//An Interview with Peter von Tiesenhausen
By Ruth Jones
There are more than 840,000 km of oil and gas pipeline in Canada, most of it originating in Alberta. The existence of this contentious part of the country’s resource and energy infrastructure has been fraught since the lines began to proliferate in the 1950s, with tensions flaring when companies’ insistence on right of way collides with the interests of those who live on the land they seek to cross. Indigenous communities have mounted legal and material challenges to the unrestricted flow of oil and gas through their traditional territories. Organizations like the Farmers’ Advocacy Office offer information to rural landowners about their rights to restrict or enable the pipelines that crisscross the province. In 1996, Alberta artist Peter von Tiesenhausen took an alternative approach: by categorizing his property as a work of art, he created a situation in which any attempt to alter it—by, for example, traversing it with a pipeline—constitutes a copyright violation. The land, 800 acres in Demmitt, Alberta, a hamlet with a fixed population of less than 30 people near the B.C. border, about 77 km northwest of Grande Prairie, is now a pipeline-free island in a region crisscrossed by development. Meanwhile, as pipeline resistance has gained attention in the media, von Tiesenhausen has continued to make the place where he lives central to his work, spearheading the construction of the Demmitt Hall—a new, sustainably built community centre—and contemplating the legacy of his actions. He spoke to The Site Magazine editor Ruth Jones about his relationship to the place where he has lived and worked for most of his life, the importance of intention, and the reverberations small actions can have.
Ruth Jones (RJ) | Tell me what was going on with the companies that were trying to put pipelines through before the idea of copyright occurred to you.
Peter von Tiesenhausen (PT) | I’ve been doing this for about 30 years, so that was early on. I was about two or three years into it, and we—my partner, Teresa, and I—had no choice. The first pipeline was just to one well, and I tried to fight it—we asked for conditions, which they said that they would honour. And then, when the paperwork came through, it turned out that that we’d totally been hoodwinked, and they didn’t honour most of the things that we had requested. But we were naive and we trusted people, you know.
One of the things [in the contract] was that they could never go back to that location again; if there was a problem with the pipeline, they would shut it down and that would be it. And years later they said, actually, we’re coming back in. And we said, no we have it the contract, and we looked at the contract and of course it wasn’t there. And so, we decided, that’s enough of that.
By the time Alliance Pipeline approached us, well, I had sculptures all over the land, I’d marked the trees, and this was my primary sort of experimental ground for my work. And Alliance said the same thing, that you can’t really say anything, that we’re in Alberta and, you know, Ralph Klein is the premier, and we’re coming through whether you like it or not. At that point I’d build this Lifeline fence, that was the first thing I’d started on years ago, this white picket fence, and the ship, and boats and things in the trees, and just carvings into the trees and markings everywhere, and various sort of ice projects that were obviously temporary, but the land was definitely my primary focus. Because nobody would buy my work so… [laughing] I mean, my family and I always had enough to survive on but…
RJ | It sounds like the land, almost from the beginning, was a really big part of your working process.
PT | When I quit my job in 1990, the first thing I did was build this eight-foot section of picket fence as an experiment. I was going to watch things weather, and I was going to build onto that for the rest of my life. It was a commitment to a place, to a career, and I was not any kind of land artist at the time, I was a landscape painter. I’ve been building it now for about 30 years. I’m about to put the 30th section on actually.
And you know, one of the things that happened, and I’ve said this many times before, but I guess nothing changes on that front [laughs], is that once you start on a project like that, that’s going to take the rest of your life and that’s anchored in a piece of land, your consciousness towards that land changes. You know that you’ll be here on the last year of your life.
If I’m here to however long, until the day I die, then what do I want this place to look like? Where do I want to be in that last year? What will I be proud of and what will I be conscious of? What will I be committed to? And that has now led into everything from protecting the land here and beyond the boundary, voicing my opinion, and making commitments towards reducing my footprint and planting things that will grow far beyond my life, and also investing in the community.
RJ | Have the community and the land changed in the years that you’ve been here?
PT | I grew up not far from here. This particular piece of land is part of my father’s ranch, and I bought it off him when I was twenty years old. I’ve been here since I was six years old, and decided to live in this spot when I think I was about nine. I thought this would be the place where I would build a house. Now some of the fields have grown back to trees.
My family and I saw our community collapse over the years. When I was a kid it was quite a vibrant community: we had square dances and the community would get together for pot lucks and for card parties and that had all fallen by the wayside.
