The Implication of a Fence: Part One - An Early Form of Surveillance
June 14, 2016
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.” In this four-part series, writer and artist Mark Trecka, with the support of The GroundTruth Project, reports on the drama and ideas surrounding the installation.
Inside the Saddle and Spur Tavern in Douglas, Arizona, it is easy to forget that about a mile south down G Street, just past the Douglas Meat Warehouse, the United States ends and Mexico begins.
It is easy to forget that the U.S.-Mexico border is a mile away even though the Saddle and Spur doubles as the Gadsden Hotel’s bar. Opened in 1907, the hotel is named for the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, in which John Gadsden, the American ambassador to Mexico, negotiated the $10 million purchase of 30,000 square miles of Mexico. The deal determined the line of 1,945 miles that is the present-day border.
Some of the patrons in the tavern on this particular Thursday night are locals, placid expressions turned toward flat-screen TVs. But a larger number of them are visiting from elsewhere, in town for the launch of Repellent Fence, a two-mile aerial art installation which organizers believe is the largest project of its kind ever launched. The latter are crowded into booths, eating enchiladas, drinking beer and discussing the wind.
Eight years in development, Repellent Fence is the brainchild of interdisciplinary arts collective Postcommodity, comprised of artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez and Kade Twist. All three are Indigenous and the collective explores modern life through an Indigenous lens, challenging ideas of place and modes of modern living. Multimedia installations showing slaughtered animals in public or commodified spaces, reclaimed Indigenous symbols, and noise—both figurative and literal—all feature in the group’s body of work.
As Martinez moves from table to table inside the Saddle and Spur, providing updates and discussing the logistics of desert wind, it is no longer easy to forget the border’s proximity.
The installation, Martinez explains, is part of a broader project to “reawaken the people’s public memory: ‘We are a single people, living in a single town that so happens to be separated by a wall.’”
Martinez, forty-one, is from Pueblo de Alcalde, near Española in northern New Mexico. He is Mestizo, a scholar of rhetoric and can often be seen in conversation nodding slowly, patiently considering his own words and affirming those of others. Even from a distance, Martinez displays a kind of palpable emotional aura.
Albuquerque artist Scott Williams, thirty-five, sits at a table drinking a Pacifico. He explains that the launch will likely be delayed by wind. Williams is working for Postcommodity as the installation’s site manager. He is tall and hardy, with long, blonde hair and a blonde beard. He wears a thoughtful countenance and has the fashion of a professional camper.
Williams is tired. He has been in Douglas and Agua Prieta for a few days already, marking sites in the unwieldy terrain of the Sonoran desert on both sides of the border, measuring rope, readying the material elements of the project. He is staying at the Gadsden, along with the rest of Postcommodity, but only until the installation is up. At that point, he will camp near the border.
Though the piece is titled Repellent Fence, it is only the implication of a fence: twenty-six balloons, each ten feet in diameter, flying between sixty and 100 feet in the air, tethered to the ground at intervals of 400 feet, spanning two miles of the Sonoran Desert.
The black-slatted, serpentine border fence is the halfway point.
Like the fin of some impossibly huge, slumbering, subterranean monster, the fence divides the desert in two: the American side and the Mexican one. Raven Chacon refers to it as “a violent interruption,” and this idea is central to Postcommodity’s work.
“We wanted to depoliticize the word ‘Mexican’ as something that has become a dirty word. It is an Indian word, deriving from the word Mēxihcah—and we wanted to repatriate that word as the sacred word that it is,” Cristóbal Martínez explains.
He speaks very deliberately, saying that the word means the people of the maguey plant.
“Our peoples have long been moving throughout this hemisphere in trade and economic systems that were eventually hijacked through colonial intervention,” he says. “We’re trying to repatriate that damage.”
Friday, October 9th
The thrash of unimpeded desert wind rattles the corrugated metal walls of the airplane hangar at the Douglas Municipal Airport. Rows of huge, sun-faded, stenciled letters above the entrance read:
DOUGLAS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
A PORT OF ENTRY
This designation is anachronistic. Constructed by the U.S. Air Force in 1942, the airport has long since been deeded to Cochise County and serves little more than a few flights a week, private propeller planes, an occasional helicopter. There is no control tower, no staff to speak of.
The airport consists of that hangar and a few miles of runway, crisscrossing into the Sonoran Desert, defining a kind of nether region that angles towards the border fence. Walking the runways, one has the sense of approaching a space that is somehow “in between.” The land beyond the runways and before the fence feels like discarded space, useless for its purgatorial quality, its proximity to the border. But it is not discarded. It is entirely overseen.
Towers with surveillance cameras watch every direction. Border Patrol trucks sit at the crest of a hill. At a glance, it is a wild place, but there are eyes everywhere. Jackrabbits run like mythic cats through creosote, unaffected by thorns and and surveillance cameras, and turkey vultures skate violent gusts of wind, oblivious to the black slatted fence.
A discarded plastic Coke bottle has been turned into something else by sun and dust, bone-colored now. It had likely been used as a water bottle by someone walking out here, crossing from one place to another.
