Mel Chin, Operation Paydirt (Fundred)

What if we sent our communities through a (environmental) detox program? Operation Paydirt (Fundred) uses art to build new frameworks for action on lead poisoning across the US

 In 2010, a specially retrofitted armored truck began an 18,000-mile national tour to collect “Fundred” dollar bills across the U.S. Its most recent sighting was at Artprize in September, where hundreds of Michigan residents donated to the collection. Artist Mel Chin began “Operation Paydirt/Fundred”  after learning 30 percent of New Orlean’s inner city population – roughly 86,000 residential properties – live on top of lead-contaminated soil. 

Lead poisoning, which plagues every major U.S. city and disproportionately affects lower-income children, puts generations at risk for severe learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Known for insinuating art in unlikely and marginal spaces, Chin saw an opportunity to provoke greater awareness and responsibility around the $43 billion the World Heath Organization says childhood lead poisoning costs the U.S. each year. With a sly and evocative wit and intolerance for injustice, Chin lent his usual boundary-crossing style as artist, activist, performer, commentator and trickster to activate the masses around the cause.  

Central to the project is his belief that populations most at risk need some vehicle to express themselves. Engaging through schools, community centers, art centers, and other means of social networking, Fundred offers students and residents the opportunity to create their own Fundreds, a re-interpreted U.S. $100 bill. Individually, the Fundreds represent the value of imagination and hope; collectively they represent an informed public voice speaking to those with the capacity to end this national problem. Chin’s goal is to exchange the value of the Fundreds for real resources.

In conjunction with Fundred, Chin also organized a partnership called “Operation Paydirt” with principal scientific investigator, Dr. Andrew Hunt at University of Texas, Arlington. Together, their team developed an alternative to “dig and dump” lead remediation, the standard EPA methodology for residential areas. By leveraging existing technologies, their technique called “Treat Lock Cover (TLC)” effectively neutralizes the soil using a fish bone derivative that binds to lead. They are currently deploying tests with local and federal agencies in New Orleans and Oakland to demonstrate the near-term possibility of lead-safe cities. 

Chin’s “Operation Paydirt/Fundred” draws on artistic methods to raise awareness, build consensus among stakeholders, and educate lawmakers on viable alternative solutions. But when asked whether ‘art’ can save cities, Chin responds with a different question: can ‘we’ save cities? He may use art as a vehicle to make visible the invisible threat of lead, but it is people who drive the action. The genius in Chin’s work isn’t the art itself. It is his ability to use art to create new frameworks for action, ones that catalyze new ways to solve intransigent problems.

Since its initiation eight year ago, “Operation Paydirt/Fundred” has grown from involving a few thousand children to over 400,000 participants and has collected nearly 450,000 bills. The project is currently working with partners to frame a second phase of the campaign - the delivery of millions of Fundred Dollar Bills to Washington, D.C. to bid Congress in a dollar-for-dollar exchange for real lead poisoning prevention.