Artist Aviva Rahmani answered the call of citizens of Peekskill, New York, who were facing the destruction of a local wetland. Her response, “The Blued Trees Symphony,” is a wonderful combination of natural experience, sound and geography that began an international movement to embed art in nature, copyrighting the results to prevent the exercise of eminent domain claims by developers.
The artwork, a musical score painted in blue sine waves, was placed in the path of the Spectra Corporation’s 42-inch-diameter fracked gas pipeline that was slated to pass within 105 feet of a nuclear power plant. The project expanded to many hundreds of trees at additional sites, especially in Virginia, in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Listen to hear a short performance by Rahmani of the music that Peekskill community members painted onto the trees in a wetland in 2015. Since then, her project has spread to many sites in the United States and Mexico, where new “Blued Trees” projects have added to the movement, proving that art can preserve nature as well as celebrate it.
Rahmani discusses the clash between copyrighted art and eminent domain with Earth911.com’s Mitch Ratcliffe. Listen in!
Timeline of the Developing Legal Debate Around Copyright and Eminent Domain
Aviva Rahmani was approached by fracktivists to develop a project that would defend trees slated for destruction to build expanded natural gas pipelines. After studying the maps, she began to develop the “Blued Trees” and consulted with Patrick Reilly and Jonathan Reichman on legal strategies. Reilly advised winning the arguments in the court of public opinion first. Reichman outlined what the issues would be in a suit that would overlap copyright and eminent domain law.
The first tree paintings for the project were completed in Peekskill, New York, and materials were submitted for copyright.
The project began to expand dramatically, mostly in New York state and Virginia, and copyright registration was confirmed. The concept for the work developed into a five-part symphony that is being extended across time — Rahmani added a new measure on Election Day in 2016 — and across space, including other locations in the U.S. and abroad.
Rahmani met copyright lawyer Gale Elston and became aware of more litigatory issues to protect the work from destruction. She introduced a cease-and-desist order to Spectra Energy Corp. over the trees painted in Peekskill.
September to October 2015
Spectra Energy Corp. provided notification that they intended to condemn the land where the project was initiated and would cut down the trees.
Rahmani issued an additional cease-and-desist order; Spectra responded with a letter and then cut down the trees before an injunction could be issued.
November 2015 to March 2018
There was a hiatus in cutting the trees at the additional sites. Meanwhile, legal standing for the artwork was established internationally in conferences, grants and fellowships, exhibitions, critical reviews, and media attention to protect the work in the courtroom.
There were intense discussions with lawyers from NYC, Virginia and Texas over having adequate case law to pursue the strategy in concert with eminent domain litigation. They were unable to secure a local copyright attorney who was willing to risk taking on the case.
Despite numerous lawsuits primarily over the basis of eminent domain, and formal appeals from Virginia residents to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over the cultural importance of the project, permission was granted to the Mountain Valley Pipeline corporation to cut trees in Virginia and West Virginia, where hundreds of trees had been painted.
There was a mock trial to rule on an injunction, representing some of the procedural issues that would need to be answered in a real trial. Judge April Newbauer’s decision was for an injunction. She specifically cited the testimony of art critic Ben Davis for swaying her opinion on the value of the art versus the pipelines.
Transcript of Earth911.com’s interview with Aviva Rahmani
Mitch Ratcliffe: Aviva Rahmani, welcome to “Sustainability in Your Ear,” the Earth911 podcast. You’ve done just a beautiful work in Peekskill, New York, called the “Blued Trees Symphony.” I’d love it if you could first tell us a little about the work, what it looks like and what it feels like to be there and we’ll talk about it. Thanks for joining us today.
Aviva Rahmani: Thank you so much for inviting me. Shall I give you a little bit of background on the project as well?
Mitch Ratcliffe: Please do, please do.
Aviva Rahmani: OK, so I am an ecological artist, which means that I look at degraded systems and search for solutions, and those solutions are always through the filter of art, and I had known for quite some time that climate change was a huge issue. And I had come to the conclusion that we simply had to stop using fossil fuels of all kinds, but I was at a loss for where to start with that.
