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Suturing the Borderlands: Postcommodity and Indigenous Presence on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Published onMay 06, 2017
Suturing the Borderlands: Postcommodity and Indigenous Presence on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Figure 1. Land art installation and community engagement (Earth, cinder block, para-cord, pvc spheres, helium). Installation view, US/Mexico Border, Douglas, Arizona / Agua Prieta, Sonora. Photo courtesy of Postmodernity.

For three days in early October 2015, the art collective Postcommodity launched a temporary art installation that reached fifty feet above the desert and two miles across the U.S.-Mexico border. I watched that weekend as they anchored twenty-six helium-filled balloons to the desert floor and let them ascend to create a visual and conceptual link between Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora (fig. 2). Each yellow, ten-foot diameter balloon had been inscribed with four sets of concentric circles—red, blue, black, and gray, with a black center—to form two pair of “scare eyes” (fig. 3).

Figure 2. Installation view of “Repellent Fence,” 2015, the Earth, cinderblock, parachute cord, PVC spheres, helium. All photos by Author.

Figure 3. Postcommodity’s “scare-eye balloon.”

Postcommodity repurposed a ten-inch consumer bird repellent product known as a “scare-eye” balloon, which is meant to repel birds from fruit trees, gardens, awnings, fences, and everywhere else they are unwanted.1 In fact, Postcommodity’s Kade Twist discovered the product while trying to break-up a “bird party” on his backyard fig tree in Phoenix.2 After the birds figured out that the balloons are harmless within a couple of days, Twist shared the experience with then-Postcommodity member Steve Yazzie, and Yazzie joked that the collective should launch the balloons on the border to ward off Western civilization, at least for a day or two.3 They experimented with the “scare-eye” balloon in a series of small-scale installations and finally realized its potential in the border-crossing installation they called “Repellent Fence” almost ten years later.

Postcommodity, founded by Twist and Yazzie in 2007, is a Southwest-based art collective with a revolving roster and a focus on Indigenous representations.4 Along with Twist, current members are Raven Chacon and Cristóbal Martínez. Chacon, who is Navajo, lives in Albuquerque. Martínez lives in Phoenix, Arizona and identifies as Chicano or “Alcaldeño” (raised in Alcalde, New Mexico). Currently residing in Santa Fe, Twist identifies as Cherokee.5 As a group, their work applies an Indigenous lens, rather than a focus on Indigenous people. While their large-scale installations certainly involve the positionality and representation of Native peoples, they also tend to critique colonial structures—such as capitalism, globalism, and neoliberalismrather than lament the poor or sad Indian that has appeared in countless renderings.6 Representations of Natives in need of saving or awaiting humanity reinforce the view of them as agentless others, a condition that Walter Mignolo refers to as the “colonial difference,” or knowledge about colonized people from the view point of the West that perpetuates its epistemologies.7 The production of colonial difference is essential for the maintenance of ongoing colonial conditions, or “coloniality,” which Mignolo and Tlostanova distinguish from colonization as a logic or model of power relations that began with colonization but did not end with the withdrawal of colonial administrations.8 Thus, rather than read visual and material objects that reference the colonial past as benign historical markers, we can view them as subtle reinforcements of power relations that continue till today. Thus, Collectively, these markers help to erase Indigenous people, while flattening and fracturing existing border identities.

Fracturing suggests the process by which various national and ethnic identities form and often find themselves in competition. Flattening refers to homogenization processes, or the ways in which colonialism groups disparate people together under unified notions of culture. Together, these processes cohere around a new vision of the border region, a particularly visible site, as a no-man’s land and open it for settlement. This vision appears in U.S.-based literature and art that depict the border as a place where people don’t live, where power is uncertain, or where the relationship between people and power is temporary because no one stays there very long.9 The unsettledness and liminality of the border have been intentionally built-in, prefigured, and produced. It is “imagined and narrated, nostalgically figured in advance,” to borrow from Mary Pat Brady, in order to articulate the necessity and coherence of the border for potential settlers.10 The fluidity and ambiguity of the term “no-man’s land” also makes it a catchall for multiple agents and actors looking to inscribe the border with their own dreams and visions. It shows up in the 1993 exhibition La Frontera/The Border, which engages Anzalduan hybridity as an opportunity for border subjects while still representing them as victims and ignoring the complications of borderlands’ Indigeneity.11 On the other hand, I argue that recent artistic interventions such as “Borrando la Frontera” (2015), “Delimintations” (2014-present), and Postcommodity’s own “A Very Long Line” (2016) focus too much on the fence itself, which really only covers about 650 miles of the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico border.12 As a result, local populations are often absent and got lost in these interventions.

In response, I offer Postcommodity’s “Repellent Fence” as a countermeasure to the coloniality of U.S.-Mexico border space. It shifts from a politics of knowledge based on observed objects or people to an evaluation of the conditions and structures of coloniality, while prompting local people to activate their own networks and decolonial identities. One aim of “Repellent Fence” is to begin the process of delinking from the colonial matrix by decentering knowledge about the border and border people by “indigenizing” it. Linda Tuhiwai Smith defines “indigenizing” as the “centering of the landscapes, images, languages, themes, metaphors and stories in the Indigenous world.”13 The Indigenous iconography referenced on the balloons and Postcommodity’s engagement with Yaqui and Tohono O’odham history and people perform precisely this function. I argue that this decolonial gesture remembered Indigenous people split by the fence and re-conceived of the border as temporarily disrupted Indigenous space. At the same time, the people of Douglas/Agua Prieta also recognized their own transnational existence when they described “Repellent Fence” as a suture between their cities/communities that emphasizes existing social and cultural relations.

