From Field Testing to Even Exchange: Mel Chin

This interview originally appeared in ART PAPERS January/February 2009, Vol. 33, issue 1. 

Mel Chin’s art defies easy classification. An amalgam of the scientific and poetic, his work has for decades addressed social and ecological concerns. Growing up in Houston, where he was born in 1951, he worked in his Chinese parents’ grocery store in a mostly African-American and Latino neighborhood, and began making art at an early age. As a mature artist he has undertaken projects with an activist edge designed to provoke greater social awareness on behalf of marginalized peoples here in America and abroad. He is especially concerned with the social and physical ecology of economically-depressed areas and struggling inner-city neighborhoods. In his 1990s Revival Field projects in St. Paul, Minnesota, Palmerton, Pennsylvania, and Stuttgart, Germany, he worked with botanical “hyper-accumulators,” that is, plants that can rid soil of toxins in contaminated areas. In post-Katrina New Orleans he has involved leading scientists in his project Operation Paydirt in an effort to address the inner-city lead contamination that, endemic to this and other older American cities, was exposed to new scrutiny by the storm.1


Eric Bookhardt: How long have you been doing this sort of conceptual-environmental art? How does Operation Paydirt related to what you’ve done in the past? 

Mel Chin: It started with making socially-conscious objects in the early 1980s when I began working with Amnesty International and studying the dossiers of prisoners of conscience. But there are difficulties with socially-conscious work, and it’s not always what you think. Did I really understand that when I started the first ecology club at my high school in Houston in 1969? My understanding of ecology, or any social engagement, is really more of an evolutionary process. You eventually approach it from a heightened state of criticality, understanding that, whenever you deal with people, it’s not just about helping or bringing a solution. The old caveat, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” does hold true. So now, when I’m asked how long I’ve been doing this, I say that it’s an evolving commitment.

EB: Would it be fair to say that your Revival Field project is what led up to Operation Paydirt? 

MC: Yes. The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. presented one of my first solo museum exhibitions in 1989. It was as exhausting as every project has been since then. A period of self-examination followed. I recall being in an elevator, coming down from the exhibition and talking to myself: “Mel, what do you love—what do you love more than anything else?” What I loved more than anything else was to research and destroy my preconceived notions. And I loved making things with my hands, creating objects that meld formal structures with political, and sometimes historical, information, multidimensional objects whose materials encompass concept and form. And then another voice said: “OK—stop.”

Back in New York City, I went through a period when I didn’t make any objects or engage in the so-called practice of making art. I researched randomly, not in any structured way, and came across Terence McKenna’s article about plants that could clean soil in Whole Earth Review. He, of course, was a great lover of psilocybin and datura. I got very excited because I had come of age with process art and land art, with Smithson and his generation. My own work had referenced all these things in some ways back in the 1970s. But this was 1989. So I said, “Well, if plants can do this, then this is a sculptural tool.” I remember being so nutty about it that I was almost like the guy who keeps saying, “The future is plastic,” in the movie The Graduate. Here I was, after my first museum show, going around saying, “The future is plants, the future of sculpture for me will be plants.” People thought I had lost it. They were saying, “Wow, man, you better go make some art,” and I said, “It will be art.” I remember being so convinced by this notion of plants transforming landscapes, by the fundamental power of this conceptual and physical process involving social engagement. That’s why I was so excited about it.

EB: How did Operation Paydirt evolve out of that?

MC: Operation Paydirt is about delivery. It’s about delivering so many things: the imagination of children and their art to request an even exchange; money and services from Congress; and a solution to a terrible toxic problem. It’s also about the delivery of a city that can help deliver other cities from a similar fate. Revival Field was about plants, but this is about chemistry and science. Back in the 1990s, Revival Field gained an iconic presence thanks to its ubiquity in art publications. But even then, in my earliest abstract, I spoke of it as a kind of temporal manifestation that would evolve into another process or possibility.

EB: So how did it evolve from plants into this?

MC: The idea was that the plants were hyper-accumulators that could absorb heavy metals and be recycled or even sold. Although Revival Field has not yet cleaned up all the sites, the project was, more than anything, about the creation of a science. It involved meeting people, asking them about their dreams. My dream was to be a sculptor in a project that would transform an ecological system from a compromised state to health. So we tailored Revival Field to be a field test—which says a lot about what we’re doing here in New Orleans. Operation Paydirt includes Fundred.org, which aims to gather and accumulate the voices of those who have been most affected by lead, deliver them conclusively, and get an even exchange of value out of that. What will this eventual exchange pay for? It will pay for a solution or a methodology.

