Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI)
“Artist Donald Fels unearths a world of cultural questions.”
– Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 8, 1993
In 1997, at a time when the museum was grappling with re-defining the thrust of its exhibitions, Fels became its first artist in residence – brought in to provide a new perspective. He began his tenure by meeting regularly with the curators. He then chose to address a particular problematic issue for the museum. MOHAI owns an important piece of industrial history, the “Iron Chink”, a fish butchering machine that forever altered canning practices in the Northwest. Because of its racist name, the museum had been highly reluctant to exhibit the object. Fels worked with the curators to devise a strategy for displaying the machine, and was then commissioned to produce a kinetic sculpture that would be displayed alongside it.
His sculpture, now part of the museum collection, was created in collaboration with scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, mechanical wizard Claire Colquitt, and Robert Teeple, LED designer. About the size of the Iron Chink, and called the “Industrial Fish”, the sculpture is a mechanized fish, a kinetic cartoon. Instead of butchering salmon, it ‘produces’ them. ‘Food’ is seen to enter the mouth of the fish via a feeding tube, then ‘offspring’ are created, which can be viewed on a computer screen. Randomly, the machine produces mutants. In a playful manner, the sculpture considers the many (quite serious) ramifications of farming salmon.
The sculpture was created and displayed long before fish farming was being publicly addressed. Having done considerable research with NOAA, Fels felt secure in questioning aquaculture practices. Many of MOHAI’s visitors are school children; making the machine cartoon-like was a means of delivering the science in a way that young visitors could see for themselves. Its kinetics, which suggests a 19th century mechanical approach to a far more complex issue, was a way to point out the overly simplified statements being argued in favor of farming salmon.