BY Simon Wu in Opinion , Profiles | 27 FEB 23
Featured in
Issue 233

terra0’s Self-Governing Forests

Using web3 technologies, the Berlin-based artist collective attempts to grant sovereignty to nature

BY Simon Wu in Opinion , Profiles | 27 FEB 23

Can a forest own itself? In May 2016, three students from Berlin University of the Arts asked exactly this question in a white paper that outlined the possibility of using blockchain technology to enable non-human actors to manage and produce capital. Working together under the name terra0, Max Hampshire, Paul Kolling and Paul Seidler – who all attended artist Joachim Sauter’s new media class – proposed a simple system: assign a fleet of drones and satellites to monitor the growth of a forest, link them to an automated program that would sell the rights to fell certain trees when appropriate, and use that money to pay back its initial investors so that the forest would effectively ‘own’ itself. The model raised a number of philosophical questions. If a thing can own property, for instance, should it be afforded the same rights as other property owners, and therefore, by extension, become a ‘person’?

While this self-owning forest remains in development, terra0 has gone on to devise other projects that map emerging web3 technologies onto natural assets. In 2018, they presented Premna Daemon – a bonsai tree outfitted with a web interface, several sensors and cameras, and a Smart Contract on the Ethereum Mainnet – that could crowd-source funds for its own care at Berlin’s Schinkel Pavillon. That same year, they also produced Flowertokens, an attempt to tie the growth of dahlia × hortensis seedlings to tokenized economic value. In both works, terra0 sought to meld conceptual art and technological discourse, citing, in their online white paper, a lineage of artistic projects that intervene in economic and social practices, such as Cildo Meireles’s Insertions into Ideological Circuits 2 (1970). As the group recounts on its website, they aim to devise ‘hybrid ecosystems in the technosphere’ that might help rethink existing regulatory structures and create a more ‘sustainable, resilient and biodiverse future’.

terra0, Flowertokens, 2018. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: © Stephan Baumann

Indeed, terra0’s experiments are characterized as much by their intrepid technological investigation as they are by a wary criticality of the moral and ethical implications of their practice. ‘From the beginning’, terra0 conceded in a 2021 CLOT Mag interview, ‘we have been dealing with whether the terra0 concept would make the world a better or a worse place.’ Granting property rights to natural entities (and rendering them monetary) begs the question of whether they needed to be granted autonomy in the first place or whether outfitting a forest as a ‘corporation’ is the only way to recognize it as a peer. This makes the method behind terra0’s practice a sort of capitalist realism: maybe, they seem to say, there are few other ways to produce substantive forms of legal autonomy – and thus protection – for natural environments under capitalism.

terra0, Premna Daemon, 2018. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: © Stephan Baumann

terra0’s projects are accompanied by lengthy textual components, most of which are available on their website and blog. Posts like ‘Wen growth? An introduction to Seed Capital’ (2022) outline the philosophical and technical details of their projects, with healthy doses of both optimism and wariness. In some ways, terra0’s project states what has been obvious to Indigenous or non-western philosophies for a long time: the land is a living entity. In translating that concept to make it legible within a western legal and technical framework, the collective is contributing to a growing discourse on historical land art from diverse practitioners such as Cameron Rowland, who questions the imbrication of white property and anti-Blackness, and thinkers like Anna L. Tsing, who explores less exploitative systems of natural-resource management.

terra0, Two Degrees, 2021. Courtesy: the artist

Although terra0 situates its practice firmly within the realm of art recent works have been more overtly urgent in relation to environmental activism. The collective’s 2021 contribution to Sotheby’s ‘Natively Digital: A Curated NFT Sale’ was an NFT that, per their blog, ‘burns itself’ when the average global temperature is 2°C higher than it should be. At the 58th Carnegie International, the group presented A tree; a corporation; a person. (DAO #01, Black gum tree, Pittsburgh PA) (2022), which established a contractual relationship between Carnegie Museum of Art and the Community College of Allegheny County to petition for the eponymous tree’s ‘personhood’ under Pennsylvania state law, raising the fundamental theoretical question: if we could endow nature with the legal power of personhood using emerging blockchain technologies, would it fight back? Whether terra0 continues to produce intricate philosophical and financial experiments or whether it becomes an actual player in climate activism remains to be seen. Either way, this is a collective asking all the right questions.

This article appeared in frieze issue 233 with the headline ‘Free Trees’

Main Image: terra0, Can an augmented forest own and utilize itself?, 2016. Photograph: © terra0

Simon Wu is an artist based in New York. He is the Program Coordinator for The Racial Imaginary Institute and a graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.