Ten Minutes with Chow and Lin: On The Poverty Line
The artist duo reflects on their longstanding project and how we are all connected through food.
Huiyi Lin, Stefen Chow
Nov 20, 2023
See below for a transcript of the SoundCloud audio.
Huiyi Lin: Food, which is a basic necessity, is also how we associate and connect with the world around us. And that daily need for food—without which we wouldn’t be able to continue physically—has also become a daily pleasure. It’s a very simple but powerful thing to have and to lack. It is a basic human right.
Stefen Chow: This project is bigger than the sum of the two of us. Our work is rooted in answering the question, What does poverty mean?
HL: My name is Huiyi Lin.
SC: I’m Stefen Chow.
HL: We are an artistic duo. We are also husband and wife, and we started collaborating on art projects since 2010. The longest project that’s running for us is called The Poverty Line.
SC: There is a Chinese saying that reading 10,000 scrolls of text is no match for walking a fraction of that distance. What the saying is about is that reading on theory is no match for practical experience. In this case, practical experience is exploring the world through travel.
I traveled to New York when I was a young man. I remember this was a time where iPods was in the rage, and everyone was wearing their earpods, so just a white line coming out against the black suit that they were wearing indicates a $400, $500 accessory. But then you just need to look a little bit further and you start seeing people who are in poverty. They were as visible as the glitz and glamour that the city represents.
I think that contrast was heightened even further when I left New York and within a few days, I was in Kolkata, a very populous city of India. It is also a very poor city but on a mass level, where poverty actually feels like, within the city itself, it’s a majority rather than a minority.
I think it disturbed me very much because suddenly, in a place like Kolkata, you feel guilty being able to eat your meal in peace or to live under a roof with proper facilities at night. You feel extremely privileged even to have those basic necessities. That kind of started the discussions and the research and eventually the work that came out from this.
HL: I think, for me, research is a very integral part of my approach, because I’m curious about facts, I’m curious about the state of the world, and how different parts actually combine together and make me understand a fuller picture. But art has a way that is beyond the words that we could write about. It’s a different way of entry for looking at the world.
SC: Initially when we created the project, we honestly didn’t think we were creating art. We were creating what we felt was a combination of both our individual curiosities using something that we are also familiar with. Lin has a background in economics, I have a background in photography, so we combined both our skill sets to explore poverty—this topic that seemed simple, straightforward, but yet, the moment you dig into it, it’s incredibly complex.
HL: Poverty and the term “poor,” I think, describe a state of being. But in public policy and economics, there is actually a definition that is set, usually by the government of a country or an economy. It defines a certain group of people below a certain income level as being poor. But the thing is that it also depends according to the country’s own economic situation, the resources that it has, the political inclinations, the social expectations as to what exactly that level becomes.
Usually for low-income countries, it’s based on an absolute poverty level, which means that you need a certain number of calories per person a day. From there, food budget is calculated and you add on a non-food budget component.
For high-income countries, we usually use a relative poverty measure, which means that you’re really looking at inequality, at a social distance. For example, EU countries, they look at the median population income, and they take 50 or 60% of that, and that is set as the poverty line.
When we started the project, we were actually trying to educate ourselves on how different countries, how different governments, set this measure, and how does that impact the people, the society, and the structure.
SC: What we wanted to examine is a question that always lingers in our mind: What does poverty mean?
When we first started the project, our primary goal was to show the quantity of foods that we could purchase at the monetary level at the poverty line.
HL: I will do the research beforehand. I will look up all the statistics, the dimensions of how poverty is measured, the agencies who are involved in it, what are the policy measures to deal with poverty, and I’ll digest all that information and then pick out the bits which are most crucial for his understanding, give him the figure, which is how much is it per person per day as a food budget for someone living at the poverty line of a country or territory.
He will use that figure, go to the local markets and supermarkets, also usually with somebody local, choose food items which are commonly seen and purchased.
SC: We didn’t want to purchase food items at tourist prices, because we all know that buying food as a tourist is very different from how you purchase it as a local. So that’s why we actually let the locals on the ground guide us through.
HL: For each country, we actually built a visual food basket. We would take 50 to 100 items across proteins, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, and snacks, and basically have that multitude of choices across these different food groups. Then specifically within each group, we’ll look at what is locally consumed, and then we will get a variety of that.
SC: We want to show you as faithfully as possible the quantity of vegetables that we accumulated with the monetary value. So we were not very fancy with the placement of items. Basically, we wanted to place it as plainly as possible, and without the packaging, because we didn’t think that was important. The quantity of foods and the suggested quality of foods was what we were aiming for.
We started using the newspaper as a backdrop to showcase the sense of place and time. The newspapers were all bought in the countries that we did the project in and Huiyi’s research, the purchase of my foods, and the purchase of the newspapers, are all done at the same time. And the juxtaposition of the newspapers and the foods were random.
HL: As it grew organically, we realized that our audiences were actually looking at the items that they found familiar, the items that they would eat and purchase locally, and see how other countries compare.
When we were preparing for our exhibition in Beijing, we were printing with a local printer, and we went to his workshop. We were doing prints for US, France, and China then. On his table, we found an egg. We asked him, why do you put eggs on the table? And he said he brought an egg to compare it against the eggs that he was seeing in our prints.
That has, for us, also opened up our eyes as to how connected we are through very common food items like eggs, like tomatoes. That allows us to also see the impact of globalization, and yet also the beauty of local food cultures.
SC: When we started this project, we never imagined that this was going to go across 36 countries [and] territories. But then as we started going around the world into local markets we were expecting to find local foods that were specific to a country, or a continent, or a geography. What instead we found is things that are also very common, that are very global, that are very available, that are also seen as very local.
HL: Given the problems that we face in the world today, I think often we are numbed by the sense that it’s a larger system that we cannot impact that affects us, but there are so many different invisible lines of connection through food.
That part about seeing the common items that bind us is a part that I would hope is what pushes this project forward, because we build off things that we have and things that we treasure and things that we value as being part of a whole society, and it’s not in conflict or in competition because we are facing very similar problems.
We may never really understand in totality how it works, but we don’t have to know the totality of it to really start feeling the effects of food security, of food crisis, of climate change, and how that will affect the way that we live and the way that we work and the way that we react and develop as a humanity.
We kind of just got to break it down and realize that it’s not me versus others but it’s that I am part of this whole. It really starts with that awareness and with realizing that we are part of it.
Stefen Chow and Huiyi Lin are an artistic duo based in Beijing, China. Since 2010, they have used statistical, mathematical, and computational techniques to create art that addresses global issues. Chow and Lin’s projects are driven by their backgrounds in economics, public policy, and media, and further augmented by enduring exchanges with specialists from those fields.
This episode was produced and edited by Arlette Hernandez, with mixing and sound design by Brandi Howell.
MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
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