Marquise Stillwell
Episode 2: Mel Chin on Political Poetry and Radical Intervention

What a privilege it is to speak with interdisciplinary artist Mel Chin about his wide-ranging, often collaborative 40+ year practice. We get deep into many of Mel’s projects and what brings them all together - the balance of poetry and abstraction with urgent political ideas, and the importance of continuous creative evolution. We also get into some of Mel’s radical interventions on Melrose Place in the 90’s – keep an ear out for some nostalgia.

Marquise: Welcome to the Sweet Flypaper podcast. My name is Marquise Stillwell. 

Neil: And this is Neil Ramsay. 

Marquise: Today we have Mel Chin, extraordinary artist, and I have the privilege of having him on. He is also hilarious and full of amazing insights. I think, Neil, you've had the chance to hang out with him as well. 

Neil: I have to underline, you know, the hilarious part. Not funny as in "funny, ha ha". But you know, he's funny, but he's a terrifically thought provoking individual. Yeah. And here in Miami, he's not my uncle, but it's uncle Mel. OK. And that's because of Esther Park, who was at Young Arts and now at Oolite, with Dennis Scholle. And so, I always hear him referred to as Uncle Mel when he's in town. But I enjoy his work. And speaking of social practice, I think we have to capitalize social practice when it comes to Mel Chin. But I enjoy his work because it seems... The way he approaches it, it seems to intelligently exist as a way of being, and then that leads to his doing. And then that leads to labels. And the reason I mention labels is because I don't think I would want to be tasked with labeling what he does.

Marquise: That's the funny part. I think he would obviously feel the same way. And that's the irony of the way that he approaches his work. He's also great at knowing when to walk away. You know, when a project has gotten to a certain place to where the people, the community, the social structure takes over. And that's also just very unique for someone that some may say he is an artist. I mean, he is an artist, but he's like an artist and all these other things as well.

Neil: Sure. And that's before we go, and I'm anxious to hear him speak, but before, that's admirable. And since this is design conversation too–something that has come across, and I also admire or have been interested in–is the idea of designing an end. You know, we focus very much on designing things to get going. But what you just mentioned reminds me of this, and I probably read it somewhere and investigated this about five or six years ago. But the idea of designing an end with as much purpose as we design launching things. And so let's hear him speak. 

Marquise: That's amazing. All right. Without further ado, Mel Chin. 

Marquise: Welcome Mel Chin. I really appreciate you being here and really excited. Such a big fan of your work and really federal your, your approach to your work, which I feel like is more important in these days and times. But what I always like to do is just depending on who's listening to the podcast, I always like to just offer you to say, what are you doing and how do you see your work and who you are beyond the bio.

Mel: Well recently I've been promoting this desire to become an artist. It takes a couple of years to figure that one out. But I think it can seem a little funny, after 40 plus years of practice to even pronounce it that way, or even in a more campy way, recovering conceptual artists, what is all that?

Marquise: What does that mean? 

Mel: Well, it means that basically I am sincere in my belief that you can never get there and that what has allowed me to continue to thrive, conceptually, has been the more evolutionary approach. That allows for mutations allows for extinctions. And maybe that's more more accurate, that you're always becoming and you should always be in the state of becoming, and especially in the light of a reactivity to the world around you, you know? If you're reflective or even want to be active, even more to think that maybe awareness is not enough, then we have to adopt maybe a different position about how we see ourselves.

Marquise: Yeah. I mean, one thing that I really love about your work is how you play around the conditions. For which you place your work and how people come upon it. Right? I mean, the work itself of course is beautiful and it pushes, but I have a sense that when you're thinking about your work, you're thinking about the whole system, and you're thinking about how to actually use what's already there. To draw out even more. I mean, talk a little bit how you've done that with some of the work that you've done.

Mel: It depends on the work. It depends on the work, like really early work was, in terms of seeing the whole picture, what's called... I don't even claim it as my own because it was set up with an intention of a collective engagement. And that was when we secretly embedded artwork on a prime time television soap opera called Melrose place. And this was a secret operation because I was looking at the systems of how our world has been transformed by covert business, political and military practice. And I said, well, now the art world is not about that. Being an artist is not about that because it's about controlling things. And being an artist or being involved with this idea, a world of concept, is to open it up. 

