Episode 22
No Return to Normal with Artist Mel Chin

In times of crisis, in times of connection, artist Mel Chin makes his mark. A 2019 MacArthur Genius Award recipient, Chin’s artwork has been featured in major museums and biennials, in Times Square, the Halls of Congress, the TV show Melrose Place, and Monument Lab’s 2017 exhibition in the middle of Philadelphia’s City Hall. When you see Chin at work, you encounter an artist with purpose, with an eye toward building others up.

“I think the lesson from all those situations and this situation is how to exercise self-critique and empathy. How do you have to rekindle it for each situation,” says Mel Chin.

This episode, we speak to Chin, during the time of self-isolation and quarantine for COVID-19. We discuss how he and other artists stay connected. We also discuss how his new S.O.U.R.C.E. Studio has a fellowship for women, trans, and non-binary artists to spend time developing their craft. Plus, we hear about when he discovered that he won the prestigious MacArthur Genius award.

Paul Farber (Host):    Mel Chin. Welcome to the Monument Lab podcast.

Mel Chin:    Yes, Paul. It's been a while. I appreciate being here.

Farber:        Well, we're really glad to have you. First, I just want to ask you, how are you and the people close to you holding up in the pandemic?

Chin:        I think we're fine. We're absolutely fine. Where I live is pretty remote and so I do get a chance to go outside. Helen, my partner is here. We're doing great and really thankful even that we have an opportunity to be part of something that could help a lot of people by just staying away from people. So by staying away, we ensure maybe we can get together again someday. It's an important time. So unfortunate.

Farber:        What are you doing to connect with other people that is either similar or different to the ways that you otherwise connect with collaborators, friends, people in your circles?

Chin:        Well, with all this fanciness, this high speed internet, many things have not changed. Of course, we can't see each other face to face, but looks like we're using all the usual devices from Skype to Zoom to connect in some shape or form. There's also just through the social media which I'm active, sort of active, not that active. I've been able to connect with other people doing things that I could be part of. Just like printing gear for face shields. A group in North Carolina here at UNCA, University of North Carolina [Asheville]. We're starting it and I heard about and I had a 3D printer. I said, "Well, I don't need to be there, but I can certainly print these things out and then supply that." It's a time really to rethink things of the projects I've been just starting Houston and Chicago and Little Haiti in Miami. But to think about how to approach them by keeping all of us free of infection, I guess by staying away. And then how to move it forward. So it's a different kind of conceptual setup. There is a frustration, I suppose, but knowing about the world and how individually by staying away, we can be very helpful in the bigger picture. But knowing about places that are in desperate conditions that don't have the luxury of my self-imposed kind of quarantine like in India where there are migrant workers that are suffering. So it's almost like also musing on one's inadequacy in this time as well, no matter how much physical or digital connection we have.

Farber:        You've worked in Flint in response to the lead poisoning water crisis, and you worked in New Orleans after Katrina. What insights do you have from your previous projects or ongoing work where there is a natural disaster and social crisis that goes right alongside of it?

Chin:        Well, what's happening here is so different, but I think the lesson from all those situations and this situation is how to exercise self-critique and empathy. How do you have to rekindle it for each situation. And the lessons from New Orleans and from Flint is essentially, it's not my work or my insight, but our insight and our work together that matters. So therefore you recalibrate in this time to maintain that, that really when you're working in the field and you're working on socially engaged aspirations, did you absolutely know that you just lost this rugged individualist's mantle. And so you follow through by trying to communicate with the mediums you have, but also understanding the projects have to have a different timeline maybe. And what I did learn from Flint and I did learn from New Orleans is that patience and perseverance are essential. That's like PPE like personal protection equipment.

Farber:        That's right. That's right.

Chin:        Patience, perseverance.

Farber:        How do you deal with the uncertainty? I mean sure all the time, we're living in uncertainty but it's something that I hear from a lot of people now. I'm just curious how it hits you or affects you?

Chin:        I'm pretty calm about it because I know that anything that approximated normal before was really not normal, that everything that has happened has been a construction by all of us. And knowing that what will happen — almost understanding that there's no return to normal. So therefore, I'm always kind of working on my own projects in terms of my artwork that I've been waiting to do like personal pieces at a time but I feel like everything is right now in preparation to be engaged in another kind of way.