And at that point, I was approached by a group of New York state activists who called themselves Frack Busters, who had heard about an artist in Alberta, Canada, Peter Von Tiesenhausen, who had copyrighted his entire ranch and scared off the natural gas corporations when they wanted to go through because he said every inch was copyrighted. The only problem was it was never tested in the court system, either in Canada or anyplace else. So when they asked me if I could do anything with that, whether, for example, I might copyright the trees, I said: “No, we can’t copyright the trees, but we could certainly copyright the relationship between the trees, the people and the local habitat.” And then I took a good look at Google satellite maps where the natural gas corridors were planned, and immediately what I saw was these are potential musical lines that extend across the continent, and wouldn’t it be fabulous to design an installation that was hundreds of miles long and would replace the natural gas pipelines that they intended to expand with habitat-based music and sound that was initialized by each community where each measure of those musical lines might lie.
So in Peekskill what happened was we were invited into create one of these measures of that musical line. I conceived of it at the time as an overture for the whole work, which has now expanded into Virginia, West Virginia, upper New York state, there’s some work in Washington state, someone who was working in Saskatchewan, Canada. There has been international interest. The project has been presented in China, Korea, most recently in Japan.
Mitch Ratcliffe: That’s fantastic.
Aviva Rahmani: And other countries. Yes, it is exciting because there’s an overlap in the legal issues between copyright and the earth rights movement, and I think this is critically important because we seem to be at a turning point on this planet of whether or not we’re going to take responsibility for the kind of degradation we have let loose.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Tell us what the experience of being among the “Blued Trees Symphony” is like for the viewer, and I know that there’s an audio component to that, can you describe that?
Aviva Rahmani: Yes, so when I looked at these potential musical lines, what I thought was, “Well, each tree might be a note in the measure,” so I designed a measure by looking at the satellite photographs that I conceived of as aerially synesthetic, meaning that it was both visual and acoustic. So the designation of trees became the designation of musical notes in the landscape. And for each one-third mile of these musical lines, there’s a melody, a refrain that repeats and it goes … . That repeats over and over and over again; each of those notes is one tree or sometimes a chord because I’ve developed it into a whole symphony in this musical composition.
Mitch Ratcliffe: I understand that the score replicates patterns of sound that will interfere with heavy machinery as well.
Aviva Rahmani: Yes, that’s exactly right. When I looked at the corridors, there were a number of ideas that came together at the same time. One was the idea that it was a score and could be composed and performed, that the performers in effect were the trees. I think of them as tree soloists and then each of those trees has its own habitat, which has another dimension of the acoustics, but the way I patterned that initial refrain was about stopping heavy machinery. So it’s a series of diagonals across the length of the corridor and triangles if you were going to conceive of musical lines in terms of patterns on the ground. There were a number of people who didn’t read music, so there was no point in my giving them the musical score — I had to show them, in a diagrammatic way, which trees were going to be designated.
Mitch Ratcliffe: And people came out and helped paint the trees with the sine waves. You used a nontoxic paint, obviously; how did you get folks involved to do that? Or were those the people that brought you in in the first place?
Aviva Rahmani: Those were the people who brought me in and then they brought in their friends. And in each location, there was usually an artist who had heard about the project and was part of an activist community that was trying to stop the pipelines, and they just brought together teams of people fairly soon into the process. In 2015, a group of the participants in northern New York state designed a manual so that people could use the manual and apply it wherever they were. The experience, you asked earlier, of what it was like to be painting was very meditative. And in fact I had a fellowship this past year with a blade of grass specifically for contemplative practice, and contemplation was very much at the heart of what we were doing out in the woods because we were out in the woods on a beautiful day. Actually, one day it was pouring rain but it was still beautiful. Identifying trees that felt like they would make wonderful musical notes in the habitat, and as we painted, you could hear the birds and the sounds of the insects and the sounds of weather; it was very quiet.