Right? So there, I even did this elaborate drawing of the whole ecology of GALA, which GALA Committee stood for Georgia Los Angeles. I was in University of Georgia and Cal arts at the same time. But it was a conception based on other work about understanding viruses and then looking at the deadly effect of HIV discontent in our society. Lack of action.

So that's one work and there's other works that could be a meditation or implementation on the horror of the first genocide in the 20th century was King Leopold II, a piece about the Congo. Cause you know, a commentary that... I was just so moved by reading King Leopold's Ghost that I said, I need to make a work about that, as a lamentation of this.

Marquise: But even you're working in New Orleans and the way that you use the houses, right, and how you really got us to look at it differently. Well, talk about that.

Mel: Oh, well that's one of the biggest projects that's ongoing. It never stopped actually, was the Fundred Project. It started in New Orleans going down after Katrina and checking what was going on and not as an artist, it was like, that'd be too highfalutin. It was like going down as a person saying "Wow. Look what happened in New Orleans. I have to go down." I remember a good friend of mine was with Project Row Houses at that time. That was the founder, that was a Rick Lowe. And Rick and I went to Houston first and we were walking on the sidewalk and we just looked at each other and said, are you going? He says, yeah. And so we went. But I have to tell you that how things began, and I like to say that you can't be inspired by the things you witnessed. When you become involve with the public and the communities that you may be engaged with, it's almost like you are you're not inspired, you're compelled. 

By first, an internal critique. The internal critique after not just looking at the damage of the ninth ward, but meeting people and the damage socially and psychologically, I said, what has happened here requires an action of equal magnitude. So I was stumped. I didn't have the capacity to even think of what could address these things, and that's what drives you. In other words, it doesn't come all at once. What happened at the Safehouse? We're talking about the iconic representation of a project that we actually will reconstruct in a new Star Wars form or Transformer form at Chicago Sweetwater Foundation House, a whole nother version of it.

After 13 years – it's been 13 years since I did that – it was put up there and sure, you can make your art, you can make your presence. Talk about the safety of, in that case of a human beings expression, of a child's expression. You see, it was based on after going back and forth and researching the issue I found that 30 to 50% of the inner city, childhood population, in New Orleans were poisoned with lead in their blood before the storm of Katrina. And then, to know that there was so little funding and so little focus on a national or even local level on how to ameliorate or even address that, and hearing that it took money and being cognizant that I'm not a fundraiser, it's not about raising hundreds of millions of dollars. I thought that human expression, if I could get a child who has no voice or a parent or grandmother, who has no voice in this matter, it appears, to draw their own hundred dollar bill. If I could collect it and amass it in this safe house, it started with this safe house, a hundred drawings from the neighborhood. It would be like we could then present it and then not even evolve from there, not even to even exchange. If it could be, to show the value of their voice, to provoke policy that is necessary billions of dollars would appear, right?

Marquise: Talk about your process. I mean, I consider empathy a muscle. It's a muscle that has to be built over time. And I feel like, when I see your work, it seems like you have this deep empathy muscle that you see something and it's just like, you cannot not do something, right? There's just like this visceral connection, in your re-response onto it. Talk about how you got to that place. I mean, from your early career, in, in art and expression, when did you get to a place where there was this deep conviction and around how you used your tools? 

Mel: Well, I think you develop empathy because it's constantly robbed from you. You get disengaged, you get too delusional and it takes, sometimes these, these disturbances. Like cognition of the, if not the pain of others then there you could be inspired by, let's say the whole causes that emerged out of the sixties and seventies, which I'm a product of. I'm a product of those things, but you can get so involved and self-absorbed, and your so-called expression or your artistic kind of hierarchy or whatever it, whatever the hell you're delusional. And sometimes why you're making things needs a course correction. 

Marquise: Do you feel like there's a responsibility to artists? Cause I mean, I'm always careful with saying, should artists have a responsibility. 

Mel: I don't know if that's the correct word. I think the artists need to be artists. But I think this idea of evolving into your place in society can be very diverse. I think when we talk about responsibility, the question I always had to someone who may talk about that term, I would say that's cool. I'm good with that. But what can you be responsible if you're ignorant of conditions.. Cause you can't always get the whole picture. So in other words, that's why I think that if I have done works that are empathetic to things, it is because it's been beaten into me by real world experiences, if not myself, others. You know?

