terra0, "A tree; a corporation; a person. (DAO #01, Black gum tree, Pittsburgh PA)" at 915 Ridge Ave. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art.

There’s a little tree in the 58th Carnegie International that has a captivating story to tell, one so unusual that it has the potential to go globally viral.

It is seeking personhood and the right to own the land it lives upon.

“The legal process to achieve this is still ongoing and is a complicated one in order for the tree to be recognized as a person and become self-governing,” the Carnegie Museum of Art wrote in a statement in December in an email response to a NEXTpittsburgh query.

The tree is the single living entity of the nonprofit organization Pittsburgh Lobby for Tree Personhood.

“A tree; a corporation; a person. (DAO #01, Black gum tree, Pittsburgh PA)” is, ultimately, an art project by the German collective terra0, which includes designers, theorists and artists.

Paul Kolling of terra0 refers to the tree and all it encompasses as “public sculpture,” but admits that what makes it so is “elusive.”

It’s “that somebody goes to Pittsburgh and visits it and looks at this specific tree and not another tree, just because of the pure fact that this tree somehow exists in an art realm, which is absurd but also beautiful in some way,” Kolling says in the exhibition catalog.

But it is also so much more. Since its inception, the project has seeped into areas of ecology, finance, law and philosophy. Technological advances such as blockchains, NFTs (non-fungible tokens), AI and cryptocurrency allowed it to be conceived and support its evolution.

If it sounds complicated it’s because it is.

But it’s not incomprehensible, particularly if you approach it from your area of interest.

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“You don’t have to understand the complexity,” says Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art Eric Crosby. “It assigns agency and autonomy to nonhuman entities. They are playing in this space that is [now] being activated in all aspects of human endeavors.

“Carnegie Museum of Art functions as a steward,” he says, “taking steps to care for the health of the tree” including pruning, fertilizing and maintaining its property. The tree, in return, will annually issue “a unique certificate that acknowledges the services Carnegie Museum of Art has provided to protect the tree and its livelihood.” The certificates will be issued as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that will exist only in the cloud.

The Carnegie will be able to do what it wishes with the NFT, Crosby says, including archiving it, accessioning it to the museum collection, giving it to someone or selling it.

Crosby confirmed that artwork with such “contractual relationships” was a first for the museum.

The roots of the project

During a September interview at The Carnegie, Kolling and Paul Seidler talked about how the project has almost taken on a life of its own since they founded it in 2016 at the Berlin University of the Arts.

With colleague Max Hampshire, they published a concept paper, “terra0: can an [technologically] augmented forest own and utilise itself?” that suggested the answer is yes.

The white paper includes examples of artworks that creatively challenge standard notions of currency and, perhaps more significantly, legal actions that blur the line between “natural persons” and “objects” that have gained the right to property:

A New Zealand court granted rights usually reserved for persons to the Whanganui River after an indigenous community won a lawsuit demanding personhood status for the landmark river.

In 2008, Ecuador added a “Rights of Nature” article to its constitution, granting the ecosystem rights to exist and maintain itself.

In the U.S., the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision establishing personhood, to some extent, to corporations, became a highly controversial issue.

The ongoing debate over abortion rights has raised questions about when a fetus becomes a person.

In October the NPR program “On Point” opened with the question “If corporations can have some personhood rights, why not animals too?” and interviewed a member of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

In this context, terra0’s explorations are less oddities than prescient glimpses into the morphing contemporary zeitgeist.

“The concept paper was a conceptual work,” Kolling says, “which over time turned into a practice.”

The collective has exhibited globally including at such prestigious tech wonk venues as Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria.

Installation view of terra0, “A tree; a corporation; a person (DAO #01, Black gum tree, Pittsburgh, PA)” in the 58th Carnegie International. Photo by Sean Eaton courtesy of the artists and Carnegie Museum of Art.

Cross-disciplinary work

The financial world is another area that has noted the possibilities terra0 raises. In 2018, Forbes Technology Council published the article, “Decentralized Artificial Intelligence Is Coming: Here’s What You Need To Know,” writing “If your goal is to run a fully autonomous AI agent making smart managerial decisions and distributing profits, decentralized AI on blockchain is the way to go. One example of this approach is terra0 … “

The collective has received interest from investors but has so far rejected their inquiries because it says, “We do not want to turn into a startup.”

The Carnegie International piece is an artwork that is also an experiment to find out how concepts in the white paper play out in the real world. If, for example, this prototype-in-the-making was supported locally and set legal precedent, terra0 could take that to other jurisdictions.

The environmental aspect of the work is not the only focus but is large. The word terra comes from the Latin for earth.

“In our generation, there is a very present discourse around climate change. You can’t really grow up anymore without being confronted with these issues,” Kolling says.

The collective knew it had an abstract cross-disciplinary idea that proposed a new way of thinking. The tree was chosen as both object and symbol.

“As an artist, you need to rely on a narrative. The thought would not have caught on without the narrative of the forest,” Kolling says.

A less evident subtext is the way the notion of “forest” is tied to German culture, with a long history of ownership, use of land and access debated. The visual reference to that history was a strategy to provoke an emotional response and a desire to work to save the forest.

The goal is “provoking discussion, not ‘we found the solution.’ We’re fine if we can’t find the answer.” Paul Kolling of terra0

Another significant project aspect is community. The tree lives on land donated by the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and is publicly accessible (915 Ridge Ave.). It is a black gum tree, selected for its beauty in four seasons, its resilience and because it is native to our region.

“7000 Oak Trees” by German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) is a seminal example of his concept of “Social Sculpture.” One of the most important artworks of the 20th century, it was inaugurated in 1982 at documenta 7 (similar to the Carnegie International but founded much later) in Kassel, Germany. Beuys proposed that the trees, each accompanied by a 4-foot high basalt column, be planted throughout Kassel to call attention to urban, as well as global, deforestation. 

His concept broadened the definition of artist and artwork to the daily activities of all members of a community.

The initial goal of “7000 Oak Trees” was achieved when the last tree was planted at the opening of documenta 8 in 1987. Since then, related tree plantings have taken place globally. Dia Art Foundation in New York, an early Beuys supporter, planted 38 in Manhattan. In 2021, to commemorate the centenary of Beuys’ birth, British artists Ackroyd and Harvey displayed 100 saplings grown from acorns produced by Beuys’ original trees outside the Tate Modern in London. Seven of the saplings will be permanently planted in that area.

While the technology of the terra0 work may at first seem to distance it from Beuys, Seidler says they share a bond in the Social Sculpture aspect. Their shared materiality blends object with the observer, observation with action, symbol with transformation.

While the collective allows that it would like to change the world through technological augmentation, it states that it is “not interested in being this artist authority.” The goal is “provoking discussion, not ‘we found the solution.’ We’re fine if we can’t find the answer,” Kolling says.

“terra0 is always a project. When finished it is always an artwork.”

Mary Thomas was the longtime art critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.