Interviews

Postcommodity Centers Optimism and Indigenous Philosophies in a New Site-Specific Installation

In their latest site-specific project, the collective probes histories of migration in a pan-American context.

Postcommodity, “With Each Incentive” (2019), rebar, cinderblock, dimensions variable (all images courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago, unless otherwise stated)

The Indigenous artist collective Postcommodity is best known for installations that probe the contentious geographies through which systems of power destabilize communities. Currently comprised  of artists Cristóbal Martinez and Kade L. Twist, Postcommodity has become a prolific voice of colonial critique in the arts community; works such as their notorious 2015 installation “Repellent Fence,” and their installations in exhibitions such as documenta 14 and the 2017 Whitney Biennial have acted as platforms for fostering generative discourse through Indigenous forms of knowledge production.

We recently met with  Martinez and Twist, and had a chance to see the final phases of construction for With Each Incentive, the collective’s latest site-specific installation for the Art Institute of Chicago’s Bluhm Family Terrace. A grid of cinder block columns, with exposed rebar protruding through the top and surrounded by scaffolding, it was hard to tell if construction had just begun or was already complete. The final installation presents a grid of 18 columns of varying heights, peaking at 17’ tall and left purposefully unfinished. 

In placing a structure commonly found throughout the global South in downtown Chicago, Postcommodity’s installation visualizes a future of shifting physical and social structures upon ongoing migrations from Central and South America into the city. Complemented by Postcommodity’s rhetoric and a codex created to accompany the project, the installation reorients temporal and scalar relationships between borders, probing histories of neoliberalism, indigenous self-determination, and migration in a pan-American context.

To learn more about the associative logics employed in this multimodal project, we spoke to the artists about their sources for the form of the installation and their conception of a hemispheric indigeneity. 

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Hyperallergic : The installation is comprised of a grid of 18 cinder block columns with exposed rebar, a form often associated with incremental housing construction in Latin America. How did you arrive at this form? What does it symbolize?

Cristóbal Martinez: We observed this form while spending time in Mexico and we are aware that it exists all over the world. In Latin America, it is often the case that when you build a home, you include additional columns on the structure and leave them with exposed rebar, in anticipation of adding on to the house. This really resonates with us as a collective. We thought that this really simple gesture was  a generative metaphor for thinking about migration … in a way that is more generative than what we often see in the media. What does it mean to me to build a house that expands and that grows? 

Postcommodity, “With Each Incentive” (2019), rebar, cinderblock, dimensions variable (all images courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)

Kade L. Twist: There’s something really beautiful about seeing an embracement of the incomplete, that could be a home, always evolving or becoming something and never quite getting there. We’re looking at indigenous world-views as embodying the unfinished.

CM: We’re creating a work of art that positions a metaphor for expanding the capacity of the city to contain more than just the dominant world-view that defines the Chicago skyline. By modifying the architecture of the Art Institute of Chicago with an immersive installation, we are complicating and de-centering the colonial discourse. We think that positioning the columns as a metaphor for making space for self-determination, for multiple world-views, is a positive thing, especially when considering the Indigenous American backgrounds of those who are migrating. 

KT: At its heart, these columns are operating as this metaphorical concept. They’re becoming a container of the cultural knowledge that we’re trying to acknowledge and recover. As a container, they’re also acting as an articulation of cultural appropriation and hacking. We had adobe in this hemisphere before, but never cinder blocks, never rebar. Indigenous Americans took what was useful to them and made it fit their cultural will, rather than making their cultural will fit the material.

H: You use the expression “Indigenous Americans.” How are you understanding indigeneity in this piece?

CM: We are thinking of people who are part of the continuation of the first peoples on this land, the ongoing knowledge-keepers of the first peoples of the Western Hemisphere. This includes people who have been forced to migrate, whether via military intervention or inequitable binational policies or corporate activities.  The people being forced out of their home with no choice but to search for better economic opportunity. We use “Indigenous American” as a term for building this hemispheric discourse. 

There are these really strange binaries that play out. In the United States, people oftentimes think about tribes chasing buffalo, or following the herds, while on the other side the Meso-Americans were building civilizations and empires. The acts of indigeneity are separated out in accordance with nationalist visions of state construction. But Indigenous people were communicating, sharing knowledge and influencing one another throughout the Western hemisphere. To me, it’s sad that we aren’t always aware that these national appropriations are part of the colonial superstructure, that we can’t see ourselves in each other as Indigenous people because of the social amnesias produced by our borders.

Postcommodity, “With Each Incentive” Codex (side A) (courtesy the artists)
Postcommodity, “With Each Incentive” Codex (side B) (courtesy the artists)

H: Accompanying the installation is a three-fold codex that is going to be published at the Art Institute of Chicago. Inside is a collage of images relating to construction, agriculture, Indigenous calendars, child detention centers, gentrifying neighborhoods in Chicago, as well as dates of US American interventions in Central and South America and lines of poetic text. What binds these references together? 

KT: I don’t think you’ll find any neat, orderly thread that is ideal. The nature of the colonization of our hemisphere has been long-form — now five hundred years — and it’s hit different communities differently. So there are multiple threads. There is a past and present and future intermingling.

One way of seeing the connections in our long-form history is in terms of an industry. We’re builders. We have an image of construction with rebar, which ties back to the installation, but also shows people building. Now take this image of the Great Serpent Mound. The US was covered with pyramids, but they are called mounds. Saint Louis was built on one of the largest ceremonial complexes in the whole hemisphere, but it was destroyed. People plowed them, tried to cover them up, act like they don’t exist.