But you have to get that accomplished through a verifiable source, which we had to create. Has it ever been done before? No, it’s been done in a Superfund situation but not in a citywide urban context, so that’s another level of engagement. For that you need a dependable model, which can also serve other places with a trouble situation like New Orleans.

EB: You have been very low-key about this, almost secretive, since you began working on this project. Will that start to change now?

MC: During the months after Katrina, I heard that Common Ground—a Lower Ninth Ward community activist organization—was following in Revival Field’s footsteps by using sunflowers to remove lead from the soil. I never used sunflowers, and I think more verifiable research needs to be done on that. We all should be careful to not give the people of New Orleans any false hope. When I got here, I was not even remotely prepared for the level of devastation I encountered. Even months later, I felt a sense of inadequacy. It was like, how do you do something on this scale? I became obsessed, coming back again and again, to try to develop a project of equivalent magnitude. So it all began with this kind of understanding.

EB: How did you arrive at your current, chemistry-based, approach to lead remediation? 

MC: In a document about the aftermath of Katrina, the National Resource Defense Council mentioned heavy metals amid all the damage. So I said, “I’ve got to see what I can do about that.” Then I met with Howard Mielke, a scientist here in New Orleans at the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research—whom I knew from my Revival Field days because of our conversations about the plant/human transfer of heavy metals—and asked him, “Howard, the NRDC says it got bad here because of the storm, but the EPA says it didn’t get any worse. Who’s right?” He said that the EPA was correct, that it didn’t get any worse. Which really begged the question: how bad was it? He said it was one of the worst sites, maybe the second worst in the country. He showed me the maps of lead concentration. That doesn’t always register when the scientific information is couched in parts per million. But when you understand that it involves 86,000 houses, you have to ask what that means in purely human terms. He said it meant that around thirty percent of the inner-city population was lead-poisoned before the storm even hit. And he talked about what that meant in terms of learning disabilities, poverty, and violence. I was shocked and upset. I remember asking him how much it would cost to solve this problem. He said it would take around three hundred million dollars. Of course, when you’re a renegade artist, sometimes three hundred dollars is a lot of money. But I didn’t blink. I just said, “Howard, I can’t raise that much money, but we will make that much money.” I didn’t say it had to be real money, but I thought that if children’s minds, futures, and imaginations were going to be compromised by this well-documented agent called lead, it was important to have their voice out there, out front. They need to be the ones to deliver the message. I decided to design a project that would be a catalyst for that to happen. But with so many children scattered all over the country after the storm, it had to be something that could be done wherever they were while still retaining its meaning. So how could that happen? The Fundred.org project was born out of this desire to create a template, a lesson plan, that gives people an opportunity to volunteer their expression in the form of a hundred dollar bill, wherever they might be. You can download the .pdf template and the worksheet at Fundred.org, and print them out on your home printer. Make sure they’re properly aligned front and back, grab a pen, and create your bill. At Fundred.org, you can also see if there’s a school collection center close to you, or if you want to be an operative, get a school to sign up as a collection center. Now we have a system of schools that is almost Federal Reserve-like insofar as they are repositories that hold the Fundreds. We also have an armored car retrofitted to run on vegetable oil that will go to every collection center school and pick up every bill drawn by every person. We will deliver them on the steps of Congress, when the time comes, for an even exchange for their face value. We hope there will be over three million Fundred dollar bills, which equates three hundred million dollars worth of services or actions dedicated to the implementation of a solution to the lead problem in an entire city. Some kids have drawn thousand dollar bills and we will include them. That’s their desire. When you look at Safehouse (Fundred repository) in the St. Roch neighborhood, we’re talking about what’s valuable—that is, a solution that can be delivered.2 What is valuable is a city that is rid of something dangerous, a community that doesn’t have to worry about poisoning anymore. What’s valuable is raising another generation in conditions that do not compromise children’s capacities at birth. That’s what Fundred and Safehouse represent—extending Operation Paydirt to the pragmatic level and getting it implemented.

EB: You’ve said that this is the biggest project you’ve ever worked on. Are you currently working on anything else?

MC: Yes, I’m working on a project that involves the invention of a widget that can be inserted into any cell phone or computer anywhere in the world. This tool will link your personal activities to the entire global atmospheric envelope. Instead of referencing your consumption, by telling you to recycle and so on, the software will become a tool of behavioral modification. That’s been started with another team writing software at M.I.T.

EB: We’ll have lots to talk about next time! 


References   [ + ]

1. Operation Paydirt is made possible in part with support from Transforma Projects / National Performance Network (NPN) with major contributions from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The American Center Foundation, Creative Capital and Project Row Houses.
2. Safehouse is hosted by KKProjects and Jaohn Orgon.