So I think it's a moment to... It's not exciting, but it's more or less like an obligation to be flexible in spirit and mind, and that's how you deal with it. How I'm dealing with it. There are moments when you engage long distance that there's opportunity to be silly, I guess. Not that this is the way it's going to go, Paul, but you know what I mean.

Farber:        I was thinking about, we are about to see one of the largest stimulus packages in a US history go into effect and it made me think about your Fundred Project where you collected your own form of currency throughout the country and delivered it to Congress, to Capitol Hill. For our listeners, it'd be great to hear about what the Funded Project is but also did you gain any insights about the financial realities or even myths through gathering Hand-drawn currency from a half a million children and adults around the country.

Chin:        I think if anything, there are similarities with what's going on. I don't know stimulus package, but our project, the Fundred Project was ignited by understanding that after going in to try to help as many people did on a greater level, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I was struck by my inadequacy as an artist singularly to do anything and I realized after going back because of being inadequate, being inadequate to address not the physical damage I saw, but the psychological and sociological damage that had occurred after interviewing people like the great Rick Lowe and Tom Finkelpearl who were all gathered there to help.

I was moved to understand that just because you're an artist it's not enough. But what it stimulated is a return to come back again and again to research then what I could do. And what I could do, what I could contribute to. When I discovered that about half of the inner city childhood population were compromised by lead before the storm and there was absolutely no stimulus package money going to them to alleviate that crisis in New Orleans, that's where the project begins.

So I guess in a way the similarities are this. The stimulus package is the outcome of an invisible kind of virus that we can't see, a threat you can't see that absolutely transforms your life in a very negative way in some cases, but again, maybe even temporarily it will affect you. But lead in the blood of children of New Orleans or any place in all of America which we eventually evolved the project into, does affect your life forever, and it is also invisible. But our stimulus was a way of coordinating these drawings and delivering them and becoming more than the artist figure. We became the delivery people to bring them eventually to the representatives of the people, the artists that drew Fundreds.

And therefore using that to speak about how lead had impacted their lives, so that the decision could come from the representatives themselves to choose whether they desire to support a bill that is on the table right now that's a bipartisan bill. It's the Lead-Safe Housing Act for Children that's on the table. And it's still not done yet, you see. So what I've learned about finances or even support in Congress or in Senate is that it takes time. It takes time. And we're not done yet. We will continue this project of attempting to bring people who drew Fundreds in front of their legislature, so they have an opportunity to make sure that value of their expression can be put to good use.

And that's the similarity between what the project is about. It is about value. Our value is pretty much the same. If the stimulus package is truly used correctly, it is for the benefit of the people. 

Farber:        With the Fundred Project, you have a modified armored truck and you have vaults, and you have piles of hand-drawn currency.

Chin:        Yes.

Farber:        What does that amount of paper of hand-drawn currency look like? How do you move it around? Where is it and how do you move it throughout the project?

Chin:        Well, we figured a way to create it all in waterproof boxes and put them in banker boxes, the drawing pieces. We bundled them just the way you would bundle currency, but it's like 8,000 drawings per pack. I think there's 40 something plus bundles and it all stacks up on a pallet that was created of oak and bronze, in this elegantly and ornately detailed to do something that would be worthy of supporting a half a million drawings by the people. So the project of the people is for the people eventually.

And so the update on the collection as it stands now about approximately 500,000 has been donated to a prominent major American museum, a public museum. We'll let you know which one when they feel comfortable to release that. But at the same time, we haven't stopped. The whole concept, it doesn't stop just because we put that within an institution. That institution has promised to set more and part of what we're doing in Chicago for an exhibition is to rekindle the project in Chicago, get the armored truck safe again. We got to fix those brakes. You don't want all that rolling through the streets of Chicago in neighborhoods where they've had enough trouble. They don't need more car trouble.

So we're getting that and we're bringing it out, we hope. We have to create a version of the Safe House, we hope in Chicago, in the south side of Chicago which is one of the most lead affected areas in the city. It also is the place where I have located, in 2010, maps that show the most heavy lead trauma to children that occurred in those X areas of Chicago. Where they correspond, I can't say there's a correlation because I'm not a doctor. I'm not a Fauci. [Laughs]

But I could say that as far as the mapping goes, it corresponds with some of the most violent and sorrowful aspects of Chicago which is the homicide rates that were occurring and that continued to occur in Chicago. I've always been dedicated to thinking that the Fundred Project should be where it could represent the best and that's why we are not stopping the project yet. It needs to be in a safe collection so it had to be given. It was not sold. It had to have a nice palate with the truck, the components, the safe house door can be exhibited.

