Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Interview: Mel Chin

Mel Chin's Operation Paydirt Aims to Gets the Lead Out of New Orleans' Inner City Neighborhoods.
By D. Eric Bookhardt

Mel Chin’s art reflects an amalgam of the scientific and poetic. His work has for decades addressed social and ecological concerns in general, and especially as they affect economically depressed areas and struggling innercity neighborhoods in particular. In his 1990s Revival Field projects, he created land art from botanical “hyper-accumulators,” plants that can rid soil of toxins. In post-Katrina New Orleans he has involved leading scientists in his Operation Paydirt project in an effort to address inner-city lead contamination.
Eric Bookhardt: How long have you been doing this sort of conceptual-environmental art, and how does this Operation Paydirt project relate to what you’ve done in the past?
Mel Chin: It started with making objects that were socially conscious in early eighties when I began working with Amnesty International and studying the dossiers of prisoners of conscience. But there are difficulties when you talk about doing socially conscious work, and it’s not always what you think. Like, when I started the first ecology club at my high school in Houston in 1969, did I really understand what that might be? My understanding of ecology, or any social engagement, is really more of an evolutionary process where you approach it from a heightened state of criticality and understand that, whenever you deal with people, it’s not just about bringing a solution or helping people because that old caveat, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” holds true. So maybe the way to think about it, when I’m asked how long I’ve been doing this, is to say that it’s an evolving commitment.

So is it fair to say your Revival Field project of the nineties is what led up to this?

MC: Yes. One of my first solo museum exhibitions was in 1989 at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. It was as exhausting as every project since then has been exhausting, and then there was a period of self-examination. 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?” Well, 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 have formal structures integrated with political, sometimes historical, information in layers related to how the materials manifest themselves conceptually and formally. And then there was this other voice that said: “Ok --stop.” So I went through a period back in New York City where I didn’t engage in the so-called practice of making art or making objects. And I researched randomly, not in any structured way, and came across an article about plants that could possibly clean soil. It was actually a Terrence McKenna article in the Whole Earth Review. He, of course, was a great lover of psilocybin and datura, but I got very excited because I had come from a generation of land art, Smithson, all these things that my work had referenced in some ways back in the seventies. But this was in 1989, and I was excited in terms of everything I knew about process art and land art. So I said, well, if plants can do this, then this is a sculptural tool. And I remember being so nutty about it that I was almost like the guy in the movie The Graduate--but it wasn’t the Dustin Hoffman character, Benjamin--it was more like the guy who kept saying “the future is plastic.” So here I was after my first museum show, and I was going around saying “the future is plants, the future of sculpture for me will be plants,” and people thought I had lost it. They were saying, like, “Wow man, you better go make some art,” and I said: “It will be art.” I remember being so convinced that I saw this notion of plants transforming landscapes as a fundamentally powerful conceptual and physical process involving social engagement, and that’s why I was so excited about it.

Chin at Operation Paydirt's Safe House, part of the
KKProjects complex on N. Villere Street.
And Operation Paydirt evolved out of that?

MC: Operation Paydirt is about the delivery of so many things--of the imagination of children and the delivery of their art to request an even exchange, of money and services from Congress, and of the delivery of a solution to a terrible toxic problem. And 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 not about plants, this is about chemistry and science. Back in the nineties, Revival Field was a kind of iconic presence conveyed in many 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.

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 it has not yet cleaned up all the sites, more than anything, Revival Field was about the creation of a science. It involved meeting people, asking them what their dreams might be. My dream was to be a sculptor in a project that would transform an ecological system from a compromised state to one of health. So we tailored Revival Field to be a field test, and that says a lot about what we’re doing here in New Orleans. Operation Paydirt includes, which is a process of how you 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. And if you get an even exchange, what will it pay for? It will pay for a solution or a methodology. But you have to get that accomplished through a verifiable source, so we had to create that verifiable source. 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 model you can depend on that can also serve other places with a troubled reality like the situation in New Orleans.

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

MC: We’ve been working very quietly until this moment because this was the time for it to come out of the cold, so to speak. We did it quietly because it was essential to build the trust of everyone involved, and to test the methods to ensure that they were verifiable.

When you began this Paydirt project, were you initially thinking that plants might still get the job done?

MC: I heard during the months after Katrina that Common Ground (a Lower 9th Ward community activist organization) was following in Revival Fields’ footsteps by using sunflowers to remove lead from the soil. Sunflowers were never used in my process 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. Then 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 come up with a project of equivalent magnitude. So it all began with this kind of understanding.

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

MC: One thing that stimulated me was a statement by the National Resource Defense Council that talked about what Katrina had brought in, which was heavy metals amid all the damage. So I said I’ve got to see what I can do about that. But then came the moment when I met with Howard Mielke, a scientist here in New Orleans at the Tulane/ Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research--someone I knew from my Revival Field days because of the conversations we had about the plant/human transfer of heavy metals--and I had to ask him that question. I said, “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?” And he said the EPA was correct, it didn’t get worse. And that really begged the question: how bad was it? He said it was one of the worst, maybe the second worst in the country. He showed me the maps of lead concentration, and that still doesn’t always register when it’s scientific information involving parts per million. But when it involves 86,000 houses you have to ask what that means in purely human terms, and he said it meant that around 30% of the population of the inner city was lead poisoned before the storm even hit.

And he talked about what that really meant in terms of learning disabilities, poverty and violence and it shocked me. I remember telling him I was upset, and asked him how much it would cost to solve this problem, and he said it would take around $300 million dollars. Of course, when you’re a renegade artist sometimes $300 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 a child’s mind, future and imagination 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 project was born out of this desire to create a template, a lesson plan, wherever someone might be, to allow an opportunity for people to volunteer their expression in the form of a hundred dollar bill. Go to the web site and you can download the pdf template and the worksheet and you can just print it out on your home printer. Make sure they’re aligned properly front and back, and grab a pen and create your bill. And then go to and see if there’s a local 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 this almost Federal Reserve-like system of schools that are repositories and they hold the Fundreds there. Be patient, hold them there because we have an armored car retrofitted to run on vegetable oil that can go to every collection center school and pick up every bill that was 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. And we hope there will be in excess of three million Fundred dollar bills, which translates into three hundred million dollars worth of services or actions dedicated to the method of implementing a solution to the lead problem in an entire city. Now I know some kids have drawn thousand dollar bills and we will include them. That’s their desire. When you look at the Safe House (Fundred repository) in the St. Roch neighborhood, we’re talking about what’s valuable, and what is valuable is a solution that can be delivered. What is valuable is a city or a community that is cleaned of something dangerous that they won’t have to worry about anymore. What’s valuable is another generation not being raised in conditions that compromise the capacities of a child at birth. And that’s what Fundred and the Safe House represent— extending Operation Paydirt to the pragmatic level and getting it implemented.

You’ve said 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 and that is a tool to link your personal activities with the entire global atmospheric envelope through a software package that won’t tell you to recycle or anything, rather it becomes a tool of behavioral modification and psychology as opposed to a tool to reference your consumption. It involves another team writing software at M.I.T. So that’s been started.
We’ll have lots to talk about next time!

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. Safehouse is hosted by KKProjects and Jaohn Orgon.

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