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Art and Activism: A Conversation with Tim DeChristopher

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In December 2008, environmental activist Tim DeChristopher posed as a bidder at a federal land auction in Utah. He disrupted the auction by winning oil and gas leases on plots of land that he did not intend to buy. For that he faces felony charges that could send him to prison for ten years.

On Saturday night, DeChristopher traveled from Salt Lake City to LA to attend the closing of Andrea Bowers' show "The Political Landscape" at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. The partnership between the activist and the artist seems like a match made in heaven--and not just because one of Bowers' pieces uses DeChristopher as its subject. Guests of all ages (and species, if you count a dog in attendance) came to see Bowers' single channel video about DeChristopher and to meet DeChristopher himself. The positive energy in the room was palpable as people experienced Bowers' pieces, asked questions of DeChristopher during an animated Q&A, and spoke amongst themselves. Before the event, DeChristopher said that he hoped the event would "connect people" and make people realize that those connections are what make us powerful. It seems like DeChristopher got just what he wanted.

I sat down with DeChristopher to discuss his past actions, the present event, and his future.

The funds raised tonight are being donated to Peaceful Uprising -- tell me about your organization.
Peaceful Uprising is a climate action group. Our mission is to defend a livable future from the threat of climate change. We started right after the auction -- kind of in the wake of that -- with the general goal of encouraging similar types of actions.

What compelled you to go to the auction and do what you did?
I saw the auction as a confluence of several issues. The one that got a lot of attention around that time was the destruction of our natural heritage -- that these were beautiful public lands that were being destroyed. But more important to me was what I thought was the destruction of our democracy that this auction represented. That this was public property and yet the public had been locked out of the decision-making process. And the government agencies weren't following their own laws in the way that they ran this auction. But probably the biggest motivation for me was the threat of climate change. And the threat that this "drill now, think later" mentality represented to my own future and to the future of the people that I care about. We've certainly seen the results of that mentality over the past few months and its directly destructive impact.

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The event tonight also celebrates the closing of Andrea Bowers' exhibition "The Political Landscape." One of her pieces -- "The United States v. Tim DeChristopher" -- contains an interview with you intercut with video of Bowers walking through the plots you won. How did the piece come about?
[Andrea] just contacted me out of the blue. She emailed me and explained what she wanted and I didn't really get it. I'm not really an art person and she explained that there was this art video project and I was like "well, I don't really know what you mean, but you can come and interview me if you'd like." And so she came out to Salt Lake shortly after that. I didn't really know what to expect until I got here and saw the video.

How did you feel about her making this piece of art about your action?
I thought it was an interesting idea. I think most activism in itself is symbolic. And in a way, folks like the Yes Men call certain kinds of activism "art" because it seeks to create that emotional response or public response. So I think there are similar goals with activism and art. I think when they can be combined in this kind of form or this kind of media they can be very powerful. I've tried to take every opportunity to get my story out there since the auction and every opportunity to reach people. I'm a very literal person and focused on words and so my way of reaching people is very intellectual. I stand up and give speeches that are very concrete. I realize that that doesn't reach everybody; that's just the way that my mind works. So I always welcome other people who can think in different ways and who can take the things that I'm talking about or take my message and put it in a form that can reach people whose minds don't work like mine.

What message did you take away from Bowers' piece and how do you hope that others would react to it?
What I saw was that she really focused the role of activism and how we get to that point of action and how we can be building a movement. And I think that's a really good discussion that we need to be having, especially now as the model that the climate movement has been working on has catastrophically failed.

What are some of your thoughts about motivating people?
I think that all of the people who can be motivated by solid data or science are already motivated and have been motivated for awhile. We're awash in solid data and statistics. But it turns out that that's very few people that are motivated by that. And I think most people are more motivated by stories; they need real human stories that they can connect to in order to really be motivated. I think art and activism are both ways of accomplishing that. I think the reason that my action was relevant is that people were able to see the human story in it. It gave this human answer of how serious the climate crisis is. We've got all of these scientific answers of how serious the climate crisis is and I think what activism does is it says "this crisis is so serious that I'm willing to put myself on the line to do something about it." And the more that we can tell those stories and we can make them more human and saying that "I'm this economics student -- at the time -- and this is what I was studying and this is the job that I have lined up after graduation and that I have no criminal record. And I was willing to put that on the line and go to prison for a few years," that's the human story there and I think that's what reaches people. And I think art can do the same thing. It puts things on a human level. It reaches people in an emotional way which I think has really been lacking from the movement. It addresses those honest emotions.

And what is in the future for you?
Most likely prison. Mainly because one of the big developments with my case is that the judge has ruled out what's called "the necessity defense," the argument that my actions were preventing greater harm. And that was a really broad ruling that covers a lot of ways that we can go about explaining what my motives were. It makes it extremely difficult for us to even tell the jury about what my intent was at the time and so it looks very likely, at this point, that the jury is not going to get a lot of the relevant facts about the auction. It will be very hard for us to tell the jury even that the government has already admitted that this was an abuse of power, that the auction itself was illegal in the first place. There's a good likelihood that the jury won't ever find that out. And so of course that makes it rather unlikely that I'll be acquitted if they can't get that information.

You seem kind of at peace with the possibility. I mean, as at peace with it as you can be.
I have no illusions that prison is any kind of nice place. Obviously it sucks. The way I think about it is: I'm really afraid of heights. And I'd obviously be scared and concerned if I had to strap on a parachute and jump out of a plane. But if that plane is on fire, and plunging pretty fast, I'm not going to hesitate too much before I jump out that door. And that's kind of the same way I view civil disobedience at this point. Obviously prison is still a very scary place, but it's not nearly as scary as staying on the path that we're on right now. I think we're on track for a future where we have a lot uglier things than what we have in prison today.