Why you should care

They’re pushing the limits of what technology can do — and triggering a conversation about what it should not do.

Imagine a forest: trees, birds, maybe a few deer. Suddenly loggers show up — only not on the orders of any human, but on those of the forest itself. This is terra0, a project that envisions a self-owning, self-governing forest on the blockchain.

Terra0 is not some dark crypto project, but rather the latest work by Berlin artists Paul Kolling and Paul Seidler and British developer Max Hampshire. Collectively they have presented their work at places like Transmediale, Ars Electronica, FIBER Festival and Furtherfield Gallery, aiming to explore technology’s outer limits, while also hinting at its darker side. It comes at a time when even august institutions like Christie’s — which for the first time this week is auctioning a work created by an artificial intelligence algorithm — are pushing at the boundaries between art and technology.

The group first conceived of terra0 — the name a mishmash of “terra,” or earth, with a coding-inspired 0 — to highlight, and challenge, our idealized view of nature. “The whole distinction between nature and culture is obsolete since nature is influenced directly and indirectly by society,” says Kolling, a 24-year-old fashionable Berliner, in accented English. “A forest, however, is often seen as this last refuge of the natural, which deprives itself of any utilization. That’s why our technological augmentation provoked so many people.”

In short, terra0 is a forest that can autonomously sell its trees and eventually, using the accumulated capital, buy itself and become a self-owned economic unit. For now, it remains an artistic experiment designed to raise awareness, but in theory you could build such a program on the blockchain to make a forest represent itself.

The system rests on smart contracts, a blockchain-based technology where specific operations — say, an automated email sent to a logging company — take place only when certain conditions are met, such as sensors noticing when there is sufficient forest to allow logging. Once it is brought onto a public blockchain, the process can be decentralized and operate autonomously.

It’s also a process that upends our deeply rooted legal norms that attach ownership to people. If we have historically tied ownership to the concept of natural or legal persons, what then happens, asks Kolling, if a non-human agent, whether a natural entity or a computer program, gains the ability to own? “Wouldn’t this ability come along with some kind of personhood?”

Artists like Paul Kolling go straight to the long tail of surprising possibilities and imagine new futures through art.

Ruth Catlow, co-director of London’s Furtherfield Gallery

Kolling and his terra0 co-founders are part of a broader wave that’s ushering blockchain into the art world. Some are merely using the technology to verify the authenticity of particular works, but many artists want to go further. “Every system which plainly reproduces the old one is quite boring,” says Seidler, 29, who’s a head shorter than the lanky Kolling. “What interests me is using distributed ledgers as experimental systems where issues of autonomy, value and cooperation can be renegotiated.”

Ruth Catlow, co-director of London’s Furtherfield Gallery, agrees. “Terra0 goes completely against the more limited view of blockchain’s use for art,” she says. “Artists like Paul Kolling go straight to the long tail of surprising possibilities and imagine new futures through art.”

The terra0 team recently launched a subproject called Flowertokens. An experiment in digitizing commodities, the group attached a blockchain token or coin to 100 dahlias. The flowers stay with the artists, growing from seed to stem to bloom, but the tokens can be traded. Each token represents one dahlia, and the value of the tokens will fluctuate according to the health of the plant. In a sense, Flowertokens are a sylvan, artsy iteration of CryptoKitties, the Ethereum-based game where players can purchase, breed and trade digital cats — except that the tokens correspond to living plants.

Kolling and Seidler met at Berlin’s University of the Arts, where they were both studying art and new media and taking a class with Joachim Sauter, a media artist focused on digital technologies. Earlier in his life, Kolling says, he was drawn to traditional craftsmanship, which he still uses as an inspiration and foundation when conceiving of his high-tech art.

When asked to name his other artistic influences, Kolling pauses — he’s still in school, after all, and admits that his style continues to evolve. Then he chooses Panamarenko, a prominent Belgian sculptor known for his mixed-media reimaginings of airplanes, helicopters and flying saucers. Examining Panamarenko’s fantastical constructions and Kolling’s innovations in the digital space, what emerges is a common question about the fundamental limits both of the physical world and of new technologies.

Digital art that conceives of a self-sustaining forest might appear as fanciful as a flying saucer, but there’s another aspect that’s distinctly more sinister, says Catlow. A system designed to give a forest self-ownership could just as easily be used to automatically cut it down and exploit it. “There is the danger of making our nightmares real,” she adds. “And this reflects some of the dominant uses of blockchain, like cryptocurrencies, that are understood as environmentally polluting and greed-promoting.”

For his part, Kolling focuses on using his art to generate debate: “It’s not about chasing these technologies, I think, but having an ongoing discussion about them.” In this way, art becomes a vehicle pushing us to imagine what technology can do — and what it should not do. “Being afraid of a technology brings us nowhere,” he says. “As a matter of fact, it prevents us from understanding the real risks as well as opportunities which come along with it.”

Looking ahead, Kolling plans to continue mining at the edges of the digital realm. And in response to those warning of technology’s dark side, he’s quick to say: “There is no such thing as an inherently good or bad technology, and as artists, we should therefore investigate all possible implications.”

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