Guns and Virons: Artist Mel Chin on Why His 1993 Performance at Dia Continues to Resonate Today

Thirty years after Mel Chin pointed a rifle at the heads of an audience, the artist re-examines this eerily prescient work.

Mel Chin during A Blade of Grass Annual Night of Alchemy on November 7, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Gonzalo Marroquin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

“Guns and Virons” by Mel Chin is an essay commissioned by PROTODISPATCH, a new digital publication featuring personal perspectives by artists addressing transcontinental concerns, filtered by where they are in the world. It was originally published by the international nonprofit Protocinema and appears here as part of a collaboration between Protocinema and Artnet News. The other publication partners of Protodispatch are from Istanbul and from Bangkok.


In 1993, a political gun that we could not see was pointed at our collective heads, pushing us toward an unpredictable future, hawking sham promises that would never trickle down. It had been seven years since Frank Zappa warned us of the threat to democracy from the rise of fascist theocracy. The World Trade Center had just been bombed and the Waco standoff had erupted into a firestorm that fomented dark clouds that hailed guns, fundamentalism, and homegrown terrorism. The first months of 1993 also saw the dawn of a Clinton presidency that intensified neoliberalism.  

On April 25, 1993, at 1400 hours, I pointed a rifle at an audience assembled at Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea.

I spoke in the precise mindset of a military assassin seeking to complete his mission and escape from the lecture hall. I followed up by disassembling a Raytheon night-vision scope from the rifle and whispered into the wireless microphone lodged in the eyepiece as the voice of an HIV virion cruising through the mucosal highway of an unsuspecting host. I then delivered a text written hours before the performance.

The text was an encrypted call to action and contemplated alternative avenues for architects, artists, and academics to consider. I suggested that we act as double agents, occasionally ditching the rewards and notoriety of our individual practices and, instead, banding together as covert operatives engaging within society. As sniper-viral entities, we could access alternate methods of response to a polarizing and disturbing “New World Order,” secretly embedding a self-replicating counterinsurgency within it.

It’s 2023 and the gun we can’t see is back at our heads.

Mel Chin, I See

Page from Mel Chin, I See (1993). Courtesy Protodispatch



I SEE …the insurgent mechanics of infection

Mel Chin



DEFINITION: Transcript and performance notes for ECO-TEC New York Conference Performed at Dia Center for the Arts, April 25, 1993




After introduction you have 30 seconds to…

Pick up Remington M700 .30-06 bolt-action sniper rifle, altered (with wireless microphone) Raytheon Night Vision, telescopic sight, from hidden space under the panel table. Load rifle with empty shell. Walk up to the podium and get into position. Aim at the audience slightly above the heads and toward the far NE corner.



Repeat these lines being input by micro tape cassette hidden in your suit…


I see you and my hide is fresh

April — central air and non-existent


5 northern black outs

2 o’clock

27 meter job

25 acoustical troops

43 second window

25 minute station

3 degrees

Extraction is west

IBS on the Hudson

Alternate up E on eight

Secondary heat is rising and 

Capless Assignment wears no flak.

Conditions quiet.

Round is ready.





Pull rifle trigger. Audible: “click” Sound man: “HIT”



Eject the shell



  1. Pull out another “gun” (small cordless Makita drill painted gun metal black)…undo screws that connect scope to the rifle.
  2. Switch on microphone/scope and continue to follow voice on micro cassette.


I see you and your hide is fresh and permeable

your passion transmission

a fluid ride

thru gates of mucosal masonry…

line up with platelets in the capillary crush

and flush into the arterial highway.

phagocytic cells take some


CD4 takes me.


joints welded

naked… i am no more.

reverse transcriptase 

cytoplasmic hospitality

di-ribo-nucleic ribbon gift.

doubled up into the nucleic network

incorporate, merge

and build MRNA.

protein chassis

surface parts

bond and bail out the cell

phagocytic and antibody memories return…





Put down the microphone/telescopic sight… read text from podium.



I see (…the insurgent mechanics of infection).

I begin with the constructed voices of two who abnormally mark the conclusion of life with unerring precision—a covert peacetime Marine sniper (whose accuracy is 98 percent at 1,000 meters), and a virion’s pathological trek within a human host. Both are imaginefied commentary on the possession of power under specific directives—one subordinate to the Corps, who exercise the militant will of our state, the other operating under a similar code of habit, within the will of evolutionary process. The top-gun Marine prepared for duty, like the prokaryotic pared down life form, are specialized elite entities. Both create a climate that becomes part and product of a larger, formidable psychological architecture

I make these statements from a critical perspective of a certain body of my own work that has and continues to exercise political commentary and witness, and from a personal inability to call forth appropriate emotion and action in the light of tragedy and circumstantial reality. The purpose of the following prescriptions are reconnaissance and reflection for a method to provoke rather than invent, and to intensify the mirror rather than set conclusively in stone. This desire steadies my aim.

Artaud comments from The Theater and Its Double, ”In the City of God, St. Augustine complains of this similarity between the action of the plague that kills without destroying the organs and the theater which, without killing, provokes the most mysterious alterations in the mind of not only an individual but an entire populace.”

In Euripides’ Ion, there are two drops of the Gorgon’s blood that “spurted from the hollow vein”—one that cures all and one that kills all. 