Political theorist Mark Salter describes geopolitical borders as “sutures,” where subjects navigate not two equal regions (or nations) on either side of a line, but rather a scar that reveals the unfinished or unhealed meeting of the local/regional and the global/international.14 In other words, geopolitical borders do not simply signify a relationship between neighboring countries. They are also maintained by institutions such as governing bodies and multinational corporations that play a vital role in structuring relations among local people regardless of which side of the border they are on. The shift from a line to a suture/scar as the point of reference, Salter argues, signifies a shift from concentration on the maintained or transgressed space to the system that gives it meaning. Thus, the U.S.-Mexico border represents Latin America’s subordination to North America as a result of disparate development regimes up to the nineteenth century while the two countries remain part of a single world order. Aníbal Quijano, Mignolo and others, for instance, have named such an order “the modern/colonial world system” to stress the concomitant nature of modernity and coloniality, through which civilization would not be possible without destroying non-European ways of life.15 And yet, the people of Douglas/Agua Prieta presented a perpendicular conceptualization of a suture: “Repellent Fence” is the stitch itself, connecting two communities. So, where Salter’s suture is a scar left by sewing together a violent rupture, the people’s suture aligns more with Jose David Saldívar, who uses the term “trans-Americanity” to describe cross-border social/cultural formations that, he argues, are altering the structure of the Americas beyond the nation-state.16 Anthropologist Jason De Leon, furthermore, stresses that even in the case of undocumented migrants, trans-Americanity tends to be the product of well-defined social processes, rather than the chaotic border-crossings depicted in the media.17 Thus, “Repellent Fence” taps the trans-American potentiality of the border region in very material ways, as when Postcommodity activated local social networks to legally transfer helium, a HAZMAT (hazardous material) necessary to fill the balloons, across a national border although customs agents on both sides said it would be impossible.

By accepting the people’s description of “Repellent Fence” as a suture while simultaneously insisting on its Indigenous content, Postcommodity performs what Miwon Kwon calls a “double negation” of the local and the global.18 In her evaluation of site-specific art, Kwon explains that artistic interventions that trouble local identities without consulting local people can result in representational, epistemic, and material violences for local subjects, such as Native Americans and border subjects whose membership statuses, rights, and/or citizenships is precariously tied to identities. Artists, moreover, are mobile—they can move between identities and locations—while local subjects are relegated to whatever identities that ensure survival.19 Thus, Native American groups have understandably refused artists who weren’t interested in getting to know their communities over long periods of time.20 Because Postcommodity has demonstrated its long-term interest in these communities, I read the Tohono O’odham’s refusal to site “Repellent Fence” on their borderland reservation as a response to the tension and distrust caused by the violent disruption of space that is the border. They didn’t want to draw any more attention to their highly contested and observed space, where smuggling is a source of conflict between tribal members. The precarity of the art-site relationship, in Kwon’s estimation, is a symptom of capitalism, but it is also the potential for critical resistance, if situated on a “terrain between mobilization and specificity.”21 I understand double negation, then, as a call to critics, scholars, artists from the outside to remain somewhat removed from the day-to-day of local conflicts, but ready to participate with precise critique when circumstances demand.

I argue here that Postcommodity achieved double negation on the border—a site that is always already a potential terrain between the mobilization of outsiders and the specificity of local issues—by relying on the people of Douglas/Agua Prieta to realize their project. Their understanding of a suture, in turn, pressed the notion, put forth by Salter and other border and postcolonial theorists, that cross-border spaces are irrecoverable outside of their international contexts. This is the argument that colonialism has deprived cities/communities like Douglas and Agua Prieta too much for them to be reunited. The people’s suture does not dispute Salter’s suture/scar, but rather amends it to emphasize what global perspectives neglect, namely how bordertown people define and determine the space according to their own uses and understandings. Nonetheless, Salter’s scar remains relevant here as a way to think of the border as incomplete, both in its separations and its unifications, so that we can understand the “no-man’s land” as an ongoing colonial process.

The Installation

After losing a day and a half to high winds, Postcommodity launched “Repellent Fence” on October 10, 2015—a Saturday. I rode out in one of the pickup trucks with the crew to fasten the balloons to their anchors (fig. 4), elated to see the Sonoran equivalent ascend, as if acting out a call-and-response with ours. For the next three-and-a-half days, “Repellent Fence” reached over the coarse sand and thorny shrubs of the desert. When I followed the line of balloons, I saw the gridded dirt border patrol roads that peaked and rolled over the landscape. On the way out, they had caused Postcommodity’s pickups to bottom out. For a moment, the continuity of the aesthetic repetition seemed to make the landscape appear whole; the installation seemed to undermine the spatiality of the border by emphasizing it as a socially produced space. In the next moment, however, the “otherness” of the Sonoran landscape reasserted itself as the realness of the fence came into view. At the base of one of the anchors, I discovered a discarded glove (fig. 5) and a forgotten toothbrush and as my gaze lifted, I saw the single steel, “anti-ram” border fence standing 18 feet tall between the installation crew on the Sonoran side and us (fig. 6).22

Figure 4. A toothbrush located near one of the balloon anchors.

