Postcommodity Interviewed by Sadia Shirazi
by Sadia Shirazi
Postcommodity is a transdisciplinary art collective that consists of Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist. The three artists live and work in the American Southwest and, in addition to their work together as Postcommodity, have individual art practices as well as careers in fields ranging from music to public policy to education. Chacon, Martínez and Twist generously spoke to me the day before the opening of their solo show Coyotaje at Art in General and then responded to a set of questions by email in between travelling to present their work at documenta14. Over Skype the artists described their individual practices as well as the intentionality that coheres them within the collective. In response to a question about working together, Twist observed: “I think that has been very, very critical with the three of us in particular, we have shared our intentions with each other, in a variety of different forms and mediums and contexts, and all of that is constructed from this conceptual framework that the three of us contribute to, independently and collectively. This is a collaboration not out of being opportunistic. It’s also not a collaboration just for the sake of collaborating because it’s cool to be in a collective. It’s a collaboration that’s very strategic, because it’s mission driven and it’s not coincidental by any means.”
Sadia Shirazi: Why don’t we start with your two most recent projects in New York: your installation at Art in General, Coyotaje (2017), and the piece in the Whitney Biennial, A Very Long Line (2016). Can you tell me a little more about these projects?
Raven Chacon: We’re just finishing up this Art in General project, which kind of brings together the three pieces that we’ve been working on over the past two years. It’s almost – I don’t want to say – a trilogy, a set of three pieces that were made in this region of the USA–Mexico border, dealing with the kind of – at in least the most recent work – the “game” of the border. The back and forth between border patrol and the people who find themselves going across the border. A Very Long Line deals specifically with that wall, that fence, which has gained more references these days but again [it] was a piece we started two years ago. And then The Repellent Fence (2015), which – in a lot of ways – isn’t about the border at all, but it’s about the people that were there, much before the nations were there.
SS: So, is the work you’re doing at Art in General a kind of summation of these three other projects you’ve been working on?
RC: Not necessarily; it’s about the institution of the border patrol and the deception that is used in this back-and- forth situation that the border patrol started. And that people who are coming across have to engage in this kind of… this back and forth. We call it a game, but maybe [it’s] a…
Cristóbal Martínez: A conversation…
RC: Maybe a conversation, or a protocol – a set of protocols for existing. Because the border patrol wouldn’t exist laughs without these smugglers and the migrants coming across, and the migrants wouldn’t be labelled as such or have to navigate this terrain without the border control obstructing them.
CM: One way to think about the work at the Whitney and this new piece at Art in General is [that] they are not summations of Repellent Fence. They are not summations of one another. We are just extending the narratives, the narrative of Repellent Fence. We are complicating that narrative. We are even decentring it. We are just building out complexity. We’re positioning a series of metaphors that help mediate complexity about the very complicated things that are happening down at the USA–Mexico border.
RC: Very important, very important. Well, well stated.
CM: So, this piece that we’re doing at Art in General, called Coyotaje, it’s a piece that is focusing specifically on the tactical manoeuvres – a kind of tactical manoeuvering that USA border patrol is up to in Douglas, Arizona, [and] Agua Prieta, Sonora, [in] the San Pedro River Valley where we installed Repellent Fence. The specific tactical manoeuvres that we are looking at, that we are bringing to the public with this work, is the role that deception plays by many stakeholders in the border. Those stakeholders include border patrol; they include human smugglers – the coyotes – and they also include drug cartels. The mechanism for deception is the use of decoys that all of these stakeholders use in an effort to try and deceive one another. And so, in Coyotaje, we are specifically looking at what border patrol is up to in terms of using decoys. We got to schedule an interview with border patrol agents that took place in Tucson, Arizona, earlier this year, during which time we asked them a series of questions to try to understand: one, if we’re correct in our assumption that they use decoys, which we did learn that they do; and then two, to try to get them to share with us what that looks like, what those decoys are.