About ten years ago my community approached me—we were in an emergency situation where our old community centre was defunct and full of squirrels and collapsing. So I went to this meeting and six of us showed up, representing two different families and we sat around the table wondering, and the idea came up that we should have a garage sale and sell off the coffee urns. And I thought, let’s build the most kick ass community centre that anybody’s ever seen—pine-beetle-killed timber and straw bale construction and super-efficient and state of the art. Four years later, we had a two-and-a-half-million-dollar community hall which we built significantly on volunteer labour. And it has become the most vibrant community centre in the region.
RJ | It sounds like a very dramatic change in a community that’s so small in terms of permanent residents. I’m curious about the idea of investing in continuity, especially in light of the limits of the copyright. Not everyone can think about their land as an artwork and take that stand, and around you things have continued in the way they were going.
PT | Where it was often mis-represented was this story that I stopped the pipeline—no I didn’t stop the pipeline, I stopped the pipeline from coming through our place but it just merely went around.
You know, we were offered a ton of cash to allow them through, probably ten times what the neighbours were offered, and obviously we were poor artists, trying to make a living here and raising a couple of kids, and pretty much living under the poverty line for many years. I conferred with my partner Teresa, and she said, you do what you have to do, whatever it is. And I went back to the land man and I said, you know, I’m sticking to my guns here. You’re not coming through. And first thing he said was, I don’t even really like your art, but I’ve got to buy some, because I’ve never seen anything like this before.
I thought, if you put a pipeline through here between the fence and the ship, it’ll be a mark on the ground and through the trees, then I will always know what my sellout point was. I can look at that for the rest of my life and know what I’m worth, what my values are. But without that, it’s still pretty abstract. And, within a short period of time—after that, first of all my confidence was, you know, I actually believed what I said, right? And I said what I believed. My confidence was such that I made that kind of money through the sale of my work.
I’ve never regretted that decision, for a lot of reasons. And you know no one cared about it for twenty years, until pipelines became a thing in the news.
RJ | When did you start getting more widespread interest in what you’d done with your land?
PT | Well, I think it was 2015 or 16, or something like that. I was leading a residency at the Banff Centre and had given an artist’s talk. One of the participants came up after, and he said, so after your talk I posted your thing on my Instagram or whatever it was, and usually I get about six or eight hits, and I talked about your copyright and I’ve got 5000. And soon it was 50 thousand and my website went nuts and I was getting constant… just so many emails to my website that there was just no way I could respond and people asking me what could they do to protect their land, and would I copyright their land, and it was just, I don’t know, I was kind of terrified—book offers and news people and really crazy…
RJ | How did that make you feel?
PT | Well, it was just really odd. I realise how fickle the internet is and I was like, OK, well, this will pass. But maybe it won’t, right? I could start to think about paparazzi coming over or drones flying in or you know, I thought, jeez, that’s not what I want. I kept a certain silence too, because I thought for people who were looking for ways to fight the pipeline, maybe it would be more inspirational if I didn’t talk to them—they would see this guy out in the boonies somewhere who managed to do something and let their imagination feed on that so that they could find their own way. Which is, how I did it too.
I was at another Banff residency, years ago, and a woman by the name of Su Ditta had pointed out to me the Douglas Cardinal sort of copyright thing on his church in Red Deer. (1) He failed, but it stuck with me, so when these Alliance guys were negotiating, telling me that they were coming through whether I liked it or not, at some point I just blurted it out: Well, you can’t. And they went, yes we can, you know, we’re in Alberta, blah, blah, blah, well, I said, what you don’t understand is that this is not a field or a forest. And they just went, what? And I said, it’s an artwork. And if you disturb my artwork, it’s an infringement of my moral rights. I own the top six inches of this land—that’s what’s on my title—and if you change it, that’s a copyright infringement. They said, you can’t do that, can you? And I went, I don’t know. [laughs]
RJ | What was the process like? Did you officially register it or have to get it certified in some way, or documented?
PT | Well you know, I didn’t. This is the way I looked at it—if I make a painting, I own the copyright of that painting. You can’t change it—you can buy it, but you can’t use it for advertising unless I sell you the copyright. And you can’t change it without my OK, right? And that was all I needed to do as far as I could tell.
