Artist Collective Postcommodity on Recovering Knowledge and Making Border Metaphors
From their base in the American Southwest, Postcommodity members Raven Chacon (in Albuquerque), Crístobal Martínez (in Phoenix), and Kade L. Twist(in Santa Fe) are well positioned to view the realities and projections of life along the US–Mexico border. In 2015, the collective installed 26 oversized scare-eye balloons, decorated with colors and motifs important to indigenous medicine, along a two-mile stretch of land between Douglas, Arizona, from Agua Prieta, Mexico, bisecting the wooden fence that separates the towns. Like many cities that line the border, Douglas and Aguas Prietas were once one, and Postcommodity saw its ephemeral installation, “Repellent Fence / Valla Repelente,” as a recuperative gesture meant to bring both sides of a land cut in two together again.
Two of the group’s projects currently on view in New York further plumb the complexities of this division. “A Very Long Line” (2016) at the Whitney Biennial is an immersive, four-channel video installation that surrounds viewers with a disorienting pan of the fence that divides Douglas and Aquas Prieta, shot from the window of a moving car. Coyotaje, an exhibition at Art in General, examines the entanglements between US Border Patrol and migrants in the same region through the use of sonic and sculptural decoys. Meanwhile, Postcommodity’s contribution to Documenta 14 considers people crossing national boundaries in other regions of the world, and also draws on the other side of the art collective’s practice — as a band that produces its own musical instruments. In Athens, the group has repurposed a sonic broadcasting system to tell the stories of those forced into migration for different reasons.
I spoke to Chacon, Martínez, and Twist about these three current projects, their refusal to make moral judgments or find solutions to the political dilemmas their work explores, the importance of noise to their practice, and more.
Risa Puleo: “A Very Long Line” is a video installation composed of a panning shot of the 30 miles of fence that divide the United States and Mexico between Douglas and Agua Prieta. Shot from the perspective of the US, the video gives a sense of the “other side.” How does this work relate to “Repellent Fence”?
Raven Chacon: “Repellent Fence” was about the people split by the fence and the people in between. I think the piece at the Whitney is more specifically about Americans. Something became evident as we were in the borderlands, the differences in culture between just a few miles: we may be afraid to see beyond this fence we’ve built for ourselves. For myself, “A Very Long Line” is very introspective, about being an American and having this point of view that is thrown outward and through this grid of steel.
Crístobal Martínez: We are trying to understand transborder systems. You can see indigeneity and mestizaje play out in the complexity of these systems, but these ideas aren’t the central objective of our work. Our work is about local community self-determination in this transborder context — how that pushes, pulls, tears, and sustains people’s lives. In a lot of art happening at the border, people draw color lines and choose sides. We’ve taken up a different set of strategies.
Kade Twist: We’re not trying to discover truth. I think it is so important, when thinking about our work, to distance oneself from ethical and moral dilemmas that are part of everyone’s rhetoric. We are neither pro or against. Those positions oversimplify the reality. Our experience and desire is to see how metaphors play out in the borderlands. Our projects won’t necessarily clarify or propose a resolution. Something Crístobal said years ago has stuck with me: we are “recovering knowledge.” People that are engaging with these three works can bring whatever they want to the table, but our intentions are not about nation-states and moralizing human endeavors. We recover knowledge through all types of activities as human beings. In this day and age, that’s more and more difficult to do.
CM: We are really fascinated as a collective by the irrational nature of market systems, human relationships, speed, emergent media, fast capitalism, warfare. The irrationality of these human behaviors has presented us with fodder for our creativity, which also reflects back the same level of irrational discourse. When we recover knowledge, it points to all directions. It’s these perspectives on the things that we are witnessing, translating it through the mediums that we work in and then releasing it right back into the public. What we aspire to do is mediate complexity and think outside of our tendency to form oversimplified models of what’s going on in the world. Personally, I feel a certain aversion to us as humans. We think like primates; we make very simple models to rationalize very complicated realities. We do this as a means of convenience and survival. I feel an aversion to that instinct, especially since we have created such a complicated world that we are having difficulty being accountable for. Art is an excellent place to play out our aversions to our vexed human nature.
RP: In your exhibition Coyotaje the chupacabra of folklore and legend becomes the point of convergence for a series of interactions between border control agents and migrants crossing the border. Can you tell me how you came to use the chupacabraas a metaphor?
