Mel Chin’s Wake

America’s first popstar returned with a new message 2018-Present

My Role

I served as the lead Engineer and project manager for Mel Chin’s Wake from august 2017 to present. This project catalyzed my drive to use design interventions to address societal problems. It was through this project that I learned how public art can inspire people to come together to create meaningful objects and experiences and build community through that process. It was through this project that I learned that I, as an individual, am way more competent and capable than I ever believed I was and that is only enhanced and strengthened by working with others. 

The object 

Wake is Mel Chin’s 24 foot tall, 34 foot wide, 54 foot long sculpture composed of an animatronic ship’s figurehead and the skeletal remains of the 1850’s clipper ship to which she was once affixed. The figurehead is that of Swedish Opera star Jenny Lind. Brought to the United States for a first of it’s kind musical tour, she became an icon. A ship builder in New England fell in love with her likeness and had it carved into the figurehead for the fastest clippership of it’s time, the USS Nightingale. Lind, an abolitionist, had no say in this. The ship was ultimately used to carry enslaved peoples and was captured by the Union army in the civil war. 

The Reason

This story of the birth of modern showbusiness intersecting with identity and ownership at the end of the first industrial revolution created the anchor for Chin’s Unmoored, an augmented reality experience that visualized the consequences of that story and the reality of unchecked climate change. It gave the submerged viewer a glimpse of a times square 26 feet under water, filled with boats and sea creatures. And it asked the question; “How will you rise?”

The Process

Wake was designed and fabricated by sculpture and engineering students for their senior capstone course under the guidance of faculty and staff at STEAM studio over the span of 364 days. Leveraging digital fabrication techniques at STEAM Studio, the sculpture was designed and built to be quickly assembled and disassembled. 

The figurehead comes to life in a subtle 4 degrees of freedom with roll, pitch and yaw in her “neckanism” and linear rails driving her chest plates to give the illusion of breath. The motions were programmed via data capture from an acting student as she portrayed the emotions of Lind. 

Creating Community

The fabrication of this piece required a multitude of designers, fabricators, artists, and volunteers. The installation required a team of folks working in New York city to coordinate fundraising, permitting, security, shipping, and equipment rental. By the time it was deinstalled and returned to North Carolina over 100 people touched the piece creating relationships that have lasted much longer than the 2 months Wake was on display in Times Square. What struck me most about the process and the individuals that showed up was the collective desire to see Mel’s vision come to fruition. It was a vision that people could rally around, that compelled people to give the most precious thing they have; time. 

Community members in Asheville mobilized to have a local showing and it was installed march 15 2020, just as the pandemic began to change our lives. It has been on display since with extended exhibition dates and a masked figurehead.