An aerial view of the US-Mexico border, with Sonora above and Arizona below, as seen in Postcommodity’s video documentation of Repellent Fence / Valla Repelente, 2015. All images and videos courtesy of the artists.
The US-Mexico border, like most borders, is mostly conceptual: a space more often imagined than physically there. The artists that comprise Postcommodity are indigenous to lands that used to belong to Mexico, and to many peoples before that—Raven Chacon, from Fort Defiance, Arizona, raised on a Navajo reservation; Kade L. Twist, a Cherokee raised in Bakersfield, California; and Cristóbal Martínez, a Mestizo born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In two recent works, Postcommodity explores the border as a poetic complex, a militarized marketplace of state and non-state activity—a place to administer and to trespass.
Rob Goyanes How was A Very Long Line filmed?
Raven Chacon About two or three years in advance of our large installation Repellant Fence (2015), we were scouting all over borderlands from the westernmost part of Arizona to where it turns into New Mexico, finding different communities, going to the Tohono O’odham reservation, bird sanctuaries, BLM [Bureau of Land Management] areas, and private lands. We eventually ended up doing that work in Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora—though more on the US side because we didn’t know what permissions were needed for Mexico. There are cartels and a lot of different things happening down there.
Anyway, we drove on International Avenue, which is a dirt road that runs alongside the US-Mexico border. It’s for maintenance access for the fence, but also for border patrol to get around quickly so as to swarm anybody breaching the border. Every time we went down there, we would be swarmed upon and have to explain what we were doing—which was just driving along very slowly, looking at the landscape. That’s when we noticed how amazing it is to see all this fencing strobe past. So, we stuck a steadicam unit out the window and captured this for thirty miles.
Kade L. Twist That was a study, then we went back and shot again off the hood of the car with a 50mm lens, trying to create that 1:1 ratio of human sight.
Cristóbal Martínez We also saw the fence itself as a marketplace for construction companies and contractors. In our piece there are three distinct designs documented, which shows some of their logic at work, how the theater of the fence is being articulated. It maybe also speaks to the bidding that goes into earning these contracts. In urban spaces you have higher, twenty-foot iron fencing with slabs. In more rural spaces you have “Normandy-style” barriers or pylons sticking out of the ground, some of which are cruciform in shape. One really intense thing about this is that many of the fence contractors say, “We’re a Hispanic company.” They understand it might be a selling point for the administration. It’s all hugely rhetorical.
RG The video really shows how porous the border is at many points.
KT It’s not “the wall,” as advertised. The barriers are specifically for automobiles, made so animals can get across. With such designs there’s typically an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), but just about every federal policy was waived to build this stuff. Despite that, there was still some give-and-take and public proceedings. Tribes—primarily the Tohono O’odham—and other advocates demanded the pylon-style, since they didn’t want to disrupt the path of migratory animals. It’s an ongoing debate.
RG Which animals migrate there?
KT Deer, jaguar, javelina, coyotes. It’s dense with wildlife.
CM Even in places where the fence doesn’t look porous, we’ve been told that ladders work well for scaling.
RC You don’t even need a ladder. You just walk twenty miles east or west of any urban area and it becomes porous. There’s really four iterations of fencing—the three in our piece and absolutely nothing, especially in the arroyos and river washes where whatever is built gets washed away by flooding.
CM Nature has no respect for structures in the upper Sonoran desert. There are flash floods every year that wipe those structures out like butter.
KT I have photos of an arroyo where a Bobcat backhoe tractor is retrenching to put a new barrier in. In the photo you can see where the previous one was, and the one from years before too. They just keep replacing them.
RG It’s a Sisyphean effort.
KT And it’s our tax money getting rolled uphill! It’s just brutal. There is no American consensus around this, no dialogue around cost. That lack of transparency is a way to keep power, hide cards, and keep advocates guessing about how this is going to play out. Nonprofits and NGOs just hemorrhage money responding to these federal rulemaking proceedings.
CM The actual border protection system is like a shopping megaplex for military research and development and contractors. It’s a big economic playground.
KT It’s no coincidence that the border area we worked in was adjacent to Fort Huachuca, the telecom headquarters for the US Army. They’re really pushing the envelope with surveillance technologies. You can see the larger military industrial complex and its attendant micro-economies in action. That’s something that doesn’t often get talked about with A Very Long Line.
