|collaborators||published||..||REALTY: beyond the traditional blueprints of art & gentrification, edited by Tirdad Zolghadr and published by Hatje Cantz (Berlin: 2022).|
Note: This Version is shorted from the orginal one which is publish and printed in ""REALTY: beyond the traditional blueprints of art & gentrification, edited by Tirdad Zolghadr and published by Hatje Cantz (Berlin: 2022).”
The origin of the word “forest” is the Latin foris, meaning “outside,” implying something extrinsic to the city/state and reflecting feudalism’s relationship to nature. The forest lies outside the nomos, the rules and customs of the city, which defines itself in contrast to that which pertains in the hinterland, woodland, etc.: “Outside of the law and human society one was in the forest. But the forest’s asylum was unspeakable. One could not remain human in the forest.”1 To the Western imagination, the forest is indeed haunted by nonhuman entities. Beasts, spirits, demons, witches, trolls, werewolves, and other uncanny creatures all dwell there. Even the fauna get stranger the further in you go: wolves, bears, dragons, giant spiders, and worse. Ambushes, traps, masked bands of robbers, serial killers, malicious eyes peering from every shadow, weird noises day and night. Forests can be cursed. In forests people disappear, go mad, become infected, or become prey. Even the trees themselves perhaps are hostile entities. But let us ground this idea of an “outside” further in historical fact. As Robert Pogue Harrison demonstrates in his analysis of forest law, the Middle Age forest was not a lawless space, as the term foris implies banishment, proactive exclusion, and also refers to legislation passed by the aristocracy to exclude serfs and peasants from their own forest lands. In fact, “forest” came into being as a legal term to denote woodland removed from the commons by feudal institutions.2 (An early form of ecological preservation was conceived and implemented by monarchs, who separated spheres of economic production from those of supposedly untouched nature. The forests of Europe are the legacy of an absolute regal claim to dominion over both these spheres.) This claim to absolute mastery remained hypothetical and tentative until the Age of Reason brought about new possibilities. With its mathematical methods and empirical calculations, the Enlightenment finally realized the dream of mastery over nature. While the medieval monarch had regarded the forest as a quasi-symbolic wild space, this changed fundamentally with the new sciences of the Enlightenment and, in particular, with modern forestry. By way of static mathematical formulae, the forest was reduced to pure raw material and yield, especially of lumber. The discipline of forestry reflected the two main intellectual schools of the day: Cartesian rationalism and the English Enlightenment. It was this synthesis of mathematical calculation and empirical observation which helped subject forests to the criterion of “usability,” foregrounding in turn the notion of profit. The Enlightenment achieved what was previously unthinkable, enabling the forest to not only be reduced to a material resource but to an economy of use—a usefulness embodied by the enlightened forester as a guardian of growth (it could even be said that modern forestry was born in Germany on the day in 1800 that Friedrich Schiller met a forester, heralding him as “free from egoism and tyranny,” thereby creating a figure of popular inspiration for generations to come 3). Forest management was one consequence of this new science. Coniferous forests and monocultures replaced mixed forests, and wood plantations were planted. Its influence on the first models of terra0 must also be acknowledged here. Our predominant cultural heritage remains to this day the Enlightenment Age.
These two conceptual genealogies—the relation between forests and civilization and technology underlying autonomous actors—are what led to terra0: a deployment of autonomous agents as proxies for natural-systems that use and own their own techno-ecological resources. We argued at the outset of our project that this could be realized in different ways and at varying levels of complexity. We first envisaged a feedback loop based on satellite data that would analyze a demarcated ecosystem, deciding which trees would be automatically sold to service contractors in order to maintain the forest at large. We imagined a forest managed by a smart contract without any human oversight. We wanted the human out of the loop. Despite an enthusiastic reception, including state-funded research projects such as terra1, the plan was never realized. On a speculative level, economic sustainability—the attempt to use the idea of “usability” against itself—proved a bigger challenge than we initially assumed. On a practical level, our hands-on experiment in a Brandenburg forest 20 km from Berlin offered too many obstacles to be mentioned here. At a certain point, we decided to revert to smaller-scale experiments, two of which I will briefly summarize here.
Flowertoken was an experiment that tokenized and verified natural commodities,5 a first attempt at creating a combined crypto-collectible physical asset. The project ran for four months and was arguably the first attempt to tokenize living plants. Users could buy, trade, and speculate on tokenized dahlias via an online marketplace. The state of the individual tokens was automatically updated according to the different phases of the plant’s growth. Every plant was represented by an individual ERC721-standard Flowertoken, held on the ethereum.org mainnet. The physical installation consisted of a grow rack, 100 dahlias, and a web interface showing the state of the tokenized flowers. The setup was monitored 24/7 by a camera system that provided images for the website, as well as data updating the tokens’ status once a day, according to the respective flower’s condition. Premna Daemon is an installation and prototype that was exhibited at the Schinkel Pavilion in Berlin as part of the group show Proof of Work (fall 2018). The system consisted of a bonsai tree (a Premna Microphylla), a web interface, several sensors and cameras, and a smart contract on the Ethereum mainnet. The Premna Daemon bonsai was augmented with technological prostheses that allowed for a financially-mediated social contract between the tree and the operators of the Proof of Work exhibition. The operators committed to care for the Premna Daemon (watering, lighting, trimming, etc.), but only when Premna itself requested assistance. It did so by sending Ethereum currency to a wallet owned by the gallery. The currency used for these requests was donated to Premna by users via a web interface. Instead of presenting another passive object in need of care, Premna Daemon showed the potential for non-human systems to gain the status of autonomous peers. By placing all interactions between a system of this sort and surrounding human actors firmly within the realm of financial exchange, Premna showed how autonomous systems can engage in relationships previously occurring only between humans. Indeed, non-human autonomy is not only possible, it can be crowdfunded. Premna Daemon is a move away from passive objecthood and towards financially-enabled peerage. Based on this experience, we are planning a version of terra0 that takes the legal implications of self-ownership to more rigorous conclusions. The implications for a fully functional terra0, as you might imagine, could be huge. One way or another, we’ll get there sooner or later. For now, time is on our side.
Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 61. ↩
Ibid., 69. ↩
cf. Walter Kremser, Niedersächsische Forstgeschichte. Eine integrierte Kulturgeschichte des nordwestdeutschen Forstwesens, Rotenburger Schriften, Sonderband 4 (Heimatbund Rotenburg: Wümme, 1990, 10. ↩