illustration
Photo © terra0, terra0.org

N.B. terra0 is both the title of the larger project this work has occurred under and the collective title assigned to the group of artists, researchers, and developers working on it.

The original concept was developed 2015/16 by Paul Seidler and Paul Kolling in the New Media class of Joachim Sauter at the Berlin University of the Arts. The artists researched crypto-governance, economics and questions about the representation of natural systems in the techno-sphere. The result was a theoretical framework describing how a plot of forest could become an autonomous economic actor through technological and economic augmentation. The framework allowed for a forest to log its own trees through automated processes, smart contracts and blockchain technology. In doing so, it shifted the typical valorization through third parties to self-utilization and accumulated capital. As soon as it was able to procure its real exchange value, it bought itself and became legally and economically independent.

Shortly after, Max Hampshire joined the team and became an integral part of the project. The artists published their findings in May 2016 under the title terra0 — Can an augmented forest own and utilise itself?. In 2017 the project first received greater attention after it was presented at Transmediale 2017 and was published in the book Artists Re:thinking the Blockchain.

The first larger terra0 prototype was a piece of woodland in Brandenburg 30km east of Berlin (52°27'39.8″N 13°50'22.9 "E). On the 0.1 hectare forest area there were roughly 100 conifers (mostly spruces). The land was made available to terra0 for free for experimentation. The focus of this first prototype was on the inventory of the trees, i.e. the development of a sensor system and its evaluation and the development of a sustainable model for profit generation. Various experimental attempts of inventories, among others manually and with the help of drones, led to a focus on the evaluation of satellite images, since this approach involves the least manual instant-maintenance work and is therefore the most cost-effective.

A model for sustainable profit generation, i.e. a model in which the Smart Contract can bear the ongoing maintenance costs of the technical system, could not be found for several reasons. Firstly, even if an inventory were to be made only every year, satellite images are still quite expensive and can’t be bought with the capital accumulated through sale of wood. On the other hand, it was not possible to find buyers for the relatively (in industrial standards) small quantities of wood. This, together with the unclear legal status of smart contracts — and the fact that the woodland was not legally owned by terra0 at the time — led to the decision to build small, controlled prototypes.

These prototypes focussed on the granular-level relationships and components that would constitute and operate within the larger organisational frameworks that the initial prototype aimed to create. Two technical experiments took place in 2018: Flowertokens and Premna Daemon.

Flowertokens was ‘a first attempt at creating a combined crypto-collectible physical asset’1 wherein users could purchase, ‘trade, and speculate on tokenized Dahlias (Dahlia x Hortensis) via an online marketplace’2 . Each plant was located at Trust in Berlin, and was monitored by a camera. Each picture was then analysed by a CV program, and the attributes of the corresponding token was updated accordingly. The project outlined some of the practicalities of tokenizing physical natural assets, as well as highlighted several difficulties that future attempts would have to face, such as how to perform decentralized verification in a physical arena, as well as where in the tech stack of such a project trustless systems were in fact necessary.

Where Flowertokens focussed on the technical practicalities of keeping a digital twin in-sync with its ‘physical’ twin, Premna Daemon honed in on the social relations surrounding these peculiar assets, using the technical setup prototyped in Flowertokens as a foundation. Initially residing in the Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin — before being hosted by three subsequent institutions across Europe — Premna consisted of ‘a Bonsai tree (a Premna Microphylla), a web interface, several sensors and cameras, and a Smart Contract on the Ethereum Mainnet’3 . The hosting institution committed to care for Premna's various needs (water, lighting, trimming) only when Premna itself requested assistance by sending a small amount of Ether to the host’s Ethereum wallet. This Ether was donated to Premna by users via a web interface. This financialisation of interaction exposed the ‘the potential for non-human systems to gain the status of autonomous peers within their environment’4 , showing that ‘autonomous systems [could] engage in the form of relationships previously only occurring between humans', instead of existing merely as passive objects requiring human care.

Both of these projects, as well as operating as controlled prototypes for the building blocks of future DAOs, served a secondary purpose: to make visible the practicalities of how these systems might operate in practice, and to begin to test whether the presumed social interactions between the experiment and their surroundings would hold up over the course of their instantiation.

In 2021 — in cooperation with SculptureCenter in New York — another experiment will take place. A single self-owning tree will be legally represented by a blockchain-based limited liability corporation (BBLLC). This corporation will lease the plot of land (also in New York) upon which the tree stands. The land (and everything upon it) will be represented by a smart contract. After the initial human owners of the corporation — members of terra0 — return their shares to the corporation, it will operate completely autonomously, free of the need for — and possibility of — any human interaction. Once this corporation is properly instantiated, all of the code, documentation, and general information regarding this project will be released as a ‘toolkit’, enabling any person or group to utilize this information to their own ends.

The terra0 experiments have shown that ‘given enough time and resources, distributed technology [allows] nonhuman actors to be properly integrated into contractual relations.’ In a time of multiple mass extinctions - with yet more on the horizon - simultaneously ‘societal awareness of ecosystems as a spiritual and material base for civilization’5 appears to be growing; hopefully the ability to undertake large scale experiments will as well. terra0, however, is not made up of individuals who can take these experiments to a larger scale - hopefully the results of the terra0 experiments, as well as the code and documentation toolkit, will enable those in larger-scale organizations who can undertake them to do so.

In its early days terra0 was described as the prototype of an autonomous economic unit in a post-human future. Now, by retooling legal structures, allowing ‘rivers to become persons and forests to become corporations’, nascent legal recognition of the ‘organisational-structures-as-persons’6 terra0 originally described, although crude, are becoming possible.