Art

How Land Art Lived and Died to Stop a Fracked-Gas Pipeline — And How It Lives Again

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One Sunday afternoon last June, with the sun arcing over the Peekskill community of Reynolds Hills, a group of neighbors and children armed with pails of blue buttermilk slurry and maps walked slowly through the forest. Stopping occasionally, they adorned chosen tree trunks with ribbons of blue paint, in the shape of waves. “Paint like your life depends upon it,” a striking woman, all gray-brown hair and kohl-lined eyes, implored the painters. “Because it does!”

The woman’s name was Aviva Rahmani, and her project, Blued Trees, was a novel strategy for stopping the construction of a fracked-gas pipeline — in this case, Spectra Energy’s 42-inch Algonquin Incremental Market (or AIM) pipeline, which would pass within 105 feet of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant’s backup electrical facilities and had been approved just months earlier. Viewed from above, the painted trees appeared to array themselves musically, the notes to an undulating score; it was the overture to an ongoing symphonic sculpture, a William Tell for the American public, in whose name new pipelines have been getting rapidly rubber-stamped.

By copyrighting the installation under the Visual Artists Rights Act, Rahmani, a former collaborator of feminist artists including Suzanne Lacy and Judy Chicago, hoped to pose a question to the federal government before it seized private property for a pipeline it deemed to be in the “public interest”: Do Spectra’s profits trump the rights of landowners, communities, and artists? “I want to see this go viral,” Rahmani told me at the time. “Either they back down or, if they don’t, then it becomes such a spectacle that the public at least becomes aware of what they’re doing.”

And like a meme, the idea has spread. In the year since its installation, other movements of the Blued Trees symphony have gone up elsewhere in the country, several located along the routes of other proposed gas pipelines: the New Market in Oneida County; the Northeast Direct in Rensselaer County; the Mountain Valley in Blacksburg, Virginia; and the Atlantic Sunrise in Conestoga, Pennsylvania. For concerned residents frustrated by the limits of traditional protest tactics and stonewalled by pipeline companies and the institution (namely, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) giving them a long leash, Blued Trees has come to symbolize — in a powerfully visual way — the absurdity of a political system that props up the rights of corporations. And in the process, it’s taken on a life of its own.

The idea for Blued Trees originated in the Canadian tar sands. Two decades ago, pipeline companies were knocking at the door of the land artist Peter von Tiesenhausen, seeking permission to traverse his northwestern Alberta farm. He responded by copyrighting his land as a work of art and charging $500 per hour to speak with developers. Faced with what promised to be a colossal nuisance, they backed off. To this day, they haven’t returned.

The story caught the eye of Gusti Bogok and her activist group Frackbusters, which for years had been working to fend off several new gas pipelines set to crisscross the state. (None would be covered under New York State’s ban on fracking: They all traversed state boundaries, placing them under the jurisdiction of FERC, which has rejected very few pipelines in its history.)

Bogok tapped Rahmani, an old acquaintance, to create a project similar to von Tiesenhausen’s. Maybe they could copyright some trees along one of the pipeline routes? Rahmani was intrigued. She’d long used art to intervene at “trigger points” where local communities were already beginning to agitate, including a Maine project called Blue Rocks that drew attention to the tidal blockage created by a causeway. Blued Trees was a natural next step — although she nixed the idea of copyrighting trees; it too closely echoed Monsanto’s copyrighting of seeds. Instead, she copyrighted the artwork as a whole.

While Rahmani considers Blued Trees a piece of art first and foremost — “to stop the pipeline process is an interest of mine, but as an artist, my primary interest is…to make an amazing, intercontinental piece,” she says — for those whose lives stand to be altered by the pipeline, it’s something of a Hail Mary pass.

Nancy Vann, the former Wall Street mutual fund lawyer on whose Reynolds Hills property Blued Trees was installed, says she gave Rahmani permission to put it up because other tactics hadn’t worked — and because the consequences of inaction were so dire. There were the local concerns: potential methane emissions, Spectra’s reportedly weak emergency measures. Then there was Indian Point, nicknamed “Fukushima on the Hudson” for the devastating effects that could result, extending to the NYC metro area, were a pipeline explosion to precipitate a meltdown. How could FERC conclude that AIM posed no safety threat to Indian Point, Vann asked, wryly pointing out that its assessment came not from an independent scientist but from the Entergy Corporation, which owns the plant, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?

“Nothing has stopped this juggernaut that’s just going through the area and seems to be unstoppable,” she told me, her voice oddly serene. “However, we keep on going.”

