Peter von Tiesenhausen. Photo via Brandy Dahrouge.
It's no secret the Canadian energy industry's pipeline development is rife with controversy. Enbridge, the company behind the Harper-approved Northern Gateway Pipeline and the ever-controversial Line 9, commits an average of 73 hydrocarbon spills per year. An internal memo from Natural Resources Canada conceded that tailing ponds from oil sands production are leaking into Alberta groundwater, while Enbridge's Line 9 Pipeline has a "high risk of rupture" in its early years.
Many of the proposed or existing pipelines run through, or nearby, protected First Nations' land—which bears the full environmental and cultural brunt of their construction. Despite being protected by Canadian courts, the federal government continues to issue permits, without consultation, on unsurrendered First Nations' land. And in June 2014, Vancouver police performed an armed raid of the home of anti-pipeline Kwakwaka'wakw activists for suspicion of "graffiti vandalism paraphernalia." Plus, in Alberta, thousands of workers employed by oil companies are facing a housing crisis.
Anti-pipeline movements, like the 700 km march across Canada, indigenous lawsuits, and encampments that stand directly in the path of pipeline development, are part of a gruelling battle inspiring people across Canada to action. One such Canadian is artist Peter von Tiesenhausen, a sculptor, painter, and video/installation artist based in Demmitt, Alberta, who has managed to keep pipeline developers off his land for 17 years through a combination of art and legal acrobatics.
In 1996, Peter claimed legal copyright over his land as a work of art, forcing pipeline developers to do expensive rerouting around it ever since. To meet with him, he charges land developers $500 an hour. When I heard about Peter's clever and inspiring pushback against the pipelining giants, I had to know more. So, I reached out to him over the phone to learn what it's like to beat industry conglomerates at their own bureaucratic game with your art, and where it fits in to the larger picture of the Canadian pipelining conflict.
VICE: So what triggered your copyright claim?
Peter von Tiesenhausen: Before the copyright, my wife and I were getting approached by someone every two to three weeks with a project proposal for our land, and because we were ignorant kids or whatever, we did allow a small pipeline through, under certain conditions we agreed upon over the table. When I finally looked at the contract, it had none of those conditions on it—they had just built on their terms and walked away.
So when I told a friend about all this she said, "Well you should just copyright your land like the architect, Cardinal, who was trying to copyright his church in Red Deer." So the next few times I was faced by these guys, and they're threatening me with arbitration, that memory came back to me and I just blurted it out without any kind of legal understanding. I did my research after that and actually claimed copyright.
As an artist in Canada you automatically have copyright over your own creations for up to 50 years after your death. So if you create something you retain copyright unless you sell it. So that was the part of that law that we decided to enforce.
So how did you claim your actual land as a work of art?
One of the really important pieces on my land was this white-picket fence. The picket fence is probably 100 yards or less, within 100 yards of where they wanted to build this pipeline. I [plan to] extend it 8 feet every year for the rest of my life and I've been doing that for 25 years. It got me thinking, where does this piece end? Does it end at the actual structure of the fence or the things growing around it, growing through it, that are part of the photography, the documentation of it? I realized at that point that [the fence], and the other sculptures and pieces and incursions and conceptual works, were actually integral to that piece of land and to my practice.
I had not intended for it to be a political piece, it was just a piece, an idea the follow-through of which at some point became poetic, you go, "Wait a minute the fence actually stopped them!" But the fence doesn't actually enclose anything. It's just a straight line. And it's marking something that's actually unmarkable, which is time. And one day it'll be gone, as will I. The land will be changed--but it was just this crazy irony that kicked into play when I was standing there with those oil negotiators.
Peter's white-picket fence. Photo via the author.
And how did the oil negotiators respond?
They came back and offered me a huge amount of money, after talking with their lawyers, I imagine. I told them it's never been about money. When you refuse it, they don't know what to do. They actually have no idea what to do next. What was interesting was seeing how much money they offered, and seeing my values measured in some degree gave me a huge amount of confidence and I started selling artwork. My sales started to go like crazy and within a short period of time I made the amount they offered legitimately through the sale of my work. Instead of compromising and have a line in the ground forever, marking out what your sellout point is.
When did you start charging $500 an hour for meetings?
