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 comprised of twenty-six large scare-eye balloons, flown between sixty and one hundred feet in the air, tethered to the ground at intervals of four hundred feet, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The installation lasted for three days and was, in the group’s own words, “a social collaborative project among individuals, communities, institutional organizations, publics, and sovereigns.” The members of Postcommodity are: Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade Twist. Artist Scott Williams served as the project’s site manager. In part three 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.
Saturday, October 10th
Saturday has been a long day of logistical maneuvering. Even the seemingly simple task of keeping count of the balloons, on such a scale, can prove to be complicated. And in order to see to it that all twenty-six balloons fly at an even height, anchored at intervals across very uneven terrain, each length of cord has been measured and cut precisely and specifically for each site.
With twenty-five balloons aligned in the air, turning slowly, and the twenty-sixth securely anchored, those on the ground see an opportunity to slow down and seize a moment. The wind has cooperated. It breathes calmly.
“This project is a real strong gesture towards humanity,” Raven Chacon’s father Lorenzo Chacon says, addressing a small group assembled at the site of that last balloon. He goes on, saying that there is something immediate about the installation, that the statement it makes is “more powerful than all the politicians in both countries.”
He and Kade Twist’s father, Charles Twist, stand in an improvised ceremony, flanking the balloon, the final material element of the Repellent Fence.
“These eyes, they have watched everybody forever. They have always watched. And now they are speaking because of these young men and their vision and insight. What they’ve already seen, these eyes will expose now.” Charles Twist’s Cherokee-inflected voice is clear, his manner is articulate. “People will have to answer because these eyes are watching. It’s one thing to say you are being watched and not see the eyes...”
He is a preacher from Bakersfield, California, and he speaks as though he is here to convert this little desert congregation to the faith of the repellent eye. But there is no sense that anyone here remains unconverted. The fathers’ gloved hands hold the parachute cord that tethers the final balloon to the earth.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Lorenzo Chacon says, as they begin to let the cord slide, whirring through their gloves. “That’s our spirit rising up,” Charles Twist says, finishing the sentence.
A blue and white Cessna 206 flies by and does five or six passes. “Someone in there is taking pictures,” Scott Williams says.
“They’re taking pictures?” Raven Chacon says, smiling. “Right on.”
Later that evening, the Saddle and Spur Tavern is buzzing with activity. The tavern serves as the bar for the Gadsden Hotel, the unofficial headquarters and meeting point for those in town for the installation. “I want to see those balloons,” one patron says while another reveals that they can be seen magnificently from the top floor of the hotel.
Roberto Bedoya sidles up to the bar. He is the Executive Director of the Pima Arts Council in Tucson. A middle-aged Chicano in jeans and a polo shirt, Bedoya displays understated social graces and a sense of humor. Earlier in the afternoon, he had anchored one of the scare-eye balloons with the weight of his body, sitting on the cinder block to which it was tethered, amusing everyone in the midst of the installation. “Don’t fly away, we need you for the keynote,” someone joked.
Spirits are high in the tavern. The installation is up and there is an air of celebration. But ever present are the interminable logistics of the weekend. There will be a spirited fiesta in Agua Prieta stretching late into the night, and Scott Williams is working out which vehicles will cross the border, selecting those that have the least amount of equipment in them to minimize hassle in case of a search.
Just after nine p.m., I cross in a car with Canadian indigenous artists Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Jordan Wilson and American artist Ben Babbitt. We have to pause briefly at the crossing, but no credentials are requested by Mexican border authorities.
At La Casa de la Cultura in Agua Prieta, two hundred or so people spread out over the concrete plaza. Beneath a tent on the north side, women spoon out a homemade pozole of rich, oily red broth and set tamales on Styrofoam plates. Children help themselves to popcorn from an old-fashioned popcorn machine. There is an ensemble of fifteen teenagers with acoustic guitars preparing to perform, dressed in white collared shirts, while a rock band plays on the center stage. Children careen from one end of the plaza to the other, weaving in and out of clusters of adults, playing an improvised game of dodgeball with a regulation size scare-eye balloon. The Casa de la Cultura has decorated the plaza with these balloons.
Music blares through P.A. speakers every moment of the fiesta, except when the mayor or the artists are speaking. The night closes with a traditional Yaqui deer dance, during which the air seems to become entirely saturated with sound and colored stage lights. Rattles, drums, and men’s voices form a searing wall of sound, cascading out of the speakers, seemingly pushed to their limit. Two young men in traditional Yaqui ceremonial garb enact the ancient dance in which is portrayed the drama of a sacred deer and his pursuant hunter. The enthusiasm for the Repellent Fence on this side of the border, the gestures of honor and gratitude, are manifest; loud and colorful.
Those who spent the day out in the field, in the sun and dust, are visibly exhausted. This exhaustion and disorientation lend the illusion of distance to recent memories: the sound of paracord whirring through gloved hands, stomachs dropping as the balloons ascend.
Scott Williams watches the young men, the headdress of a deer head, and antlers blurring in the stage lights. He laughs inaudibly, overwhelmed. Williams will cross back into Douglas and head to the installation site where he will camp for the night. He is now the custodian of the Repellent Fence. He sleeps beneath it.