Figure 5. Postcommodity crew driving a balloon out to its position.

Figure 6. Crew anchoring a balloon to the desert floor, with the border fence cutting across the landscape in the background.

The installation appeared as an expression of the historic and conceptual connection between Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora, and it would last through the first Indigenous People’s Day in cities across the country. It was a large-scale outdoor installation concerned more broadly with recovering local knowledge and spurring self-determination for Indigenous people living on the U.S. border.23 The concept hinges on our understanding of the scare eye as re-appropriated Indigenous iconography. Though the design is an appropriation of a consumer bird repellent product, Postcommodity locates the colors and concentric circles that make up the eye in multi-various Indigenous traditions across the Americas, claiming their deployment of the design as a re-appropriation of Indigenous iconography. For Chacon, the colors are distinctly Navajo, representing four worlds of emergence into the current world: red, blue, yellow, and white, in that order.24 The colors also correspond with sacred minerals, as well as sacred mountains and their directions. White (or white shell) represents Colorado’s Blanca Peak in the east. Blue (or turquoise) is Mount Taylor, near Grants, New Mexico in the south. Yellow (or abalone) is San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona in the west. Finally, black (or obsidian) represents Hesperus Mountain, north in Colorado. For Twist, the colors also refer to four directions, but specifically as medicine colors used in various ceremonies.25 For Martinez, the colors contain meaning about essential, quotidian details, such as seasons, animals, and the stages of life.26 They are also particularly relevant for “Repellent Fence” because the colors are shared by often-disparate Indigenous cultures throughout the Americas. The commonality of these colors reveals the “long view history of trade between Indigenous peoples” before capitalism and European arrival. Furthermore, what the market has deemed a “scare eye” (with an implied sense of surveillance) has been recognized by Indigenous people all over the world as an “open eye” or an eye of consciousness.27

The people who helped Postcommodity install the artwork came from city governments, cultural institutions such as the Casa de la Cultura in Sonora, the Mexican Consulate, and the broader communities of Douglas and Agua Prieta, as well as a small caravan of friends and family members who traveled down with the collective. What many of these groups and individuals had in common was Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian border ministry with hubs in both towns.28 A public policy wonk during the day, Twist is accustomed to working with churches, and he said that in terms of community planning, one can’t do much without them. But, in Douglas/Agua Prieta, Frontera de Cristo acted as gatekeeper between agencies, institutions, the public, and … the cartel. “[Frontera de Cristo] has connections with [drug] cartels that wouldn’t backfire,” Twist explained. “We needed the cartels’ permission because…that whole side of town is controlled by the cartel.”29 The network actually crossed geopolitical boundaries for the project by helping Postcommodity transfer helium through customs. Customs agents said it wouldn’t be possible because helium is considered to be a hazardous material. Douglas/Agua Prieta families have been working the border gates for three to four generations. And believing in the value of the project, they used their own social networks to make the transfer possible.30 These families didn’t charge a fee for carrying the materials through customs, despite living and working in a zone, Twist said, where everybody is “grifting,” including governments in the form of fees for expedited service.31

All three members of Postcommodity said that any preconceptions they had about the border or Indigenous people who live there halted when they started talking to and working with local people.32 Having worked on the Agua Prieta side, Twist said that he had always heard that Indigenous Mexicans hid their ancestral identities because of shame or fear, but if “their governments were able to elicit denial, we weren’t able to.”33 Many of them identified as Yaqui, others as mestizo, but all of them, Twist said, claimed membership in particular tribes. In Agua Prieta, the launch became the site for a “reimagined Indigenous ceremony” where participants sharing stories and prayers around each balloon, Martínez said. He wasn’t prepared for what turned out to be an emotional and spiritual experience, with volunteers gathering around each balloon, before sending it off, to share stories and prayers.34 One of the most beautiful moments for him occurred during a crisis. Over the course of a windy night, three balloons had popped, and a couple more were tangled around fixtures, twisting around wildly. If they lost one more, the installation would not reach its goal of 26 balloons. Without hesitation, around 20 people began quickly but delicately untangling the balloons. Martinez saw, in his attention and concern, that the project meant something to them, that the balloons held sacred value.35

The experience in Douglas was quite different, as Twist and Martinez discovered when they exchanged notes with Chacon.36 Indeed, from my own observations on the Douglas side, the install had a procedural air. The atmosphere was more like a gallery reception, with viewers talking more about their travels—getting to Douglas, visiting Bisbee, problems at the hotel. Though, as Chacon noted, everyone got involved, and with a sense of ownership that couldn’t be forced (fig. 7).37

Figure 7. Crew and observers load up pickups to deliver two more balloons.

The Context

Over the course of that October weekend and in conversations that followed, I heard participants, observers, and critics refer to “Repellent Fence” within multiple and intersecting artistic traditions, especially border art, social practice, Native American art, land art, and site-specific art. Each of these histories provides ample framework for understanding and/or deconstructing the installation. However, I am interested in the border as a discourse on coloniality that keeps itself hidden by fracturing and flattening local subjectivities and articulating border space as a no-man’s land. Thus, I am also concerned with how local people navigate through or around this discourse by transgressing the border itself. As I have suggested, Miwon Kwon’s study on site-specific art helps understand how “Repellent Fence” traverses local concerns with global perspectives in a space where the local is in perpetual exchange with the global. In order to understand the relevance of this move, I want to briefly consider border art history as a fulcrum between representations of overdetermined local populations (i.e. victims) to interrogations of the fence as a site of colonial power that do not account for potential or actual border transgressions.

