The Potential Project 

Installation of drawings, models, and symbolic mechanics, 2013
Roloff Beny Gallery, ROM Level 4


A collaborative presentation by Mel Chin, with the people of the Western Sahara, Ahmed Boukhari, Dr. Richard Corkish, Markus A. R. Kayser, Mohamed Sleiman Labat, Jonathan Teo, with thanks to Robin Kahn, Kirby Gookin, and Representative Mohamed Yeslem Beissat

American artist Mel Chin has been working with the Saharawi to pursue their goal of independence and find a real means of self-determination by developing both their own currency and an economy “backed, not by gold or gas, but by the sun.”

The scope of the Potential Project is tremendous, involving the collective design of the currency itself, as well as the construction of a Stand Alone Power Station in Mijek, Western Sahara.

For the ROM exhibition, by way of introducing the larger project, Chin has collaborated with Markus A. R. Kayser of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab’s Mediated Matter Group, to create The Saharan Sand Dollar Exchange Machine. Visitors are encouraged to exchange Canadian currency for coins made of fused Western Saharan sand. Proceeds will be used to continue the larger project, and support the effort to create the Bank of the Sun and a currency with imagery derived from different generations of Western Saharan citizens.

This work was made possible through the generous support of the Compton Foundation.


In a place where the climate has the most to give in terms of solar potential, the Western Sahara, live people who have lost almost everything. The Saharawi people cling to a small sliver of “liberated territory,” separated from the sea and natural resources by a 2700 km Moroccan-built berm littered with more land mines than any other place on the planet.

The creation of The Potential Project was compelled by the desperate shortage of humanitarian, economic, and most natural resources, in the Western Sahara. What they do have, in limitless abundance, is the priceless power of the Sun.

A rich Saharawi nomadic culture deserves more than eternal entrapment in the camps of a foreign land, Algeria. This project aspires to help them gain what they deserve. There is also an opportunity here to convey more than the generosity of a nomadic culture and its capacity to spread ideas.

Is it possible to create a solar standard of economics?
Can the diffusion of economic/technological innovation impact and liberate a larger world system, driven by oil-based economics?
Can a culture with so little influence in the world offer a course correction for a global economic system?
Are humanitarian climates worth the same care and conservation as the efforts to solve global climate change?
Is the idea provocative enough to pursue a working model?

Mel Chin was able to visit the Sahrawi Refugee Camps in Algeria during his participation in ARTifariti International Art Festival in the camps. In this field visit he worked with Sahrawi artist Mohamed Sleiman Labat and they were able to visit different camps, schools and women centers. They planned a participatory plan to engage the different community members to take part in the project, the idea was that by inviting the Sahrawi people to design their future currency, we allow the Sahrawi ordinary people to have a say in what symbols, stories, values they want to see in the future currency they will be using, a basic act of self determination can lead to bigger impact.

Carbon 14: Climate is Culture Exhibition took place in ROM Royal Ontario Museum, Canada.