terra0: art project, self-owned forest

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The relationship between art and capital is a cautionary subject. The collapse of the middle-of-the-line gallery and the hyper polarization of art worlds on either side results in a widening chasm between the high-end art work as an abstract trading device, and the subcultural world outside of capital support; which is largely imperceptible and in capitalist terms effectively inexistent.  To summarize the observations made by theorist Suhail Malik in recent talk propelled by these concerns: if art can be loosely defined as the interrogation of a medium, then artists need to accept capital as The Only Medium and let that be their starting point.

Here is a project that does exactly that: an artwork that functions as a tangible process of valorization. terra0 is a forest for which the artists, Paul Seidler and Paul Kolling, have provided an exoskeleton that allows it to actively participate in the system of capital with an attitude towards self-preservation at it’s core. Using smart contracts and dynamic data-sets the forest performs an ongoing analysis of it’s resources and can sell and buy back it’s own wood. It is an experimental and truly innovative project that gleefully traverses the nature and culture divide as well as revitalizing natural resources within the market place.

Such a project perfectly embodies Malik’s words- in terra0, the forest is weaponized against it’s own exploitation, with capital as the medium, starting point and stylistic finish (economic exchange). In such a case, art and economics become indistinguishable, operating in tandem as an effective valorization network. Indeed, without the insistence from the authors that the project is in fact an artwork (aside from another kind of experimental economy of which there are many) the ‘artness’ of the project becomes opaque.

The question ‘what is art?’ is tiresome, with an answer so slippery and subjective, so embarrassingly reductive, that is seems largely out of place within the contemporary art paradigm. As a result it is largely denigrated to a moment within modernism wherein art encountered and interrogated itself, thus breaching it’s own limits. Now, the riotous path of avant-gardism has largely settled into a kind of “energetic impasse” wherein the question ‘what is art?’ is mostly eradicated (at least momentarily) by the institutions that facilitate it. Largely it is the gallery that determines the ‘artness’ of a thing- thus the case of terra0 becomes especially problematic as it exists independently of a gallery infrastructure and therefore outside the necessary parameters of art’s identification as such.

What makes terra0 an artwork? Why it is necessary for terra0 to occupy that category? I posed this question to Paul Seidler, one of the artists behind terra0. He made two points in his response (emphasis mine):

1. Art doesn’t necessary need to work in it’s embedded context. If we build an economic unit and don’t label it Art it would have to work perfectly within a free market economy.

2. We would rather see it as a piece of Speculative Design in the definition of Benjamin Bratton, who argues that  “Art/ Design Can do Things that Science Can’t and/or is Not Allowed to Do”. With this definition Art gives us a frame to experiment with economic models without fearing legal consequences.

By interrogating this response we can isolate a newly revitalized aspect of ‘artness’: here, art becomes a license for dissonance, for dissensus, that retains an ‘external’ quality or critical distance from economic systems. By situating the project within an art register, space is allowed for experimentation and potential failure. However, in a project that is so glaringly useful, it seems strange that this response hints to a regress into art’s devoted ‘uselessness’. Perhaps more interesting is the suggestion made that by occupying the art category, projects can transgress economic modes into illegality.

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