In 1993, Patricio Chávez codified border art in an essay for a multi-venue exhibition in San Diego, which he co-curated. In the catalogue for La Frontera/The Border: Art About the Mexico/United States Border Experience, he wrote that border art should be rooted in the Chicano movement, thematically oriented around the U.S.-Mexican border, based on collaboration and community involvement, conceptually organized around validation of the “other,” multi- and interdisciplinary, and multicultural.38 This definition appears to extend views of 1970s Chicano art which called for a centering of Chicano community with educational themes directed at Chicanismo and in opposition to U.S. economic policy.39

The work in the La Frontera/The Border catalogue tends to be site-specific or performative. David Avalos and Deborah Small’s “” (“”) (1992), for instance, invited viewers to imagine a space in the San Diego downtown trolley station as a transitory migrant living space. A bed made with straw bales covered in brightly colored blankets occupied the center of the room, with portraits of Mexican people on the wall on one side and pastoral European paintings depicting racial harmony on the other. The room is full of cacti, yucca, and various other adornments associated with the desert and Mexico. Finally, windows fill two walls through which appears the contemporary architecture of the trolley station, as well as trolleys and people getting on and off. The contrast of urban and country themes between the outside and the inside emphasize a sense of authorized mobility that city people enjoy against the temporary, clandestine dwellings of migrant workers. Viewers could inhabit the room, but the space doesn’t look any homier than a factory showroom made for an abstract Mexican subject.

Thematically, La Frontera/The Border took the lead from thinkers such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Norma Cantú, who imagine the border as a colonial wound inhabited by mestizas/os—people of mixed European and Indigenous heritage.40 Using the Nahuatl word nepantla, Anzaldúa also extend the border to other liminal identities: “the straight person coming out as lesbian, gay, bi- or transsexual, or a person from working class origins crossing into the middle-class and privilege … the marginalized, starving Chicana/o artists who suddenly finds her/his work exhibited in mainstream museums.”  The most obvious representation of mestizaje in La Frontera/The Border is Patricia Ruiz Bayón’s “Mestizaje I” (1993) a collection of headless human sculptures made of cornhusks.

Recently, artists have attempted to address the problem of the border by focusing on the fence itself. On October 13, 2015, just a day after Postcommodity deflated “Repellent Fence,” Ana Teresa Fernández painted a section of the border wall along Nogales, Sonora to make the wall seem invisible. She called the piece “Borrando la Frontera,” and it was a repeat of a project she did in Tijuana in 2012.41 Beginning in July 2014, David Taylor and Marcos Ramirez (aka “ERRE”) installed “Delimitations,” a series of 276 obelisks that conceptually returned the U.S.-Mexico borderline to its configuration in 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain.42 When Postcommodity was scouting a location for “Repellent Fence,” they noticed that the fence was not as “complete” as they had thought. There were big gaps, usually in desert areas, and the construction varied greatly from location to location. Using a steady cam, they filmed the Arizona length of the wall, barring any roadless stretches. The result is “A Very Long Line,” a four-channel installation at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe.43

The Intervention

Miwon Kwon expresses her concern that present-day artists and institutions risk “colonizing” communities, by either using locals to meet their own agendas or over-representing those locals as “victimized, but resilient.”44 She warns that site-specific gestures in general risk reacting, or cultivating “what is presumed to be there already rather than generating new identities and histories,” which seems like a direct critique of Chávez’s border art guidelines.45 He identifies particular border subjects (Chicano, “other”) and presumes their needs (multicultural and multidisciplinary methodologies), and, as a collection of artifacts, the La Frontera/The Border catalogue hardly involves the communities in question. Instead, artists attempt to represent those communities, as with Avalos’s controversial “San Diego Donkey Cart”—an “appropriated … cultural stereotype,” that converted one popular Tijuana tourist attraction depicting “‘typical’ Mexican” landscapes into another “typical” Mexican scene—that of a “dark-skinned man” being frisked by immigration.46 To use Kwon’s words, the man in the image has been victimized, while the larger border community that endures and avoids such harassment is resilient.

The catalogue’s emphasis on hybrid identity, moreover, erases locals—just as descriptions of the border as transitional forgets that people live there. Anzaldúa derives the mestiza at the heart of her Chicana feminist perspective from a misreading of Jose Vasconcelos’s la raza cósmica.47 She reads what Vasconcelos figures as a whitening of the race for the sake of Mexican nationalism as a claim to self-determination, dignity and civil rights.48 In contrast, Saldívar argues convincingly that Anzaldúa actually goes beyond the “twoness of national consciousness” through her use of language.49 Guisela Latorre has also argued that “indigenism” (or “the act of consciously adopting an indigenous identity”) in Chicano art is an ambivalent appropriation that may also work for Indigenous people.50 Further against Guidotti-Hernandez, Latorre writes, “Anzaldúa stripped mestizaje of the essentialism that Vasconcelos had advocated, and reformulated it to include the previously marginalized experiences of women and lesbians.”51 The different stakes illustrated by these selections demonstrate that border identity—especially between Indigenous people and Chicanas/os for whom a claim to Indigenous roots is critical—remains open for interpretation. This state of unsettledness erupts when mestizo, Chicano, or even Anglo claims to Indigenous heritage become claims to property rights, citizenship, or the right to define history. For instance, local Natives boycotted the 2005 symposium, “Indigenous Peoples of the Americas: Conflict, Resistance, & Peace,” at the University of New Mexico on the grounds that such Indigenous claims were a false representation of Indigenous values, intended to further personal political goals.52 While the boycott is understandable from a Native point of view, it also exemplifies the ways in which colonial fracturing puts border people in competition with one another.

