Artist: Caitlin Franzmann
Should trees have standing? is a forty-six year old essay written by Trustee Chair in Law at USC Gould, Christopher D. Stone. Published in the early days of the environmental movement, Stone asks what it might mean if things we identify in nature were holders of legal rights. Essentially based on a legal guardianship model, it stems from the idea that those things that are not able to defend themselves against humans, and that do not have their own voice, should have a watchdog as protector. It is possible that allowing the guardian to speak for the tree speaks more to the concept of human guilt than the trees' pain. But if we agree that caring for the environment is the right thing to do, then the question can be asked: how is this ensured? In one review of Stone’s essay, an academic suggests that we might imagine an army of trees marching into court, shaking their branches and producing affidavits made of leaves and signed in sap. It is an interesting image, akin to the hypothesis that, should we disappear, the environment could reclaim our cities in less than twenty years. The guardianship model and the marching tree image highlight a divide and an unwillingness to see our selves as seperate to, or rather, in charge of an ecosystem — the juridification of environmental decision making.
In a sense, Caitlin Franzman’s Tree-telling project, developed as a Liquid Architecture commission and returning to MPavillion during January 2018 for a fourth year, might present an alternate route to rights-making and declarations. If ones' encounter with art usually sees the object sit between us and the artist as dialogical encounter, in this instance Franzmann’s work is the dialogical encounter itself. Arriving at MPavillion, I am aware of Franzmann, but unaware of the Tree-telling per-say; it would be bereft of me not to relay this to you, self-reflexively as participant-observer. A frequent collaborator as part of the feminist art collective LEVEL, and more recently having worked with Kate Woodcroft (of Catherine or Kate fame), Franzmann’s concern is with our relation to the environment within which we live. Rather than speak on behalf of that environment, or altruistically attempt to retrieve a vitalist and/or mystical truth, she provides for us the time to consider it.
Naomi Milgrom’s homage to the Serpentines Summer Pavillion, this fourth iteration of MPavilion was designed by Netherlands–based architects Rem Koolhaas and David Gianotten of OMA. Operating as a temporary public venue, MPAvilion is located in the Queen Victoria Gardens opposite the National Gallery of Victoria, and houses events, talks and performances across Melbourne's summer, from October to March. Franzmann’s picnic-fortune-telling setup quietly disrupts the slick-designed-intimacy of the venue. Her fold-up-card-table-cum-altar for her hand-drawn-scanned-and-printed oversized divination cards, sits adjacent to an A-frame support listing appointments with the Franzmann-the-medium, a catalogue of the the cards and the mini iPods upon which the propositional encounter with your chosen tree shall be recited.
I consider the terms of exchange during a “normal” tarot reading — the touching of the cards, your body being unconsciously in control of how they might fall, the question to your self of whether you chose the card your instincts selected or whether to elect going against this perceived fate. If I am to believe it, my instincts (or fate) choose a card titled The Sky Bearer. The card depicts, in illustrative form, an Atlas Cedar (which I recognise as some kind of pine, initially) atop of a mount (The Atlas Mountains, one assumes in retrospect). I recognise the long tap root I had learnt about via a Norfolk Pine, on a windy night and a generous conversation with the owner of the cabins I was staying in on Stradbroke Island. It is a root that allows the tree to bend and reach deep into the earth to tap deep-flowing waters. It is from here that the exchange of subjectivities between Franzmann, the tree and I begin.
Seven divination cards, all inspired by trees growing within a short walk of the MPavillion. The illustration of the trees on the cards almost renders them place-less; to travel to them could mean to travel anywhere. Forking Paths represent London Plane Trees (a hay fever burden yet able to absorb city-scale pollution); The Well of Spirit is a River Red Gum; Phoenix Rising depicts Canary Island Palms; The Oak Door is an oak, its name a Celtic double; The Priestess is a Jacaranda and the newest card, Metamorphosis, the Australian Lilly Pilly.
As we walk, Franzmann speaks of her experience, the new cards, her past life as an urban planner and her interest in trees, which informs her knowledge of what will be transferred to me via the noble Atlas Cedar.
Native to Morocco and Algeria, and closely related to the Cedar iconographically appearing on the Lebanese flag, it is mentioned as early as in the Old Testament. The Atlas reference points to the Titan of the same name who was condemned to hold up the sky. I speak with Franzmann about my association with Aby Warburg and the Mnemosyne Atlas — the weight of memory and possibly history. This is not unrelated. As Wikipedia denotes, Queen Victoria Gardens, originally home to native grasses, she-oaks, wattles, paperbarks, and river red gums, the area now consists of ornamental lakes and sweeping lawns. The Cedar is an import in a garden whose name (Queen Victoria) reminds us that we are still in one of the colonies. Beside it, as if in exclamation of this fact, is a monument and bronze for King Edward VII by Bertram Mackennal.
We return to the Pavillion, and I am handed a mini iPod granting me a mediative and instructional return to where I have just been. More contemplative this time, as I walk back I am looking around at things I did not seem to notice prior - the couple feeding ducks, the speckled light, the silver grey throngs of the tree I am approaching, its pods, its location; the artifice altered. I am reminded of the time I spent living in Japan, amazed at how long locals spent looking at the cherry blossoms in spring - an allocation of time.
Perhaps a tree can only tell us how it stands via us thinking about its communication with us. I remember reading recently a sentence by Raymond Ruyer: To communicate by signs is to count on the consciousness of the correspondent, on a competence of the same nature as the competence which responds to signals, but which is no longer uniquely mnemic and which involves a great deal of comprehensive improvisation in response to the analogous improvisation of emission. Early last year, a New Zealand River was granted the same legal rights as a human being. Granted two guardians, one appointed by the crown and one from the Wanganui imi (tribe), we still might ask: are we masters or part of that which surrounds us.
Franzmann’s time and cards help to provide an answer to the question Should trees have standing?, which might be The Whanganui River is an ancestor of the Whanganui iwi.
Lisa Radford is an artist who writes and teaches. She is the Acting Head of Painting in the School of Art at VCA.
‘Tree-telling’ is a Liquid Architecture project developed for MPavilion.