DOUGLAS, Ariz. — I’m sitting in the back of a flatbed pickup truck, rattling slowly along a curving dirt road on the edge of Arizona as it winds its way towards Mexico. We’re driving parallel to the fence that separates the US and Mexico, close to the border towns of Douglas and Agua Prieta. The fence is huge and, in the bright midday sun, looks like rusted iron. It extends across the Sonoran desert as far as the eye can see, though it doesn’t run the entire length of the border. A large helium-filled yellow balloon, with the pliable, plasticky skin of a beach ball, bump-bumps softly against my forehead. Four huge, eye-like images are printed around the balloon: a red outline encircles a thinner band of blue, around a black dot in a white-circle center, not unlike a pupil. The balloon is secured to a cinderblock by several strands of thin white rope. Three men wearing gloves clutch the rope close to their chests.
I’m in one of two pickups, each transporting a balloon. When we get to the balloons’ anchor sites, preset spots along the border fence, everybody hops out of the trucks and carefully picks their way over the rocky ground, scattered with thorny acacias bushes and cacti that catch on pant legs. The balloons are tied to their anchors, about 30 feet from the road, and then their bearers let go. It’s windy, but as the balloons float towards the sky, they stay tethered to the ground, the ropes taut. Everyone cheers. These balloons join two already anchored on the Arizona side, and one on the Mexico side. By the end of the day, 26 balloons (13 on each side of the border) will hover 50 feet above the ground in a precise, two-mile-long line, bisecting the fence.
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The installation — which was up for four days last weekend, culminating on October 12, Columbus/Indigenous Peoples’ Day — is called “Repellent Fence.” It’s the latest project of the artist collective Postcommodity, which, in its current incarnation, includes Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade Twist, all indigenous artists who live and work in Arizona and New Mexico. The group has long worked on site-specific installation pieces, many of which center on the scare-eye balloons that comprise “Repellent Fence.” Since its founding in 2007, Postcommodity has explored what it means to raise a scare-eye balloon high in the sky, and how that meaning changes depending on where they are in the world.
For the uninitiated, scare-eye balloons are sold as a practical product: they’re meant to scare birds away from orchards, gardens, and gazebos, though reports on their efficacy vary. (You can pick up a small one at Home Depot for less than $10.) The balloons are usually yellow and have large, eye-like circles in red, blue, white, or black printed around their circumference. The idea is that confused birds will see the balloon, think it’s some sort of predator, become confused and/or scared, and fly away. For Postcommodity, the balloons have the additional resonance of featuring traditional indigenous colors and iconography. According to Twist, the eye-like symbol is used in Native art throughout the Americas.
The first time Postcommodity used scare-eye balloons was in 2007, at the 4+4 Days in Motion Festival in the Czech Republic. “In the beginning, we were thinking a lot about what borders, cultural migrations, and cultural chauvinism meant in Europe,” Twist told me in mid-September. “While in the Czech Republic, we were introduced to a lot of artists from the Czech underground who were imprisoned for making art and music and literature during the ’70s and ’80s. They were really excited about Americans that were interested in walls coming down around Europe.” Upon returning to the US in 2008, Postcommodity flew a scare-eye balloon over the Phoenix jail of Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. (Among other things, Arpaio has been cited in federal court for racial profiling and continues to lead the “Obama’s-birth-certificate-is-forged” crusade.)
These projects led Postcommodity to the idea of creating a bigger installation — what would eventually become “Repellent Fence.” “We had a lot of practice seeing what it was like to lift just one of these balloons,” Chacon said during the same September interview. (Martínez also participated from Arizona via speakerphone.) “Our idea was to make this fence a guerilla action. Naively, we thought we could just go down there and raise this fence and have that action, and the surprise element of it, be as much a part of the piece as the fence itself. As we figured out the logistics, that in turn affected the concept. It had us focus more on what this fence actually meant, where it was going to be, and how it was going to be positioned not just geographically, but within a community.”
Initially, Postcommodity considered the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation as a possible site for “Repellent Fence.” (Members of the tribe live on both sides of the border.) The reservation turned out not to be ideal for several reasons, most important, the frequent drug-smuggling and cartel-related activities that occur in the area, which means an even heavier-than-usual Border Patrol presence. “The last thing [the tribe] wanted was this kind of statement on their lands, which is understandable,” Twist said. “You walk out into the desert on that reservation and feel like you’re alone, but you’re not. You’re probably being surveilled by not just the US government but likely the cartel as well.”
After ruling out the reservation, it became clear that organized, enthusiastic community participation in both the US and Mexico would be necessary for the project succeed, simply from a logistical perspective: in order to raise 26 balloons, they’d need not just official governmental permission (land use permits, etc.) but willing collaborators and volunteers, both civic and artistic. In the end, in conjunction with the installation itself, Postcommodity collaborated with local artists and community organizers to host a series of lectures over the weekend and a guided binational art walk on Saturday, October 10.
“The scale of the piece is proportionate to the scale of financial diplomacy and intense conversations and negotiations with multiple community stakeholders on both sides of the border,” Martínez said. “The process of securing things like land use permissions is rooted in a preexisting binational framework that exists between Douglas and Agua Prieta in the form of a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, that was written as an agreement to work collaboratively. The MOU is residual impression of a time when there was no border fence, and the community existed as a singular city.”
