Crossing Over: Postcommodity Flips the Script on U.S. Border Patrol
In 2012, the three-person collective Postcommodity began having conversations with United States Border Patrol officials. The artists—Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist—were interested in various forms of deception along the U.S.-Mexico border, but they needed an insider’s perspective. They asked officers to talk about the techniques they use to catch immigrants trying to come into the U.S. “Initially, those conversations were tense,” Martínez said. But, gradually, “it got to a place where we felt comfortable enough that we could use questioning to flip the script on them.”
For the past decade, Postcommodity has been slyly intervening in the region between Mexico and the United States, reflecting on the border’s effect on indigenous peoples and their daily lives. Only recently has the New York art world taken notice. In March, at the Whitney Biennial, the collective showed A Very Long Line, a dizzying video installation in which an entire room is filled with sped-up and slowed-down footage shot while moving along the border’s fencing. The collective, which formed in 2007 and initially included two more members, Steven Yazzie and Nathan Young, also opened their first New York solo show, at Brooklyn’s Art in General in March. Their goal, Chacon told me during the show’s preview, is to create “an experience for people who’ve never been down to the border, so that they could feel [the] tensions which exist in people’s daily lives in the region.”
The Art in General show finds Postcommodity working with decoys like those used by Border Patrol to fool and confuse migrants by making them think they’re seeing monsters or bodies in the distance. It is not the first time that the artists, who are all based in the American Southwest, have worked with these fake objects. Their best-known project, Repellent Fence (2015), used 26 of them. For that work, they bisected a two-mile stretch of the border between Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico with oversize versions of balloons used to scare off birds. Large yellow circles with eye-like geometric patterns, these balloons also resemble patterns that appear in folk art from the region.
The work at Art in General is dark, even for Postcommodity. The first thing you see when they enter the show is a giant inflatable sculpture that resembles a steampunk dinosaur. Its fangs are bared, and its gear-like eyes stare at you, while your image is projected onto its body. Its title is Coyotaje, the Mexican-Spanish word for the smuggling of people across the border.
Despite the sinister tone of the show, many of the preview attendees seemed indifferent to the hulking monster that greeted them. Clutching a beer, Twist told me that the piece began when he read a New York Times article about the Russian military’s use of decoys in Ukraine. “It just looked insane,” he said, adding, “Decoys have been used by militaries in the theater of battles, and they’ve also been used in marketing goods and services. What if a decoy could be an interesting metaphor?”
For many migrants, this dinosaur-like figure will call to mind the Chupacabra, a monster-like figure from Mexican folklore that’s known to attack and drink the blood of goats. Chacon told me that the subject “really brought indigenous mythology back to the land,” but that U.S. Border Patrol officials have since coopted it, using it as a way to rein in migrants.
“When they’re out doing operations at night, they wear night-vision goggles,” Martínez said. “It causes their eyes to glow, and when their eyes glow and migrants see glowing eyes in the bushes, one of the ways, in some instances, that they rationalize that encounter is, they think they’ve seen Chupacabra.”
“In a very subtle way,” he added, “they revealed themselves to us as monsters.”
Alongside the sculpture is a sound component. As you walk down a dark hallway, you hear whispers of people saying things like, “I’m here to help you” and “Come this way quickly, so that you don’t die out in the desert.” Continue down the hallway, and you find yourself in front of a blown-up photograph of dogs near a horse carcass. It’s taken from the roadside, so as to emulate what Twist called “the gaze of fields agents and operatives.”
None of Postcommodity’s members predicted the outcome of the past U.S. presidential election, and so they decided in the wake of Trump’s win that their work had to change. “We don’t have any plans to do anymore works about the U.S.-Mexico border,” Chacon said. “We have lots of friends and family in these borderlands, and they are definitely affected. They’re not only in the immediate borderland region, but the whole Southwest is affected, and ultimately the whole country.”
At Documenta 14, which opened in Athens last month, Postcommodity began looking beyond the U.S. and Mexico. At the ruins of the Lyceum, where Aristotle once held lectures for inquisitive students, Postcommodity has installed Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) speakers, which are used used by police to control protests. (When they appeared at the Ferguson uprisings in 2014, Gizmodo called the speakers “an acoustic weapon.” More recently, police used them at Standing Rock.) Postcommodity is broadcasting the stories and songs of people who have been affected by great journeys—testimonials from Syrians, from Mexicans, from the Navajo, from the Cherokee. The piece, Chacon told me, is about forced migrations.
While people are being moved across countries, often without a choice, the borders themselves are constantly changing, too. Chacon said he remains a little optimistic that, one day, the strife over the U.S.-Mexico border will end. He mentioned that the borderline areas are subject to flash flooding. “We’ve seen parts of the current fence that were shifted and brought downstream, so this is that kind of reclamation,” he said. “The wall keeps moving.”