By Nik Gaffney, An Mertens and Maja Kuzmanovic
If we understand the rules used to create, manage and destroy our identities, we can use those rules to create new identities.
Can you identify yourself? You can establish the basis of an identity if you can provide an answer to the questions: what's your name? where are you from? when were you born? To be considered a “natural person” a human should be able to provide a name, date of birth and nationality (or in some cases citizenship or ethnicity). A legal persona is not necessarily the same as a natural persona. Personhood can refer to a physical human being (e.g. a person living on the street), a natural person (e.g. a person able to produce state issued ID), or an artificial person (e.g. a corporation).
From one perspective, personhood requires institutions, bureaucratic systems and data. These three concerns work together to provide and maintain identity. However, with enough data a narrative can be woven through the data and meaning can be found; with changes in regulations institutions can change. From another perspective, personhood can be seen as the “invocation” of a persona within a system of entangled social agreements and contingencies.
How far can this idea be stretched? Could we use this process as a means of providing nature with a recognised voice? What better way to start than by establishing a legal identity for trees? In cities trees exist alongside various institutions, bureaucracies and data, and often live on after these cease to exist. Trees are cut down to make space for new real estate, restaurants and open terraces beneath their canopies; they are pruned until they can't survive without human assistance. All the while they silently provide shade, undermine foundations, recycle toxins, purify the air and fill us with a sense of otherness.
To explore the social and legal consequences of non-human entities being represented in anthropocentric governance structures, Heath Bunting and An Mertens guided a small group of enthusiasts through the process of creating a persona grata for selected trees in Brussels.1). Heath Bunting's Identity Bureau has been travelling to cultural events offering identities for sale; “demonstrating that identity can be constructed by placing an 'individual' inside the web of mobile phones, bank accounts, administrative correspondence and other person-related data. Identity Bureau questions the notion of personality by showing how an identity is constructed largely by material issues.”2)
With his previous experience in creating legal identities for humans, Heath Bunting took up the challenge to explore the issues surrounding trees as legal persons in the cities and nation states where they grow. Could trees become part of the world of human social fictions such as the legal system? Could they submit job applications or have postal addresses, access to library cards and bank transactions? How can “nationality” be mapped onto a species, habitat or niche? Could trees be entitled to legally binding rights? What does it mean to integrate trees as legal entities into our social systems, and how can we proceed with this? There are some precedents for this kind of thinking, such as the codification of the legal “Rights of Nature”3) and ecosystems in Ecuador's constitution.
We began each day of the workshop surveying various trees in the The Sonian Forest (Forêt de Soignes/Zoniënwoud) and in the city of Brussels (Brüsel/Broeksel). Following the practice of establishing a natural persona, we investigated available bureaucracies and social systems to find the age, name or gender of our chosen trees. In many cases, trees already maintain a functional and legal relationship with their environment. They produce oxygen, food and fertile soil; they may be catalogued and belong to the King. In Belgium, trees can be owned by a person, an organisation or an institution. In viewing their legal position in terms of preserving interests, there is a wide range of “users” or those who benefit from the trees' existence and may have a stake in their welfare.
The fieldwork inevitably led to many whimsical, practical and philosophical questions. What would it mean if trees had rights and duties? What if trees organised themselves into a political party – the “Party of the Silent” for example? Could a tree be wrapped in a corporation? How can we determine the “intention” behind a signature? Are leaves and ink compatible? Does inserting human DNA into a tree change its claim to personhood? We answered these questions using our botanical and legal knowledge, intuitions, assumptions and information available in the public domain (realising that there isn't much readily accessible online). The answers became elaborate stories that pointed to real possibilities. If a tree needs to be protected, for example, we can create a corporation to own the tree and fight for its rights. Nationality is irrelevant for trees, but arboreal identity might include documenting the tree's genealogy, geographic origins, information about whether its species is native or imported and (non)invasive. One central question that we kept returning to was whether establishing legal identity for trees would enhance the personal relationships between humans and trees. Alongside the existing a human and artificial personaes, we began to build a basis for an “arboreal persona.”
Several candidates were found to test this proposal, including the plane trees (Platanus) outside the Walvis cafe (scheduled for removal), the American oak (Quercus x) next to l'Eglise des Minimes in Les Marolles, a Quercus robur (French Oak) near Enfants Noyes/Verdronken Kinderen. We began by adding details to the narratives of each tree, which included collecting information and stories about the trees (data), checking the laws on trees in their local areas (bureaucratic system) and talking to owners and users (institution). We expanded the exiting narratives by asking ourselves “what if” the arboreal persona was as real as any of the artificial personae we engage with on a daily basis.
From the assumption that we can manage our identities and co-create the systems in which we are situated, we can begin to bring the legal identity of trees into existence, first as a story, then a reality. By treating something as if it is real, then codifying behaviour around it, the “institutions, bureaucracy and data” are created, co-opted or coerced. We are the system. There is no external authority imposing a system on us, we are the embodiment of a system and our “identity” is only a position in the system we occupy.