Douglas and Agua Prieta still bleed into one another: a Denny’s, Taco Bell/KFC combo, and auto-body shops on the US side of the border give way to Centro de Recursos Para Migrantes (a resource center providing food, clothing, and other essentials for the just-deported), paleta (popsicle) trucks, a bar, and an unusually high concentration of barbershops (three on one block) once you’ve crossed into Mexico. While there’s no real gap between businesses, government buildings, and residences (aside from the aforementioned huge fence), the characters of the towns are distinct. Douglas feels like the old West, with faded brick facades a downtown main street anchored by a once-grand hotel and a cool espresso/smoothie place called Galiano’s, and streets that form a tidy grid. Agua Prieta is less streamlined, more chaotic. It has fewer chain stores and is more colorful, in the literal sense (Disney characters painted on the sides of buildings) and the metaphoric: on the day I visited, I came across not one but two groups of singers (unrelated to the art walk) performing, seemingly impromptu, in the middle of the street.
Postcommodity settled on Douglas/Agua Prieta in part because both municipalities are home to fledgling communities of artists, like Jenea Sanchez (a former classmate of Twist’s at Arizona State) and her husband, Roberto Uribe; in addition to being Douglas-based activists and artists, the pair own Galiano’s. The Douglas section of the art walk was self-guided, while my guides for the Mexican portion were two bright 17-year-olds, Ariana and Anthony. (I lucked out by being the only participant on their tour and getting lots of attention and information.) The intent of the art walk was explicit: in addition to showcasing the work of local artists, “I crossed the line for art” was the slogan of the day, emblazoned on brochures and T-shirts. Ariana and Anthony were eager to dispel any fears or preconceived notions I might have about crossing by foot into Mexico. When I asked Ariana what was difficult about living in a border town, she thought for a minute and said, “My cousins who live in other parts of Mexico don’t know what Halloween is.”
While it’s not as busy as Juárez or Nogales, the Douglas/Agua Prieta port of entry sees thousands of crossings each day. Crossing into Mexico is straightforward, or it was for me, a white American female carrying a backpack and wearing big sunglasses, accompanied by two Mexican guides. I walked straight in, past a German Shepherd in a cage, a border agent with a big gun, and through a metal turnstile, like the kind you’d use to exit the subway or the zoo. Coming back several hours later, just as darkness had fallen, a US border agent let me in after a few stern questions, but didn’t bother to look in my bag.
Despite careful planning, the art walk was occasionally haphazard, and had a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants vibe, not unlike the installation of “Repellent Fence.” The integration of the weekend’s events was at once highly intentional and inevitably disconnected: walkie-talkie communications between the two balloon installation teams on either side of the border faltered, but the balloons went up anyway. As a first-time occurrence, with an eye towards becoming an annual event, the art walk had kinks, mostly involving the dissemination of accurate information, like meeting points and pick-up times. The installation of “Repellent Fence” was delayed 24 hours due to high winds, and orchestrating the launch of all 26 balloons was a massive effort. And despite their obvious thematic connections, “Repellent Fence” itself was several miles away from the art walks in Douglas and Agua Prieta — accessible by foot in theory, but only if you had substantial water reserves and no problem with risking sunstroke. Even for those in the know, the precise location of “Repellent Fence,” and how to see it, were not always readily apparent.
But what permeated both pieces of the project was a sense of flinty resilience, an ethos of not just DIY but community-sourced self-determination. Residents of both Douglas and Agua Prieta were eager to present an additional narrative to the dominant stories of cartel violence and undocumented immigrant deportations.While those are facts of life on the border, they exist alongside girlfriends crossing into Mexico to hang out with their boyfriends on Saturday nights, mothers and fathers going to work in the US during the day and returning home to Agua Prieta in the evening. The art displayed during the art walk varied in quality, but it was almost beside the point: there were paintings in the street, and there were people on both sides of the border who came out to see them.
“Everything, every issue in the entire hemisphere, is magnified and intensified in the borderlands,” Twist observed. “There’s a human rights crisis facing indigenous people throughout the hemisphere, and what we call the ‘immigration crisis’ at the border is part of that. In the southwest, it’s hard to throw a rock and not hit someone who’s got Indian blood in them, but it’s also hard to throw a rock and find someone who will acknowledge that. That’s part of the idea, to get people to acknowledge the indigeneity of this place.”
To that end, all three members of Postcommodity described “Repellent Fence” as a kind of suture, a virtual stitching across the border, transcending the US-erected fence. If you’re travelling near Douglas and Agua Prieta, that fence is impossible to miss, so solid that it looks like part of the landscape. But if you knew where to look, the view of “Repellent Fence” was more commanding still. Even if the balloons themselves appeared benign, swaying in the wind, their presence was quietly insistent, and it was hard to look away. The fence was momentary, yet it had the impression of a beginning.
“Repellent Fence” and its related events took place near the Douglas (Arizona, US)–Agua Prieta (Mexico) border on October 9–12.