Step into the room, and you’re caught in a centrifuge of whirring fence posts. Dark barriers slide across every wall, changing speed from one surface to the next like an ersatz carnival ride that’s about to burst at its bolts. The growl of tires on rocky soil, the hum of the passing barricade and a cacophony of industrial screeches, hisses and roars echo around the room. Between the fence slats, desert landscapes and sun-drenched suburban streets spin past. It’s a dizzying vision of the US-Mexico border, as seen from the American side.
This is A Very Long Line, an art installation featuring four wall-to-wall video projections and a soundtrack that debuted at Center for Contemporary Arts last April. Its creators are Raven Chacon (Navajo), Cristóbal Martínez (mestizo) and Kade L Twist (Cherokee), Southwestern artists who comprise the American Indian arts collective Postcommodity. Starting on March 17, the installation is scheduled to appear at the Whitney Biennial in New York City, one of the world’s most influential exhibitions of contemporary art. A documentary film (Through the Repellent Fence) about Postcommodity’s work on the border premieres at the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight film festival this weekend.
The group’s recent achievements mark the tail end of a journey that spans a decade. The project that inspired A Very Long Line, a monumental work of land art titled Repellent Fence, culminated in an international effort to subvert the border fence for a brief but remarkable moment. In the process, two cities on either side of the divide forged a powerful new connection.
The projects have caused a ripple effect that will soon reach a global stage, at a moment when isolationist sentiment has gripped a large portion of the American electorate—and the upper echelons of the federal government. Policies shaped by a new nationalism will likely affect the borderlands more than any other region in the United States. A wall stands between much of the US and Mexico, but the cultural and economic fates of cities on both sides of the line are inextricably tied.
Postcommodity’s members have spent more hours than they can count roaming a road called International Avenue, an unpaved passage running along the American side of the border. “It’s only called that when it’s near a city, when it has public access,” says Chacon. “Outside of that it doesn’t have a name, because it intersects with private land.” The trio sees the route’s geographically dependent title as an intentional misnomer. “That’s a strategic rhetorical move, to project a discourse of diplomacy,” says Martínez. “A border is really a barrier, a filter. It’s meant to allow certain things to pass while keeping others from passing.”
This is what Postcommodity does best: cracking into sociopolitical structures to illuminate their intricacies. They explore the gargantuan but often invisible forces of globalization that have defined the 21st century—and their violent, colonizing effect on Indigenous people and nations. The most trafficked and policed border in the world was an obvious target.
The collective’s expeditions along a stretch of Arizona’s border fence started in 2013, in the midst of the Repellent Fence project. Their mission was to install a line of 26 giant helium balloons that spanned the border, forming a visual breach that would spark conversations between communities from both nations. The idea for the project had been evolving since the collective’s founding in 2007.
Throughout its 10-year history, Postcommodity has staged visual and sonic interventions in art institutions and public spaces across the world. Twist, who now lives in Santa Fe, was working on his MFA at Arizona State University in Tempe when he conceived of Postcommodity with Oklahoma artist Nathan Young (Pawnee/Delaware/Kiowa) and Phoenix artist Steven Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna).
One evening, Twist and Yazzie were having a beer in Twist’s backyard when they noticed a peculiar ornament in a nearby fig tree. Twist’s wife, Andrea R Hanley, had purchased a “scare-eye” balloon to frighten birds away from the tree’s fruit. The little yellow globe was emblazoned with several red, black and blue icons that matched the Indigenous iconography of the “open eye.” The balloon did little to repel its intended targets, but Yazzie and Twist imagined that this technically useless object with coincidental cultural significance could serve a different purpose.
Yazzie, Young and Twist flew a 10-foot-wide vinyl replica of the balloon at a European artist residency in 2007, and again above the Phoenix skyline in 2008. The eye in the sky became a marker of Indigenous presence, an ephemeral watchtower above the neocolonial landscape more ominously monitored by swarms of drones and invisible digital surveillance networks. It was made to be seen, but also to symbolically view—and confront—the world around it.
Yazzie and Young have both since retired from Postcommodity. Chacon joined the group in 2009, and Martínez became a member a year later. Chacon, an internationally renowned experimental musician from Albuquerque, was drawn to the group because of its emphasis on mediums that weren’t typically used by Indigenous artists he saw in art galleries, such as sound and performance art. Martínez, who grew up in Santa Fe and resides in Phoenix, first encountered Postcommodity’s work as a PhD student at ASU. “They took these conventions, tore them apart and wove them back together again in a way that was brown, that was Indigenous. That was exciting,” says Martínez.
From their first conversation about the balloon, Twist and Yazzie dreamed of using it for a border installation. Early on, the collective envisioned a row of balloons running parallel to the fence, but they came to realize that crossing the border was essential to their goal of advancing a conversation. “There was no organizational infrastructure that existed to facilitate a proper dialogue across the border among Indigenous people, mestizos, and non-Indigenous stakeholders and collaborators,” says Twist.
