Mel Chin Tackles the Art=Money Equation with the Fundred Dollar Bill Project
In today’s flood of plastic and electronic currency, money as a touchable paper object becomes more of a rarity. Seductive and sweet, or painful in its absence, money maintains its popularity as a subject for artworks. Today’s contemporary artists frequently copy, collage, imitate, re-think, and re-create the image or the concept of money.
Conceptual artist/sculptor Mel Chin tackles the art = money equation in his Fundred Dollar Bill Project, an offshoot of the Paydirt project he started in 2008. The overarching goal of this National effort is to leverage $300 million from the U.S. Congress, by exchanging the same amount in Fundred one hundred dollar bills. These bills are hand-drawn by individual participants, working in conjunction with schools, arts organizations, local school districts and others who are interested. They are the same size as a real hundred dollar bill. Each person is allowed to produce only one. It will take 3 million of these drawings to equal the target number of “creative capital” to be delivered to the U.S. Congress later this year. This amount represents the amount of money it would take to detoxify the land in New Orleans, Louisiana, according to Chin and his team. (Templates for these bills are available at www.fundred.org, where a counter keeps up with how many have been collected so far.)
Home to approximately 1.2 million people and located on the Mississippi River, 95 miles from the delta, New Orleans has long been known to contain dangerously high levels of various toxins. Before Hurricane Katrina, 30 percent to 50 percent of the schoolchildren in New Orleans had lead levels in their blood high enough to affect their learning abilities. Lead poisoning is associated with other societal problems, manifest increased violence (and subsequent incarceration), for example.
Chin was invited to New Orleans post-Katrina as a consultant to assess the situation and to see what an artist could do to help. He admits to feeling inadequate at that time, witnessing the devastation and horror of a city neglected before the 2005 disaster, which added a new layer of desperation and immediacy to a situation he sees as completely unjust for the local residents. When he learned there were few resources allocated to clean up this problem, he felt compelled to action. He sees the origins of his project to be a disturbing reality, one that has already manifested in the physical bodies of the people who live among in the city. It is in the blood, brains and bones of the people.
The artist and his staff travel the country with an armored truck, powered by bio-diesel, to collect the Fundreds, which are then stored in a Safe House in New Orleans. This house features a large sculptural rendering of a safe, attached to the front of the house.
The armored truck involved in the project has been retrofitted to run on waste vegetable oil. The truck is refueled on oil recycled from cafeteria and restaurant fry cookers collected by the official Fundred Collection Centers, typically schools or other types of organizations working on the project.
The Sous Terre armored truck is painted with an earth-tone color scheme referencing growth and repair. The truck is just large enough to hold the estimated cargo of the 3 million Fundred dollar bill artworks; each weighs about 1 gram each, for a total of 6,614 pounds of bills expected to fill a 4-by-4-foot pallet 8 feet high.
Chin has scheduled a number of appearances and performances to promote his project. His guards, complete with uniforms and unique rifle/shovel combination weaponry referred to as Security Shovels, accompany his performances. The January 23, 2010, event at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center in Kansas City, Missouri, proved to be both entertaining and informative. A natural showman who successfully takes on the role of pseudo-banker, Chin becomes animated as he comments on a Fox News segment about his Paydirt project, the parent of Fundreds. His sincerity and ambition are admirable, as is his willingness to answer questions from the participants in the event. The Kansas City event may have been stunted a bit by its timing, as there were other large arts events scheduled the same evening. The small crowd that attended was interested and enthusiastic.
Mary Rubin, director of National Affairs for the Paydirt/Fundreds project, sees the educational audience for the project exploding with energy and vitality through direct interaction through Chin’s performances. Despite an initial slow start (Rubin comments that over a nearly two-year span, only 500 Fundreds were generated through an e-mail network of schools and teachers), the project has recently picked up in intensity and volume.
She projected a sense of relieved enthusiasm when the project energized as popular interpretation of Chin’s ideas through performance art increased. Realizing that the project worked better as a face-to-face collaboration with participants, the Fundreds team inadvertently discovered how well Chin’s star quality helped to ignite enthusiasm for others. Participating students and teachers showed much more interest and personal ambition in the project after having met Chin and his staff, and drawing hundred dollar bills themselves.
Mel Chin’s abilities as an entertainer enable the project to take on a larger than life personality. Through his strong stage presence, Chin lends himself perfectly to his role as a traveling showman/salesman. Showmen frequently make outrageous claims, and Chin does not disappoint. By claiming to be, “On the cutting edge of Community Art,” he challenges the viewer to join him in his project. By encouraging involvement in this project, he creates a huge, conceptual sculpture out of myriads of small green pieces of paper with writing on them. By thinking in these abstract terms, the artist’s ability to engage the public is magnified exponentially.
Chameleon Arts and Youth Development Agency in Kansas City, Missouri, is facilitating this project throughout the Kansas City area and acts as the local collection center. Their goal is to produce 25,000 individual Fundreds. Chameleon is a center for arts education and creative resource for disenfranchised and marginalized communities in Kansas City. The organization currently partners with many others, including StoneLion Puppet Theatre, Kansas City Parks and Recreation, as well as the Office of the Homeless Liaison for the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools, and the YWCA in Kansas City, Kansas.