Marquise: How do you start to choose? I think there's this balance between being an activist, that's always being said, "Hey, Mel, you should do this because you know how right?" Versus like, you know what, that's probably not a place where I should go or I've just not connected to it deeply enough. How do you filter out where you're going.

Mel: Well, because I make objects as well as make actions and the act, some things like I say, come to you and there you have no choice. You're compelled in to that reality. Even New Orleans I, after learning about the lead problem, and learning about the situation, the whole reason of placing that Safehouse door, the Safehouse in that neighborhood, the eighth ward, was not because there was an art conglomerate there and not because of people I met because in that case, it was because I found the lead levels in the soil, outside of that house, or like 3,000 to 8,000 parts per million, no child should ever touch. And knowing that three children that came out of that abandoned house were poisoned forever because of lead. It was an easy decision. It is like, how can I not do something? 

You learn a lot. I remember I was in Detroit doing these projects back in 2000. And I was spending every Devil's Night in Detroit, because I had the concept that, how could I do something that can respond to what people were there doing currently, because there was a greening revolution within Detroit. People were getting there, but because of the situation in Detroit where, people were doing agrarian agriculture, right? I was looking at the houses that people they say were burning and someone was looking at all the devastation, people just expanding houses. And it was more of a formal thing. How do you, what do you do with the basements of the house? And I said, well, actually, maybe re-think–and this applies to the Safehouse–I said, well, let's take one house and let it come apart. But let's save all the wood and grow a fungus as food in the basement, and create a whole new architecture.

I was just coming up with ideas. Let's make a whole house, move aside and spin a side, on a pivot to like the surrealistic event, so we could grow worms down there to sell to fishermen and want to fish in the great lakes. Like, create opportunity out of it. And people were asking me, where did you get those ideas? I said, from the people that were there. The community was providing the creative impulse. So it's almost like coming in to augment the creative impulse that was there. Now, what was telling about me finally being there and conveying these dreams, essentially, to the neighborhood or even meeting the great Grace Lee Boggs, Asian sister. And man getting a lesson or two about reality there, you know?

Marquise: I guess that's what I mean by that. It's so interesting. Well, you have this cadence in your voice and demeanor. It's so interesting the way that you carry yourself also, that I feel helps in the way that you present your work and your ability to walk in different neighborhoods. Right? Like you just have that bounce. So I guess that's... I'm really interested. Like how did you get that bounce in this sense of audacity? Just like, yo, this is what I'm going to do, I'm going to walk in. And people embrace you, when you come into certain neighborhoods that a lot of people wouldn't even go in. How did you get that? Where's that come from?

Mel: Well, you're going way back now. See, I am from the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, as we know, Beyonce is from Third Ward. I'm Fifth Ward, upper Fifth Ward. And it was largely an African-American community, and it's not that that will be the key, because we're Asian and you're already a part a little bit, we always had a corner grocery store.

My father was a great believer that we exist because of the neighborhood. I remember that we were taught that, only neighborhood that we knew. But I remembered something, that how people would talk in the street, at each other. Very loudly, the humor. And that humor was a method of surviving the reality around you.

Marquise: Yeah. Cause you, you have that. I mean, I saw the video where you're rapping. You drop in some language. Yeah. You're dropping some bars. I love it. It's interesting. Cause you have that rhythm and you have that way about yourself, that I feel is an amazing asset to the work that you do that sometimes people don't always know. Because you can't just walk into these neighborhoods. You can't just say, as an artist, I'm going to go in and I want to do this, but there is something about your integrity and your passion and your empathy and your spirit that is very welcoming. And that's why I just wanted to know, like how do you continue to carry that forward to make sure that you don't become someone that is unapproachable.

Mel: Well, I don't think that I could approach myself. I think it's always about transforming yourself. I won't want to transform to a point where I'd be unapproachable. And also the neighborhood. I want to continue to Detroit because what, what happened there was the person I was addressing a whole neighborhood contingent. Cause I always like to say, if you're going to come into neighborhoods, you got to talk with them first. And if they don't want you it's time to go. I experienced this beginning in Flint and all these other instances, because I think that's fundamental. I don't really care how creative and how great you think you are, if I'm not in my studio making my work that I want to make, then I can do my own thing. But when you're working with people, you better change your attitude very quickly and know where it's coming from. I remember ending the conversation. And then this dude that was doing this gardening and beehive work was great, and he came up and said, "Hey, Mr. Chin, I, I really appreciate your ideas, but you all will leaving soon. You'll be gone". I said, and I was kind of a little bit upset. I said, I just got here. What are you saying? He says, well, I'm just telling you how it is, that poor people are never helped in our society. And you will run out of money over and run out of support and you will have to go and there's no fault to your ideas, we like your ideas. So that's a bitter pill. 