Conflicts over identity and related rights between groups—particularly in the borderlands—only emphasize the U.S imperative to control the space by ignoring it. Artists who focus on the border fence meanwhile, turn full-tilt at the U.S.’s attempts to determine space, and therefore labor and markets. If fabricating the fence demonstrates the failure of the border as an acknowledged social-political boundary, “Borrando la Frontera” undermines its naturalness by revealing that which it obscures—the other side.53 “Delimitations,” further, recalls that the creation-space for American identity (the West, the Frontier) was, for hundreds of years, Mexican and Spanish. However, where “Borrando la Frontera” merely (perhaps wrongly) imagines the continuity of the two regions, “Delimitations,” limits identity to state-enforced, geopolitical boundaries. By linking to the materiality of the fence, “A Very Long Line” attempts to demonstrate that the supposedly complete colonial project of the border is fragmentary—that is, coloniality relies on corporate, bureaucratic processes and disagreements that have resulted in an incoherent vision and production of the border. Through this reading, Postcommodity reveals the system that gives the fence meaning; however, like the other works, it doesn’t get any closer to understanding how actual inhabitants exist within the coloniality of border space. Yet, to go too much in either direction—toward a representation of the people as we see with La Frontera/The Border or toward a critique of the system as with border-fence art—is, in either case, to overdetermine the power of the colonial state. On the one hand, people tend to appear agentless; on the other, the state seems impenetrable. Kwon’s double negation is an attempt to navigate these two fields of understanding, and I argue that Postcommodity’s Indigenous lens is the tool that brings them into the same field of vision.

Thus, Postcommodity is not concerned with border identity, per se, certainly not in staking a claim to it as we see in Chicano border art. Rather, alert to Kwon’s warnings, they are invested in interrupting the particular ways that the modern/colonial world-system maintains power through the structures of identity, ethnicity, race, experience, and knowledge production while directing attention to the ways in which border people live outside of the confines of the nation-state.54 “Repellent Fence” is one outcome of this decolonial imagination, seeing the fence not as a symbol of loss or separation but as material expression of colonial power manifest in particular locations. The materiality of the fence in Douglas/Agua Prieta brings into view the self-determined communities that contest the coloniality of the border through a sense of personal attachment to the project as well as the process of transporting helium through customs.

The Border

In 2006, Phoenix was the center of the U.S. immigration debate. The Arizona state legislature had passed a law denying bail to undocumented immigrants charged with felonies; in 2007, it criminalized the hiring of undocumented immigrants; in 2010, the legislature passed the much-contested law that encouraged authorities to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws.55 It was during this time that Twist tried using the scare-eye balloons, so once he and Yazzie began talking about appropriating the design for an art project, it didn’t take long for them to think about the border seemed like an obvious site.56

Through a series of tests and site visits, Postcommodity began to see a series of repellent balloons as a visible and conceptual fence that would interrupt and mock the border. Where the fence is made to last and follows the ups and downs of the landscape, their project would be temporary and level. Where the border fence supports binary, political discourses, the installation would act as a medium for local knowledge recovery, asking people to tell their own stories.57 The contrast between the border fence and “Repellent Fence,” the collective hoped, would demonstrate that, in Martínez’s words, “this iron wall … is temporary,” and the process of denaturalizing the border depended on Postcommodity’s ability to make legible Indigenous border communities, which pre-date the fence.58 That part was more difficult than they had thought. In Arizona and Sonora where Postcommodity worked, the Yaqui and the Tohono O’odham straddle the physical boundaries of the border, though the two nations have had very different experiences. After a century of warfare with the Mexican Government, the Yaqui, as Guidotti-Hernández shows, dispersed throughout Sonora and the Southwest, refusing to assimilate to the Mexican state or to U.S. capitalism.59 Since 1978, some Yaqui have held a reservation in Arizona. Meanwhile, the border actually splits O’odham territory, and they live in a more negotiated relationship with/in colonial nation-states. Without kinship ties between them, life on one side of the border is vastly different from life on the other.60 In the U.S., the O’odham have a reservation system, which, though fraught with colonial violence, has fostered a community and secured a land base. In Mexico, Indigenous autonomy is relatively new and the mestizo bloodline is idealized.61

Postcommodity originally thought it would launch “Repellent Fence” guerilla-style: One morning, border inhabitants (and the U.S. Border Patrol) would wake up to find a big, conspicuous artwork cutting across the fence. But, the group learned from four previous installs of single balloons—two in the Czech Republic, one in Phoenix, and one Manitoba, Canada—that the balloons took some time to fill and anchor—too long considering that, when they were just scouting for a site, the Border Patrol had approached them within minutes. On the Mexican side, the cartels tended to control the border zone.62 The Tohono O’odham Nation seemed the obvious choice for Postcommodity’s attempt to rejoin Indigenous people. Yet, the O’odham leadership rejected “Repellent Fence” because they worried that the installation would draw attention to already complicated border relations. They were particularly concerned about the potential that the installation would act as a cover for smuggling operations and/or represent the nation as smuggler-friendly. From Twist’s point of view, the U.S. O’odham also held a chauvinistic view of their Mexican brethren and didn’t necessarily want to reunite, a point Madsen confirms in his ethnography on the O’odham.63 In brief, coloniality has all but permanently defined their space.

