By Mark Trecka
In October, 2015, New Mexico-based interdisciplinary arts collective, Postcommodity, executed the largest binational land art installation in history. The two-mile long installation, titled Repellent Fence, was positioned across the U.S.-Mexico border and was, in the group’s own words, “a social collaborative project among individuals, communities, institutional organizations, publics, and sovereigns.” Like much of Postcommodity’s work, Repellent Fence draws on the members’ Indigenous perspectives and seeks “to engage the assaultive manifestations of the global market and its supporting institutions.” The members of Postcommodity are: Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade Twist. In part two of this four-part series, writer and artist Mark Trecka, with the support of The GroundTruth Project, continues his report on the drama and ideas surrounding the installation.
Postcommodity first began discussing the logistics of the Repellent Fence project with the Tucson-Pima Arts Council eight years ago. At several points throughout the weekend, the artists joke that Roberto Bedoya, the head of the council, thought they were crazy in the early stages of their talks. The projected site was moved several times over the years, responding to local political issues, safety concerns, and practical realities. Eventually, the border towns of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora emerged as an an ideal location for the work because they are “two communities really interested in binational cooperation,” Cristóbal Martínez explains.
Early attempts to execute the piece across the border within the Tohono O’odham reservation were met with resistance.
With the 1853 redrawing of the U.S.-Mexico border, the Tohono O’odham lands were cut in half. Today, there are essentially two Tohono O’odham tribes: one in the U.S. and one in Mexico. While technically one tribal entity, they function separately and speak different languages.
Postcommodity imagined this as an ideal context for the Repellent Fence, but the presence of the border and the border fence has complicated the lives of the Tohono O’odham people so thoroughly, it seems that even making a statement about its complications is more than the community is willing to do.
In meetings with Postcommodity, tribal members on both sides expressed anxiety about confrontation with border patrol. The artists were met with essentially “no interest from the larger [T.O.] community in having this installation,” Kade Twist says.
“There is a lot in this work about imagining more desirable futures at the border, but at the same time not in any way trying to ignore the really serious humanitarian crisis and political and economic crises that are happening down there,” Martínez says. In the move from the Tohono O’odham reservation to the desert wilderness in the towns of Douglas and Agua Prieta, the project “just got more confusing. It just got more noisy. Which is what we like and what we’re interested in.”
“I see it from beginning to end as a mockery of itself,” Twist tells me. “A fence is already a mockery of itself. Birds don’t know what fences are.”
Saturday, October 10th
By noon on Saturday, there are three balloons up on the Mexican side and two on the U.S. side. The wind has mostly abated. The crew on the U.S. side, headed by Chacon and Williams, taxis two pickup trucks back and forth between the hangar and each of the installation sites. Even though only about twenty percent of the balloons are in place, the scale and the character of the project are becoming evident as the scare eyes begin to form a striking aerial sculpture.
Floating at an almost even height, the vivid orbs create an image of marked precision amidst the wilds of the desert’s organic context.
The mix of people present to witness the project are an excitable lot. Groups of two or three at a time encounter each other among the dust and creosote and talk for a few minutes.
Near the fence, John Thomas is taking pictures. He hands me his card, which is embellished with a barbed-wire graphic. He has the look of an international correspondent in utility vest and hiking boots, all dust-colored. He explains that he has been traveling the border region for months, researching for a book.
“I’m going to go talk to them, see what they think,” he says, gesturing at two border patrol trucks parked in the distance and hurries off, heading uphill, east along the fence.
“We’re not really allowed to comment on any of this but you all have a good time out there,” one of the Border Patrol officers tells Thomas. “Just be sure you aren’t passing anything back and forth through the fence.”
Around two p.m., a large, white, late-model pickup with several GoPro cameras mounted on the hood and roof makes its way up the dirt road running parallel to the line of balloons, perpendicular to the border. The truck stops and a large man in his seventies gets out. He is wearing a digital camouflage cap, grey shirt, cargo shorts, and sandals. His complexion is ruddy.
He immediately aims a telephoto lens skyward towards the line of scare-eye balloons, takes a few pictures, lowers the camera, and nods to a nearby photographer who is working for Postcommodity.
“Somebody told me there were some balloons out here and I wanted to come check it out,” he says with mock innocence. “Well, I feel inspired. I don’t know to do what.”
This is Glenn Spencer, president of an organization called the American Border Patrol, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a vitriolic Mexican-basher and self-appointed guardian of the border who may have done more than anyone to spread the myth of a secret Mexican conspiracy to reconquer the Southwest.”
Spencer explains that he owns a ranch that abuts the border in nearby Hereford, Arizona, and that he is “interested in the border situation.” When asked about life on the border, he says gravely, “Well, it’s constant death, people killing—no no no, it’s very pleasant,” he finishes laughing.
The joking half of this spiel tumbles out overwrought, avuncular. His delivery feels well practiced.
He talks at length about how the fence has improved his quality of life. Before it was built, he says, he and his German shepherds “couldn’t even go out because of the drug smugglers, especially at night. I live on the San Pedro River. They still come up through there, but not through my place.”
Asked if he does anything in particular to deter those people, he says, “Well, we just use shotguns—no no, I’m just—” he laughs and sighs, “—no no no, we don’t bother anybody. We set up some night vision cameras and we’ll report them to the border patrol.”
