NORTH ADAMS, Mass.—For six Flame Maples, prisoners of “Tree Logic,” the fight for liberty has finally shattered the shackles that have root-bound them for years. Sort of.
In an apparent victory for activist organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Trees (PETT), the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) has decided to release the latest group of trees that have been part of the installation created by Natalie Jeremijenko in 1999.
The Maples were targets of extraordinary rendition, swept up in an art commando –style operation by the design engineer with little effort expended to determine if any particular sapling was an enemy combatant, or even a mild annoyance, to artists and other urban hipsters. After capture, the trees were incarcerated, suspended from a truss approximately 20 feet off the ground, where they were forced to grow upside down for years. Surrounded by the high brick walls of an old mill complex, the scene has been compared to that of the inside of a Soviet-era Gulag camp.
This unnatural, inverted immobility is one among a group of highly controversial treatments known as “stress” or “submission” positions. Despite the fact that these forced postures have been the subject of volatile discussions within the United Nations Human Rights Council in recent years, many plant advocates still stop short of calling MASS MoCA’s actions torture.
Even if the positioning of the trees in “Tree Logic” doesn’t fall under an internationally accepted definition of torture, the tremendous strain experienced by the Maples shows in their physiques. Season after season of reaching for the sun, fighting gravity while being gawked at by tens of thousands of museum patrons has left the trees twisted, their trunks bent, their branches gnarled. The wrinkles on their bark leave the passerby to guess at the actual age of the Maples, whose visages carry the wear of suffering of trees twice their age.
But is MASS MoCA guilty of inhumane treatment of trees? Horticulturalist Penelope O’Sullivan doesn’t think so. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, she answers the question of whether or not it’s “mean” to hang trees upside down for years at a time. “Nah.” she says. She claims that the trees suffer no long term damage and that previous detainees from the exhibit released onto the grounds of the Clark Art Institute in nearby Williamstown were eventually rehabilitated, growing straight up. No one has been able to determine whether any psychological damage, such as post traumatic stress disorders, is present.
Whether or not the the installation represents a form of enhanced interrogation techniques will likely be debated by botanical ethicists for years to come. Any long term program that “allows the viewer to examine and question [the trees] in new ways” could, arguably, put the organization at risk of running afoul of the Geneva Convention, should that treaty ever expand its protections to include plant life.
The museum itself admits that “ Tree Logic ” is, intrinsically, “idiosyncratic manipulation,” a term that could prove useful to the Pentagon and CIA, should they decide to transform their decades-old intercontinental network of black sites into a franchise of living art galleries that seek to illustrate the “dynamism” of the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East when “exposed to gravitropic […]forces.” Allowing the public to watch as terror suspects are exposed to waterboardotropic forces would encourage the people to ask “questions about what the nature of natural is” as viewers of “ Tree Logic ” do.
For the six Maples enjoying their first taste of freedom today, the comparisons are meaningless. Exhausted and in shock, the majority of them say that they have given little thought to questions about their political status or civil rights.
Said one unidentified Flame Maple, “I’m not even thinking about legal action at this point. I’m just happy to being going home.”
But going home may still be some time away for the former captives. Many urban green spaces are wary of taking in trees who may harbor resentment and hostility towards humans. Cities with major art museums, in particular, are hesitant potentially to expose their arts communities to acts of vengeance.
“I’m not saying these trees started out as bad seeds,” said a Pittsfield art museum official who asked to remain anonymous. “I’m just saying that after all these trees have been through, they might be better off in a transitional facility before being released into, say, a public park full of outdoor sculpture and Shakespeare performances. Isn’t there a nursery, maybe in Dalton or somewhere, where they could get the kind of treatment and counseling they deserve before being set free?” she wondered.
An arborist outside of Bennington, Vt., has, in fact, offered to provide at least temporary sanctuary where they would be able to undergo a slow, structured reintroduction into public with an emphasis on daily living skills For now, though, the six trees will have to wait in yet another locked, high-security facility for an indefinite period, this time under the supervision of the U.S. Forest Service.
Another Maple was less sanguine about the highly politicized release than its fellow captive, “This delay is unacceptable. Every year spent hanging upside down in MASS MoCA’s twisted Tree Logic has been recorded as a ring of anguish in our wood. It’s time for full release, apology, and restitution. I have I right to get started putting roots down, emphasis on down, far away from this brick prison yard and all its painful memories.”
As for MASS MoCA, the museum has made no comment on allegations of plant cruelty or whether more detainees will be brought in to replace those now on their rocky path to freedom.