Next week, the indigenous artist collective Postcommodity (2012 Visual Arts) will present their Creative Capital-supported project, Repellent Fence, the largest bi-national land art installation ever exhibited on the U.S./Mexican border. The fence, which will be installed through a community action from October 9-12 near Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico, is comprised of 28 tethered “scare eye” balloons, ten feet in diameter, floating 75 feet above the desert landscape to create a temporary two-mile-long sculpture that intersects the U.S./Mexico border.
The geographic location chosen for Repellent Fence is the center point of the largest and most densely fortified militarized zone of the Western Hemisphere. This border region and its omnipresent military and surveillance systems artificially divide people, cultures, languages and communities from themselves and the land, disrupting interdependent human, cultural and environmental relationships that have existed for thousands of years. The monumental Repellent Fence installation is part of a larger public engagement campaign that includes public programming, performances and the first cross-border art walk in Douglas and Agua Prieta. In this post, the artists of Postcommodity—Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist—share the back-story behind this ambitious and timely project, nearly eight years in the making.
In the Beginning
It started two years before the Great Financial Crisis, in 2006, with a dole of morning doves and a fig tree in the backyard of a tract home in a subdivision surrounded by subdivisions in suburban Phoenix. The nonindigenous tree was planted for its fruit, and thrived in the desert environment—when supplied with ample water. Of course, the indigenous doves, the most prominent of two Arizona species, roosted in the tree and feasted on its fruit. For the doves it was survival within an ever-sprawling world of development. After all, they had lived in the region since time immemorial. For the owner of the tree the birds were destructive and problematic because they littered the tree and ground with dove feces. The imagined solution was a scare-eye balloon; a bird repellent product hung from the tree that would scare away the doves without killing them! It was an idea meant to instigate their removal, or migration, to another tree somewhere else within the subdivision.
The scare-eye balloon itself is a curious invention. On one hand it is a pure consumer object designed with embedded obsolescence and is entirely ineffectual. The balloons work for a few days; but then the birds return, and soon the balloons are covered with their feces. On the other hand, as an object-de-arte, the scare-eye balloons are beautiful and embedded with numerous layers of meaning that extend well beyond its relationship to fast capitalism. They purposefully, or inadvertently, employ indigenous medicine colors of the Western Hemisphere—yellow, red, black and white. They also employ an iconography of oblong concentric circles known as the “open eye,” an iconography used by indigenous peoples ranging from South America to Canada for thousands of years.
Together, the medicine colors, iconography and circular form constitute an indigenous semiotic system that demonstrates the interconnectedness of indigenous peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere, and provide long-form historical evidence of the cultural exchanges that have taken place through trade, intermarriage, migration and warfare. Regardless of the intentions behind the design of the scare-eye balloon, it is perhaps one of the most powerful indigenous readymades of our contemporary era. The fact that it has been positioned within the market as an instrument of repulsion is not surprising. Indigenous ways of being and indigenous byproducts have been rationalized by European colonizers of the Americas as instruments of repulsion for more than 500 years. This historical narrative and discourse are embedded in each scare-eye balloon.
The scare-eye balloon had captured our imagination and our full attention.
A Simple Idea
The idea was to build a temporary monument out of 10’ diameter replicas of scare-eye balloons, filled with helium and tethered to the earth in a manner that intersects the US/Mexico border. And, ideally, this intersection would take place somewhere within the Tohono O’odham Nation. We called this idea the Repellent Fence. The original conceptual framework for the piece was to create a monument of futility that mocks the concept of borders, particularly, their fortification, militarization and marginalization of peoples and cultures within the contested space of their geographic location. Our hope was to facilitate public dialogue that specifically addressed the human and cultural violence instigated and perpetuated by borders as geopolitical implements that uproot cultures from their traditional homelands, and divide indigenous peoples and communities from each other. The primary influence being the Tohono O’odham experience: an Indigenous nation forcibly divided in half by the US/Mexico border—by political and economic forces well-beyond their control; forces entirely inconsiderate of indigenous peoples, worldviews, knowledge systems, cultures and sovereignty. Our goal was to raise awareness about social, cultural, political and economic indigenous issues that have been purposefully excluded from borderlands discourses. Additionally, we wanted to remind the public about the fact that the immigrants crossing the border are not simply citizens of Mexico or Guatemala or El Salvador, etc., they are first, and foremost, indigenous peoples who are often from agrarian communities and are descendants of tribes including the often romanticized Mexica (Aztec) and Mayan peoples. Our intentions are to broker a conversation that respectfully acknowledges a fundamental premise: the US/Mexico “immigration crisis” is, in fact, a human rights crisis of the Western Hemisphere driven by irresponsible neoliberal trade practices, and the resulting agriculture, resource extraction, development, and labor practices of multinational corporations sanctioned by inequitable global trade policies.
It has taken Postcommodity eight years to arrive at the implementation phase of the Repellent Fence. And during this time, the project and its conceptual framework have evolved due to pragmatism, limited resources like helium, increasingly volatile political and economic climates, and most importantly, through processes of acquiring knowledge; meaningful context; and substantial input through personal and community relationships. Still, at its core, the project remains focused on the goal of facilitating public dialogue, indigenizing borderlands and immigration discourses, and complicating existing colonial frameworks for bi-national and hemispheric economic and political discourses.