The introduction of GP 160 (gluco protein 160 molecular weight) as a post immunological tool by Army doctors at Walter Reed Hospital is to be praised (the rumored mandatory inoculation of the test serum, not.) My own mule-like behavior proves that things don’t change that quickly. I don’t expect a Gould and Eldridge punctuated equilibrium to immediately arise from the “business as usual stasis” of the military industrial complex. While this singular effort is to be applauded, will the encore be an old reactionary war tune? Will it be an aria to a future altered RNA that was as easy as taking that yellow ribbon off the old oak tree and manipulating it into a neo-fascist icon? If the antidote is first, can a more predictable and virulent one-shot-kill genetic poison packed in a processed gp 160 envelope be far behind? Will its delivery be through deceptive social contact? In an embrace at the next summit?

I guess I’ll have to speculate and at the same time re-target my skepticism within the confines of my own discipline. Booting artworks off high-minded pedestals is not my intention. One or two of mine are on some of the really low ones. But if I suggest that the museums and gallery systems are already acting like cult leaders gone armed and bad, could it be that I am one of the wimpy left arms of a well-intentioned institutionalized squid? Could my tolerated statements be unwittingly doing the PR bidding of a heartless corporate/colonial sea? All this is easy if you generate your own ink. There are works that I appreciate that have successfully penetrated the defense mechanisms and set up critiques within established hallowed halls. But are we sucker bait?—temporary dandies, comforted and caressed by prehensile tentacles that will gradually pull us to the beak? Our protests are yummy… the bile we spill makes the best ink and the best release of all is the obscuring veil of a Press Release.

David Black, in his book concerning AIDS, The Plague Years, ends with what he describes as a cautionary tale.

“The bubonic plague began in the foothills of the Himalayas in a region known as Garwhal and Kumaon. The Saracen empire acted as a buffer to protect Europe from the disease. So when the Europeans fought the Saracens during the Crusades, the more successful they were on the battlefield, the more vulnerable they were making themselves to the disease at home. Be careful what battles you win.”

Marshaling the forces necessary to wage complete warfare against existing systems as expansive as the military complex and the corporate stronghold is not a tactically secure situation. The benefits of protracted war are little. If I try to fight toe to toe—stumps will be the testament of those rounds. How can one commit to decentering power and fight what Foucault calls “…the fascism in us all, in our heads and everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us”?

The Hmong poet Xeng Sue Yang works another angle of the head…

“To cross the river I shall take off my shoes

To cross a country I shall take off my head”

So I sit in my hide with unsettling observations, as an artist with a dissatisfaction with what I perceive to be compartmentalization of that identity. Perhaps waging war is not what I should be doing; but the mechanics of the sniper/virus are a worthy model to use to begin the generation or survival of free thought through the infection of optional forms of reality into closed systems.

An artwork which desires to take excursions into the multitude of systems that comprise our culture other than those of the gallery, museum, or sanctioned public art event or space, may wish to pack an sniper/viral mind set.

Like the sniper and the virus a fresh hide must be there for the right job and the targets should be the incubators. Specialized incubators of late modern capitalism, such as a fast food chain, a fundamentalist religious sect’s compound, a tobacco corporation’s advertising agency, and the less fancy endocrine pits along the ever popular strip mall, are available targets for viral action.

I am reluctant to criticize these entities or even deal with them because we are mutually unhealthy within the larger body, but evolving out of this criticism is my craving for connection and this desire for connection can propel sniper/retro-viral projects. 

There are many protein cloaks available and possible to be invented in the post-modern era of art to make the connection with any unsuspecting host. There are fewer attempts to find a proper host and even less desire to remove the head or ego that is a necessary disguise to pass through this suspicious membrane.

The frightening conditions that are imposed by a sniper are no longer lurking in the historic journals of war. They are in your face—though out of sight. Such mechanics need not be taken as negative models but as successful working models that are worth taking seriously. Such expeditions into these non-traditional venues are especially fat targets or assignments for art. Of course, should the juicy fruit get smart… alternate escapes must be planned. Here again is a way out through biological methodology… rapidly mutate and go to the next cell.

My paranoia, my vigilance, my witness, my exposure of conspiracy, is not enough. I must take more action. As eighty-something Aunt E. McRedmond, of Nashville, Tenn. says, “Work begun is half done.” It is that half-ness that interests me, the middle state. So the invention of half-done, or incomplete vehicles is more essential than ever. By taking a lesson from the virion that is structurally incomplete, we have a clue. It uses a specific condition to replicate more of its own kind. I think, as an artist, I need to set up similar conditions where it is not the finality of the artist’s statement that is important, but the initiation of action that is important. 

There is an unpredictable aspect to all this. The attack on the cult compound yielded chaotic and unforeseen effects that raised questions concerning acceptable models of human behavior. Both David Koresh and the ATF had goals final and concise. With cock-eyed optimism I can hope that mine may not be so hard wired. I turn to the sniper and virion mechanics as a means not to undermine life, but to deploy a condition of variables. It is an option to the bottom lines and ultimatums that breed insecurities and compel lives of conformity, fearful of and resistant to discourse, without connection to one another. 

As to the nature of such a construction, 

full disclosure does not exist, only the 

coat has been constructed


and if I uncoat I am


no more. 

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