All About “Fundred” | Interview with Mel Chin part 2

Image courtesy of Grant Fletcher/Wexner Center for the Arts

The following conversation concludes Art21’s interview with Season 1 artist Mel Chin about his national collaborative artwork, Paydirt/The Fundred Dollar Bill Project. Read Part 1, published last Friday, here.

ART21: Take us to the next step. You’ve talked about the collection but talk about the next part—what happens after the collection? Once the truck leaves North Carolina, what happens?

MC: No, we’re going to start in New Orleans. We’re waiting till we have [$300,000,000 Fundred dollars, the amount equivalent to the cost of the landscape project]. The car will leave New Orleans and go through this 15,000-mile, maybe even 20,000-mile drive, slowly across the country, with a team of relay drivers and a chase car and a video camera that will be passed to the next team.

They’ll stop at schools [Collection Centers]; they’ll pick up the artwork and respectfully catalog it. So eventually [the armored truck] will work its way around this very strange route because, again, it’s based on the way people are scattered. Finally, it will roll up to D.C., where we will stop at the Federal Reserve and ask for even exchange first. I have it from inside sources the Federal Reserve will probably not give us even exchange. That’s inside sources only. But then we’ll take it to the steps of Congress. We’re there to ask for an even exchange, and not necessarily just cash, but for processes that we think will probably cost this much to transform a city in need. And if we transform that city in need, its gift back will be the cure for cities all over America that have this problem.

Billions have already been spent in New Orleans and trillions are spent on the war. The cost we’re talking about, if you want to go the negative way, is one day in Iraq. But it’s also the cost of that bridge over the Mississippi or five cloverleaf interchanges. So if you think about it as an engineering project, it’s trivial, really. It’s trivial. Offset is what’s important to Congress.

ART21: There are a lot of performative elements to this project. Could you talk a little about the significance of performance on a larger scale as it relates to the project? Why did you make these particular decisions to inform the work?

MC: Well, a work like that involves performance. I call it the Malcolm Triple X methodologies: by any means, by any method, by any action necessary. It will take people willing to play a part. So in a way, it’s a performance on all levels. It’s the practice of art-making, the practice of pretending something that’s very serious, that’s real. So I see it as a performance, as one means to deliver the message.

ART21: And it’s also a means of engagement.

MC: Yes, because it is about a very human condition, and I want people to convey this. It’s not a personal, private meditation, though each bill can be. So it’s about spectrum.

On top of the millions of drawings (we still have to orchestrate all this), there‚Äôll be additional papers. There will be the scientific protocol and the landscape architectural protocol to do the job. By that time, we hope to have met members of Congress to figure out how a jobs incentive program can be created, how the Army Corps’ funds‚Äîexisting funds, not new funds‚Äîcan be allocated to solve the problem. So there‚Äôs a strategic approach, an economic approach, and a solution approach. It is to deliver a solution. We‚Äôre delivering artwork, and we‚Äôre delivering a solution.

ART21: Aren’t you delivering more than artwork? You’re delivering the wishes of children of America, which is a very powerful statement and that’s something evident in just the little bit that we filmed with these children. They’re very serious about this. One little boy said something like, “well if I were delivering the Fundreds to Congress I would tell the President that [Louisiana] is our state and that means that they are part of us. And that means we have to help them…” So he went on in that way. It was very thoughtful, very beautiful. It seems clear that the children are saying, “please fix the city, there’s an illness that’s part of it, and we’ve made the money to pay for it, so now will you please fix it?”

MC: Yes. I‚Äôll tell you about one bill that I received from a young woman‚Äîshe may be in high school‚Äîwho’s stranded in Nashville. It‚Äôs on the website. When you look at the face of the bill, it has a picture; instead of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, it‚Äôs a picture of the state, the outline of Louisiana. Unmistakable. Her caption under there, instead of the president‚Äôs name is ‚ÄúForgotten.‚Äù You flip the bill over and you see an image of the Superdome, a black sun, the water rising, and a single person on top of that saying, ‚ÄúHelp!‚Äù When I looked at that, I said, ‚Äúmy God, I don‚Äôt know this child, but that‚Äôs who I‚Äôm doing it for.‚Äù I want to deliver her voice. That‚Äôs what it‚Äôs all about; it‚Äôs about delivering her voice and three million more. Everyone should be represented. It was very powerful to see that. And it motivated the whole Fundred project.

I think it is important to say that art is about voice; it can be someone’s voice. But consolidate it and respect it and put it in a way that I’m listening to those drawings, and now I’m working full speed ahead to deliver the solution that will help. That’s what it’s about now. So it’s the real thing. And we don’t want any of the voices or any of the art to be squandered. It’s not conjecture. The whole process is very much like Revival Field; there is a poetic gesture involved with this and a pragmatic aspect. I’ve learned from that.

The big question is this: so many people have been scattered. If they come back, what do they come back to? Now these are the questions that went through my mind developing Fundred/Paydirt. If you come back to it, do you come back to conditions that were still untenable from any level? Why would you want to do that? Of course if you’re in New Orleans, it’s such a vibrant and amazing cultural city, I could see why. Then that’s answered. They’re coming back and people will come back, and the flood may happen again, but when I look at the culture and the life of that city and the usage of that city, I don’t want to abandon it. So it’s about that. And that it pays back the rest of America with a solution that it becomes a laboratory. It will develop the solution and then it will share that solution.

ART21: So you have very specific outcomes that you have in mind with these projects. Where does it end? We know what the means are, but what’s the end?

MC: To me a project like Paydirt/Fundred or Revival Field ends when we no longer have conditions within America, or anywhere in the world that compromises your ability to be complete.

ART21: So it might not ever end?

MC: Well, yes, it’s a beginning maybe. But it is an action that is focused on reality therapy. I’m a reality therapist. I like to not just to leave an idea out there. It’s also about how those ideas can be transformed and developed. I think it’s predicated actually on simplicity. Simple: now do one drawing. A lot of drawings, a lot of soil, a lot of treatment, a lot of people.

ART21: So the whole is really the sum of its parts.

MC: Yes. Right, and it means very little without any of those parts, to me.