Soon after we began engaging communities along the borderlands between California and New Mexico, we quickly realized that the Tohono O’odham experience, was merely one of many such experiences, and while significant, it is no more significant than the experiences of other indigenous peoples, including tribes and mestizos within the borderlands, and throughout the Americas. Therefore, the desire to locate the Repellent Fence within the Tohono O’odham Nation shifted. The Tohono O’odham Nation values its privacy and insulation from the larger public. And the tribe has complex political and economic relationships with the federal government, and equally complex cultural relationships inside and outside of its reservation boundaries. Our project would have been far too disruptive to the best interests of the tribe. As a result, we decided to locate the work in a community that would be more publically accessible, less specific to one tribe, and less susceptible to the unintended political consequences associated with staging a large land-based artwork on reservation lands and inviting thousands of people to view the work. Furthermore, we wanted to work with a community that was genuinely interested in investing the time and resources to co-intentionally shape and define the work, metaphorically, so it could be used as a tool or vehicle for advancing its pre-existing social, cultural, and economic policy goals. We wanted to develop and position the work so that it could be used to advance the community’s self-determined goals.
Essentially, we went from place to place throughout the borderlands until we found a community that was seemingly waiting for a project like Repellent Fence to serve as a catalyst for shifting bi-national discourses away from homeland security, neoliberalism, and drug cartels in order to a focus on more immediate quality of life issues like reconnecting families and cultures; reaffirming community responsibility and transborder reciprocity; and facilitating meaningful communications that acknowledge and respect their shared humanity and interconnectedness. Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora, two cities divided by the US/Mexico border, were exactly what we had been looking for. Both cities were fed up with the destabilizing impacts of militarized occupation forced upon them by both US and Mexico federal border security policies.
But before we were welcomed into the fold by Douglas and Agua Prieta we spent roughly six years wandering the borderlands, traveling from California to New Mexico, from community to community. During this time we encountered our fair share of obstacles. The harsh unforgiving Sonoran Desert landscape and the brutal reach of the drug cartels were to be expected. But the complexity of negotiating the land and the cartels became a metaphysical process filled with challenges that continually shifted between nations and GPS coordinates, and continually manifested themselves in new shapes, forms, and dangerous corridors. It’s hard to tell which one—the land or the cartels—exercises more power over the region.
The process of getting to “know” the borderlands was a process of succumbing to the reality existing beneath ubiquitous surveillance. There is no place to move, or retreat to without being watched. Privacy simply does not exist. On numerous occasions we have found ourselves to be the subjects of this surveillance system and the radio chatter of cartels, border patrol and federales. The cartels seem to watch and discuss our every move. There are easily more cameras, sensing devises and mobile communications infrastructure riding on this landscape than any other part of the Western Hemisphere.
And even within this massive surveillance system we still encountered machine gun totting vigilante groups, minutemen, militias and neo-Nazis appearing and disappearing among the desert cacti. The surveillance systems don’t seem to impede the risks of being found with brown skin, held at gunpoint or shot in the head or buried alive by these extremely white patriot freedom fighters. We were informed by local ranch hands that one particular militia—housed on a private ranch near the Coronado National Monument in Hereford, AZ—were known to engage in military-style maneuvers to distract the border patrol away from the diligent efforts of cartel traffickers.
Fortunately, we have found the people of Douglas and Agua Prieta to be welcoming and generous, and deeply committed to creating a more desirable and generative future for the borderlands they call home. Over the past two years we have had the good fortune and opportunity to build relationships and engage the community around the Repellent Fence and the issues raised by the project. Ranchers, educators, entrepreneurs, government employees, artists, activists, religious leaders, NGOs, school districts, community colleges, arts institutions, US border patrol, and government leaders in the US and Mexico, have all responded positively to our work and have all played a generative role in co-determining the final form of the work, it’s location, and its essential meaning. What had originally been conceived as a monument to futility has become something much more substantial and meaningful: a bi-national suture, stitching the land and communities back together for a moment in time, in a manner driven by ancestors of this land, and widely acknowledged by formal and informal networks of citizens of both nations seeking the same goals: to demonstrate our interconnectedness as peoples, as cultures, as stewards of the land and Hemisphere.
If it weren’t for our relationships with the people of Douglas and Agua Prieta our idea would have remained a static reference to a human rights crisis. Our work would have remained, like many artistic pursuits, an act of self-expression. However, with the support of the people of Douglas and Agua Prieta we are now able to facilitate the creation of a shared community metaphor capable of advancing community self-determination within the backdrop of a human rights crisis. With the support of the community we have been able to facilitate the process of bringing the necessary resources, labor and vision together to reclaim the land and one of our Hemisphere’s most sacred signifiers and return it to its originally intended purpose—communicating the history of our shared experience, and binding us together as diverse indigenous people with a system of acknowledgement and reverence for our shared history and the primacy of our relationships.
Postcommodity is an interdisciplinary arts collective comprised of Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist. Postcommodity’s art functions as a shared Indigenous voice to engage manifestations of globalism and the ever-expanding, multinational, multiracial and multiethnic colonizing force that is defining the 21st Century through ever increasing velocities and complex forms of violence. To learn more about their work and the upcoming Repellent Fence installation, visit postcommodity.com; follow the group on Twitter: @postcommodity; or read an interview between Postcommodity and Bill Kelley, Jr. in the summer issue of Afterall.