So we kind of evolved the way the project has to be. So it has to be flexible to meet the circumstances of our day. I think again it parallels with this idea of invisible threat that we're encountering now. But I hope, I truly hope that the COVID-19 threat will end but I'm going to say that so far the threat of lead to the future of children all over the United States remains. So we will continue our quest and maybe through the efforts in Chicago, we can continue to present what people have to say about it.

Farber:        In your work and in our conversation you talk a lot about the "we" about collectives, about working with other people, that it's not just the artist. Is that an approach that you had to make a switch in your career to welcome other people into your creative process or has that been something that you've tried to do throughout your entire career?

Chin:        You know I do studio work and that satisfies the "me." But if you are going to be engaged with others then it automatically switches. It's almost like you don't have to make that decision. The decisions is made for you that it must be about the "we". Or forget about it. It's not going to happen. [Laughs] And it's disingenuous to pronounce otherwise. When I went down to Flint, it was an interesting dynamic. I had to negotiate. I don't know if you know about the Flint Fit project, but the Flint Fit Project was I negotiated with a factory down here in North Carolina to take the bottles that people were using because they had to, to not drink that poisonous water coming out of their tap.

I negotiated if we brought a bunch of bottles, could they them into thread and into fabric. And then I went up to New York and I met the fabulous Tracy Reese, the fashion designer and spoke to her about this. I said if I brought this fabric, would you be willing to design rain wear and swimwear out of this. And if you create these patterns, would you mind if we go back to Flint and then go to this New Life sewing center that's in a basketball court in a church in Flint, and have the women who are recovering from the effects of domestic violence being taught how to sew. And they could sew these things up. And then we could present this concept, this design called Flint Fit, and maybe eventually they could own it.

So it's a big arc of a project. After negotiating all these yeses, fortunate yeses, I had to go back to Flint and then meet with a collective group. I had great Melissa Mayes who's been fighting the lead poisoned waters that they still face in Flint. And I asked Melissa and other people there to gather up community leaders from different neighborhoods, from all over Flint so there'll be a quality representation of the people of Flint. When I got there, it was a question to me first. They said, it's almost like, "Okay. Mr. Artist, you're here. So what do you want to do? Do you want to take some pictures so you can take it back to your gallery and show how we have to deal with this? Well, let me tell you, we know how to deal with it and we don't need to be just conveyed that way."

They also said, basically, Hilary's been here. Trump's been here. Janelle Monae has been here, and we still have poison water. So what could you possibly do as an artist to help us out here. Other than that, you can go and do your thing, but that's our position, so how are you going to make a difference? And so I squared with them basically that, "No, I'm not going to be able to change the water crisis. I can't do that." But I told him about this Flint Fit project and they became excited. It was the one of the first unanimous decisions to go forward with something that they've had in a long time.

Because I told them basically, "Here's the dealio. We're going to do this. But if you say no right now, I'm going to walk away. I won't bother you. But the only thing I want to start off was I want to pay you so you can throw those dang bottles into this tractor trailer that I'm going to park out here. You fill that up and I'll pay you for that first. Let's start there, you see?" That was the interaction. I was very grateful with that, but this again is the example of you can have any idea in the world but I think you got to run it by the people that are right in front of you, that will be affected by it. You got to talk straight and square. You know I'm saying.

Farber:        Have you ever had to walk away from a project because as you said, you say it up front and things didn't align or the energies weren't right or there was something off?

Chin:        It's the opposite. I remember, and what has driven me to this, I was in Detroit back during Devil's Night time and I had all these ideas about how to actually transform the house into these surrealistic kind of functioning mushroom houses, sinking houses, houses that could move to undo the stigma that was associated with the people that live there in east side Detroit. I was in east side Detroit and presenting these ideas, and full of it, and really, really wanting to get the project's done and excited about the agrarian kind of revolution that was happening within the inner city of Detroit because of the abandonment of the city there.

I remember the gentleman coming up to me and saying, "Man, we really dig your ideas. You're cool. You're cool as can be, but you'll be gone." And I was shocked. I said, "What do you mean? I just got here." And they essentially said, "Because no one helps poor people. You should know that." A lot of people come with ideas but at the end, you won't be supported. So I remembered denying that and going back and forth to Detroit on my own nickel basically to try to push this project and sure enough the money ran out. And there was none coming. And I had to walk away.