It was very focused work because the sine wave is not random. It has to be an actual good painting. The width of the sign wave, which goes from the canopy to the root system into the earth has to reflect the diameter of that specific tree. The configuration of the sine wave was something that had to make sense if you stepped back from it, not just random paint marks on a tree. So each time somebody painted a tree, they were actually creating in a sense a permaculture of the whole system while they were listening to the sounds that the paint was going to become part of. And, yes, it was ultramarine blue that is nontoxic, it was mixed with buttermilk so that it could grow moss. So it creates a secondary habitat as soon as it’s applied.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Beautiful, beautiful. And people were listening to the music while also painting, I had not understood that before.
Aviva Rahmani: That’s correct, that’s correct.
Mitch Ratcliffe: When you visit the site, do you have the opportunity to listen to the music as you walk through the score?
Aviva Rahmani: Well, I think so. When we designed each measure, we sat down with the satellite images and in order to be sure that we were designating the correct trees, I had to go over the melody over and over and over again so every time we designated a tree, I had to check — does that go with the chord, the initial chords, will it link up with the rest periods in the music and so on. And then, yes, when the people were in the environment, they did become part of the music. Their mere presence made them part of the music.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Let’s return to the issue of copyright because I thought was just a very clever way to contest eminent domain, the ability of government to seize land for various purposes. Has this been tested in court?
Aviva Rahmani: Not yet. I wish, because there isn’t enough case law to protect the lawyers. So what we’ve done instead is we’ve built up the legal argument so that when we have enough research on the case law and have the opportunity for a test case, we can move forward with as much self-confidence as possible.
So there were a number of legal issues that we had to deal with, the very first is that this is not activist art, it is proactive art. And there’s a huge difference under copyright law because there’s no way to protect activist art, but it is proactive in the sense of initiating an alternative system, conceptually, legally and in terms of the relationship in communities. The second huge issue that we had to prove was that it was permanent because, for example, you cannot copyright a garden. But this work is as permanent as any given tree, which could be hundreds of years and because it goes into the earth, it becomes literally part of the ground, the geology that it is part of. The third major issue was we had to establish standing, that it wasn’t just anybody running off into the forest and painting trees, that there was an actual cultural importance to the work and we were able to establish that by the number of critical reviews and films that have been done about the project.
So the last issue, the last part of this puzzle is the relationship to eminent domain and the argument that I’ve been putting forward and I now see other people are putting forward as well was that if eminent domain is for the public good, then you cannot argue that anything that supports fossil fuels is for the public good. And the methane issues with natural gas completely preclude talking about natural gas as a bridge fuel. Methane is 34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year period and 86 times stronger over 20 years.
Mitch Ratcliffe: The eminent domain claim actually gets inverted by the fact that you created a cultural value that is at least equal to, in the eyes of the law, the value of moving the methane and that’s a really wonderful way to recast the entire discussion. The other wonderful thing about it, and I guess I’m using a lot of that particular word this morning …
Aviva Rahmani: I’m thrilled, go for it.
Mitch Ratcliffe: You talked about the permanence of the work and you know, of course, trees do come and go but in order to see this work in its real context, you have to see it in the context of the long now rather than just today. And that’s an ethos that we all need to be thinking about, whether we’re making a decision about whether to buy something or whether we are thinking about how we are going to plant in our own yards or whether we’re going to purchase gasoline. As you think as an artist about how can we continue to get people to embrace that view of the world, to see it not just as exactly as it is in this moment but as a changing and evolving environment, your project is spreading across the country. How else can individuals start to participate in this? Can they reach out to you and begin a project in their local region?
Aviva Rahmani: They could. I also have initiated a crowdfunding location with Kickstarter called DRIP and the way in is https://kickstarter.com/drip/aviva, and what we’re trying to do is raise the funding to develop a full-scale opera that could travel and present the pathos of how we are creating sacrifice zones across the globe and species martyrs, including tree martyrs to breed. The other thing that we’re trying to do is to raise funds to continue the legal research so that we can go to a test case with a new site. For example, there’s one possibility now in the Berkshires that I’m tracking. And then we would have enough research to insulate the lawyers from the repercussions from corporate people.