From the O’odham Nation, Postcommodity headed east, into Arizona, rather than toward California, which they felt was oversaturated with border art, especially Chicano border art, and Postcommodity specifically wanted to distinguish “Repellent Fence” from Chicano art for many of the reasons I outlined in my critique of La Frontera/The Border.64 In Sierra Vista, Arizona, Postcommodity discovered Minutemen and other border vigilantes carrying automatic weapons, as well as Confederate flags waving outside homes and businesses. They decided to continue heading east. Martinez said that “Repellent Fence” could not have gone up anywhere other than Douglas/Agua Prieta, where a “memorandum of understanding” encourages cultural exchanges across the border. Other border communities have similar agreements, but in addition to having friends in the area, Postcommodity felt Douglas/Agua Prieta was particularly open to the project.65 “The two communities share a strong memory of a time before the border wall,” Martínez said. Until the mid-1980s, Douglas, Arizona was a booming copper town that depended on a flexible border for steady streams of labor and materials, which also led to expansion in Agua Prieta.66

The Site

Before Europeans invaded the Western Hemisphere, borders were more like zones where “one culture gave way to another.”67 Colonialism created nations, or tribes, in order to dominate them, specifically to form legal institutions for treaties and hierarchies for the sake of church missions. One result is that community becomes, in Scott Richard Lyons words, “overcoded with the idea of the nation,” so that one larger group replaces “the many and the small.”68 Widespread cultural and political claims to mestizaje and indigenism on the border continue this flattening of cultures to make claims of ownership or belonging at the same time that these processes emphasize regional circumstances and conflicts between local people to obfuscate the modern/colonial world-system that creates them. At the same time, indications that this system exists can be traced on the landscape as a matrix of the visual and material culture of any given border town.

In addition to the border fence, five particular markers frame Douglas’s colonial history: the “Geronimo Surrenders” monument, the city and county seals, the Gadsden Hotel, and a police station that used to be a train depot for international transport. On Highway 80, a dozen or so miles outside of town, a monument commissioned by the city celebrates the surrender of the Apache chief Geronimo (fig. 8). On the main street, the Cochise County seal (fig. 9) claims Apache land by depicting a bright red, disembodied head with long hair tied down by a headband, likely Cochise himself. Whereas the Geronimo Surrenders monument is a demonstration of pure military strength, the seal attempts to legitimize conquest by claiming Cochise as one of its own ancestors. Meanwhile, the seal of Douglas (fig. 10), located right above the county seal, depicts an American flag and a Mexican flag, paired together at the top, with an adaptation of the Arizona state flag at the bottom. While the flag duplicates the colors of the Spanish flag and while the thirteen rays of the sun recall the original U.S. states, the city’s Indigenous presence as yet remains unrecognized. Just up the street, the town’s architectural crown jewel is the Gadsden Hotel, named after James Gadsden, who authored the deal that straightened out ambiguities in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.69 The Gadsden Purchase split the O’odham and set the conditions leading to the founding of Douglas and Agua Prieta. Grouped together, the monument, the two seals and the hotel almost comically demonstrate the colonial effort to fracture and flatten Indigenous identity. Following Quijano’s logic, the residents of Douglas feel these colonial markers as an identity, surviving in the form of various ethnic nationalisms, including Indigenous, mestiza/o, Chicano, Hispanic, Latino and European.70 Extending colonialism through globalization,the train depot (fig. 10) that once connected Douglas and Agua Prieta through flows of labor and resources for more than half a century is now a police station, converted by using prison labor. The shift signals the “growing importance of policing to an increasingly globalized economy.”71

Figure 8. Road sign for the “Geronimo Surrenders” monument outside of Douglas, Arizona. The stone monument stands on the horizon to the left.

Figure 9. City of Douglas Seal (top) and the Cochise County Seal (bottom).

Figure 10. The police station was once a train depot that connected people and materials from Douglas, Arizona to Agua Prieta, Sonora.

After Phelps Dodge Copper Company pulled out of the area, former smelter workers became low-wage prison guards at a new medium-security prison and the border patrol grew by more than 400 percent, from around 50 to almost 500. “Alongside this state-mandated economy, the informal narcotics and immigration economies blossomed,” Brady writes, “Merchants began to rely on the marijuana harvests and later the cocaine traffic.”72 “Repellent Fence” launched amid these conditions, using a regional airport, assigned by the City of Douglas, as a staging ground. Yet, the border patrol and the cartels also determined how the space could be used: both explicitly told Postcommodity that the installation couldn’t have anything to do with protest.73 The U.S. Border Patrol gave Postcommodity permission to move freely in the area, knowing, Twist believes, that the collective was working with, if not the Sinaloa drug cartel, then one of its affiliates, on the other side.74 Though Twist said that his initial fear of dealing with the cartel was an irrational response to media depictions of border violence, Postcommodity stayed within the confines of their requests.