I think it is important for us to build that memory. This is a form of dismantling a cultural genocide. A very strategic, scientific genocide, where the United States’s best and brightest thinkers of the time theorized how to dismantle Indigenous cultures throughout the hemisphere. 

The US government has interfered in Latin American affairs since Chile gained independence with assistance from the US military. It’s just grown more complicated, with various isolationist doctrines in the hemisphere to keep Europe and the Soviet Union and Communism out, so that the US could have the pick of the litter in terms of exploiting natural resources.

All of those processes are incorporated because this immigration would not exist were it not for very strategic socially, scientifically, and economically constructed interventions to rationalize a market-based economy. The manufacturing and rationalization of neoliberalism in the hemisphere has driven the migration. One failure after another has rendered one more community unsustainable, unlivable.  

There is something about the price one pays for committing these acts of genocide, whether structuring Chile as a laboratory for exploring neoliberalism or covering up mounds. That’s why this codex was developed, to try to put together a body of visual knowledge that could start thinking about this in a systematic approach.

Postcommodity, “With Each Incentive” (2019), rebar, cinderblock, dimensions variable

H: The Bluhm Family terrace is the only exhibition space in the museum that is entirely accessible without a ticket. In fact, the public often comes up to the open terrace for the view of downtown and Millenium Park. “With Each Incentive” will be positioned against the skyline of Chicago. How does the installation situate itself in this visual field?

KT: The fact that the structure mimics the skyline just added another layer. I don’t think we set out to mimic the skyline. We really wanted to wrestle with the ideas of complete and incomplete, permanence and ephemerality, because those are areas of gradation from Indian and Mestizo that weave in and out of each other. Now we’re starting to really see the relationship with the skyline and get a real experiential relationship with those visual cues. 

CM: When you juxtapose an architectural world-view with the world-view of very careful and strategic urban planning, it creates a tension that is strongly representative of the kind of dissonance that U.S. citizens are going through as a divided country. That dissonance is going to elicit a lot of different emotional, political and ideological responses. 

At the same time, as a composition, there is a sense of unity and potential. The columns and skyscrapers are both tall elongated structures. They represent distinct world-views, but they draw a continuum, and in our work we do not codify them from one another. That is the relationship between the form of the piece and the skyline. It is the spaces in between that draw them together.

H: We are attracted to your use of associations across forms and periods of migration and construction, in the codex and in defining the Indigenous American continuity. You also describe the installation as a form of metaphorical communication. One way to understand a metaphor is as a vessel to communicate relations that cannot be easily described with discursive language, so that the metaphor can get around the limitations of conventional logic and causality.  Can you speak to the use of metaphor in the installation?

KT: – There’s something we’ve learned about metaphor.  Part of positioning a metaphor is rendering it in a way that is irrational but legible, and finding that balance where you have the irrational, but the conceptual framework is still somehow legible, and the ideas could somehow be teased out without a lot of extra didactic effort. And that’s something that we’re getting better at, as Postcommodity, and I think this is a strong piece in terms of our growth in that regard. 

CM:   It’s more generative to use aesthetics to position metaphors than to oversimplify complex or irrational ideas. We often state our position on metaphors as exploring irrational ideas that destabilize communities, but just as importantly, we are creating an Indigenous ceremonial ground for public discourse, as opposed to codifying a didactic discourse that names “truth” in the world.  

Thinking about how metaphor exists as material in the piece, many kinds emerge.  The installation is a container and conduit for the complex ideas and relationships that we, and our audiences, bring to the work.  An Indigenous example of metaphor and world-view is that the pragmatism associated [with] growth and kinship, is a metaphor for the cultural growth of Chicago.

Other metaphors are orientational, such looking up at something that is rising, or positioning your body to see the future in front of you. The columns reach to the sky, tying the installation to the great traditions of Indigenous peoples looking to the skies to build civilizations oriented to the stars.  

Since we cannot disaggregate ourselves from systems of capital, it is safe to say that they are always in complex association to neoliberalism.  At the same time, metaphors can also account for world-views that deviate from dominant systems, and our human capacity to dream and use our imaginations. Being able to mediate between these disparate world-views through metaphor, that is the power of Postcommodity’s work. 

Postcommodity, “With Each Incentive” (2019), rebar, cinderblock, dimensions variable

H: Most of the references we’ve discussed involve deep systemic oppression, but you take a strong position of optimism in the transformation of the city and the symbolic function of this work. Where is this optimism coming from?

CM: I see a lot of art by Indigenous people that is not optimistic. This land has laid witness to centuries of cultural disruption and genocide, but people have managed to survive and to emerge. That’s a foundational idea that we can all build upon. So we have always tended to be generative, and look at emergence as a feature of change and transformation. We think that ties to thought leadership — the kind of thought leadership that is required in order to address injustices. 

In the rebar columns you see the pragmatism of the Indigenous world-view, a pragmatic spirit of the people to adapt to adversity and change. There may be systems of shame that are at play to subjugate, but you can easily flip it, to say that surviving isn’t a mechanism for reducing people’s dignity, but that it is the source of our dignity to survive. 

KT: I would add that every brown person who enters into the US provides one more chance to expand that dignity, and to build upon the capacity of dignity that exists here. And at each step that comes across that border into this country, the people making those steps are contributing to the reclamation of this hemisphere.

Postcommodity: With Each Incentive continues through April 26, 2020 at the Art Institute of Chicago. The site-specific installation was organized by Lekha Hileman Waitoller. 

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