RC: We gained the material for Coyotaje by interviewing Mexican-American border agents [about] the way they use the mythologies of the Southwest [and project them] back onto other people. We are interested in the games that are being played along the border: the decoys, the deception that crosses this geographic, hypothetical line, whether it’s playful or endangering people on either side.
CM: When you go to the border line at Douglas–Agua Prieta, you immediately start to look over your shoulder: Who is watching me? Is that border patrol vehicle following me? Are those cameras on that turret trained on me? What’s that drone flying overhead? It’s a destabilizing feeling. You feel in the wrong for just being there. The chupacabra is a way indigenous people of the western hemisphere have come to rationalize military and paramilitary activity, science and technology. The chupacabra becomes an allegory for the paranoia manifested in things like border patrol, for example, who roam the desert with night vision goggles. When migrants encounter these border patrol agents, they see green, glowing eyes in the desert. Border patrol agents told us about an instance of when migrants encountered these green, glowing eyes and thought they were seeing chupacabras. That story was funny to the agents we interviewed. But even more than humor, the story is about a moment when worldviews collided. That collision is a portal or rupture that reveals something incredibly complex about diverse ways of being and knowing in the world.
RP: How did you engage the border control agents?
KT: We facilitated this conversation as community liaisons around the construct of a decoy. What does a decoy mean to you? What does a decoy mean as it exists in the borderlands? How is this decoy strengthened or subverted by myth? How do we reindigenize the borderlands without remythologizing the borderlands? If we don’t bring myth back to the table, we won’t be recovering knowledge. Myth is what creates expectation. Myth is like a decoy in many ways. Using mythology helped us to understand how decoys actually function and then to realize that decoys on the borderlands have been dematerialized in certain ways. The human voice has become the most important decoy, from the border patrol’s perspective.
CM: Border patrol will make captured migrants call out to others to lure them into captivity. They might call out to migrants by saying things like, “Oye, aqui estoy en la arroyo. Ventepaca, andale, aqui viene la migra” (“Hey, I’m over here in the creek. Come over here, hurry, here comes the migra [immigration officials]”). Border patrol is using indigenous knowledge systems against the people themselves. If border patrol is aware that people are rationalizing these encounters as chupacabras, then that becomes a weapon by using people’s stories, voices, and linguistic expressions against them.
Border patrol agents with Hispanic surnames don’t see themselves as Mexican or Mexican American. Many times they describe themselves as simply American, and many of these agents have alluded that they see the local, folkloric indigenous knowledge that you find in brown communities throughout the Southwest as Mexican beliefs, Mexican ideas, which they often do not see as not their own. They have divested themselves from that heritage in a lot of ways, and it seems to me that that’s how they might survive their job. They seem to have to reimagine their identities in order to enforce a border against their very own brethren. We have also heard the story from border patrol agents that they save lives, which is true. That’s what we have noted in our interview with the agents for Coyotaje. Going back to decoys, these calls for capturing migrants become the soundtrack for the immersive installation at Art in General. We wanted, in a sense, to create a sculpture and immersive experience that reported the story back out. At the border, deception becomes so dense that it starts to bend identities, perceptions, and reality in strange and interesting ways.
RC: Again, we’re not interested in a moralizing position or even one of empathy, where we feel like we can put ourselves in the migrant’s shoes. We want to acknowledge the noise that’s involved in this dialogue between the Mexican-American border agents and who they imagine they are interacting with.
RP: Freed from assigning an ethical position to the border patrol agents, how do you characterize this divide of the same group of people by the conceptual line where two nation-states meet?
CM: Borders cause peoples to unwittingly embody national chauvinisms. You end up having indigenous people who have tribal roots, life, and backgrounds, but they aren’t connected to one another and don’t acknowledge one another because of borders. This disconnect is also generated by linguistic differentiations between the colonial languages of English and Spanish. Most impactful is that people push themselves away from each other because of national pride and the stark socioeconomic differences largely demarcated by the border.
RP: I’m struck by your use of the word “noise” in this conversation. Can you speak to the role of music in your artwork, Postcommodity’s relationship as a band in addition to an art collective, and how noise music crosses over into sound installations?