Marquise: What happens after your projects? 

Mel: Well, that project, I pushed it as far as I could and he was right. I had to walk away and there was no support. I couldn't get it.

Marquise: But what does that mean for you as an artist? Because you know, like with some artists, they make something and it hangs on someone's wall forever, right? How do you feel about the work that you do and its ability to, or its inability to have a lasting, even artifact to it?

Mel: Well, unfortunately I do things that have that, there's the evidence and artifacts of these products. And I do have things that hang in museums. I'm okay with that. I'm glad you asked that because these are very separate things, because the project in New Orleans was evolved from that lesson in Detroit. Because I was asked the same question on the street in the Eighth Ward in North Villere Street. After a couple of years of working on that project, someone came up to me, he was very dear to me. I think it might've been Ms. Carol or Nook, one of the characters, one of the people from the neighborhood and said, you gotta go now, right? And I said, I've heard this before. I said, I said, you're right, I'm going to go, but I'll be damned if something else doesn't come back. Does not have to be me. I liberated myself from these kinds of conditions. Cause it, it is community and concept driven. It doesn't always have to be your presence. It has to be owned by a larger presence, see. So in a way, the lessons from others teach you that it doesn't have to have followed the same standard of let's say art practice, the definition of art needs to constantly change for me.

Marquise: How do you bring the social practice with the art practice together? There has been commentary sometimes where it says Mel is just all over the place. I mean, you've had an exhibit, I'm sure you've heard that. I mean, when you did the 2018 retrospective at the Queens Museum, all over the place, right. So talk about how you've grappled with that, how you bring the social and design and art together. What does that mean for you? 

Mel: Because it's about poetry and it's about poetics first because there's poetics and yet, and then the extra layer is definitely the pragmatic. But it's always, to me, it should be weighed in how poetic does it have the sense of this action mean? What would it mean to actually have a voice of a child from New Orleans and from Idaho and from the half a million people we've collected thus far, make a difference to the world? How can I be part... The poetry is to be part of something you see, and then it's the same of making a piece of artwork. Does the poetic or the poetic aesthetics of it match to the content or the concept that I'm trying to convey. And poetry is great because it has a transcendency. Because that ownership can be transferred.

It's like music and things like that. So there's a rhythm to this musical to me in some way that why not? It's almost like the the questions don't engage in the same way. Like, is this right? Or is this wrong? It's almost like, is this the best it could be? Or is it worth waking up in the morning and continuing? You see, it's like a different kind of level of engagement. Yes. Because I'm busted, disgusted, can't be trusted. I know I have projects, but I just heard there's kids and there's all these homicides in Chicago and I think it's lead related. Let's get back on this fundraiser. Let's go to Chicago because there's no other reasoning that can compel you to say no.

Marquise: What would you say to artists that are coming up through this? Particularly as we work our way through 2021 and everything that's been going on with COVID and social justice. And if you're a 20 something year old artist and they're grappling with... Man, do I stop painting X, and I start to do this? How can I do both when I'm barely making money on this? And now I got to go out and raise money for that. What would you say to those young artists?

Mel: I would say you can do both. And you can be broke. Yes. But the reasons you became an artist was probably not for this idea of capital that you may think it is, and the reason to become an artist is probably not for the notoriety or historical fame that may be generated from that. Something else is driving or being compelling you into existence. And yes, you could do both. Or you can do all three or go beyond all the two that you might've mentioned. Cause the exploration of our society is constantly waging this condition of excising ideas or making ideas, extinct, making protests extinct, making justice extinct. Like Derrida said ,that justice is not a concept that you should believe can ever be fulfilled because if you think that you may stop working on it. He didn't quite say that, but that's my understanding, because it's gotta be an active principle, right? 