Right after my copyright claim, I had a good friend come to me and say, "OK, say a real estate agent comes and says, 'I'm gonna buy your land and this is how much I'm gonna pay you,' and you have to take it." That would never happen! Nowhere else but pipeline drilling does that kind of thing even get proposed. Like you guys are all getting paid around the table and I'm the only guy that doesn't want to be here, and I'm not getting paid. That's ridiculous! Lets turn this around. You wanna meet with me, you gotta pay.
And you're ruining my day here. I actually have a really hard time working in the studio after I've been agitated by a bunch of guys that want to just wreck the place. So I said, "Well, OK I'll meet with you and the rate is 500 dollars an hour. And the answer straight ahead, I'll tell you now, will be no." And for a while they're willing to take that risk, but after two or three meetings when they realize the answer is going to be no, they stop asking for meetings because they're quite expensive. So far we've been able to keep them at bay, and they don't bother us at all anymore.
Your community is situated in a popular Canadian drilling region. Has there been more conflict there, apart from yours?
There's been all kinds of stuff that's happened in my area that never hits the papers. Supposedly, someone blew up a pipe just across the border in Tomslake, BC. And there was one sour gas well that blew right on the same road two or three kilometers from the alleged bombing site. The pipe actually blew out from sand corrosion on an elbow from fracking—they hadn't cleaned it out properly—and that thing blew for eight hours. The people in that area had to self-evacuate. Nobody came. Even when they called 911 they didn't come. Eight hours of "jet engine" blasting of sour gas into the atmosphere. Cattle lost their fetuses, horses got sick, and one of the women who lives nearby is sick, probably for life.
It's just unreal what those people have been through. Raids in the middle of the night—I even had special investigators [who were looking into the bombing] come to my house in the middle of the afternoon and demand my DNA. Two guys showing up with briefcases and a flashy red pickup. I told them you better have a warrant if you want my DNA. Anyone who ever wrote anything to Alberta health officials or complained was investigated during the time of those bombings in the Tomslake area. A lot of people got interrogated very intensely. I was lucky probably because of my media ties.
So there's a big history of this in your area.
Oh yeah. We had a gas leak at the gas plant just down the road that leaked for ten years. Ten years! And I complained minimum weekly. During that time my son was born with a congenital heart defect, which is what he had an operation for three days ago. And this is his fourth operation as a 21-year-old man. The first one was three months, second at three years, third at 15, and now at 21.
Every time I complained they would try to figure out what it was, and they always said, "Yes, there's SO2 and other chemicals in the air, but they're well within Alberta guidelines." So, OK my wife wretching in the garden and my son born with a congenital heart defect, and my other son develops asthma? I have my belief where it came from, but I can't prove it. The studies aren't being done because they don't want to find out that it's a problem. Some people are more sensitive? Well that's just the cost of business maybe to them.
What's it like to have been in so many battles like this throughout your life?
We could launch some kind of legal suit, but I really just want to make art. I don't want to fight my whole life. I'm all about having fun. I just want to have a good time, but at the same time within that, you can change the world, well maybe not the world, but you can have some influence. I think about those people who walked 700km [to protest pipelines]; you can't tell me they didn't have fun along the way. It's not all bleak, there is change coming.
Do you think there's hope for other Canadians who are in battles over pipeline development?
Oh man, I'm telling you there's never been more hope. There's never been more hope in my existence because there's a consciousness arising. There's people all over the place demonstrating, the occupy movements... they might not know what to do, I mean they're directionless quite often, but shit is hitting the fan. Look at Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest,for example, who says it's the biggest uncharted movement in the history of the planet.
Stuff is gonna change. It has to. Because we won't survive if we don't. So I have to believe that it's possible because I have kids. I mean what's the point of keeping Alex alive, and taking him into this surgery if there's no hope? Of course there's hope. I think it's gonna be frickin' awesome. I think the future is going to be fun, actually I'm gonna have a blast as long as I'm around.
And yes, I'm gonna see the restrictions that we have as possibilities. In the same way that, in a time where my community was dysfunctional, my partner and I led the construction of a community centre in our community made from recycled and local materials where people get married now. What you can do is see everything as an opportunity, everything as a potential raw material, whether it's people, politics, or a situation.