ALBUQUERQUE — Mel Chin’s “The Potential Project,” represented by an installation at 516 Arts, is not “challenging” because it’s difficult to decode or because it’s disobedient (e.g. an affront to normative culture); nor would I say that it challenges my preconceptions. Rather, it embodies the teetering ambiguities of “first world” philanthropy. The challenge, for those of us professionally and casually concerned with justice, is to identify those ambiguities so that we can be vigilant, self-critical, and accountable when we offer help to people whose oppression reinforces first-world privilege.
“The Potential Project” appears in the exhibition Knew Normal, curated by Nancy Zastudil as part of 516’s climate change series, HABITAT: Exploring Climate Change Through the Arts. The installation includes a repurposed Texaco sign, schematics and technical documents, and a small solar energy station. Chin painted over the Texaco sign with a repetition of the Arabic word for “freedom” in red, green, and black — the colors of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). An earlier version of the project was featured in the exhibition Carbon 14: Climate is Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2013, where mock bank notes created by the people of Western Sahara covered the two lateral walls of the installation.
Chin makes a conceptual link between climate change and the inhabitants of Western Sahara, know as the Saharawi (also spelled “Sahrawi”). He hopes the project will both improve life for them and show the world the feasibility of renewable energy. The connection dates back to 1975, the year that Wallace Broecker introduced the world to the concept of “global warming” and Spain abruptly pulled out of its North African colony of Western Sahara. The Saharawi are a historically nomadic people who, in addition to their homeland, occupy parts of Morocco and Algeria. Half of them live in Algerian refugee camps because of ongoing conflicts between the Polisario Front (which founded the exiled SADR) and the Moroccan monarchy. Though the UN initially supported a SADR-run state, its member states have waivered in their support for nearly 40 years, with the US and France (both allies of Morocco) repeatedly blocking the resolution. Worse, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton pushed President Obama to recognize Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara at the same time that the Clinton Foundation was receiving donations, totaling $5 million from Morocco’s Office Chérifien des Phosphates. Western Sahara, incidentally, is known for its oil and phosphate deposits.
Currently, the majority of Western Sahara falls under the domain of Morocco and its currency, the Moroccan dirham. According to Chin’s description of “The Potential Project,” despite overwhelming opposition, the Saharawi view a currency of their own as one strategy for self-determination. At a talk he gave at the University of New Mexico on September 10, Chin explained that the Saharawi contacted him after hearing about his Fundred Dollar Bill Project in New Orleans. There, the artist recognized that the fallout during Hurricane Katrina uncovered a legacy of unmitigated industrial pollution. He converted an abandoned home into a faux vault (named the “Safehouse”), where he collected a materialized social currency made up of “fundreds” created by hundreds of thousands of participants. Using a mobile unit, Chin expanded the project across the US, and, at some point, Chin’s organization will deliver the fundreds to Washington with a request for an even exchange of “real resources” to mitigate lead contamination in post-industrial cities.
“The Potential Project,” rather than trading for resources with the social and creative capital that fundreds represent, seeks to create an actual currency that the rest of the world will recognize, one backed “not by gold or gas, but by the sun.” It would be connected to a solar power station in Mijek, Western Sahara. However, at his talk, Chin said that the question is not what we have to offer the Saharawi by developing their currency, but what they have to offer us by developing a bank of the sun, or, more plainly, an economy based on a renewable energy grid. Given a social-political environment in which the occasional institution divests from fossil fuels, this is less a rhetorical art project than an interventional strategy — what Chin might be referring to as the “potential” of the project, but what I call its ambiguity. In its attempt to benefit the Saharawi, the project risks romanticizing their plight, turning their lived experiences into yet another bourgeois pet project, like “voluntourism.”
The Saharawi did invite Chin to problem-solve with them and they ostensibly support his plan, but he also said that he would pull out of the project if someone tried to claim or abuse it. The ability to bow out of a region suffering from postcolonial conflict is the exact problem of first-world privilege. The assertion that they have something to offer us is also problematic, an orientalizing frame that occludes the role the (modern) West has played in, say, climate change and colonization by looking to the (primitive) East to save us from the conditions of modernity. Moreover, equating freedom with capital suggests that Saharawi sovereignty depends on participation in the world economy. Considering that they already depend on foreign aid, a currency may allow them to choose their own modes of participation. But the promise of liberation through the market is also a textbook neoliberal proposal. Even if we take a “realist” view of the project — a “money makes the world go ’round” logic — Western Sahara needs and wants a concrete UN resolution — namely, recognition — which I imagine would help to substantiate its currency.
These are, to repeat, the risks of the project, not the final assessment. Unlike the often dematerialized “conversations” that art objects tend to evoke, social practice is ongoing and contains the potential for material consequences. The push for a currency could drive a UN resolution, and “The Potential Project” certainly draws our attention to the Western Sahara decolonization effort. Because Chin is working with a number of international, state, and local agencies, his project also opens the Saharawi effort to the artistic process, which relies on productive failures. If artists have a supernatural ability, it is to see failures as instructions, challenges not as obstacles to overcome but as materials with which to work. Chin is particularly endowed with this gift. Take “Revival Field: Projection and Procedure,” a project of which I have long been a fan. The fenced-off garden in St. Paul, Minnesota, accomplishes a scientific (even political) goal by identifying plants that will pull heavy and poisonous metals out of the soil. These plants are called hyperaccumulators. Conceptually, the piece also suggests that industrial waste mitigation requires a gardener’s ability to read and nurture a particular cut of land, a process that demands trial-and-error and changes every season. The pathways cutting across “Revival Field” form an X, as if to identify the process of toxic-metal extraction as sort of treasure waiting to be discovered.
The outcome of “The Potential Project” won’t likely be so clear-cut. Its ambiguity exists in the space between the urgency of the outcome for the Saharawi and the integrity of the process for Chin. We can fairly say that Chin is a collaborator in this project, a consultant even, using his training and influence in the Western art world not to ethnographically point at the Saharawi, but to respond to their desire for a national identity. Importantly, Chin does not try to represent Saharawi people through the installation; rather, the Saharawi represent themselves in the mock bank notes. The potential lessons for us about climate change and renewable energy, then, seem more of a conceptual strategy — a way of making the Saharawi legible to us through an issue that has achieved international attention — though renewable energy is also a real necessity for the project.
As a challenge to other artists who work in social practice or social justice, “The Potential Project” necessarily embraces conflict, reconditioning it through a set of ambiguities that force the artist to treat his materials (which include human beings) with an air of consequence. At his talk, for instance, Chin explained that one of his Saharawi hosts asked him why an artist could see what others could not, namely the Saharawi struggle for self-determination. Regardless of how Chin responded, he assumed a sense of responsibility for his own actions by doing so. His methods may remain those of an artist — playing, imagining, rearranging — but the project is also very “real” to him. The hope is that once they too “see” the Saharawi through Chin’s project, state agencies and embassies will share his sense of responsibility.