Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mel Chin in Albuquerque

by Suzanne Sbarge

I was fortunate to spend a few days with guest artist Mel Chin, who came to Albuquerque September 8-12 to give the keynote talk for HABITAT: Exploring Climate Change Through the Arts. As we shared meals and I drove him around town, I got to hear about whatever was on his mind – from his haunting adventures visiting Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria to try to help their plight; to his latest plan for a climate change awareness campaign staged in Paris with an Inuit driving a sled powered by poodles.

Mel Chin is a featured artist in both Knew Normal about climate change curated by Nancy Zastudil at 516 ARTS and Necessary Force: Art in the Police State at UNM Art Museum. So, in his talk at UNM, he chose to encompass the topics of both of these separate exhibitions. He started with singing a prison song by Leadbelly that led him into the subjects of racism and police violence, and ended with an introduction to The Potential Project about the creation of a model solar economy in the Western Sahara. In between, he described some of his projects over the years, many of which deal with exposing inequality and addressing environmental justice. Through each of these efforts, he serves as a temporary representative and convener for people not given voice in issues that are affecting them in dire ways. Although dealing with serious topics, his approach is steeped in humor and his own unique form of untamed imagination.
Zastudil says, “Mel Chin was one of the first artist's on my list for Knew Normal because of his ability to create art objects that are both informed and formed by culture and environment. For example, I first saw his installation of Spirit at the Columbus Museum of Art when I was an undergraduate art student at The Ohio State University. This dramatic, multi-layered work consists of a one-ton barrel, or cask, balanced on a thick rope of braided native grasses indigenous to the American Prairie. The piece depicts and embodies the ‘uneasy relationship between industrial and agricultural America, and nature throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.’ I attribute much of my interest in art and environment to Mel and my experience with Spirit.”

“The most subversive thing you can do is to get the ones who always say no to say yes.” 

For his smaller roundtable discussion at 516 ARTS the day after his keynote, Chin described his latest concept called Les Arctiques a Paris for artCOP21 in Paris this fall, which features artists from around the globe presenting public art projects in conjunction with the 21st United Nations’ summit on climate change. 20,000 delegates from countries around the world are anticipated to convene to make commitments to programs that address climate change. Of course artists want to be part of this important moment.

Chin is envisioning Les Arctiques a Paris as a video public service announcement that provokes a an emotional wake-up kind of moment, like the crying Indian or the Coke commercial in the 1970s, but not selling anything. The video will depict an Inuit sled driver driving a sled through Paris powered by trained poodles. The Inuit man will convey this message: “5000 years of Arctic culture is now dying. The Arctic is Paris. This melt is already affecting you. Everything you know about where you live will be different now. The Arctic is no more.”

Chin believes we can’t stop climate change, but we have to look at connection and adaptation or we won’t make it. He said, “Get ready for the age of altruism. We have to find out how we will relate to each other now or we will just kill each other. The key is behavioral modification of ourselves. The option of doing nothing is the most boring thing. Let’s get busy here people.”

When asked about his way of working, Mel said he started the first ecology club in 1969 at his high school in Texas. “I work in an evolutionary mutated basis. I do research.” His mind jumps around a lot, but always comes back to his clarity of vision, making powerful connections across the realms of art, science and politics with a sensitivity to issues of inequity. When asked, “Do you ever just draw?”, he responded, “Yes all the time. When I was young I took a year and a half to recover from a breakdown. I was in a completely catatonic state. When I came out of that, I realized drawing is a joy. Everyone can be taught to draw. I can never regain the sensitivity that was vaporized by shock therapy. Maybe that’s why I do what I do. If you want to learn to draw, get a pencil and start… Any avenue to open up or criticize your consciousness is good.”

Mel highlighted the book The Body in Pain by Elaine Scary, which is about the inexpressibility of things like human pain. Scary says there are only two camps of people and activities: 1. The Unmaking of the World, which equals pain and leads to war and torture, and removes the capacity for imagination and language; and 2. The Making of the World, which equals imagination, representing the beginning of language and it remakes the world. He said, “I am in the camp of the imagination.”

In his conclusion, he said, “The most subversive thing you can do is to get the ones who always say no to say yes.” He advised that as artists and cultural workers we need to devise strategies for how to convert people through creating empathy, which can be done by confronting them with something awesome. He said, “It doesn’t always have to be political. That’s art. The dogs in Paris will be awesome. You have to do things to excite people. In his parting words to a rapt group of artists and community members gathered around him in front of his installation for The Potential Project, he referenced Dr. Martin Luther King’s last speech about creating change: “From time immemorial we have been taught to value self-preservation first. It’s false. The rule of life is the preservation of the other. You can apply it to anything we’re doing, including art and climate change. How do you preserve the life and mindset of someone else? It’s a powerful lesson in how to be human.”

Nuggets of wisdom from dinner with Mel Chin, distilled by Nancy Zastudil:

Having / finding / creating options is vital, and even exciting.

Connect with those things that have helped us persevere up until now (creativity, humanity, empathy, survival, joy, love, sadness and more).

It’s not about the masses, it’s about the individual.

Martin Luther King Jr. taught that we cannot preserve ourselves without preserving other-selves (love each other).

We are not inspired by tragedy or human suffering—we are compelled.

Did you attend the talks? Please let us know what you thought in the comments below!