Photo above: Cristóbal Martínez secures a balloon during preparation for the installation of Repellent Fence in Agua Prieta, October 2015
Repellent Fence and the Sovereignty of the Context
An Interview with Cristóbal Martínez by Marjetica Potrč, Barbara Niklas, and William Schwartz
The interview with Cristóbal Martínez, member of Postcommodity, an indigenous artist collective, took place at the Combine Studios in Phoenix on November 9, 2015. A month before, Design for the Living World class has been involved in the installation of The Repellent Fence, a Postcommodity’s land art project in Douglas and Agua Prieta on the US/Mexican border.
Marjetica Potrč: Let’s talk about land and Repellent Fence. It was amazing to be on board the installation; we learned a lot from the process and from working with you guys. I think it’s beautiful how Repellent Fence reframes the question: it’s not about the border, it’s about the people.
Cristóbal Martínez: At the most basic level, the location of Repellent Fence provided a context that inspired the work. We know that the US–Mexico border is one of the most contested and militarized geographies in the Western Hemisphere. For us, thinking about how military and surveillance infrastructures are constructed upon the homelands of indigenous peoples, interestingly provides an opportunity to connect narratives of indigenous self-determination with broader publics. To seize this opportunity we decided to think of a project that would situate us within that very context of contested space, and allow us to use a work of art to draw out all of the complexity associated with a militarized geography. One of the most obvious strategies for achieving this goal was to create a work of art that crossed the US–Mexico border. And so to get to your question, our desire to intersect the border with Repellent Fence provided us with several design challenges that led to a long and complicated network of tasks and dialogues that needed to be accomplished. Although the border is loaded with very difficult social, political, cultural, and economic challenges, we had a sense that if we could achieve momentum in the process of having dialogues, then all these issues of history, politics, relationships, and economics would begin to percolate to the surface. As our conversations progressed in Douglas and Agua Prieta, some powerful opportunities for learning emerged.
Repellent Fence is a land artwork – that’s due to its scale and the idea that it is situated in an environment that is both rural and urban at the same time. History shows us that land art is often about a narrative of the individual – the individual being out in a natural environment and having an internal psycho-spiritual reflection on their relationship with that natural environment. These experiences are often mediated by human interventions that impose more permanent transformations upon the land. Our project is unique because it does not privilege the narrative of the individual; it’s about looking at the ways that the land mediates relationships across diversity and across large groups of people. And so that is the understanding that we bring to this idea of land art: that land art is, for us, about an opportunity to reflect on the way that place mediates relationships – both in the built environment and in the natural environment. In the case of Repellent Fence, the physical presence of the work was ephemeral, unlike the permanence implied by an iron fence or jetty.
MP: For me, Repellent Fence brings together knowledge, territory, and politics. In the discussion about border issues that we organized at the Galiano Cafe, we learned that the Douglas community had complained about the border wall to the government; they wrote reports, but nothing happened. Do you think that Repellent Fence can do what complaints cannot do? Does the symbolic language it speaks show the impossibility of the wall better than written words?
CM: Yes, city administrators also articulated to us that the border wall is a result of the government not listening to the needs of the people, so there’s a symbolic function to the actual fence itself. The social practice part of constructing the fence is actually something that moves beyond the symbolic and catalyses community organization for bi-national collaboration, dialogues, and diplomacy – and that’s a capacity that led to trans-border relationship-building. These relationships are what remain left behind after Repellent Fence. So it’s about relationships operationalizing the power of symbols. Really, this is very important: it’s the power of symbols to mobilize public world-making and to reawaken indigenous public memory, to repatriate culture, and to repatriate iconography, but then also, through the process of repatriation, to build new relationships in a place where the potential of relationships has been subjugated by the border wall itself. So I believe it’s really important to be able to think about the complexity of symbology in relationship to the positioning of it in the land, and all the processes that took place for several years, in order for that event to manifest into physical form.
MP: So the land that the wall divides is an indigenous territory, a territory of migration?
CM: Prior to colonization there were territories, and various groups defended territories. But the idea of trying to militarize a hard-line border – this was a concept that was imported to the Western Hemisphere and one that remains a discursive issue in indigenous studies. The issue of fenced borders is articulated by tribes and within, for example, American Indian studies. So the idea of checkerboarding lands using right angles and fences or lines is something that is not conceptually or culturally responsive to traditional indigenous ways of being in the Western Hemisphere.
MP: We inhabit a particular moment in time, the time after the collapse of the banks, when we are aware of climate change and understand that knowledge needs to be restructured. Instead of sheltering knowledge in institutions, we recognize that it needs to be shared. We are inspired by how indigenous people understand the land – as stewardship and communal ownership of the land, not private ownership for the benefit of a few.
CM: I think indigenous peoples have a long heritage of learning while doing, that thousands and thousands of years of cumulative knowledge are directly related to the biomes that peoples inhabit. This valuable emergent knowledge has been labelled and subjugated under the rubric of primitivism for over five hundred years of colonization. I think that for this knowledge to be able to propagate in a way that is helpful for humanity as a whole, we will need to see political changes that we have not seen in five hundred years of colonization. There will have to be new relationship building; the power structures will have to be reorganized; there will have to be some real efforts to reimagine and remember and acknowledge – both symbolically and in policy – the first peoples of these lands. That’s one of the things I think we do in our group: we continue to try to connect narratives of indigenous self-determination with broader publics, so that these publics understand that moving forward can’t happen through more taking. There has to be reciprocity. And I think that reciprocity is largely in the hands of the dominant culture. I think that indigenous peoples oftentimes have been very generous and very trusting. I believe that’s still a part of the cultures, and I think that’s still possible, but not without the social and political acknowledgement of who was on these lands first.