The Wound

No doubt, the presence of the cartels, and their association with violence, complicates the decolonial potential of “Repellent Fence.” So too do the histories of violence specifically against Native people associated with Christian ministries and colonial governments. Their inclusion contradicts Smith’s understanding of “networking” as a decolonizing methodology that builds knowledge and databases with an emphasis on “making contact between marginalized communities” (emphasis added), which we can view as a companion with her description of indigenizing as hinging on a disconnection from settler society.75 Mignolo, on the other hand, describes networking as a decolonial activity that connects people “across the globe, across languages and religions, and across institutions” (emphasis added).76 Though Postcommodity’s Martinez resists decolonization as a framework because it signals an attempt to turn back, he aligns with Mignolo who, I’ve explained, writes that it’s impossible to work outside of colonization, even as we can recognize and disconnect from Western epistemologies and structures.77 Postcommodity’s concession to the cartels recognizes the ways in which border subjects participate in coloniality even as they resist it, yet it also proposes a decolonization as a way of looking forward, self-determining for the future, rather than an attempt to return to a time before colonization.

Salter informs us that while borders are an ongoing performance by colonial nation-states, citizens also give borders meaning by crossing them: In the process of demonstrating citizenship as the right to enter, they authorize the state with the power to determine who counts as a citizen.78 He writes, “Borders then knit the world together, but also knit us in as subjects.”79 Maybe these processes seem natural for those of us who enjoy the benefits of citizenship, including a recognition of our rights across borders, but for Indigenous people who live with a cultural memory of a time before geopolitical borders, border-crossing is an affirmation of colonial power. That’s why, for instance, Mohawk people who live divided on the U.S.-Canada border occasionally insist on crossing on their own nation’s passports, even if it means being held up indefinitely in customs.80 Indigenous nations cannot be classified as simply inside or outside the nation because they “straddle the temporal and spatial boundaries of American politics,” their politics refusing “to be contained by the limits of the boundaries of the settler-state and the nation.”81 Thus, despite the limits placed on “Repellent Fence,” colonialism remains an incomplete attempt to control people and places, in part because border people have not simply or always accepted their conditions.82 They have always, as Scott Richard Lyons argues, moved across social-historical boundaries by adopting modernity in various ways to ensure survival, but also because they can.83 Lyons uses the example of his own Dakota grandmother who, against the memories of her husband and countless histories of violence, actually loved her experience in boarding school. It not only provided her with lifelong friends, but prepared her to become a high school valedictorian and one of her community’s first Indian teachers.84 To say that Lyons’s grandmother is wrong to remember boarding school fondly would be to deny her identity and more broadly to suggest that Natives must or always exist in the past. Lyons writes, “Indian space is never defined by tradition or culture alone because Native people migrate in modern times as well.” Denials of Native modernity, Lyons writes, only serve to reinforce colonial power structures, including those established within Indigenous nations, as with tribal elites who police culture in order to protect their own positions within it.85

As a product of colonialism/globalization, the border set the conditions for the U.S. Border Patrol and the drug cartels, as well as the conditions that leave people without many other options for income outside of government work or positions in the drug trade.86 Cartel violence, meanwhile, is a response and product of the continuing globalization and militarization of the border, as Howard Campbell argues in his book, Drug War Zone.87 Campbell’s ethnography also demonstrates the ways in which both those who patrol the border and those who attempt to cross do so, hesitantly, out of economic necessity.88 Many, or even most, border subjects are one way or the other wrapped up in the narco-economy, even if they sell groceries to people crossing the border or, as is the case with the Tohono O’odham, provide food or water to border-crossers who show up uninvited at their doors.89 So, while the cartels represent the particular challenges of decolonizing the Douglas/Agua Prieta stretch of the border, they also represent the wider colonial processes that border people themselves reinforce. Yet, as Lyons suggests, involvement in the narco-economy can be viewed as an attempt to survive, but it can also be understood as a moment of assent to colonial culture that sets up longer-term possibilities for Indigenous self-determination.

Martínez prefers the lens of self-determination, which assumes, with Salter, that though we are subjects in the “bordered world,” the way to undermine dominant structures is to use whatever tools are available, including the agencies (city governments) and institutions (religion missions) of colonialism.90 The emphasis is not on the statement, but on the outcome for those involved. “We’re working within a cross-culture to try to achieve work that meets the needs and desires of people as far as they identify those desires themselves,” Martínez said.91 This is not to say that as individuals the members of Postcommodity have a unified vision for what the installation represents, which we have seen with their openness to local interpretations of the project, nor that their conceptualizations prohibit us from viewing “Repellent Fence” from within a decolonial frame. After all, decolonization refers not only to space, but also to knowledge and imagination, a view that Chacon tends to embrace.92

The Suture

After nearly a decade conceptualizing and fundraising for “Repellent Fence,” Postcommodity achieved double negation—that is, resisted urges to assume totally the position of either visiting artist or of local—by working within local networks that were to a very large degree outside of their control. They spent two years in Douglas/Agua Prieta working with/in local governments and social networks, which helped them determine a location for the installation, organize the launch, and discuss the project with locals. The members of Postcommodity specifically did not want to compete with locals, but to generate public dialogue and take the time to consider it.93 These networks, moreover, existed before Postcommodity arrived and they will exist after they leave, confirming that, while transit and trade are undeniably the “foremost spatial transactions” on the border, the region isn’t an intermediary no-man’s land.94 People live there not in states of transition, Salter writes, but in states of _de_cision. Even as the state determines who counts as human, border crossers decide how they identify, and the people of Douglas/Agua Prieta identified as one community.95 Though they never disputed the design of the project or its embedded meaning (i.e. Indigenous presence), they did identify their own meaning for “Repellent Fence”: they called it a “suture” between their communities. This is a fascinating amendment to Salter’s idea of the border as suture that makes colonial processes visible. Instead, the people of Douglas/Agua Prieta, with Postcommodity, see the suture as revealing some of the ways in which the nation-state form, as a modern/colonial world-system construct, has failed. The border, in other words, does not impede them from identifying with one another.