They are currently working to provide arts education as well as workshops to inform participants about lead and other toxins in the soil. At the January 23 event in the Kansas City Crossroads, Chameleon staff used the medium of photography to create unique stylized Fundreds, by utilizing a large-scale template and the cooperation of gallery attendees, including Chin himself.
For more information about this organization, or to get involved in the project go to www.chameleon-ayd.org or call 816-686-8626. Chameleon Executive Director Hugh Merrill says the participants so far are having a great time and have come up with some very creative interpretations of the bills.**** Children and non-children were busy making their Fundred "votes" this last First Friday; March 5 at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, in the small side gallery dedicated to the center's history. On March 11, Chin and the Sous Terre armored car made a presentation stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma at Living Arts. Last weekend, Lawrence, Kansas, residents met again to discuss a possible Earth Day event related to the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, after Chin visited the Lawrence Art Center in February. (He also made two stops in Wichita; see Review's past calendar digest). On Friday, March 19, Chin will present, "What Mattered THEN Matter NOW: Part II, Projects Compelled by Crisis and Dreams Reframed" at 7 p.m. at the Omaha Public Schools Teacher Administration Center, 3215 Cuming St.; this visit is a rescheduling of one postponed at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts earlier this year. He also is presenting a workshop on March 20 at 11 a.m. at the TAC about engaging in this $300 million difference (RSVP recommended). The Sous Terre Armored Truck's pick-up route is posted here.
As awareness is raised, Chin sees a potential benefit to turn a very polluted place into a model for cleanup efforts in other parts of the country. As Chin sees it, critical mass has been reached, he felt had no choice but to work to motivate, educate and involve local populations in a campaign to help the citizens of New Orleans work toward a better life.
He feels if progress can be made for a very polluted city, detoxifying other neighborhoods will become somewhat simpler. The beginning is seen as the hardest part.
Chin’s piece Revival Field (1990), produced in conjunction with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is an example of the artist’s work with scientists and government agencies to revive soil through specifically planting hyper-accumulating plants that are proven to absorb toxins, including heavy metals. This is similar to the method proposed to make the soil safer for residents of New Orleans. Pennycress, corn, and romaine lettuce are three of the many plants employed to do work that people have not been able to do.
According to his artist statement from that project, Chin says, "Conceptually, this work is envisioned as a sculpture involving the reduction process, a traditional method used to carve wood or stone. Here the material being approached is unseen and the tools will be biochemistry and agriculture. The work in its most complete incarnation (after the fences are removed and the toxin-laden weeds harvested) will offer minimal visual and formal effects. For a time, an intended invisible aesthetic will exist that can be measured scientifically by the quality of a revitalized earth. Eventually that aesthetic will be revealed in the return of growth to the soil.”
Money Art: Precedent for Abstracting Value
Chin is not alone in his interest in developing awareness of the malleability of the concept of money, and using the iconographic images of currency to gain attention. When noted New York money artist Stephen Barnwell was asked about the Fundreds project, he expressed the opinion that even if Chin is unsuccessful in leveraging actual, government authorized currency for his cleanup ambitions, he believes Chin has planted an important seed into the minds of America’s youth. Through this project, they may begin to see money for what it actually is, a printed piece of paper that has no inherent value. Value is retained through iconography, confidence of the populace, and arguably, an appropriate level of “convincing” by the organization making the pitch. Barnwell hopes that through this realization, they may gain their own power through a heightened political conscience, and may be more likely to consider other avenues of activism. From this altered vantage point, they may look at the concepts of currency, power, and involvement as means to consider and solve social problems.
Barnwell doesn’t see money art as about money, itself. Instead, he sees it as a way to appropriate power by stealing the language of power. He sees it as a language by which to criticize the social systems surrounding the icons.
Later this year, all members of the U.S. Congress will receive a copy of his two-sided digital print, Indebted States of America Trillion Note. This piece is composed in a format similar to Chin's pieces, the same scale as a dollar bill. It features a rendering of Mao Zedong as the focal point, surrounded by various symbols and fake serial numbers and signatures, all of which convincingly suspend disbelief of their immediate worth. The trillion-dollar number refers to the U.S. debt financed by China. The piece is full of small jokes — inside, or outside jokees, depending on your vantage point — visible in the details, as is true with all of his money prints. The signature lines on Barnwell’s bill are that of Tim Geithner and Alan Greenspan. See www.moneyart.biz for more of Barnwell’s work.
In these contexts, the idea of money becomes more abstract. Barnwell and Chin are committed speculators hoping for gains with their clever projects, but aware of the potential for non-participation or apathy on the part of the government, and immersing themselves in the work anyway. They are confident that in the future, viewpoints of the populace can and will be different, that situations are malleable and subject to positive change. What won’t be lost is the effect on the myriad of participants in the Fundreds project. Chin can be seen as a catalyst, and the project as a whole a part the enthusiastic efforts of his three-million-plus co-conspirators.
Chin’s project is large and ambitious in its scale, as well as its scope. It is all at once about environmental health, lead awareness, social conscience, collaboration, and the creation of community. It also addresses the appropriation and alteration of currency imagery not only for art education, but to highlight social injustices. The show must go on, and what a show it is.