I was struck by that when I was in New Orleans, when I started the Fundred Project. When I was in the street and such goodwill with the project and one of the local residents came up to me and said, "Okay, so you'd be going now, right?" It's almost the same attitude of the people that are disenfranchised can understand you want to help. They can understand concepts you bring forward and they love working with you and all these things. But they have an understanding that they will be abandoned. So I looked at her and just said, "Well, you know something. You're right. I probably will not come back, but I'll be damned if something does not come back. I will work until something does. It may not be me, it may not be a physical thing, but it will be something.

And that was almost 10 years ago when we started the Fundred Project and we're still in the thick of it. I plan to continue to work on the Fundred Project by any means we can and right now we started a 501c called SOURCE Studio, and that stands for Sustained Operations Utilizing Resources for Community/ Culture Environment. That's a mouthful but that's what it stands for. It's almost like a military operation, an acronym. But I don't plan to stop and with the help of what we're trying to accomplish, we'll continue to understand that it's not just the project itself of Fundred, but it's how to work collectively and work as a team.

The "we" working with agencies that understand childhood lead poisoning, those that are working for many years, scientists that have been working many years to stop at community leaders. Now US congressmen from the left and the right, from both houses and Senators in understanding it's not my say that said, "You should do this," but as our say to say, "Consider this." And maybe something will happen from that, and then that will come back to New Orleans many years later and every city that we've expanded it, including the entire country that something will happen, and you don't have to even think about Fundred or me or anything else. But they can be rest assured that their contribution if they drew a Fundred was a part of that package, you see? It's not about my history, I guess, it's about actions that are part of a something that must be delivered, right?

Farber:        Yeah.

Chin:        It's no big deal. To me it's when you just think about it quietly, of course it makes sense. A lot of these concepts to me are probably already done by others. And my feeling about it, it just makes absolute logic to me. You're part of a reasoning that if the environment around me is made better, if people are free of a threat, then it makes my world better. So let's do this. Why not?

Farber:        In terms of S.O.U.R.C.E. Studio, and how it makes sense for you and the projects that you've done and you will be doing, what is the origin of S.O.U.R.C.E. and how does it differ from your own artist studio or your own projects because you're the founder but you also have a team now taking on S.O.U.R.C.E. Studio projects?

Chin:        I'm not the director. I can engage in projects that are collective in the nature and I don't look to benefit from it. I certainly want to help it be sustained, but it looks like aside from studio practice, it needed something that worked in these issues with meaningful engagements in the community that I learned, the things I've learned, the things I've been describing. It seemed like others could be supportive in this kind of action. So just setting it up was an important thing. I mean I was always told to try to go that way and so it has eventually happened. When you work with foundations, thank goodness we had them, but there's also fiscal agencies and there's the timing it takes to wait for grants and also timelines of grants. Thank goodness for the help but at the same time there are windows of support. So just coming up with something that could create that infrastructure and programming. I could just be part of it. I could be part of something that was important.

Farber:        One of the first projects of S.O.U.R.C.E. , you've announced the inaugural Corrina Mehiel fellowship for women, trans, and non-binary artists to have time and space to reflect and evolve their practice. And before speaking about the fellows, if it's all right with you, I want to ask you about the fellowship namesake, Corrina Mehiel.

Chin:        Corrina Mehiel, we miss her dearly was probably the first person in many years that I was willing to entrust to be my studio manager. She was one of the strongest and most tireless people I had ever met. And her ability to connect with people was profound. I thought I was pretty good socially and breaking down boundaries, but Corrina had that way that far superseded my capacities. She really was such a special person that when we lost her to horrible violence, it's almost like she's still present and I think maybe a fellowship and her name guarantees her presence because if anything, it was almost like what would Corrina do?

It would be about her, it would be supporting others. And so it made sense, it made sense. Of course, I'm not alone in setting that up. Amanda Wiles, our director source she was fundamental on pushing this forward. And this whole idea of S.O.U.R.C.E. was initiated in some of the conversations and some of the bones of it. Corrina was working on that before she was killed. So it makes sense that this award be for real and be put out there. So in the middle of a lot of bad news, the good news is we do have... It was funny. We're supposed to name one fellow. We decided to increase the amount so we could have two fellows, and naming them... We couldn't decide and say, "No. We also need an honorary prize."

