by Gina McKlveen
As many contemplate what flower arrangements to send to their special person this Valentine’s Day, one work at this year’s 58th Carnegie International Exhibition has viewers questioning the personhood of other flora in our ecosystem. Specifically, terra0’s A tree; a corporation; a person. is a black gum tree planted on the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) campus, which inspired greater conversation last month between Paul Kolling and Christopher Dake-Outhet, artists involved with terra0 and Talia Heiman, one of the International’s curatorial assistants, during the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Refractions Series.
Like most works of art, A tree; a corporation; a person. began with an idea. According to Kolling, back in 2015, he and other big thinkers who eventually formed terra0, wondered how a forest or a piece of land could own itself by appropriating exploitation through third parties, gradually raising capital, and then eventually, buying the land on which the forest is located. When terra0 first began acting on their idea, they received some push back from critics who saw the project as immoral in the sense that they’d be forcing a forest to cut down its own trees and from art institutions who at the time were not interested in supporting a high-tech centered concept. So, what was meant to be a short five-month study turned into a more than five-year long project.
One of the initial iterations of the idea was a test case called, Flowertokens. The test case got its name because the artists used flowers to consider what would happen when they tokenized a living commodity using blockchain technology. After placing 100 flowers under a grow rack with a camera that monitored their growth 24/7, terra0 minted 100 tokens, each one representing one of the flowers, and placed them on a digital marketplace where real people could buy and invest in these so-called, Flowertokens. This took place in 2016, but was essentially an early version of today’s NFTs, or non-fungible tokens.
After the success of Flowertokens, terra0 went on to create further iterations that eventually lead to the creation of A tree; a corporation; a person. in Pittsburgh. The goal of the artwork is to establish the personhood of this tree. Other countries and nations have recognized the rights of elements of nature, such as in New Zealand where a river was granted personhood in 2017. In the United States, corporations are entitled to certain rights and personhood as natural persons. Kolling explained that historically Western law described personhood as a way of being able to own something. With its latest artwork terra0 supposes whether through new technologies like the blockchain could allow a nonhuman entity—such as a tree—to own something.
To demonstrate this, they planted the tree and with the help of a team of lawyers from the museum and the college, created a legal entity, a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization that owns property (i.e. the tree and the land in which it is planted) and lobbies for granting personhood on behalf of the tree. Once personhood of the tree is recognized, the 501(c)(4) will dissolve and a limited liability company (LLC) will be formed with the tree being the sole proprietor of the organization.
But until then, and even after the tree achieves personhood, it will require help from human intervention. As both Kolling and Dake-Outhet pointed out somebody will have to file the tree’s taxes.
For more information about this conversation and more of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Refraction Series check out WQED’s Artist in the World podcast of visit the following link. Learn more about Terra0 here.