Day 6

Making the trees sing: Using art to try to stop pipelines

Performance artist Aviva Rahmani has been painting trees lining the corridors of natural gas pipelines. The idea is to copyright her work and use those rights to halt pipeline expansions.

At a mock trial, Aviva Rahmani attempted to use copyright law to stop pipeline expansions

Aviva Rahmani describes herself as an ecological artist. At a mock trial this week, she made the case for the power of art to stand in the way of pipelines (Aviva Rahmani)

In the middle of a forest in Peekskill, NY, the trees form a symphony. Accented by the chirping of birds, their music swells, falls, and rises again.   

At least that's how performance artist Aviva Rahmani hears it.

Rahmani and her team paint the trees with the colour blue, then mark each of them with a musical note. Together, the trees form a sort of aerial symphony.

Aviva Rahmani was sworn in as a witness at a mock trial at the Cardozo School of Law on April 25. (Erik McGregor)

But these are not just any trees. They are trees that line the corridors of natural gas pipelines. Rahmani wants to copyright her work on the trees, and she says those rights should halt the expansion of pipelines in the area.

This week, the idea was put to a legal test at a mock trial at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

"We got a very considered ruling that was a little different than what I anticipated," Rahmani says.

The presiding judge, April Newbauer, granted a temporary injunction on the pipeline expansion and ordered the parties to negotiate.

From the point of view of activists, the ruling may appear like a cop out, Rahmani says, "but in the real world, we all have to negotiate."

Rahmani was a witness at mock trial. She told the court about her work as an ecological artist.

Aviva Rahmani and her team paint trees blue and mark each of them with a musical note. (Jack Baran)

"Ecological art in general looks at systems that are in a state of degradation and looks for solutions," she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

At the mock trial, Rahmani faced vociferous pushback from defence counsel Paul Coppe, who represented a gas company.

"Copyright law was not designed to give artists ... a sword for political activism," Coppe said. "That's essentially what the plaintiffs are attempting to do here."

The crucial part is to have a partner, a legal team, who would press forward the new legal ideas.- Aviva Rahmani

But Rahmani insists it's artistic interest, not activism, that sent her into the woods.

She says her work is proactive and it offers an alternative system rather than simply opposing pipelines.

Rahmani says she conceived of her project while looking at the map of a planned pipeline expansion. The route, she recalls, "looked to me like potential musical lines."

Artist Aviva Rahmani, right, is shown with her lawyer Gale Elston. (Erik McGregor)

During the mock trial, hosted by the law school and a Blade of Grass, Coppe told the court that granting Rahmani's request for an injunction would be a slippery slope.

"Where does it stop?" Coppe said.

"What is to stop any self-appointed artist from halting any project by the simple act of constructing something, which, standing alone, clearly would be a work of extremely dubious artistic value?"

Rahmani, however, says there is nothing simple about the interdisciplinary project she created.

"My entire career has gone toward this project," she says, adding that she also also put years of research on her PhD dissertation to create the installation. 

The mock trial around Rahmani's idea comes amid fierce debate in Canada around the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

Rahmani says her idea could be replicated in Canada.

"The trick, however, is not simply to create another measure of the symphony. The crucial part is to have a partner, a legal team, who would press forward the new legal ideas."

Right now there is no precedent around this matter, and lawyers are therefore reluctant to take cases like hers, she adds.

After speaking with some lawyers, she thinks it might be best to start her quest from scratch, at a new site, and develop the legal strategy in detail before starting the work.

Just this week, she heard of a possible place.

"Somebody said: 'Oh they want to put pipelines in Massachusetts. Please send me all the information you have,'" she says. "You never can tell how something will go."

To hear the full interview with Aviva Rahmani, download our podcast or click the Listen button at the top of this page.