Mel Chin Interview
Mel Chin Interview (excerpt)
Full version found on the "Revival Fields" Project website
interview: F. Armaly / U. M. Bauer
Q: This aspect of transmission and transformation of information and ideas, and a time related to generational transfer is clear in your collaborative project, the GALA Committee's "In the Name of the Place." This was the first project particularly linking to your work in the field of education, so that now you register a revival of interest in art, by getting your participants to work in the 'reality' of mainstream TV media. What were your parameters, and how did it come about?
MC: The Melrose Place project "In the Name of the Place," was the first project I connected with my teaching - which was at that time as a scholar in residence at the University of California (Cal Arts), and the University of Georgia. I took an art project that was offered to me and turned it into a collective project with my students. There is nothing better than getting out of school to experience the real world with all its rejections and failures. Working together and trying to make something happen, you learn about collaboration and that it does not mean sacrificing some individual impulses towards producing art, but challenging the creative capacity to adjust and deal with other thoughts that may be circulating. This experience belongs to the practice necessary to begin creating new ideas in this world.
GALA Committee conditions were not just specific to the TV show Melrose Place. The project was initiated in connection with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and was obviously related to the art world and its attendant media. The participants saw art institutions not as fixed, but in constant flux, depending on the curators or the directorship at the time, or even the press. If an editor of an art magazine prefers a certain branch of art, then that is what will be reported. There are linear aspects to the world of museum collection in terms of trends and friends. You cannot use that as a gauge to know whether you are successful or accepted as part of the so-called art world.
The project was more directly related to the mainstream media, which can corrupt any kind of 'attitude' and turn it against itself to sell something. In terms of the project's educational role, it became apparent that one must be critical and rebel against mainstream ideas because many times the media´steals the tools it takes to reevaluate oneself. And, if you want to work with someone else, be it an artist or television producer, it is the wrong idea to have your agenda set and just do your thing. You have to develop agreement and empathy while still putting forth your maximum effort to get your ideas expressed.
Television media is for now (this will change) a site of profound power that allows for the generational transfer of ideas. Today as I walked through the streets of Stuttgart I heard 'Bye Bye American Pie' by Don McLean via Madonna on MTV doing her new version of a song that was played when I was leaving High School. Thirty years - a generation has passed - and why is that song again here? So what happens when we think of ideas not as having the typical three month life-span in a gallery, but as having a life span within commercial TV, re-running until you finally 'get it'.
Q: "Revival Field" manifested as your first work after you made a decisive stop on the doorstep to a museum career as you said, working with your hands. Its title really implies as well a revival of your interests in art practice, through finding a more suitable environment for your different interests to be cultivated in one 'field'. Ecology is clearly present at many levels there, from the direct relation to the earth, to your own revival of a belief in the transmutative process of art, in some sense, updating the notion of alchemy to the information/communication era. This continues into "In the Name of the Place," your first teaching-based collective project, where the 'transmission and transformation of information' is certainly embedded. Early in the project's life you produced a drawing showing the GALA Committee as a complex ecology - why?
MC: In the case of "Revival Field", the work of hundreds of scientists is involved, but in the case of the GALA Committee, what about the millions of fans who start to understand that their favorite show contains some things they never knew? Things which are related to the characters and the plot, but also to other issues. This is a concept of an ecology of relationships where elements are constantly affected by other elements, sending them moving and spiraling in different directions. So early in the project, I drew a plan of the GALA Committee project as an ecology, charting the conversion of TV props that viewers see, into art objects later seen by another audience at a museum exhibition, then into a kind of TV souvenir/artifact being sold at a Sotheby's auction, with the proceeds donated to a charity furthering women's college education (a selection that reflected the viewer demographic of Melrose Place) . So although I don't know the individual who is being educated by our resulting scholarship, she has the capacity to also feed back into that ecology. So the ecology drawing from the beginning indicated the importance of understanding a whole description of the project's life.
Q: It also associates 'information, education, entertainment', the original mandate associated to television media, with a sense of community responsibility. With commercial television, the acquisition of money through selling advertising time is linked to 'attracting viewer numbers', via a circulation of certain beliefs and values, where each adjusts to the other for the optimum acquisition of money. How did GALA see the work-related conditions and exchange?
MC: The GALA Committee didn't accept money from the television's extraordinary amount of wealth. Being paid for services means having to perform according to certain rules. By providing the works for free, we could meet the deadlines and provide the work, but remain able to say 'no' to something asked for that we hadn't agreed to produce. It was also a strategy to encourage more of a conversation about the nature and limits of this cooperation or collaboration - what we really wanted to create out of this, what we were not willing to give up in the creative medium, and what it would take. We had to sacrifice something, so in this case, it came down to the money. We saw the producers as collaborators who gave us the script in advance to read, and we'd find ideas there. One example we produced is the set prop "Food for Thought." In the script, one character brings in Chinese food take-out bags and cartons to share with another. We thought that this would be an excellent site for an alternative logo or graphic image from Chinese script. In Chinese restaurants there are red good luck symbols on the walls which say 'prosperity' and 'double happiness,' meaning that if you eat there you get good fortune. We felt that this scene with the Chinese food delivery could offer 'food for thought'. Our research led to statements by the official press in Beijing concerning the Tiananmen Square students. The statements used a word to describe the activities of the students which meant they were not a pro-democracy movement but were just causing trouble to an extreme degree. Now if you asked the students they would say they were demonstrating for human rights and democratic potential. By putting these two sides together on the take-out bags and cartons, we created an iconic kind of battle, not 'double happiness' and 'double prosperity' but 'more trouble' and 'human rights' in opposition.
The agent that carries an idea may be a television action, or an object of art or a laboratory result. The key is to bring together all the parts and participants to make a project happen. So it is not just a subversive activity to place an idea but it is also establishing the kinds of relationships and the ecology that need to exist for the idea to continue. People are always asking me and other GALA Committee members, how successful was the Melrose project, did it work? Our response largely is that we are not done yet, it is not over yet; we probably won't know the answer to that question for another twenty or thirty years.