It's exciting to support the people coming in and give people what I had in my development as a lot of generosity. It's a space generosity and I've been the beneficiary of that. So if I can just get all of that here in the studio, that would be great. But it's also, I've been benefited two beneficiary of critique and an engagement and conversation. So if anybody wants that, the studio is here for that. 

Farber:        In going through the process of naming the fellows, was it healing for you in any ways?

Chin:        Yes, it is. It is and it always will be because in the way that is how I feel someone can live. If you think about them and then what better, some actions in her name, in Corrina's name could happen. Even with this COVID crisis happening, it's also how we could create a fellowship or an action that is responsive that's more flexible. There's no strings attached. Right now, artists are in need and so we have to give if we have that capacity then. And we're lucky to have that capacity where we want to do this. So in trouble times, we want to be active and engage with people, and I think it will spread. So on the process that you never will recover from certain things that happen in your life, but I think the variability is dependent on the things you do to create that climate.

Farber:        You named the recipients, the artists, Monique Muse Dodd and Jackie Sumell with the honorable mention to Anaya Frazier who's a former Monument Lab fellow as well.

Chin:        Oh she was? That's so cool.                                                                                                                                                                                              

Farber:        Yeah.

Chin:        She's a poet. She's a young poet.

Farber:        That's right.

Chin:        She's the youngest. We just couldn't believe it. Well, we could believe it because it was evident. 

Farber:        She's remarkable. She's remarkable. She was part of a collective, and performed at our Town Hall last June at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Chin:        That's great. We're glad she got a little boost. I'm really looking forward to... It's almost like... I'm not going to say I'm looking for what they do, I'm looking forward to be part of supporting their effort of whatever it might be, supporting her life at this moment if it needs to be. It's okay. We're not going to have any pressure points. You know what I'm saying? I know what that feels. Did you give me any pressure? I don't think so. I don't think so. You're cool.

Chin:        You didn't give me any pressure when we were working together. [Laughs]

Farber:        Well, I was thinking back when we worked together in Philadelphia for Monument Lab 2017, a project Two Me. I was thinking about it and thinking about the two pedestals with 90 feet of ADA accessible ramp behind them, and over 50,000 people in the City Hall courtyard ascended to the top. Back then I love seeing you connect with people whether it was the mayor or average passers-by. I was just curious what you took away from that project especially seeing people lined up to stand in the place of monuments and not just that but have to have someone else stand on the other pedestal and balance that. What did you take away from that project?

Chin:        Well, it's interesting. I had an earlier conversation with Nato Thompson, and it reminded me about something that I've been thinking about a lot, and this relates... I guess it's a hot topic, this COVID-19. But the idea of a virus is like it's effective because it's also an incomplete form. It's not living quite yet until it connects and does what it does. So that can be a very negative outcome by the way as we know. But if you think about an artwork especially, a public work in the same way, that it really is not finished or is never completed until it engages, and that's what I'm thinking about. A sense of actually seeing a work that is being completed time and time again when people are going up there. Going up there and just being what they wanted to be themselves. They could be a "me."

I know. They had to confront with some other "me" on the side but what I don't know how that worked in the head. But it was really completed at the moment when that I saw someone in a wheelchair come up there, because that was the thing. So I think it's about how concepts are completed by the "we" and that was a really... Let's say, it was not subtle. That's a direct project. Thank you very much Monument Lab and the posse because the Philadelphia posse, y'all did it. You helped made something realized. I think what it is, is like a virus or a concept is like incomplete or just a notion, theory or something that is completed in this way and fulfill. 

Chin:        You know what I'm saying.

Farber:        Well, thank you. Your presence in the months leading up to the project, but of course during the installation and even the turning over to the people of Philadelphia, it was profound to watch. I remember that moment that the Mayor is talking to you during Install having this really direct conversation and he never stops moving his feet. But you two are locked in conversation. [Laughs]

Chin:        I liked him. Is he still there?

Farber:        He's still in office, Mayor [Jim] Kenney.

Chin:        I think Philadelphia is going through some stuff. Is it spreading down there?

Farber:        It is, yeah. We're all shutdown and we're all trying to do our part.

Chin:        Well, if you see Mayor Kenney, please give him my regards and my hopes that things will transform in Philadelphia. I really appreciate his thoughts about it and his allowance for it to be there. Anyway that really made that piece.

Farber:        That's right. And your idea that's summoned it. I'd be remiss not to ask, the end of 2019 brought big news that you were awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. So first of all congratulations.

Chin:        Thank you, thank you.