We learned a couple of things from them. We learned one, that sound plays a major role in the deceptive tactics that they are up to. So, there are these sonic decoys, and the way in which they use sonic decoys is that, when they capture migrants across the USA–Mexico border, they position those migrants and use them to call out to their compatriots. So, they might hide some migrants in bushes, or in arroyos, and then they have the captured migrants call out to other people immigrating northward as a way to lure people in, as a way to divert people so that they can be captured. Another thing that happens is that border patrol themselves – a lot of the border patrol agents are Mexican-American so they already know this linguistic code – also call out, as if they are migrants themselves, basically urging people to come to a certain part, or to where they are at, and then they capture [the] migrants. And another thing that we’ve seen… we’ve seen the role of mythology in how it plays out, metaphysically, at the border.
One of the really compelling stories we heard during our interview is that border patrol agents use a lot of night-vision technology. These goggles produce those green glowing eyes, or what can be perceived as green glowing eyes. One of the stories is that migrants have seen these green glowing eyes in the desert and have associated that encounter with the mythological creature that is called Chupacabra. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Chupacabra is a folkloric narrative, an Indigenous narrative of a creature that kind of looks like a rabid dog. And it’s a vampiric character that will attack livestock, and so Chupacabra means “goat sucker.” And so what’s happened is that migrants, when they see these green glowing eyes, the knowledge systems they have for rationalizing what these eyes are is through their mythologies. And then, on the other side, border patrol is telling this story as a sort of comedy. And so, it implies the idea that border patrol understands – regardless of the level of intentionality – that Indigenous knowledge and narratives and story can be, in fact, used against the people. And so, this intersection, or encounter, has become really pivotal and a major theme in the work at Art in General.
SS: Can you describe the installation at Art in General?
CM: When you walk into the gallery space, you will encounter a large inflatable sculpture. The sculpture is a Chupacabra that barely fits in the room – it’s cowering in the corner and snarling and it’s wearing these large night-vision goggles. When you encounter the beast, there is a closed-circuit video that is trained on you as an art audience/participant, so you see yourself in night vision superimposed upon the sculpture. As you see yourself implicated in this narrative, you hear voices calling out to you that are situated in a corridor, adjacent to the main gallery, and these voices are luring you and beckoning you to enter into the hallway. And once you enter the hallway, and you experience these calls and whispers, and you go to the end of the hallway, you’ll find a large digital photo print that was taken on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation near where we installed Repellent Fence. What you see in the image is two dogs that are – one of them in a very defensive posture – that are protecting a horse skeleton, a skeleton of a horse that these dogs have been feasting on for some time. The horse becomes a metaphor of reclamation, the horse being symbolic of colonization, an animal that was brought here by the Spanish. And the dogs [are] basically deconstructing this horse.
RC: Picking at its bones.
SS: What is the kind of sonic environment of the show at Art in General? You’re saying in the first room…
CM: They are voices in Spanish. […] The installation is a four-channel audio installation along the length of this corridor. You hear voices in Spanish calling out to you. And the voices sound very urgent, and so you hear little whispers and whistles, and some of the messages are “Hey! Hurry up, come over here. Hide over here, Immigration is coming!” Or “Follow me, hurry! Please follow me. If you don’t follow me, you can die out here!” It’s also calling out to children, because there are a lot of youth migrants, saying things like “I’m here to help you. Follow me, I’ll take you to safety. If you stay out here, Chupacabra will eat you…” Things like that, in Spanish.
Kade L. Twist: It’s a call and response across the corridor, so it’s spatialized enough to get that sense of the surround, across the hallway, lengthwise and widthwise. As a visitor, you’re left thinking where is this coming from? You hear their directionality but you don’t see the body from which these voices are coming, which is how we imagined border patrol hiding immigrants and having them call out. You don’t know where these voices are coming from.
SS: How was it for you to be talking to the Mexican- American border patrol agents? It’s a strange position that they have, and it must be strange to be in conversation with them as well.
RC: It’s easy to demonize border patrol agents and position them as the enemy or whatever. But that’s not at all true. They’re neither friends nor enemies; they are what they are.
The interview proceeds via email from this point.