Of course, years later, somebody calls me on that. Somebody comes onto the land, ConocoPhilips, an oil company—we’d had a hearing with the energy utilities board, or whatever they were called at the time, and during that hearing I stated that if they come onto my land, it’s not going to be trespassing it’s going to be a copyright infringement. And of course, the first day they came onto the land. And unwittingly they took down two trees that had been marked, years ago. And I charged them for copyright infringement. And they said, yeah right, whatever. And I had—I don’t know how much of this I should say—but I had a good advisor who happened to be a copyright lawyer, whose name I won’t mention, but he wrote me up about ten pages of legalese and it really changed the tune of the lawyers of ConocoPhilips: the case was settled out of court.
They had bluffed me up until that point. I was pretty scared—I didn’t have any money to really fight it and I was going to defend it on my own. We were at the courthouse when they called. That felt really good. It set a precedent for us and after that I just bolstered it every chance I got: I got companies to acknowledge the land as an artwork, and I’ve gotten them to sign contracts saying that if they come on it they’d have to pay something like $500 a square foot. No one’s bothered us in years.
I met a guy on a plane one time, we were sitting in adjoining seats, and I said, so what do you do? And he says, well I’m a land man. We started talking and he says, yeah, there’s some crazy guy out here that [laughs] claimed copyright on his land as an artwork. And I said, really? What do you think? And he says, well, you know there’s a big red line around his property and no one’s going there. I never did tell him who I was.
It’s easy to gloat about it or whatever, but in the end, it was all about staying true to who you believe you are, doing things for the reasons you believe are the right ones.
RJ | I’d like to go back to Lifeline. You started it before any of this, but given that copyright in Canada extends 50 years after the death of the artist and it’s a work that’s marking your life, I wonder if how you think about that work has changed, because it’s not just marking the years of your life: there will come a point where it will mark the date from which that 50 years is counted.
PT | I’m conscious of it. It’s almost like a meditation that happens every May, where I have to take stock of where I am, my age, the way I’m feeling, how much time have I got left. It becomes more and more profound as I progress. It gets bigger as I get smaller and, well [laughs], it’s a very poignant piece. As I get older, and I’ve built those sections, I realize that the commitment is pretty profound. It’s actually a fairly unusual thing for someone to stay on the same piece of ground for 30 years or longer. Everyone is so transient and as a result we don’t notice things. But as I build a section, I clear everything underneath. I mow the grass and then I don’t touch it after that. In the first section there’s a tree coming through, spreading the pickets apart. There’s old man’s beard growing on the back side of it and the paint is all peeled off and it looks pretty old. And I’m going, actually, so do I. [laughs] I would promote that more people do these things. It is the thing, probably, that’s made me build the community centre. It’s a thing that made me commit to running on solar here and to get an electric car. All the things that I’ve committed to can somehow be tied back to that fence.
RJ | Do you think about what will happen to the land and to the fence and everything after you’re gone? It seems like with the community centre and everything you’re so much invested in not just the present and being in this community and on this land but in its future as well.
PT | I think about it a lot. I mean—everybody’s trashing the countryside here, but I also realize that there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. I can’t stop the gas plant next door from getting larger, but what I can do is prove that an electric car works in minus 30 and is more comfortable than an internal combustion engine vehicle. I can prove that I can produce all of my own gas and power on my own land. Those are the things that I can do and hopefully the way we live here might inspire others to find a general way to connect with the natural world. We need to build relationships with people who can see the value of living a life as true as they can make it. And that’s the only thing that we can bank on.
(1) In 1995, Cardinal brought forward a motion declaring that the Parish of the Immaculate Conception, by hiring a different architect to build an addition to Cardinal’s St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer, Alberta, had violated his moral rights—rights that are included in copyright and that protect the integrity of a work of art. Although Cardinal’s case was not successful (the court refused to grant the injunction requested by the architect), it remains the only time that an architect has attempted to challenge a client’s changes to a building in Canadian court.
Peter von Tiesenhausen is a Canadian multi-media artist whose work has led him through journeys both real and imagined. Based in the Alberta Peace country, Demmitt specifically, he has exhibited widely across Canada, in Europe, and the United States in public galleries and throughout the landscape. His practice has grown from landscape painting to installation, sculpture, performance and from simple media to complex combinations of media and multifaceted collaborations. He claims copyright on his land as an artwork.
Ruth is a writer and editor, she holds a PhD in French and Francophone Studies from UCLA, with research focusing on literary subjectivity, perception, and urban space. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Canadian Architect, and Quebec Studies.