“We traversed almost the entire span of the Arizona-Sonora border looking for where we could do this,” Chacon says. After years of searching, they chose the cities of Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, as the sites for Repellent Fence. The communities touch on the border line, and they have an official port of entry between them that connects their downtowns. “There was a memorandum of understanding between the two cities to support bi-national collaboration around social policy objectives,” says Twist. “That’s what got us there.”
Many border cities maintain agreements with communities across the fence, though most of them center on the people and goods that pass through the customs gate. Douglas and Agua Prieta’s exceedingly rare social policy accord was a lucky break for a project that initially seemed impossible—at least if the group was going to complete it with government approval.
In 2012, Postcommodity began to secure grant money for Repellent Fence. Every two weeks, at least one member of the group traveled to Douglas and Agua Prieta to work on the project. The collective began holding community meetings in both towns, in search of ways to leverage municipal power that might push the project over federal hurdles. They connected with Jenea Sanchez and Martina Rendon, Douglas residents who have family on both sides of the border.
Sanchez remembers a time when there was no fence—at least not in her neighborhood. When she was a child living in Agua Prieta, she could see her aunt’s house across the border from her yard. “My dad would stand outside and say, ‘Okay, go!’” she says. “We would run, and cross illegally to visit my aunt’s house. That’s how interconnected these communities are.”
Twist knew Sanchez from Arizona State, where they were both in the MFA program for intermedia. She spent most of her childhood living between Agua Prieta and Douglas. When Postcommodity chose her native cities for Repellent Fence in early 2012, Twist made a trip to Douglas and pitched the project in person. “Honestly, I was concerned about the idea of it crossing the border,” Sanchez says. “I just thought in my mind, ‘Border Patrol is going to come up with something that is not going to allow this project to go through.’”
These days, if Sanchez sent her own children on an impromptu dash to see their family in Agua Prieta, they wouldn’t get very far. Between cities, there’s an 18-foot steel fence that runs for six miles. Completed in 2012 at a cost of $14.2 million, it replaced a weaker fence that had stood more than 20 years. “I’ve seen three iterations of the fence in my lifetime,” Sanchez tells SFR. “Many of us have grown up with this revamping or reimagining of the border.”
Outside of town, where Postcommodity conducted its first scouting trips, the border fence is much more porous. Rural sections of the barrier are intended to prevent vehicles from crossing, but people can (and do) easily slip through. The border stretches roughly 2,000 miles, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The Rio Grande forms a natural divide between Texas and Mexico, but from California to Arizona there’s a patchwork of fencing that covers 700 miles of the line. Some of the newest sections were erected by the George W Bush administration, which funded a $4 billion border wall project that ran from 2006 to 2010 and completed 640 miles of fence. Today, US Customs and Border Protection employs over 20,000 agents, and a vast majority work along the US-Mexico border.
On their long drives, Postcommodity encountered coyotes (men hired to escort illegal immigrants across the border) with ghillie suits and guns. The Border Patrol often informed them that drug cartels were discussing their presence over the radio waves. In some places, flash floods had completely washed away sections of the barricade. “The kind of totalitarian control that an ideal border seeks is thwarted very easily by Mother Nature,” notes Martínez.
In order to pull off Repellent Fence, Postcommodity needed to gain some measure of approval from leaders throughout the intricate power structures of the borderlands. Sanchez and her husband Robert Uribe got to work, in Douglas, turning the downtown cafe they own into a base of operations for the project. “We were getting grants, our idea was becoming more focused, and Jenea was helping us set up meetings with major stakeholders,” says Twist. “It was all becoming real.”
Some things don’t pass as easily across the border as others. Crossing can alter the value of money in your pocket, and change your legal status from citizen to alien. A port of entry might open wide for a bus full of people or a carload of art—or it might slam shut. The day Rendon met Postcommodity and Sanchez, she’d spent part of her morning at the customs gate. “They have an art walk in Douglas, and she brought her paintings across the border to show them here,” says Twist. “She had to deal with the people at the border taking her paintings out and searching them for contraband in front of her kids.”
Rendon takes painting classes at Agua Prieta’s community center, Casa de la Cultura. She lives in Douglas, but many of her family members reside in Agua Prieta, where she spends most of her weekends. When she and Sanchez struck up a conversation at the art walk in spring 2014, they sensed value in uniting their respective networks. Almost immediately, they started planning an art walk that would span both sides of the border, to coincide with the launch of Repellent Fence.
“I always felt it was going to be possible,” Rendon writes in an email. “They already had everything very well planned out, including collaboration by Douglas city officials and the local Mexican consulate. The only thing left was making contact with Agua Prieta officials.” Rendon arranged high-level meetings for Postcommodity with the local government in Agua Prieta. Officials in both cities were finally on board with the project, but a barrier still loomed between these small centers of power. Douglas and Agua Prieta are socially and economically intertwined, but legally divided.