SS: The sonic feels so important in your work. It returns again and again, from your project People of Good Will (2014–2015), to Do You Remember When? (2009 & 2012) and in your solo show Coyotaje (2017) that we just spoke about. It is almost as if sound is a kind of sculpting force in this space produced by militarized violence, global capitalism, colonialism and racism, in ways that are both predictable and unpredictable and that you interrupt through your works. Would you agree?
Postcommodity: We would agree. Our belief is that sound will affect you before any visual will, even the faintest sound will come to you, and it will not care if you want to engage with it. So immediately, sound and music demands attention. Sound is not concerned with whether a spectator believes its voice is deserving of existence. So, when a people have been silenced or ignored or deemed extinct for so long, their voices will always appear disruptive, and it is within these assumptions where we compose our soundtracks. How they are perceived might not be in our control after they escape the speakers.
SS: After the darkness of the initial space with the Chupacabra in the show Coyotaje, why is the photograph Es más alcanzable de lo que se imaginaban (It is more attain- able than you imagined) the last image you wanted visitors to see?
Postcommodity: These dogs are presiding over a horse carcass which was taken about 400 yards north of the USA–Mexico border. The image shows us the death of a horse, an animal that was used as a tool of colonization, and dogs that are eating the horse carcass, representing the reclamation of land. There is a tension between the dogs in the photo and the Chupacabra, which is a dog-like creature. On the one hand, [the] dogs are situated as a metaphor for Indigenous reclamation, while on the other, a sort of dog is positioned as a colonizing force by border patrol. This tension demonstrates the complexity of the border, where things are never simple and easy to understand. The vexing nature of the border is expressed in Coyotaje as a way to show the public that the popular bipartisan debate that forms the status quo about borders and immigration is oversimplified, and unaccountable to the realities emanating from borderlands. We believe that this complexity is legible by the way the installation makes you feel physically and psychologically.
SS: I noticed a formal movement between three of your works. You move from a line on the ground that sutures [the] communities across it in Repellent Fence, to activating a building with people in Game Remains (2013-ongoing), to refracting a polyvocal sonic landscape as an emergence from a contested ground in Coyotaje. Coyotaje brings attention to this “corridor of sounds” between the two nation-states of the United States and Mexico as a space of inhabitation. What do you think of what I am locating as this formal movement across the three works?
Postcommodity: These works represent our experiences both in anticipating Repellent Fence and extending the narrative of Repellent Fence. The formal movement you are talking about represents the ideas that theory might bring to the table, but for us we are simply using whatever medium is most appropriate for articulating our ideas and the subject matter we are engaging with. In the case of Repellent Fence, we were engaging with a linear border fence; in Coyotaje, we were engaging with sonic decoys used by border patrol; and in Game Remains, music becomes a way for citizens to share diverse stories with one another. Your idea is interesting because it demonstrates that there is an experimental composition between these works and that they intersect with each other conceptually. However, the particular observation you are making is outside of our concerns when we created the work.
SS: I find that the question of noise, as one that emanates from non-human “objects” – the land or antlers, for example – functions as a kind of terrestrial and extra-terrestrial “call” that I cannot help but think is a call back to other forms of non-linear temporality and of non-human life. Can you talk a little bit about “noise” and its relationship to the question of Indigenous futurism in your work? How do you think of temporality and repetition in relation to your experiments with sound and technology?
Postcommodity: I agree with you that the objects we use function as a terrestrial call, but never as an extra-terrestrial call. These objects are our sacred Indigenous re-imagined ceremonial tools. They are technologies that come from our hands to mediate our relationships to land, memory, ceremonial life, people, ancestors and forces of nature, survival and animals. Nothing can be more grounded than what we are up to with our work. Expressions of noise have been a part of Indigenous life since time immemorial. The emergent sounds of Indigenous noise connect with all time – past, present, future all at once. Temporality and repetition remain the same, however access to materials has changed. Although there has been change, we hack, modify, reuse and adapt.
SS: I noticed a very generous interplay between you three when we spoke and it feels as if you have all spent quite some time listening to each other. I also have the feeling that there is a wide net of support that sustains you, multiple communities within which you are situated, and that you draw from for the work you make together. Can you share how you draw from Indigeneity, mestizo cultural practices, your friendship and other forms of sociality as a material for your practices?