Farber:        I'm curious where you were when you heard the news?

Chin:        Okay. When they announced it, I was digging a hole to uncover some plumbing leak in the yard, [laughs] but when they called, they always call you, I didn't know that. I've never received a MacArthur obviously. And was not expecting one. I'm not imbued with the particular genius that would imagine that I would ever get one. That was never part of my quest. Of course, it can't be anyway. So what happened was that … friends from Santa Cruz were coming in to interview me, but they're traveling across the country. They had been interviewing artists for quite a while. I said, "Okay. Come on in. I'll sit for an interview." So there were all professional. They brought in all the equipment, a cameraman, and everything. So I said, "Man, they're serious about this interview. So I got to get ready."

So I looked at my phone and someone was trying to call and I didn't have time. I saw it was a call from Chicago. The phone tells you the area code, and I'm just saying, "Wow, a telemarketer calling all the way from Chicago. Well, I don't have time for that." And then I walk away and they're preparing outside. And then there's a text message saying you have to call this morning and I said, "Well, now that is a new low a telemarketer calling me and texting me telling me what to do. I think I'm going to give him a piece of my mind. I think I will call them."  So I call, so I said, "Just a second. I'm going to go back and give a call." And this woman's voice comes on and asks, "Are you alone?" I was just about ready to say, "You know I'm not alone. I'm actually ready to shoot a film—” but I got cut off when she said “I’m asking because I’m calling from the MacArthur Foundation."

So I kind of rearranged my thoughts very rapidly and didn't complain... I didn't ask her in other words to take my number off the call list. So that's what happened. And then I had to keep it quiet. I couldn't tell anybody. And that was the routine. So I was just getting ready for an interview and ready to tell them off, but we'll stop when they identified themselves. And then as a matter of just staying calm and not mentioning it to anybody. You know what I'm saying? 

Farber:        How did you cope with keeping it in? It's major life impacting news a lot of people were rooting for you. How did you keep it in and what was the experience like when you were finally able to share it?

Chin:        Well, because I'm a little bit older. I think they even mentioned it in the New York Times that I was the oldest of the group to ever get one. And maybe age is not a prerequisite for this, but I kind of took it on. I understood the magnitude of the award and I felt a deep sense of obligation to do more. That's how I dealt with it. It wasn't an apprehension type like, "Oh, no. I got to go right back into the mind." But in a way it was. Like this is confirmation of a life's work and that life's work is not done. And that's how I think about it.

So let's get busy. Let's go to Chicago. Let's go to Little Haiti. Let's go to Houston. Let's go to Greenland. The edges of Greenland and watch the world fall apart. And let's try to be reeducated. So the internal voice is humbling and it's a confirmation that more must be done. That's really how I feel about it.

Farber:        Mel Chin, thank you so much for joining the Monument Lab podcast. It's always a treat to talk and think with you.

Mel Chin:    Yeah. Right on, Paul.

To learn more about Mel Chin and S.O.U.R.C.E. Studio, visit https://sourcestudio.org/. You can read more on Mel’s Monument Lab Two Me on our website or our book, out now through Temple University Press.

Mel Chin, from Houston, Texas, is known for the broad range of approaches in his art, including works that require multi-disciplinary, collaborative teamwork and works that conjoin cross-cultural aesthetics with complex ideas. In 1989, he developed Revival Field, a project that was a pioneer in the field of “green remediation,” the use of plants to remove toxic, heavy metals from the soil.

From 1995 to 1998 Chin formed a collective that produced In the Name of the Place, a conceptual public art project conducted on the popular prime-time TV series, Melrose Place. In KNOWMAD, Chin worked with software engineers to create a video game based on rug patterns of nomadic people facing cultural disappearance, and his hand-drawn, 24-minute film, 9-11/9-11, won the prestigious Pedro Sienna Award—the “Oscar” of Chile—for best animation in 2007.

A current project, Fundred, focuses on national awareness and prevention of childhood lead-poisoning through art-making. Mel is also well known for his iconic sculptures and installations, works that often address the importance of memory and collective identity, and for inserting art into unlikely places, including destroyed homes, toxic landfills, and most recently working with advanced augmented reality (AR) technology, investigating how art can provoke greater social awareness and responsibility.

A multi-venue exhibition of Mel’s work titled All Over the Place was presented in New York City in 2018. He has received many honors, grants and awards, most recently a MacArthur Fellowship in 2019.