form now to answer the present? Meanwhile, i continued to listen and consider what I heard.

What I heard Sunday, was Vandana Shiva speaking to how indigenous peoples in India had resisted the unconscionable behavior of American corporations. She commented that globalization can only deal with reductionism, which in this case, is reduction to the most simplistic cash profits of shareholders.

Helena Norberg- Hodge, who spoke on food safety, justified extensive travel to spread the word. I am not sure I agree.
Severine von Tscharner-Fleming is an amazing young woman who is organizing organic farmers, even finding ways to work with monoculture and factory farmers to allow, for example, sheep to graze between vineyard rows.
Incidentally, the next day, in a conversation with Ray Weill, I learned, to my delight, that some of those same megafamers are going much lighter on petroleum fertilizers now because they’ve been convinced that organic is less costly in the long run.
Winona LaDuke gave an amazingly moving presentation, that began with the showing of “Honor the Earth,” a 200 mile horseback ride of Indigenous leaders opposing the tar sands pipelines and confronting the police.
Victor Menotti detailed how the Koch Bros $100 billion derives from making sacrifice zones of indigenous lands.
Mzwanele Maekiso, a modest man from South Afria speaking on fracking, gently pointed out that our biggest problem is in-fighting egos over, “my organization/idea is better than yours competitions,” which I also can testify is corrosive to any fragile resistance we might muster.

As I continued to think thru the day about the obstacles we face, I wondered whether the competitive defeatism Maekiso described is even more poisonous than the Koch Bros $100 billion spent on re-electing people whose primary responsibility is to proliferating fossil fuels and nuclear war. If we are competing with each other, under mining each other’s hard work, the Koch Bros can just sit back and laugh while we do their work for free. Sadly, I see too much competition in the art world.

A detail from Hans Haacke's show. Saturday night, I rushed from the conference to his opening and then back to hear more grim news. As gripping as I find this work, and I do, I'm not sure how it contains these painful issues and find it confusing to know when to back off from being didactic. It seems to be a matter of trust.
Dave King gave a fascinating historical talk on the Luddites, explaining how they were never against technology, but rather how companies were using technology to shaft workers rights.

A recurrent theme was how we are not only addicted to fossil fuels (the only smart thing George Bush ever noted), but that the resulting system are grossly inefficient if you factor all the costs, water, etc, etc, for example to produce a pound of beef.
Some one who spoke at the conference described addiction as “you do bad stuff and hang out with dealers.” Amen.

Forgive me if the rest of this summary will be brief, but a series of indigenous rights people described how they are fighting these corporations and their multi-national power with legality. A recurrent theme was that an unjust law must not be obeyed or defended. If people had not acted on that premise, we would still have slavery, women would have no rights at all and so on.

Of course, implicitly there is the fact that we have a series of male Supreme Court justices in this country whom are doing exactly that, defending and demanding obedience to unjust laws such as Citizens United.

As an aside, a point I have made elsewhere at another time, the reason I think we have an apathetic electorate in this country, is that they are suffering from the oligarchic experience of domestic violence. Like any abused and beaten down wife, they have given up and given in to learned helplessness.
There were several references to the Buffalo Treaty which united 11 tribes to affirm their culture and its relationship to environmental restoration.

So will all that be enuf?
We shall see.
Much more work ahead.

As an ecological artist, the trick I hear many colleagues struggling to master, is how far to push relationships between activism and social practice that addresses these issues? Speaking for myself, my own task seems to be to clarify the frame of what I have to contribute, much of which right now, as I complete the last phases of my PhD dissertation on "trigger point theory as aesthetic activism," seems to be about how and what to publish and exhibit from that conceptual endurance event over the year ahead.