Mel Chin, recipient of ABOG’s first Distinguished Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art, has been making work since the 1970s in media as varied as destroyed homes, toxic landfills, and even popular television, investigating how art can provoke greater social awareness and responsibility. A self-proclaimed “recovering conceptual artist,” Mel is now the leader of one of the most ambitious social practice projects in the country. He initiated Operation Paydirt in New Orleans in 2006 to engage communities nationwide in a creative grassroots action to address the national crisis of lead contamination. Over eight years, the project has grown from a viral initiative involving a few thousand children to over 400,000 participants across the country, advancing awareness of lead poisoning prevention and remediation practices. Its primary project, the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, aims to convert “Fundreds” – original, hand-drawn interpretations of hundred dollar bills made by students nationwide – into real federal appropriations to fund lead poisoning awareness and lead remediation. Mel aims to collect millions of these unique artworks and present them as a visual petition to the U.S. Congress with a request for real funding, at equal exchange, to prevent lead poisoning in cities across America.
We asked Mel to give us an inside look at one of the projects he has been working on as part of Operation Paydirt. Read on to hear about how Mel and the video team smARTlab put together a new lead (Pb) awareness video with a host of collaborators, a classroom of energetic kids and a shoestring budget.
MEL CHIN: During a recent residency at the McColl Center for Visual Art, a contemporary art center located in Charlotte, NC, I met a number of energetic and resourceful people who became part of the Operation Paydirt team. A Charlotte-based Operation Paydirt pilot program was developed in collaboration with the McColl Center, smARTlab, LeadSafe Charlotte, and the Visual Arts Curriculum and Making it Better initiative leaders within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Working together, we launched a district-wide education and engagement program integrating lead (Pb) science, health, social studies, and art, reaching thousands of students and educators.
A key component of this new program was the PSA I created with smARTlab, a video production team based in Charlotte made up of videographer Ben Premeaux and director Scott Lazes. The Charlotte Operation Paydirt Initiative, including the video, classroom materials, and partnership model for local outreach, will inform the upcoming expansion of the Fundred Dollar Bill campaign.
Since Fundred is about the voice of the people, I’ll hand it over to my collaborators at smARTlab, Ben Premeaux and Scott Lazes.
BEN PREMEAUX & SCOTT LAZES (smARTlab): From the moment we heard about Operation Paydirt and the Fundred Dollar Bill Project we knew we wanted to use our skills to help. During Mel’s residency at the McColl Center we learned that Fundred Dollar Bill Project had grown beyond New Orleans and needed new content to deliver a clear and consistent national message. From the beginning Mel wanted kids to deliver the message in a video, and he imagined a classroom full of students without a teacher, telling the story. We thought this was a great concept, but could we establish students as experts on the problem of lead (Pb)?
The challenge was keeping it educational, campy, clean, short and ready for any school in the country on a shoestring budget. We used our contacts within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to meet a classroom full of gifted drama students from J.M. Robinson Middle School. The students, who ranged in age from 12 to 14, were exceptional. The student who pounds his fist on the desk at 1:08 improvised that scene. Another young actor was given the task to recite a complicated list of numbers and facts. She nailed it perfectly, over and over again, even through multiple takes. Nothing seemed to faze her. Thanks to the talent and concentration of these young actors, we got to work and wrapped within one day.
The most gratifying news is that the PSA was incorporated into a city-wide initiative that paid off with over 43,000 individually drawn Fundreds!
For more on smARTlab and their collaboration with Mel, read Joelle Te Paske’s (ABOG Programs & Communications Coordinator) interview with Ben Premeaux below:
A BLADE OF GRASS: What were you doing before working with smARTlab?
BEN PREMEAUX: I was a high school art teacher for 14 years and started the first all-digital graphic design curriculum in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. In 2009 I was working part time after school as the media lab associate at the McColl Center for Visual Art. I ran the computer lab at the center and helped artists with printing, learning software and various projects. During my tenure there I picked up a contract to photograph the artists in residence, which I still do, and I began shooting video for the McColl Center around the time the DSLR revolution hit for video. I began what they call open door interviews, which I now produce with Scott under the name smARTlab. We produced one of these for Mel (below):
ABOG: How did smARTlab come together?
BP: I became interested in video, telling stories and documenting artists at the McColl Center. I thought the artists were doing such exciting work and thought I could help get the message out. Then other clients started popping up so I thought I’d try and make a go of it.
ABOG: What was your favorite part of putting together the PSA?
BP: The ability to collaborate with so many individuals and institutions to help spread the word about the problem of lead and to help reach the Fundred goal. The kids were excellent, and my former colleague Mark Buzzee, who is an English teacher at the school stepped up big time and got the ball rolling with Stacy Boone, the theatre teacher. The kids Stacy identified were terrific actors and really got into the script.
ABOG: What was the hardest part?
BP: The challenge was making sure the script language was perfect as there were a lot of facts and figures to cover. We had to work with Mel’s team and a couple of different agencies (such as Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning & Green and Healthy Homes Initiative) to make sure the information was correct and the language was just right.
ABOG: What is it like working with kids on these sorts of projects?
BP: The fact that the kids stayed late after school, learned the script in no time and really got into the project was great. The script was really challenging but they did an expert job with the language and complex facts. Also seeing that kids care about larger issues, and getting to help communicate that, was really inspiring.
The challenges of working with kids and schools is timing, you have a very finite amount of time to work and you need to get it done. In most cases there really is not another time to shoot. The middle school, J.M. Robinson in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that we worked with couldn’t have been more helpful! They got a huge number of actors together and opened their facilities to us. It helped deliver a really professional product.
ABOG: Had you worked on socially engaged art projects previously?
BP: As a teacher and artist I’ve always been drawn to socially engaged projects. Through working at the McColl Center I was exposed to many socially minded artists doing high quality work, but the Fundred Dollar Bill Project is something special. I was really drawn to Mel’s idea that collective conscience can deliver such a strong message to the leaders of our country and hopefully, the world. The whole concept and mission for smARTlab is to provide high quality, creative productions to artists and Mel was in need of a new direction for the Fundred messaging so I thought I’d help out. It was the perfect project for us and I am proud to be a part of it.
Reports from the Field presents the voices of community participants and collaborators in Fellows’ socially engaged art projects.
Can’t get enough? More from Mel here: