In Dialogue with Eliza Evans
Last year, after artist Eliza Evans learned she had inherited the equivalent of three acres of mineral rights in Oklahoma, she started receiving offers from agents for fossil fuel companies to buy or lease these rights. After researching the law, Eliza Evans learned that she could not refuse and that the property could be fracked without her consent if the neighboring property owners agreed. Eliza Evans says that since like most artist she does not like being told what to do, she took a deep dive on mineral rights and property law to see if she could create some options. This resulted in the conceptual art activism of All the Way to Hell.
All the Way to Hell is giving away fractions of this property to as many people as possible. Nearly 300 people are participating so far, and signups will remain open until mid-December. This aggressive fragmentation of the property drives up the driller’s acquisition costs and will impede their interest. All the Way to Hell is a platform for a new form of protest, the foundation for a 100-year sit-in. Although each fractional mineral property is minuscule from a practical and legal perspective, the space it occupies is vast. All the Way to Hell may be the largest land art project ever.
AS: The origin of your title All the Way to Hell is taken from a common-law doctrine. Can you give me the gist of it?
EE: The origins of All the Way to Hell is the common-law doctrine that property owners own everything in three-dimensional space all the way to heaven (ad coelum), otherwise known as air rights, and all the way to hell (ad inferos). Subsurface mineral rights extend, at least in theory, 4000 miles to the center of the earth. Minerals can be severed from the surface and leased or sold separately. In all states, mineral rights supersede surface rights making minerals the most powerful, racialized, and inequitable form of property in the United States.
AS: You have recently exhibited elements from your project in Ecofeminism(s) at Thomas Erben, curated by Monica Fabijanska. How was it represented in that show?
EE: When I met Monika, All the Way to Hell was an idea which she curated into the ecofeminim(s) show this summer with the understanding that the work would evolve even as it hung on the gallery wall. The exhibited work took the form of a framed mineral deed. Next to it were well core samples, cylindrical rock samples approximately 4 inches in diameter, which fossil fuel companies extract from various formations to assess content. These well core samples come from 2,000 to 14,000 below the surface in the Permian Basin, the most active oil and gas field in the United States.
I always intended the work to be more than an idea or a proposition, but I had little idea that I would have to consult with a dozen lawyers to get the answers I needed. By the time the show reopened in September, All the Way to Hell was fully functional.
AS: Your entry point is local and specific, yet it also tackles a complex web of societal and ecological systems. Tell me about this process. How do you approach this complexity and how do you approach it as an art project?
EE: All the Way to Hell is about the cultural constitution of space, even that space thousands of feet underground. Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness at Property” has been an important piece of scholarship that I return to repeatedly. White people have continuously used property ownership regimes to forcibly divest BIPOC and women of their property throughout U.S. history. Northeast Oklahoma land has a painful history.
The mineral property is located within the unceded territory of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the Muscogee Nation reservation boundaries for civil and criminal law purposes. Whether this ruling has implications for mineral rights remains to see. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees fossil-fuel company access to mineral properties on all Native American reservations and allotments.
Next year will mark the Tulsa Massacre’s 100th anniversary when white mobs acting in concert with civil authorities attacked and killed Black residents and destroyed homes and businesses. The Greenwood area of Tulsa is known as Black Wall Street because of that community’s entrepreneurial success. Some of that success resulted from the first Oklahoma oil boom in which many Black-owned businesses participated. Greenwood residents also owned mineral wealth. Researching what happened to these mineral rights is a post-COVID project when I can gain physical access to the archives.
I have never been to Oklahoma, but this inheritance is kept alive within the county clerk’s archives. Throughout the United States, this office records property using systems of mapping and categorization that transmogrify air, land, and everything underneath into tradable assets in the service of settler colonialism.
AS: How do you view this project in context of your other work?
EE: Many of my sculpture, installation, performance works are experiments. I establish the initial parameters, and the work unfolds in interaction with weather, time, and people. All the Way to Hell is a natural extension of this approach, but the media and methods—bureaucratic intervention and asynchronous cooperation—are radically dematerialized.
I have a PhD in social science, and for two decades my work involved investigating where individuals and organizations could intervene in socio-economic systems to achieve a desired result. This background is most evident in All the Way to Hell and was excellent preparation for this type of hybrid art practice.
AS: What are your aims for this art project and what is your takeaway so far?
EE: All the Way to Hell was not initially envisioned as a virtual work. I had expected to travel around the country from residency to residency to cultivate relationships and participants. For obvious reasons, that is not what happened. Even so, people from all over the country are participating and I’m stunned by the international interest. COVID has created a different type of opportunity to engage through virtual presentations and discussions with art groups, art classes, environmental organizations, activists, etc. A few mineral property owners have reached out to discuss what they can do to impede fossil fuel development. I am researching mineral property in a different state, so there will likely be a new edition of All the Way to Hell next year. The aim is to for All the Way to Hell to evolve into a platform for large-scale distributed noncooperation in oil and gas regions across the United States. In anticipation of the art world opening up late next year I continue to work on installation commissions, phenomenological engagements with this underground space, the contestation of which our futures depend.
All the Way to Hell continues its online presence.
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org