CM What gets covered is the most legible metaphor: you’re jailed by the fence. People ask if we’re stuck inside or being kept outside. It’s dizzying, there’s disorientation. Those are the basic handles for the public to latch onto, but there’s a much deeper conversation about borderlands as marketplace. Who’s paying the price, and who’s profiting?
KT And the people who live the farthest away are the most interested in the fear and marketing angle behind it.
CM Moving bodies generate this system. They create, supposedly, some justification to play this market out.
KT As you get out onto the land, away from cities, the place becomes really dizzying. You could be in either country.
CM You think the fence is on one side, then you see it on the other.
RG The Trump regime wants to replace this with, in his words, a “big, beautiful wall.” He wants to solidify the border and end that ambiguity. He’s aestheticizing politics—a classic fascist move. With your piece, are you aestheticizing resistance?
CM I think we’re aestheticizing complexity. It’s not any kind of counter-message to what Trump is up to. We’re trying to bring some experience of place forward, so people have an opportunity to infer their own needs for their own bodies. Of course, it’s a simulation, but at 1:1 scale it gives people something of what it feels like to be there, followed by border patrol, wondering what side of the border you’re on, and confronting the rather Brutalist, architectural nature of what already exists.
This idea of aestheticizing a political issue as it relates to fascism—you’re talking about propaganda. All aesthetics are political. They’re political because beauty is subjective. It just depends on what a person believes to be beautiful, what a person believes to be good or true.
RC That’s what’s funny about this piece. We try not to engage in that binary, but if there is someone opposed to the US-Mexico fence, we captured an emotion they can feel. If we put someone in front of it that is totally pro-fence, they might say, “Hey, this looks great! Look at this beautiful fence we have here!” And somewhere in there we’re able to get closer to the truth—the tangle of it.
RG There’s musicality in the way the frames speed up and slow down, how they visually link up and don’t. What’s the sound we’re hearing?
RC None of it is field recorded. The sounds are outtakes from noise performances we’ve done. They aligned nicely with the footage, so we decided on some shapes to compose with—key frames to maybe speed up and have the soundtrack do something similar or offset. There’s a nice balance of intentional alignment and happy accidents.
CM Kade has described this as our most successful noise piece. Really it’s a musical composition.
KT We all make noise music, and it’s always a tug-of-war on how to expand that aesthetic framework into poetry or video or interactive media. This piece was like a moment of clarity.
RG Lakota prophecy says a black snake would cause great destruction across the land. This became a metaphor for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Is there an indigenous prophecy that connects with the wall? Or better put: How does the wall, or the border more generally, figure into a traditional indigenous cosmology?
CM For Mexican-Americans, we live in the time of the Sexto Sol (Sixth Sun), when it’s said the people of Mexico will return to their origins. So, that’s definitely an idea that nativists shit themselves over, because there is power in such stories. Whether in the subconscious or shared consciousness or ceremonial life, there’s certainly been a correlation.
RC There’s also Aztlán—this place in the imagination of people from before contact times, if I’m correct. What gets misinterpreted by nativists is that the formation of this place implies an overtaking of the United States by Mexican or indigenous people. I think it’s more about unity. I imagine these tribes were trying to learn who everybody was; tribes in Mexico were trading with the Hopi and so forth. So Aztlán might have been their way to imagine a time when everyone in the world would be able to exchange relations.
CM Systems are set up in agrarian societies of Mexico and the Southwest to be really mindful of how natural cycles are working, because it affects agriculture. When a new cycle is about to begin, it’s understood that there’s going be a social, political, and cultural change as a result. These ideas are pragmatic and about being in a relationship with the land. Sometimes they get hyper-politicized, and sometimes they get hijacked by New Age hippies.
RG For Coyotaje, you explore the use of decoys by the US Border Patrol. What, or who, are they?
KT As long as there have been militaries and market systems, there have been decoys. It’s a part of our human history. Our research led us to have a meeting with all these border patrol community liaisons, where we engaged in conversation about what decoys are employed.
