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 between Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora. 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 the conclusion of 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.
Sunday, October 11th
When Postcommodity documents the installation, the materials list will read: the Earth, cinderblock, parachute cord, PVC spheres, helium. But that list will be incomplete.
The Mexican Consulate was a material. The local cafe owners in Douglas who spearheaded a corresponding art walk, the teenagers of Agua Prieta who danced in celebration of the launch, they were materials.
The hands that held the hoses that filled the balloons with helium—the hands of the Executive Director of the Pima Arts Council of Tucson, the hands of recovering drug addicts sponsored by the Centro de Rehabilitación y Recuperación para Enfermos de Drogadicción y Alcoholismo in Agua Prieta, the artists’ parents’ hands, the hands of this article’s author—those hands were materials.
The diplomacy between the artists and various governmental agencies and stakeholders were all materials.
“The keyword is exchange. There’s this one-sidedness to the border discourse that ignores the ability of culture to cross,” Kade Twist told me a few weeks ahead of the launch date. “Political chauvinism creates cultural chauvinism.”
The execution of the largest binational land art installation in history required the breakdown of such chauvinism. Binational collaboration and exchange were materials used in the construction of the Repellent Fence.
During pre-installation preparations, Chacon stumbled upon a man crouching in the scrub, clutching a flip phone. Chacon was startled and greeted him, “Hola.” The man averted his eyes and said nothing, continuing to crouch. This man and his story, whatever it is, are also among the materials out of which the Repellent Fence is constructed.
On Sunday morning, the wind is as still as it has been yet, and the scare eyes form an almost perfect line. The area surrounding the installation is much quieter than on the previous two days. A few adventurous tourists, lovers of contemporary art driving Subarus and Jeeps, make their way along dirt paths, necks craned, looking up, mostly. Out there, they meet the border fence, perhaps some Border Patrol officers, perhaps a jackrabbit.
From a higher elevation, just east of Douglas proper, the line of orbs is stunning. They appear almost as holograms, something profoundly alien to the landscape.
The Repellent Fence poses challenges and questions before there is any knowledge of the work itself: What is it? Why is it there? But it also communicates directly.
The line of balloons clearly crosses distance, marks distance, crosses the border and marks the border. From up on “D Hill,” past the city limits of Douglas, one can enjoy a beautiful Sonoran vista, miles of terrain clearly visible, miles of terrain stretching into Mexico. Although the scale of the Repellent Fence is striking from here, it is also dwarfed by the immensity of its context.
“To experience the piece,” Raven Chacon says, “you have to walk through the desert, in the heat, with a limited amount of water. And walk through thorns and get poked. You are experiencing what people have to experience after they jump over the wall. You start to realize what people go through to come into this country.”
Chacon is back home in Albuquerque. The installation has been down for three days and he is still speaking of it in the present tense. He speaks as though he is observing the installation at the moment, rather than sitting at his dining room table.
“And you know, you might be at one end and walk to the other end, at least on one side of the border, and experience that mile and realize you’re not the first person counting mile one of this journey. We’ve marked out a mile. Think of how many countless people have walked that far and said, you know, ‘I’ve walked a mile. I’ve got a hundred more to go to get to Tucson.’”
Coming into Albuquerque a few days after the events in Douglas, I received a text message from Scott Williams saying he had arrived home, about an hour outside of town, and realized that he did not have any groceries, and so he had driven to Albuquerque. We met for a beer and alerted Chacon to this extempore gathering. He arrived twenty minutes later. One had the sense that no one involved in the Repellent Fence was quite ready to be alone. That it was hard to leave the place that was made, or kept, by the weekend, let alone the months and years of work that led to it.
“Surely we were unprepared for how it would affect us. We conceptualized the piece,” Chacon says, “but not until we were participants so much in our own piece did we realize how much of an effect it would have, how emotional it would be.”
“We were living a fantasy,” Cristóbal Martínez says, weeks later. “We were experiencing an alternative reality. For four days we had opened up a new portal and crossed into a new dimension.”
Martínez is back home in Phoenix, has gotten “down to business” with the mundane realities of the post-doctoral job market. “We existed in a new dimensionality of possibility that has not been seen there in its current, contemporary context at all. And we were just euphoric, experiencing a sense of euphoria, totally aware of the fact that that portal would close up and everything would pop back to where it was.”
Martínez sounds haunted by that popping back. He recalls the deinstallation as a reflective moment and a startling return to the reality of the border. “You could see it closing up.” A group of teenage boys wearing backpacks and baseball caps standing on the Mexican side called out to Martinez and Twist as they drove along the U.S. side of the fence, deinstalled balloons in tow, Border Patrol spotlights following them in the deepening dusk and dust kicked up by “Border Patrol trucks hauling ass in every direction.” Martínez sighs. He says he has been having dreams about the Repellent Fence and about this final evening, almost nightly since the deinstallation. There is a lot to work through, he says, within the experience of “seeing the paramilitary action that ensued as those balloons were coming down.”
Haunted as he is by these images and as much as he understands that the directness of Postcommodity’s work on the border is temporary, Martínez’s belief in the work’s lasting effects is evident. “We didn’t crack the tough nut,” he says, “but we opened a little fissure in its shell and we got to see it a little differently. That right there is a really big deal, and something that Glenn Spencer didn’t understand. When those fissures happen, they become opportunities for us to humanize each other and when we humanize each other, we bring dignity back, we re-dignify each other. And that’s where a lot of the tears were coming from. People were feeling a sense of dignity again.”
The Repellent Fence was only the implication of a fence and it only implicated the opening of a portal in the U.S.-Mexico border fence. But discussions surrounding the piece seem to indicate that the U.S.-Mexico border fence itself might only be the implication of a fence, for those most invested in it, on either side.
When border surveillance activist Glenn Spencer visited the site of the Repellent Fence, he scoffed at the project. But he also passionately expressed a belief that the border fence itself was little more than a bit of theater, an orchestrated element of a larger conspiracy to create the illusion of security. The real goals of all government actors, Spencer asserts, is the breakdown of the sovereignty of the United States and the rise of globalism.
Considering this, Martínez pauses. There is a pregnant silence as he chooses his words. “Ok, that’s a powerful statement and … I think that’s an arguable point that he makes.”
Martínez goes on to talk about his academic work on technology and sovereignty and his own deeply held beliefs that global communications and market systems are eroding imperial sovereignty. “Nations themselves,” he says, “exist in a more weakened state because of the way in which the world has changed.”
He pauses again, considering the implications of Spencer’s view. “In those ways, he’s not altogether sounding like a person who is—what do you call it—paranoid. But putting walls on land is not going to mitigate those communication systems, because those communication systems don’t know any borders. We just don’t live in that world. So what it seems is that the world that a lot of these folks want to preserve is one that’s already gone by. They haven’t come to terms with it.”
Martínez’s tone seems compassionate, almost aching. He goes on, considering the viewpoint of those like Spencer, personally patrolling the border and calling for more surveillance. “People feel desperate. Maybe they don’t realize it’s too late. But it’s a world that’s already gone by, it’s an era that’s already behind us. And so maybe it isn’t about—you know, there’s issues of racism and that gets played out a lot in the media, but one of the other things that doesn’t get played out is the obsession with nationalism. But it’s like, you know what? It’s probably already too late.”
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.