Yet my experience during the launch of “Repellent Fence” still suggests very real separations between the communities. Because the installation launched a full day and a half late, I experienced the political materiality of the border when I had to negotiate whether I had enough time and money to cross the border to also witness the launch on the Sonoran side. As a graduate student on a meager stipend and sole provider of a family of four, I finally decided to begin the eight-hour trek home rather than risk the delays and costs (i.e. cabfare) of crossing that had affected other participants.

The different stories coming from Postcommodity’s members on either side of the launch also suggested, if not that the conditions produced in the U.S. are felt most in Mexico, then at least that the border is experienced differently on either side. For instance, I noted that private property runs right up against the fence in Mexico, while the U.S. side feels like a militarized zone, cut through with roads and populated by surveillance technologies. Writing about San Diego and Tijuana, Tito Alegría has said that to describe two communities split by geopolitical borders as one community is to ignore the ways in which the individual communities have been culturally and materially shaped by differential relationships to the border, through colonialism and globalization.96 He writes that we can witness these differences in the disparity in spatial development. Because I wasn’t able to cross over to Agua Prieta, I rely on reporter Adele Oliveira, who writes that the two communities couldn’t be more distinct: In Douglas, the streets form a “tidy grid” and downtown is a line of “faded brick facades.” Agua Prieta is “less streamlined, more chaotic,” with fewer chain stores and more color.97 The two cities might be smaller versions of San Diego and Tijuana, which Alegría writes, are “tied to the markets and economic regulations of its own nation more so than to those of the neighboring country.”98 By considering them a continuous region, we risk exploiting international border relations.99 In other words, both cities bring not only their interests to negotiations, but their nations’ interests as well. This perspective is consistent with border studies scholars, such as Mignolo and Salter, who view borders as sutures or scars between the local/regional and the global/international.

The people of Douglas/Agua Prieta, however, reject that notion as it applies to their everyday lives. As reporter Adele Oliveira recognized, “there’s no real gap between businesses, government buildings, and residences” aside from the border fence between Douglas and Agua Prieta.100 More importantly, the Douglas/Agua Prieta community embraced the installation whereas other communities had rejected it. “Repellent Fence” became, for them, a route for localized movement and a signifier for a border identity “both grounded in a location and an opening or site from which … to know the world.”101 As a suture, it ran perpendicular to Salter’s suture/scar, revealing the existence of trans-American identities, knowledges and exchanges that, on the one hand, mediate international relations but, on the other hand, form the basis of a (third space) community that neither has nor wants international recognition. Even as the border remains incomplete within international fluctuations of power, the people most affected by its indeterminacy engage in their own processes of healing. So, where the cultural gap between O’odham on either side of the border showed Postcommodity that colonialism has left an indelible mark, the Douglas/Agua Prieta suture demonstrates what Lyons calls a “commitment to living in new and perhaps unfamiliar ways, yet without promising to give up one’s people, values, or sense of community.”102

The Scar

From Postcommodity’s perspective, nearly everyone who lives on or around the border (everyone with “brown skin”) has descended from Indigenous people, whether or not they recognize it themselves.103 This isn’t an attempt to tell people how to identify, nor to privilege or idealize hybridity, but rather an acknowledgement of the fracturing effect coloniality has forced on border populations and the ways Indigenous people have survived. Among its members, Twist has been the most vocal on this subject, claiming that being “raised around Indians,” many “think they have a copyright on what it means to be Indian” and he went down to the border thinking that no one there would know their ancestral identities.104 Instead, they tapped into a cultural memory of a time before the border that underscores the trans-American quality of Douglas/Agua Prieta today. In other words, they drew from local knowledge to demonstrate that the border has failed as process that fractures and then flattens then communities. By connecting people through social networks and storytelling, “Repellent Fence” revealed memory as the locus of community identity and social networks as their expression. Postcommodity will be indefinitely going through the documentation of the project, collected by multiple photographers, videographers, and a film crew, as if to archive particular memories into the permanent record of the border (fig. 11). And, without much effort, this material reveals that the border is anything but a no-man’s land: people live there and, in Douglas/Agua Prieta, the border does not determine how they move through the space.

Figure 11. A film crew follows Postcommodity’s Raven Chacon (second from right) on the day of the launch.


Matthew Irwin is a PhD student in American studies at the University of New Mexico. He studies visual culture, critical indigenous studies, and environmental and social justice. His dissertation tracks and responds to discourses on citizenship and belonging along Detroit’s Woodward Avenue that, in Jodi Byrd’s words, “make Indian”—and therefore mark for erasure and dispossession—residents who stand to disrupt the city’s redevelopment regime.

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