Postcommodity Coyotajeby Jared Quinton
Art in General | March 25 – June 3, 2017
In part of Postcommodity’s takeover of Art in General’s new Dumbo space, a single photograph hangs at the end of a long gallery, spotlit and seemingly suspended in darkness. In the image, shot from a moving car on the U.S. side of the U.S. – Mexico border, two dogs preside over the bones of a dead horse. One stands protectively, meeting the camera’s gaze, while the other looks away uninterested, dwarfed by the skull nearby. The chainlink fence and scorched brown grass locate viewers in the hardscrabble borderlands of the American Southwest, at the same time calling to mind contested landscapes around the globe. The photograph is titled Es más alcanzable de lo que se imaginaban (2017)—“it is more reachable that you imagined.”
Moving between installation, video, performance, sound, and hybrid land art/social practice, Postcommodity is known for crafting aesthetically and conceptually dense works about the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, a region where powerful political and economic forces come to bear on individual people and landscapes. Founded in 2007, the collective consists of indigenous artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist, who explicitly center indigenous narratives, politics, and forms of expression in every project. Rather than the catharsis sought by much popular art that deals with the U.S.-Mexico border—think, perhaps, of the entry to Pedro Reyes’s spectacle Doomocracy in which visitors experienced a simulated ICE raid against their van—Postcommodity embraces the affective modes of alienation and irresolution, offering a compelling suggestion of what art can be and do in this age of xenophobia and the anti-immigrant tactics that fuel it.
The rest of the Art in General exhibition is given over to an installation called Coyotaje (2017), a reference to the practice of smuggling undocumented Mexican and Central American people across the border into the United States. In researching for the work, the artists spoke with border patrol agents about the decoy tactics they use to ensnare would-be immigrants as they make their way through the forbidding desert, usually in the dead of night. These decoys often take the form of audio recordings, of which the artists have made their own versions, whose earnest warnings in colloquial Spanish belie their sinister purpose. From two overhead speakers in the darkened gallery, urgent voices whisper phrases like “ten cuidado,” “puedes morir aquí,” “escuche, ven conmigo,” or “mira, la policía”—each one offering a fleeting promise of companionship or relief. The effect produced is one of profound spatial, auditory, and emotional disorientation. It suggests the level of eerie, technical precision that is used in the fight for control of bodies and their movement through the contested region—control maintained by preying on the emotional vulnerabilities of the already weakened and vulnerable.
The other component of Coyotaje is a large, inflatable sculpture of a chupacabra, a creature in Latin American folklore named for its alleged proclivity for sucking (“chupar”) the blood of goats (“cabras”). Illuminated by a sickening green light, the spiky, heaving sculpture becomes a screen for closed-circuit surveillance footage of gallery visitors as they walk through the space. The artists note that many border agents are mistaken for chupacabras on account of their night-vision goggles.
Postcommodity produces these effects of oppressiveness with masterful precision. The conceptual rigor and density of their subject matter is echoed in the density of their manipulation of space, sound, and image. Also on view right now, at the seventy-eighth Whitney Biennial, is their four-channel video installation A Very Long Line (2016), which surrounds viewers with a disorienting vision of the border fence. Shot from a moving vehicle, the scenes mix gorgeous slow pans of the desert landscape with abrasive, dizzying jolts across train tracks, highways, and ugly housing developments. Everything is viewed through the fence. The distorted and dissonant soundtrack creates a Doppler effect that heightens the intensity of the radical shifts in pace and perspective. The installation conjures the many forms of violence done to indigenous land and people by the border and its enforcement, figuring the fence as “a very long filter of bodies and goods,” as they describe: “a mediator of imperialism, violence, market systems, and violent capitalism.”
Others may know Postcommodity for their 2015 project Valla Repelente (Repellent Fence), a line of weather balloons that formed a temporary two-mile-long “stitch” connecting Douglas, Arizona with Agua Prieta, Sonora. (A documentary about the work premiered at MoMA in February.) Created in collaboration with local organizations and town officials on both sides of the border, the work offers a glimpse at the artists’ ethos: perhaps not quite optimism, but something closer to that than is immediately apparent in projects like the two on view in New York. Postcommodity’s embrace of alienation and refusal of catharsis is a testament to their respect for their subject matter, a region that means many things in many collective imaginations and yet is also the site of real, lived experiences of psychic and physical trauma. At the core of these obstinate installations is a suggestion that art about charged politics can be useful as a proposition. The irresolution of the aesthetic experiences they create is inseparable from the irresolution of the crisis they instantiate in the gallery space. But they refuse us any answers beyond the symbolic.