“A big thing we learned about the wall is that it’s economically chauvinistic,” Twist notes. “It’s a chauvinism towards the way dollars flip in a community.” Sanchez chronicles these disparities in her video art. One of her projects demonstrated how residents of Agua Prieta carefully recycle water. Houses in the outskirts of the city don’t have plumbing or electricity, a reality that seems foreign to Douglas residents, just a few miles away. Another video captured the painstaking process of crossing from Mexico to the United States for visa holders who bus over ever day.
“That’s what I knew from her work: the desocialization part, the dehumanization part,” says Twist. “There’s a bubbling frustration there.” Postcommodity crossed the border multiple times a day using their American passports, but a Mexican citizen would need a visa to perform the same feat. Twist says, “Depending on the length of your stay and what your objectives are, a visa could cost $500. So there’s a class of society that has visas, and the rest don’t.”
Douglas and Agua Prieta were once tied by a copper mining operation in the region, but that industry dried up in the 1980s. A railroad connecting the cities is long gone. Now there are two primary economic drivers in the region. In Agua Prieta, manufacturing plants—maquiladoras—offer residents low-paying jobs with long hours. On the American side, the Border Patrol provides career jobs in another otherwise depressed market. “Border security has become its own market system that people are dependent on,” says Martínez.
It’s a push-and-pull dynamic, considering that Douglas deeply relies on Agua Prieta economically. “They contribute 75 percent of sales tax in our city,” says Sanchez. “If we disrupt the relationship any further, our city will die. Literally, we will not survive.”
As political tensions mount between the governments of the United States and Mexico, the value of the peso is declining and fewer residents of Agua Prieta are able to afford shopping trips across the border. Sanchez says about four businesses have closed in downtown Douglas during the past three months. Like many borderland towns, Douglas and Agua Prieta’s isolation from larger centers of commerce means that even small fluctuations in either of their economies can force a dramatic impact for both.
Repellent Fence flew from Oct. 9 to 12, 2015, in the midst of the United States presidential primary campaign. On Oct. 10, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Norcross, Georgia. “Every time I say we’re going to build a wall, everybody loves me,” Trump said to the roaring crowd. “This is going to be a Trump wall, this is going to be a wall that people aren’t going over.”
“The fence came to represent a lot of complexity, which is funny because a lot of public discourse is centered around oversimplified cultural models of what it actually is,” says Martínez. “There’s an economy that’s happening at a local level, and then the border becomes a mediator of the global economy.”
The collective’s local alliances were vital to the completion of Repellent Fence. About three months before the project launched, the drug lord El Chapo escaped from a Mexican prison and Border Patrol went on high alert. They closed off the intended site for Repellent Fence, leaving Postcommodity scrambling to find another location. “It turns out the project was only possible in one place,” Twist explains. “It had to be on city land, where the Border Patrol didn’t have jurisdiction, so they couldn’t tell us no.”
Postcommodity completed the project almost entirely through verbal agreements with local government officials on both sides, though Douglas required that they purchase a $20 million insurance policy. In the last few months before launch, even the Border Patrol had warmed to the idea. The border-spanning art walk and a series of public presentations coincided with Repellent Fence. Sanchez and Rendon arranged for a shuttle to travel between the two cities, with expedited security checks at the port of entry. “For me, it rendered the fence invisible,” says Sanchez. “The balloons were a visual reminder of how futile the fence really is. It’s a physical barrier that is man-made, and government officials can decide whether to build it higher or tear it down.”
"For me, it rendered the fence invisible,” says Sanchez. “The balloons were a visual reminder of how futile the fence really is. It’s a physical barrier that is man-made, and government officials can decide whether to build it higher or tear it down."
Repellent Fence has had a lasting impact on Douglas and Agua Prieta. Sanchez and Rendon, the local artists, continue to collaborate on events that engage both communities. Sanchez’s husband Uribe, who is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, is now mayor. Inspired by Postcommodity, he ran on a platform of collaboration with communities in Mexico.
Despite the successes of Repellent Fence, the piece only conquered the wall for a moment—and that fence might get much taller in the coming years. Chacon, Martínez and Twist don’t consider themselves activists: They’re using art to shine light on complex socioeconomic dynamics, but they aren’t presenting solutions.
In a two-day shoot on International Avenue in 2016, Postcommodity captured footage of the passing fence from a car. Using images and sounds from the drive, they built the spinning birdcage of A Very Long Line and added a chaotic soundtrack. Stepping into the installation is intended to be a tumultuous sensory experience, mirroring the impact of the border wall itself.
“We’re prisoners of our own ideas and concepts; we’re imprisoned by our own discourse,” Martínez says. “That violence is disorienting, and it has a dizzying and unsettling effect. That’s precisely the effect the fence has on people along the border, and it radiates outward from there.”