She hoped that copyrighting Blued Trees would force Spectra to reconsider its construction plans or risk violating Rahmani’s moral rights as an artist — which include the right not to have her work shown in altered or distorted form. When I visited Vann in November, she pointed out the painted trees dotting Reynolds Hills. Near a clearing was one with a smudge of blue; there was another in the distance, the blue faded but distinct. From a bird’s-eye perspective, Blued Trees brings to mind classic works of land art that draw out patterns in nature by clothing it anew — like those of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, perhaps, or Robert Smithson. But walking through it, the blued trees hide from view, transforming the forest itself into an artwork; it was like exploring an installation that painstakingly reproduces an environment, as Chinese artist Song Dong does in Communal Courtyard, a re-creation of Beijing’s dying alleyways, or hutongs. Where are the painted trees? One begins to examine the woods as a whole, noting how the sunlight and shadows produce color. Is that bluish tint just a natural growth?

Spectra didn’t see it that way. It claimed that Blued Trees was ineligible for copyright; the work, it stated, would “naturally deteriorate” and, absent major coverage from arts publications, did not possess “recognized stature.” (It also claimed Rahmani had plagiarized a 2005 artwork by Konstantin Dimopoulos called The Blue Trees — although Rahmani’s Blue Rocks dates to 2002 — and reminded her that it could seek “full costs” from her over delays to construction.) The Visual Artists Rights Act does state that artworks need to be of “recognized stature” to be protected, though how that is determined remains up for debate. But Michael Royce, editorial director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, says there’s a strong case to be made that Blued Trees “expands the boundaries of traditional sculpture installations and symphonic orchestration by allowing for a fluid interplay of music and physical experience…with the viewer as participant or observer.”

But Spectra was moving ahead, and soon its contractors showed up — with giant electric saws. Protesters helped Vann defend the trees. Jessica Rechtschaffer, a New York City–based activist who grew up in nearby Croton-on-Hudson, climbed into a tree, employing the environmental movement’s most oft-staged tactic. “How do you save a tree?” she later asked. Her answer was to stay perched in a succession of them for much of the day; when she finally gave up, a chill had crept into the air, a reminder of winter’s onset. By the next morning — six months after its installation — Blued Trees was gone.

The first iteration of Blued Trees couldn’t stop the pipeline, but as an artwork, its destruction by Spectra paradoxically lends it greater meaning: In no longer being allowed to pose the open question of what society considers the public good, it serves as evidence that it’s industry that gets to choose.

But when is protest considered to have failed? As resistance has accreted, political support for AIM has crumbled: In February, Governor Andrew Cuomo requested that FERC halt construction on AIM (he was promptly denied), with senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand following suit in mid-May. The City of Boston and twenty grassroots organizations have filed a lawsuit in federal court over FERC’s decision. None of this has deterred Spectra or altered the agency’s decision. Spectra tells the Voice that while it respects the right to peaceful protest, it does “not condone actions that directly interfere with” its FERC-authorized activities. It plans to complete AIM by November.

As new pipelines continue metastasizing across the eastern U.S., the “trigger points” Rahmani is seeking — the places where local frustration is already bubbling — are not only propagating but also converging on targets bigger than any one pipeline. After all, AIM is just the first of three connected Spectra pipelines that FERC will be evaluating. Vann’s war could continue for years: If the agency approves the other two pipelines (the Atlantic Bridge and the Access Northeast), gas flowing through AIM could reach an export terminal in Nova Scotia by 2021.

At the same time, resistance to this growing network of pipelines is increasingly harnessing the potential of visual symbols. Had it been installed at another time or in another place, and without the environmental high stakes, a shipping container designed to house protesters for two weeks and deposited on a Spectra worksite to block construction in May might have been construed as performance art in the vein of Tehching Hsieh’s Cage Piece (in which the legendary Taiwanese artist spent a year locked in a cage). And in mid-June, activists erected a giant tripod along AIM’s route — a work that recalls the surveillance art of Trevor Paglen or Jill Magid — as if to say to Spectra, We are surveying you, too.

The proliferation of Blued Trees, meanwhile, continues to mimic the actions of the people who have blocked pipeline constructions and perched in trees: going up and, in some cases, coming down. Those that have been felled offer an eerie parallel to the pileup of arrests along the pipelines’ routes. But like any potent meme, the installation provides an image that transcends any one protest — or, for that matter, what any individual human activist can accomplish.

“Once I designed the project, I released it into the world and just trusted that others would do it right,” said Rahmani of Blued Trees. “We’ve all become part of the same habitat, and we’re all infected in the same ways.”

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