The group of about two dozen people assembled inside the hangar is made up of friends, family and associates of the artists, a handful of German students on an art exchange program, a crew of documentary filmmakers. Almost everyone lends a hand inflating the terrific and imposing balloons. A curatorial team from the Arizona State University Art Museum folds yellow programs that detail the weekend’s events: walking tours, panel discussions, an opening reception.
Chacon offers me a warm greeting. He is thirty-seven, Navajo, an experimental musician, composer of modern chamber music, a metal head and an educator. He wears a gray work shirt screenprinted with the logo of his DIY record label, dusty black Levi’s and work boots. Although the task unfolding before him is immense, he seems anything but anxious.
With a mellowed excitement, he talks about the owl that he and Scott Williams encountered that morning. “There was a huge, white owl in the hangar here when we came in, just massive.” His accent is Navajo, Burqueño, and a little bit hesher. “It was flying around and slamming into the walls, man. We had to open up the big doors here so it could get out,” he says.
The activity in the hangar echoes loudly: the documentary camera crew yelling to each other, the clank and hiss of giant helium tanks as they are rolled, dragged, and tapped. Chacon casually switches gears: “Well, you want to help fill up some balloons?”
Postcommodity has had these balloons manufactured specifically for Repellent Fence, but they are modeled on a consumer product called the “scare eye.” Scare-eye balloons are marketed to people hoping to deter birds from their homes, crops, or boats, and are manufactured and sold by brands such as Bird B Gone and Bird-X.
Postcommodity’s custom version is about five times the size of the kind sold at Lowe’s but the design is otherwise the same: a vivid and stylized red, black, and white eye printed four times, encircling the diameter of a bright yellow globe.
By apparent coincidence, the scare eye makes use of indigenous medicine colors and iconography.
In 2008, the group flew a Repellent Eye Over Phoenix, essentially directly over the headquarters of Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, infamous for the institutionalization of racial profiling in the Phoenix area and harsh treatment of prisoners.
“The open eye symbol is a symbol of enlightenment, of awareness, of watching and accountability. It’s like an early form of surveillance,” Kade Twist told me weeks ahead of the launch.
“It means something to ancient pre-Columbian cultures, and it means something to us, and in between those two things, there are layers of irony there that we can leverage,” he says. “But more than anything, there is a sincerity that this is a symbol that has traveled throughout the Americas. At its heart, this is a way of demonstrating that we are organized around shared iconography. There's shared interest and shared histories.”
In addition to his work as an artist, Twist works as a public policy consultant who specializes in American Indian healthcare. He is the most businesslike of the group, perhaps the most comfortable in a white button-down, with a relatively fresh haircut and trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee. Twist is 43, Cherokee, from Bakersfield, California.
Despite everyone’s hopes, the installation will indeed not go up Friday due to the winds.
“We’d like to apologize for any inconvenience that the change of schedule has caused anyone, but we are really at the will of Mother Nature,” Twist says with a wry smile, addressing the group assembled in the hangar.
Over the course of a couple hours, the artists and volunteers have inflated thirteen of the twenty-six balloons. The mood is jovial, even if there is an underlying frustration about the delay. Outside, a massive hawk careens in the wind. The remaining thirteen balloons will be inflated in Agua Prieta in the courtyard of the Casa de la Cultura, which has served as the base camp for the Mexican half of the operation.
The decision to delay the launch was made after the total loss on Thursday of a test balloon. Wind divorced the balloon from its anchor on Thursday afternoon. Only the documentary film crew was present to witness the thing take flight and there are rumors of spectacular footage of the accidental launch.
On Friday afternoon, after those at the hangar have dispersed, Twist, Chacon, Martinez, and Williams troubleshoot the malfunction, standing out at the site of the errant balloon’s anchor.
Nataani Hanley joins the crew to lend a hand. He is a sixteen-year-old, six-foot-tall, broad shouldered Navajo with two lip piercings and long, night-black hair. He is wearing a black T-shirt with a heavy metal band logo on it. Hanley is Twist’s nephew and Chacon’s apprentice in the Native American Composer Apprentice Project.
Chacon and Williams work on untangling the length of parachute cord from a massive hediondilla bush and determine that it may have been severed by its own cinderblock anchor, fraying and breaking, angled in the wind which, as they work, continues to gust. The group has decided that pounding two lengths of rebar in an X across a flat cinderblock will provide adequate anchorage. The question now is whether or not there is enough rebar in town to execute the updated design.
Martínez takes a call, speaking in Spanish. He pauses to tell the others that Agua Prieta city administrator Laura Rios is on the phone. Spanish-language network Telemundo wants to do an interview. Chacon and Twist both have their hands full of materials: paracord, rebar, sledgehammers. A balloon has been lost and the entire project is on hold. The wind is gusting up to thirty miles per hour.
Everything drops away for a moment as the three artists deftly iron out the logistics of the Telemundo interview; Martinez holds his phone against his sleeve. Six p.m. at the Gadsden Hotel tonight, just before the opening reception. The plan is developed, proposed, and accepted in a matter of thirty seconds. Everyone turns back to loading Twist’s Suburban and Chacon’s wife’s pickup.
“It’s great to think that balloon probably crossed the border illegally,” Williams jokes.
Click here to read part two.
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 @featherproof 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 @MTrecka and visit his website.