RC By the way, border patrol has a small department that works with border artists. There’s a lot of people who want to interact with the border, and they don’t want people just running around, so they have liaisons to meet with artists. We asked, “What kind of decoys do you see the cartels or smugglers use?” Then we asked, “Well, what do you guys do to trick people?”
CM We tried to position them in a way that held them accountable or responsible to their job. If there’s deception at the border, the assumption is that they aren’t going to let it run roughshod over their operations. They, as well, are answering that call.
KT We wanted to set up a co-intentional process of identifying a decoy together. On the cartel side, they’ve done things like paint vehicles to look like border patrol trucks. They stage bombed-out areas that look like a deal gone bad, with “dead bodies” stuffed with straw. They stage lines of border crossers. It’s all farcical because it’s all surveilled in real time and for long durations.
RG So they see them set it up.
CM They still get across though! That’s the interesting part of the narrative of farce. “These guys are ridiculous, we’re onto them. We know their every move, and they never get across.” But that’s not true. We know that economically and in terms of bodies and illegal contraband.
KT So we’re having this conversation, going through this checklist, and still not finding anything usable. There’s no metaphor in it. Then the conversation comes to the border patrol themselves: “We don’t believe in deception. We’re just officers of the law.” After chipping away, they started to admit that they use decoys. The most compelling are sonic and take place within the remythologizing of this landscape. They’ll capture someone, threaten them, and force them to call out to their party: “I’m lost,” or “Where’d you go? You left me.” Then they’ll triangulate and close in on the group.
This led to another notion, that when border patrol agents are scouting with their goggles on their code name is “chupacabra.”
Installation view of Postcommodity’s Coyotaje, 2017, at Art in General, New York.
CM It’s because of little glowing green eyes in the bushes. It scares migrants to see patrolmen with goggles; they’ve never seen anything like it before. For us, this was a really important moment for framing a work, because it showed border patrol adapting indigenous knowledge against indigenous people.
RC Using fear of a mythic creature, and using technology to pose as that creature.
CM Yeah, using cultural mythology against its own people. We started finding extensions of this, too. We realized that the Department of Homeland Security has been writing and recording its own corridos, as if they were recorded in the late 1800s, even simulating the recording quality. They strategically distribute them all along the borderlands. It’s propaganda. We know this because there are certain dialects the DHS is using that just didn’t exist in the 1800s—certain words, things that weren’t in people’s lexicon.
KT When we talked to the border patrol about chupacabra they first spoke as if it’s just their profession, but that led to an admission that it’s all kind of a game—one that smugglers and cartels play as well. They regard it as a joke, thinking the other side is naïve enough to think they are monsters. They think they’re just tricking people who don’t know any better. In a way, they almost admit they are monsters.
RC And on the record, too.
RG On the topic of monsters, I have another question, maybe an odd one. The desert seems to be a place that evokes a disproportionate amount of UFO sightings and alien narratives. I’m curious how indigenous communities think about these visitation narratives.
CM These narratives started around the time of the Manhattan project in New Mexico. The state has been a site for cutting-edge military research and development ever since. It’s one of the most stable, mild environments for studying aviation and rocketry. Oftentimes, UFO narratives are created as a way of rationalizing phenomena you can’t explain, that you’ve never seen before. But over the years, because New Mexico is a state without a strong economic base, it’s relied largely on an economy of tourism since WWII. So the chambers of commerce have started to leverage the UFO mythology as a way to boost tourism to the region.
RG Like alien cafés, that sort of thing.
CM Yeah. But at least in my community, in Northern New Mexico, we don’t believe it one bit. We take it for what it is: an effort by the state to bring New Age hippies to Roswell for an annual UFO convention, because our friends and family in Roswell need to put bread on the table.
RC I think what’s interesting about this, though, is that UFO conspiracies make us suspicious of the government. Everyone’s skeptical of the government in New Mexico, and for good reason. When this extends to things like Fort Huachuca or border patrol, it works in our favor—in indigenous people’s favor. It makes us question what’s been hidden from us, and that is what’s beautiful about these new mythologies.
Postcommodity’s video installation, A Very Long Line, is currently on view at the Whitney Biennial. Coyotaje, their first solo exhibition in New York City, can be seen at Art in General through June 3, 2017. They will also perform at Ende Tymes VII: Festival of Noise and Experimental Liberation on April 29 at Silent Barn.