Postcommodity: We situate ourselves as a learning community. Our group, Postcommodity, is not a school but instead a collective for co-intentional knowledge creation and recovery. We are not interested in notions of the individual within Postcommodity. We are interested in Indigenous reimagined ceremony as the mechanism for connecting narratives of Indigenous self-determination with publics. The nature of Indigenous self-determination is centered on the group and not the privileging of individuals. As a collective, our internal core values are respect, being accountable to each other and reciprocity. Our goal is to use each work of art to build and strengthen our relationships. Sometimes we are more successful at achieving this aspiration than other times. But by focusing on blessing and dignifying each other, we renounce ideas of individual authorship and competition, and we work to build the collective’s capacity through co-intentionality. It is challenging to be a collective that is like a tribe, but it is also sustaining. Within our work, recognizing our mestizaje is also recognizing each other’s humanity. We are not puritanical, nor do we ascribe to ideas that are pastoral.
SS: I do think it’s important to note that a lot of the work you do is very much sited within – and in conversation with – people or places that are excluded with- in the category of the “public” that many museums, galleries and arts organizations are thinking of and programming for. Did any questions arise in the move from projects that were more directly engaged with catalyzing communities in which they were sited, to white-cube spaces that have very different publics they are speaking to?
Postcommodity: We are not interested in limiting the accessibility of our work to any specific group of people or context. For us, it is easy to move from a site-specific, community-engaged work, to a work within the context of the white cube to engage with largely white publics (another form of community engagement). We are not interested in creating an “us vs. them” dichotomy based on limited definitions of audience and public. We want to engage with all peoples and all stakeholders regardless of where people are situated within society. The white cube is a medium that presents opportunities for aesthetic and discursive expressions just as the USA–Mexico border does. We are fortunate to have the education and experience to understand what these contexts and rhetorical situations afford. We understand that place matters and we always prepare ourselves as much as possible to respond accordingly to all the places we engage with. We try to engage in ways that are contextual, respectful, legible and appropriate.
SS: You have mentioned elsewhere your critique of sustainability discourses that rarely include Indigenous perspectives. I see your work Do You Remember When? in conversation with Michael Heizer’s cut pieces, many which were in Nevada and near to the southwest states that you all have worked and lived in. Land artists – in art history and criticism – continue to be discursively separated from questions of Indigeneity, race and settler colonialism. I’m curious whether this dialogue with those works and artists from the land art tradition and their canonization by museums and academia was in your mind when you were making both iterations of Do You Remember When? at Arizona State University in 2009 and for the Sydney Biennale in 2012.
Postcommodity: Yes, it was in both cases.
SS: This year’s Whitney Biennial has been riven by very public debates and protests around the inclusions of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) that is based on a photograph of Emmett Till, the young boy who was tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955. An unfortunate aspect of this important discussion is that it has overshadowed the contribution of other Black, brown and Indigenous artists in the show. I’d like to ask you about the question of abstraction and its inheritance in your own work. How have you all navigated these conversations around race and/or Indigeneity in relation to questions of representation and abstraction in A Very Long Line (2016) that is in the Whitney Biennial this year?
Postcommodity: We focus on discourses tied to Indigenous self-determination, which is not the same as civil rights. Our orientation to race does not connect to the same traditions of conflict as was played out by Dana Schutz’s work and the protests that her work elicited. However, we agree that it is unfortunate that so much attention overshadowed the larger contributions, and we think it was even more unfortunate that all the parties involved seemed to lack the capacity to rally around a productive dialogue.
SS: Last, but not least, I can’t not mention the temporary removal of Schutz’s painting from the Whitney Biennale recently.1 Don’t worry I’m not going to ask you about your position on the painting, and I’m not interested in this question of censorship and free speech that it catalyzed so much debate around. What I’m interested in, is the uncanny reason for the painting’s removal – it was [temporarily] removed because of a water leak. This leads me to my question – would you venture that this is a kind of reclamation by water? To quote a line from the book Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, has the “water done a good thing”?2 Or, drawing from the title of one of your works, is there blood in the water?3