RC: Something we all have an interest in, from before we got together, is making instruments. The first sounds a handmade instrument makes are noise. When we play these instruments, we become a performing ensemble that is still Postcommodity. Sound is an important part of all these works that we make. It appears as another way to reinforce and play with the duration of experiences. Sometimes sound defines, exaggerates, or contracts the experience that spectators have with our work. For “A Very Long Line,” it provides a soundtrack. Other times it functions as metaphor for the system we are critiquing or are complicit with in a market, like the idea of a feedback loop. Other times, like at Documenta, it might carry the narrative. The installations at the Whitney, Art in General, and Documenta all utilize music as the way to start and end your time in space.
CM: We see noise as music. We also see noise as brujeria [witchcraft, but also the traditional medicine of Mexico, parts of Texas, and the Southwest], as a sonic medicine or witchcraft. Brujeria brings a knowledge and philosophy about the world, such as the way we connect aesthetics to metaphor or see discourses in systems. Brujeria provides a philosophical framework for mediating complexity. That’s what noise is: sound that becomes so complex, it is difficult for the brain to discern repetition or patterns. The idea of performing noise becomes a spiritual, intellectual, and emotional reimagining of ceremony. Our effort in our art is not about disentangling these things but making things more tangled. Maybe, in creating a greater sense of confusion, we might uncover clarity.
KT: Aside from its destabilizing effects, the process of making noise is really about building a sonic relationship that requires listening. It’s a negotiation beyond the framework of improvisation. It subverts structures that privilege top-down hierarchies from composer to performer. The synchronicity that happens in this form of music becomes really poetic. Sonic explorations happening in different directions lock in around a theme and hit clarity just long enough to be distinguished, before it goes back to “noise.” There is no great epiphany in those moments. You can view them from a theoretical framework as the singularities forming.
CM: The fissures are the ruptures — we talk a lot about portals, the portals in time where something ruptures or opens up and you’re able to see the world or be in the world in a way that is outside of the norm. When you’re in that space, in that rupture, we can bring things back from it that help processes of transformation.
RP: What role do sound and acoustics play in your installation “The Ears between Worlds Are Always Speaking” (2017) at Documenta?
RC: We made a two-channel audio opera using LRADs, also known as “sound cannons.” LRAD stands for “long-range acoustic device.” These are hyperdirectional speakers that can be used as a sonic broadcasting system, but they can also be used as a weapon. The military and police have used them to disperse crowds at the G8 Summit, Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matters protests. If you turn them up loud enough and admit a siren tone through them, they can deafen people. They’ve been used as torture devices to wear down the enemy. It has been rumored that the US military has used these speakers in Afghanistan to blast heavy metal music toward villages on prayer days.
We are aiming two of these units at Aristotle’s Lyceum, which is situated in a triangle near the Odeon Conservatory, the Parliament building, the war museum, and the Hellenic Armed Forces Hall.
CM: It’s a really beautiful context. One reason we chose Aristotle’s Lyceum is because Aristotle’s notion of “pedagogy” was rooted in his idea that learning connects to walking — “peda” referring “to the foot.” Aristotle would go on walks with his students as part of the processes of learning. Our hyperdirectional opera is a series of stories told from the perspective of people walking because of migration forced by economic disparities and war. We start at the Cherokee Trail of Tears [and move] to the current immigration crises happening across the world. We wanted to flip the script on these LRADs that are used to silence discourse and use them instead as devices to broadcast stories that come from among the tens of thousands of professors and learners that have walked long distances from all over the world as part of today’s mass migrations.
KT: This piece is critiquing Aristotle’s concept of empiricism, or empirical thought and scientific inquiry. These ideas introduced a competitiveness to worldview and political positioning, what I call “geopolitical intercourse,” that are the roots of market systems. We are living in a world where 65 million people are deemed refugees by the UN. That’s a stable number; that’s the new normal. However, it’s not just about critiquing Aristotle: we are also honoring him because he contributed so much positive infrastructure to the world. The critique is derived from a deep respect. That’s why we are trying to focus on that word “pedagogy.” We are recovering knowledge from 65 million refugees while they are in motion. They are reflecting on what they learned while moving through the terrain.
CM: These stories that are being offered by migrants are offered to all of us as audiences, but also to all of us as learners. If Aristotle’s theories of peripatetic learning are correct, then all the walkers are professors; they all have something to teach, and we all have something to learn from them. This work is really about visibility, dignity, and respect.