Mel Chin

As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler | ARTFORUM

“Mel Chin: Rematch,” a traveling retrospective organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art and curated by NOMA’s Miranda Lash, presents more than seventy works and documents related to Chin’s collective interventions. Chin is perhaps best known for Operation Paydirt, 2006, a project that supports solutions to end childhood lead poisoning. As part of the endeavor’s ongoing efforts, in 2014 Operation Paydirt will host a “Make It Real” meeting, convening at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), which will bring together leaders in the effort against lead poisoning to review evidence, directives, and potential solutions. “Rematch” is on view at NOMA from February 21 to May 25, 2014.

I USED TO TELL PEOPLE that instead of being an “emerging” artist, I’m really a “submerging” artist—a disappearance artist—and likewise this exhibition is more of a nonretrospective. Take GALA Committee, a project that inserted 200 different props into the TV series Melrose Place during production—it was a collaboration I did with a team of artists from CalArts in Los Angeles and the University of Georgia, as well as the show’s producers and writers. As a joint effort, GALACommittee was meant to examine the one-dimensional surface of commercial, primetime television that we all know so well. We tried to understand that surface as something that wants you to feel a little less psychologically secure about yourself—you’re never going to look good enough, be thin enough. We didn’t want to subvert TV per se—popular culture had already been critiqued for so many years-but instead we wanted to enter it as a collaboration, to insert something viral in its viral life, as of course these shows repeat, with reruns that show our virus still airing today.

The exhibition will also highlight The Fundred Dollar Bill Project and Operation Paydirt. Each represents hundreds of thousands—millions, even—of individuals who decided to make counterfeit money and sent it to me with the idea of an eventual exchange for real capital to support a process of eradicating childhood lead poisoning. Studies have shown that a person who has been compromised by lead poisoning has a propensity for violence. If we all looked closely at the relationship between acts of violence and environmental toxins, overlaying that information with statistics regarding incarceration and homicide, it would be shocking. Presentation Pallet for the Fundreds of America is gilded oak pallet designed to display the thousands of Fundreds collected over the years by Operation Paydirt. The project continues to generate thousands of children’s drawings of these Fundreds; each represents the value of an individual’s expression as a “vote” for a solution to childhood lead poisoning. It’s an opportunity to give a child a voice in the matter, to encourage lawmakers to accept the evidence of what’s happening as well as physically transform the environment they represent. With Presentation Pallet for the Fundreds, a pallet of open bonds for this show, we’re making a gift that will support this eventual donation.

These are not heroic acts but rather demonstrations to gather meaning so that we can solve problems together. It’s not about creating something that will be a final solution to a problem; rather, we want to examine the various layers of action that are necessary to respond to a child who may be compromised this very minute in the city of New Orleans or Cleveland or St. Louis. My small part is to catalyze this action and put it in a framework that bears some possibility for response.

A retrospective is interesting because it presents a moment for introspective thinking: It’s an opportunity to think more about what I can become. It’s an opportunity to view things critically instead of through the excited, celebratory view. In a way, this show is a call to say, Well, that’s just not enough.