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December 3, 2015

COLLINS | Aviva Rahmani’s Blued Trees and the Fight Against Pipelines

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The relationship between art and law in the United States often seems to be characterized by the latter settling issues about the production and consumption of the former. Artists and consumers have taken to the courts to settle issues about the boundaries of obscenity, fair use and various other issues. A large part of what makes eco-artist Aviva Rahmani’s Blued Trees captivating is Rahmani’s desire to flip the script and use art as a tool to achieve legal gains.

This is not to say that Blued Trees is purely a legal maneuver. The work, which consists of “tree ‘notes’” painted with a “slurry of non-toxic ultramarine blue pigment and buttermilk” to “form discreet 1/3 mile long ‘measures’ in the symphony,” functions on multiple levels: musical, spatial, visual. Yet, Rahmani and her collaborators’ acute attention to specific legal details feels defiant and empowering. Rahmani, however, might say that the fact that using the legal system for the benefit of everyday citizens seems like a special act is strange in the first place. During an email correspondence, Rahmani stated to me that many activists are “baffled by a judicial system that seems rigged as never before, against honest citizens protesting injustice.”

Rahmani and her collaborators specifically seek to prevent private corporations from gaining eminent domain in order to construct natural gas pipelines on private property. As noted in the Blued Trees Symphony and Greek Chorus manual — a document created members of the advocacy group Save Burden Lake and expanded by Rahmani — eminent domain may be delegated by legislatures to “third parties, who will devote it to public or civil use or, in some cases, to economic development.” Blued Trees seeks to counter the latter case. The Blued Trees manual notes that the site of the Blued Trees overture — Peekskill, N.Y. — “was chosen … because it is the site of a proposed natural gas pipeline expansion [Algonquin Pipeline, developed by the Spectra Corporation] within 105 feet of a filing nuclear facility,” that being Indian Point Energy Facility.

Whereas Spectra and other corporations have historically benefited from wide-ranging implementation of eminent domain, Rahmani plans to mount a legal defense of Blued Trees using the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Acts (VARA). To again quote Blued Trees manual, Vara grants “authors additional rights in the works, regardless of any subsequent physical ownership of the work itself, or regardless of who holds the copyright to the work.” Thus, the ownership and composition of Blued Trees is especially important in not only an artistic sense, but also a legal one.

I heard about Blued Trees when an advocacy group that is fighting against Kinder-Morgan’s North East Direct pipeline in my hometown of Averill Park, N.Y. — Save Burden Lake — painted an iteration of the work. The Blued Trees manual states, “It is important to follow instructions for painting so that each site can be umbrellaed under the same copyright, and referred to establish ‘standing’ as recognized significant art in a courtroom.” In other words, Rahmani and her collaborators are legally proactive, taking measures to secure as many sites in proposed pipeline routes under the Blued Trees copyright.

I spoke with Kathy High — an independent media artist, professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a member of Save Burden Lake — about Save Burden Lake’s painting process. On Nov. 1, about 50 people (including three artists who helped Rahmani paint the Overture in Peekskill) convened at Libby Reilly’s organic farm in Stephentown. High described the group as “bonkers with enthusiasm, including people as young as teenagers and little children up to retired people, it was a huge range of ages and abilities.” Altogether, the group painted between 30 and 40 trees on Reilly’s property as well as three or four adjoining properties whose owner’s had given the group permission to paint. Furthermore, a number of Save Burden Lake’s members (including the group’s resident lawyer, Russell Bennett) drafted a manual that contained legal and technical information about the painting process. Rahmani later expanded the manual with historical and artistic information to create the Blued Trees manual. “Now with the manual, it can almost be more autonomously,” High told me, “People can have more agency to do it on their own.”

The realization of Blued Trees at various locations calls to attention another facet of the work: empowerment of local communities. Many advocates against the pipeline in my hometown report feeling frustrated with Kinder-Morgan’s willingness to ignore community desires in order to secure their own financial gain. Even when communities present opposition to pipeline projects, rulings from afar from government bodies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and eminent domain still saddle communities with the projects. Such projects carry great community health risks, not to even speak of the danger of natural gas compressor stations explosions. “People are starved for positive, orderly, beautiful solutions to exercising power … The strengths of Blued Trees include that it is cutting edge art (which makes it fun and interesting), they have agency, and the legal issues are understandable,” Rahmani wrote to me in an email.

I later asked Rahmani how Blued Trees balances the agency of local communities while still affirming Rahmani’s authorship, a necessity for copyright and VARA protections. While not considering herself a “social practice artist,” Rahmani states that she is “very interested in agency, democracy and the kind of systems that support the public good.” High echoed the same sentiment, stating, “Suddenly there was this thing that was kind of a community project and it brought the community together … People can really get out there and paint a tree and feel like they’re making art, like they’re doing something. That’s really the beauty of the project.”

Whereas Blued Trees uses legal processes in proactive and creative ways, Rahmani notes that Blued Trees’ effect on public is just as, if not more, important. In an email, Rahmani emphasized the importance of “reach[ing] the court of public opinion before [natural gas companies] can continue to destroy the entire earth.”

“We don’t need tons of money to fight them,” Rahmani continued, “but we can’t rely on the founding fathers’ vision of a fair, timely, FREE judicial process.” Much of Blued Trees strength lies precisely in this re-humanization and challenging of the current legal process. The Blued Trees Symphony has yet to unfold in full and will culminate with a coda performance on Election Day in 2016. Yet, regardless of what challenges and successes anti-pipeline advocates see in the coming months, the beauty and legal creativity of Blued Trees already imagines an alternative legal rule-from-afar. It is an alternative that is beautiful, multi-faceted and, hopefully, convincing in the court of public opinion.

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Morning Bowl of Surreal appears alternate Fridays this semester.