The wisecracking about the use of shotguns seems strange, considering who he is.
“I’m pretty well-known down in these parts,” he says, equivocating when asked if he has installed night vision cameras anywhere other than his own property. “I run two organizations, one called American Border Patrol. It’s a nonprofit. We’ve been down here thirteen years and we document what goes on.”
Spencer’s history is full of controversy. It includes an arrest in 2003 for disorderly conduct with a weapon, criminal damage, and endangerment. In response to some noises that Spencer reportedly heard outside of his Sierra Vista, Arizona home, he fired several rounds from a lever-action .357 caliber rifle into the dark of night.
The incident led to Spencer’s being ejected from his subdivision and it was at that time that he acquired his property in Hereford, just across the border from a ranch once owned by John Wayne and reportedly now owned by a drug cartel.
Another balloon goes up just north of us, and another on the Mexico side. The trucks roll out in the distance, taxiing back to the hangar to retrieve another and to move on to the next installation site. The scare-eye balloons sway a little and rotate slowly in the moderate wind, regarding the arid afternoon from a terrific vantage.
“We’re sort of a watchdog,” Spencer explains. “And some of the people in Washington don’t care for watchdogs, which is understandable.” He describes the specifics of the tests he performs which suggest that surveillance cameras and the border fence are largely ineffective in preventing migrants from crossing.
“What I have learned over thirteen years is that there is an attempt to keep the truth about the border from the American people. OK? And it works.” Spencer has dropped the playing-dumb act and begins to speak passionately. He goes on to talk about the globalist conspiracy of the United States government, its ongoing attempts to break down the sovereignty of the U.S., and the construction of the border fence as nothing more than a ruse to make U.S. citizens believe that they are being protected when in fact the government’s real, secret goal is to eliminate all borders.
“They are wasting your money to convince you that they’re busy,” he says.
The solution, as Spencer sees it, lies only in his own designs and technology, developed by his organization American Border Technologies.
In June 2009, the FBI and a SWAT team visited Spencer’s ranch while tracking Shawna Forde, a member of the anti-immigrant Minutemen Civil Defense Corps operating in that area. Forde was on the run from law enforcement after murdering Raul Flores and his nine-year-old daughter Brisenia Flores in their home in Arivaca, Arizona. She was apprehended leaving Spencer’s ranch. Spencer maintains that Forde had dropped by, unannounced, and that he was unaware that she had, hours earlier, been instrumental in a murder.
It is nearly three p.m., and Postcommodity’s photographer has moved on, driving off to rendezvous with the crew at the sixth balloon on the U.S. side.
Spencer grows gradually agitated. “Cultural exchange? Thirty-five years ago, the Los Angeles school district ranked in the top ten in terms of educational level achievement. It’s now in the bottom two percent.” He becomes more passionate, growling, “That’s called a cultural exchange.”
When asked if the problem might not be a matter of philosophies of education or funding, Spencer becomes defensive but responds handily.
“[Mexican immigrants] are dropping out of high school because they can’t graduate, because they can’t pass algebra, because it’s not something that their culture is used to. So that’s the problem. It’s huge numbers. Look at Donald Trump. You can put all the balloons up you want, but I think he is going to surge,” Spencer says, pivoting and inching toward his truck.
Spencer is visibly angry at this point. He drops his voice and growls, “I don’t hate Mexicans. I love ’em.” He clears his throat and composes himself. “But I want everybody to get along and there’s a better way of doing it and this piecemeal way of doing it, including the border, doesn’t work. OK guys? See ya.”
He seems nervous, but as he opens his truck door, he shouts, more amiably, “I might fly over later.” I ask what his plane looks like and he describes his Cessna 206.
I wave and shout a thanks for his time and he seems flustered while trying to decide whether to pull forward or make a three-point turn or reverse along the dirt road. I turn and notice that sixteen-year-old Navajo student and artist Nataani Hanley had sauntered up at some point during our conversation and has been standing a few feet behind me, holding a sledgehammer up on his shoulder.
“What are you guys doing?” Hanley asks casually. He is interested in securing a drink of water and a ride back to the hangar.
Hanley talks about his upcoming opera project at the Heard Museum in Phoenix; he muses on the connections between operatic tragedy and the various genres of underground heavy metal. He is a sweet and thoughtful young man, mature beyond his years just enough to be aware of how much of a sixteen-year-old he is.
When I explain to him that he may have scared Spencer off, he is apologetic. He tells me that Spencer seemed “aggressive, in a way. Not like, upfront aggressive but like, with his ideas.”
Hanley and I discuss Spencer’s response to the idea of transborder cultural exchange and conclude that his stance could be summed up as such: cultural exchange with Mexico is bad because it ruins our culture and our culture is better than Mexico’s culture.
“Well, what about all their culture ruining Native American culture?” Hanley says. I joke that we could have asked Spencer just that, and many other questions, if Hanley had not walked up behind me with a sledgehammer on his shoulder. He laughs. “I’m sorry, man. I just wanted some water.”
About the Author
Mark Trecka is a Chicago-born writer, artist, and performer. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Impose Magazine, The End of Being, and elsewhere. He blogs and Instagrams for @ and has recorded and performed with Pillars and Tongues, Dark Dark Dark, and others. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. Follow him on Twitter at @ and visit his website.