Marquise: Yeah. I mean, there's so much evidence in your work and I, I really appreciate it because I believe that there is this erasure society where they're trying to erase the past. And built in that evidence is a lot of research. I mean, you're an encyclopedia of knowledge and information. How do you go about that research process?

Mel: It's interesting. Pulling up a phrase I used in my youth back in the eighties, I was doing this kind of investigation into mythic alchemic scientific origins of word, form and material in this project called Operation of The Sun to The Cult of The Hand. And what I predicated on, was this idea that I have to research to destroy my preconceived notions, because everything you've been building on, you should utilize research to be a critical factor in not confirmation, but to wage this kind of effort to transform yourself constantly, it's held true many a time. 

Marquise: It's gone beyond just the beginner's mind. Everyone talks about the beginner's mind from a designer standpoint, and I love how you're actually uncovering these facts to reimagine what you didn't know or what you did know about something. Do you feel like at the end of the day, when someone sees your work, that's what you're hoping that comes out? Or do you have an idea of what you want people to see when they see your work? 

Mel: Each work is different. And I think sometimes if you see or experience a work, some of the greatest satisfaction might be where they don't even know it's your work. Or when they might be living in an environment that they were part of, because of some catalytic structure that I had helped create. The world they're living on, that they're benefiting from. It can be more than this artists object audience thing. Lived experience, that is, is there because of the effort of creatives. 

I think that it's like... somebody asked me, what would be the coolest way to present a funded project, this anti lead poisoning project in the future? And It was not someone actually, Miranda Lash, my curator at the New Orleans Retrospect. She's Coolio. She's cool. And we were talking, I said, well, I don't know, maybe a drop of blood on a microscope slide. And because, if we can magnify it, you find no lead in that blood. It'd be the most beautiful piece. And, I know I would only have a small hand in it, but that would be the goal. And that would be more beautiful than anything that, or more... Is it beauty or is it more purposeful or more meaningful than the work I was creating all these years? Because that allows for an idea to continue. Cause we know the damage of lead on, on the mind and criminal behavior and everything else and health. And I said, you know, no one should be saddled with that. So it's like different, it's never one thing, right.

By the way, I want to break in a little bit because you're fundamentally talking about these ideas that I'm dreaming about as well. The Fifth Ward, you know, because we're slowly doing a documentary film at the request of some elders, called Memory Builds. It's a monument in the Fifth Ward, it's progressing in and then progressed to the, I Am The Fifth Movement. And then, May the Fifth be With You something , then helping with them create conditions. And I'm seeing something called The Frontier of The Future. Now in this poor neighborhood, I see the linkages between, largely in African-American community, changing Latino communities, to be the ones that can be the first in understanding the green aspects of technology and development, to be the purveyors of the way it can apply to the changes of the future, climate change for the future because it's the bridge.

I mean, when you're talking about social justice and green movement, climate change, I think just look at it. You got to investigate in the age of Google.

Marquise: Yeah, I stand on the shoulders of giants like yourself and I appreciate the way that you've pushed and created space and permission for others to come and do this work. Because when we talk about evidence of artifacts, the evidence of people is being washed away. And, you think about climate change and sea level rise, it's going to be Brown and Black people who are going to be literally washed away if we don't do something right away. And New Orleans, it's going to be one of those magnificent cities that may not exist in the future. 

Mel: Exactly. And people were asking, why are you working down here again? And I said, because it was one of the most original cities. And if not to be here, to be part of the struggle to preserve any aspect of, it would be a disservice to my own creativity and my own life. So the lessons of the places we have the privilege, to enjoy and to learn from. 

Marquise: Yeah, no, I appreciate that. Well, I appreciate your work and I appreciate you talking with me today. I feel like this has been an amazing conversation, I feel like I could talk to you for hours about so many things. So I hope once everything opens up, I'd love to come down and just say hello and see your studio. 

Mel: One of the places where we're active and I could be in one of the places you're active. 

Marquise: I would love to do that. 

Mel: Like you said, the evidence of us doing things, and if there's any way I can help in anything you're up to, you know.

Marquise: I appreciate that. We're agitators for good. So, well, thank you again. I really appreciate you being on with me today and looking forward to seeing more of your work and keep pushing it. I need you to keep agitating and pushing. 

Mel: I appreciate that. 

Marquise: Thank you. Thank you.