When I leave the Casa de la Cultura, Tailfeathers and Wilson stay behind. Drawing upon their experience on the previous night, they decide to cross back into Douglas on foot. As Canadian citizens, they will undergo greater scrutiny at the border and do not want to slow down the Americans who are otherwise likely to be simply waved across.
The yellow paper Repellent Fence programs which have been circulating all weekend indicate a Saturday symposium at the Mexican Consulate in Douglas, organized by Albuquerque-based, Carcross/Tagish curator Candice Hopkins.
Hopkins introduces the event, saying that it, like the Repellent Fence itself, “is an opportunity to suture the wounds that have been created by borders and fences.” It is a lofty claim, but no one present seems to drag his or her feet when approaching big concepts or lofty claims.
Hopkins poses the problem of sovereignty as something that is “not always fixed, but sometimes taken, sometimes given.” She anchors the afternoon’s discussions with a statement about what she sees as the problem of borders: “The more fixed borders become, the more they are defended, to the point where now what we have is a slim line of metal that in its own way has embodied its increasingly threatening nature.”
A variety of Canadian and American indigenous artists and scholars of transborder issues speak throughout the five-hour symposium. A rigorous focus can be read on the faces of those in attendance, community members, artists visiting from nearby Bisbee and from as far as the Northern Territories, Germany, Chicago.
The mood moves from intellectual to emotional to humorous and back again, those distinctions blurring and culminating with Roberto Bedoya’s keynote address.
Kade Twist introduces Bedoya, explaining that he was one of the first professionals that Postcommodity approached with the Repellent Fence concept. “He thought we were crazy and incredibly naive but he appreciated the courage. But every step of the way, he’s been there. Roberto is probably one of the most important Chicano intellectuals in Arizona. And that’s why we wanted him here, to give this keynote speech. You know, he’s—” Twist’s voice breaks off. He continues, haltingly, to describe Bedoya as an important mentor. He is overcome by emotion, so much so that he is barely able to finish his introduction. He finishes simply, saying that Bedoya will talk about “the sovereignty of context.”
Twist swallows and brushes the back of his hand across his eyes. “That’s what this whole experience has been about” he says.
Bedoya takes the podium, lightheartedly teasing Twist for the emotional display. He expands slightly on Twist’s introduction and then begins to talk ideas, saying, “Kade was talking about courage...I can be easily seduced by what I call the ‘courage of imagination’ and in some ways—” but Bedoya’s voice too breaks off. The room is silent except for a few emotive sounds. Bedoya fights back tears, barely winning. Although he quickly regains his composure, the level of emotional charge in the room has been raised.
Bedoya’s talk is part lecture, part free verse, and all feeling. It is less a presentation of problem and solution and more one long, emotional question.
“How does one compose meaning, animate space, trouble the cultural policies of placemaking, trouble White sovereignty as manifest in the laws of property?” The audience responds, humming quietly together. He has struck a chord. “Trouble reason with eyes from the sky, the ground, the past, present, and future, manifest in the Sonoran Desert?”
Bedoya challenges concepts of creative placemaking, wary of its relationship to the “racist history of placemaking.”
“I dig positions outside,” he says. “One strategy I employ as an outside narrative, as a counter-phrase to ‘creative placemaking,’ I use the term ‘creative placekeeping,’ which embraces cultural memory, the stories and lives of the inhabitants of a locale, the story of birds, of wind. This keeping does not align nicely with property because of its phenomenological power.”
He evokes the late Catholic activist and poet Thomas Merton, quoting his work On Cities in which he distinguishes between buildings’ occupation of cities and peoples’ inhabiting of them. “I love this distinction,” Bedoya says, “because creative placemaking narrative can be reduced to a story of buildings and the built environment and not the story of inhabitants. And when I say ‘inhabitants,’ I don’t just mean people, but I also mean birds, I mean snakes, I mean those beautiful plants out there that are guarding the balloons.” The room rumbles with laughter under Bedoya’s spell.
“Land is not just property we own but space that demands stewardship as a placemaking, placekeeping activity that acknowledges what is sacred in the land via vistas, ceremonies, song and care,” Bedoya continues almost musically. “This worldview is an obligation embedded in the sovereignty of context, a form of governance that the land asserts. The sovereignty of context and creative placemaking and placekeeping practices animate spaces.”
“So,” he says, “let’s end with, sort of, a song. I’m not—I mean, I’m really not a poet, a singer or anything but like...a weird...guy.” Bedoya shrugs as the audience laughs uproariously, cathartically.
“Let’s end with a song,” he says again and smiles.
“From the dreaming, the beginning. During the dreaming, the present and the future moving across the country, across the land. Form an owl, form a wind, form the sharing in context. Sky, ground, water, fictions. Through and from them, eyes, I, humming questions with a cumbia beat, listening to the belonging inside and outside of logic. Inside the sovereignty of context and its aesthetic ordering that generate poet paladins like Kade...like Raven...where are you, honey?...Like Cristóbal. These poet paladins, who oppose amnesia and erasure of context, ask us to stare down the ways of disbelonging and to be repellent.”
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.