MP: In our class we talk a lot about the commons and how it can actually work in contemporary society, which in many ways is organized top down. Repellent Fence put pressure on governmental institutions to change the top-down way of thinking and doing. While organizing the project, you must have met people on the side of the decision making who were enlightened, who were trying to come together with the part of society that thinks from the bottom up.
CM: In my experience, the kind of innovations that people are talking about in the world, along with the academy’s ability to catalyse innovation, is largely based on a capacity to allow these things to emerge from the bottom up. I think that’s very difficult for the academy to do. When we were in Douglas and Agua Prieta we realized, particularly in Mexico, that a lot of the organizing does happen from the bottom up. In Mexico we saw a lot of citizen participation. In Douglas and Agua Prieta, the city administrations were very open to action coming from the bottom up and actually provided a lot of assistance to the citizens, so that citizens had the capacities they needed to be productive. So actually, we didn’t come across a lot of political resistance or anyone really trying to pull power. It seemed like there was a commons there, that there was a multi-nodal dialogue. There wasn’t any reification of power other than what we had to deal with at the federal level, which was manifested by organizations like border patrol. Mainly border patrol. In our interactions with border patrol a lot of decisions had to be made around compromises so that they could feel like it was possible to accomplish their daily mission, that is, to keep contraband and bodies from moving across the border from Mexico into the United States. So because they had that particular federal mandate, and could not be wavering in that mandate, there were a lot of discussions that had to take place in order to find a site for the piece that worked for us.
MP: At the symposium in Douglas, Roberto Bedoya was talking about renaming social practice as context practice or context projects. Do you agree with him?
CM: I totally agree with him. I think that Postcommodity’s critique is that in art social practice operates like really bad non-profit organizations. It situates itself as interventionist, which to us is militaristic; it seems paramilitary in its nature, and as a metaphor, it’s like paratroopers showing up, landing in a particular location, exerting a set of assumptions within a very short period of time and instituting certain types of transformations that people then have to live with after the paratroopers leave. And so it gives no credence to the sovereignty of context, the idea that there is a place that is a container for narratives, histories, and knowledges, and that in order for social practitioners to really be able to produce outcomes that reflect the self-determination of the people, there has to be a strong respect for the sovereignty of context. So that means that social practice shouldn’t happen within a week’s budget, or a two week’s budget, but that it should happen maybe over the course of two to three years. Through Repellent Fence, social practice is really about accountability, it’s really about responsibility, and it’s really about co-intentionality, and that the communities are structured as learning communities. To achieve these objectives, we in Postcommodity positioned ourselves as catalysts in order to pave or leverage resources that help produce outcomes that reflect the self-determination of the peoples who live within that context. I think that’s what Roberto Bedoya was critiquing, and we very much agree with his critique – fully, one hundred per cent – because for us as indigenous peoples, we have a five-hundred-year-old history of being told what is good for us, and that has led to nothing but disastrous and destructive outcomes – even in cases when folks had good intentions.
Barbara Niklas: In Douglas you also commented that place-making is always linked to colonization. Can you say something about that?
CM: It’s not always linked to colonization, but the kind of place-making that, for example, the US Department of the Interior engages in is a narrative of Manifest Destiny, pioneering, idealic nature, inspiring a discourse of taming the land, settling the land, using the land, and profiting from the land, and that discourse is a Western Judeo-Christian scientific moral discourse that is built around a Jeremiad that this was a new world, a new promised land for Christian settlers who were avoiding persecution in Europe for their beliefs. But subjugation is a cycle: folks who are oftentimes subjugated want to move beyond oppression in order to do it to somebody else. And so there is a lot of place-making that has existed for thousands of years prior to the US Department of the Interior, like place names, stories associated to place – indigenous power and place are largely disregarded and erased when colonizing forces do not respect the sovereignty of context. This often happens when colonizers try to redefine the places that they take, and if you think about it, in doing so they often try to recreate the very things that they miss most. That’s why you have a New England, that’s why you have a Georgia, that’s why you have a Boston – these places in America have been renamed and reimagined in an attempt to remember, to control representation, and to control a sense of place. These colonial rhetorics do not acknowledge the sovereignty of context, meaning what is already there, what was there first, and what is already well established.
William Schwartz: What is religion’s role in the indigenous struggle today?
CM: I can’t speak on behalf of indigenous people, but I can speak a little bit about some of what has been written in American Indian studies, and some of the discourse suggests that spiritual beliefs cannot be separated from the operations of daily life, so governance or farming or making or doing all gets tied in to spiritual beliefs and protocols. These concepts are difficult to communicate to a society with a constitution that separates church from state. And at the same time, part of the colonization was churches fighting amongst themselves – Protestant churches fighting amongst themselves, and Protestants fighting Catholics – trying to figure out who was going to get the rights to indoctrinate certain groups of people. In the borderlands some of that mission work has taken place, but still not without the self-determination of indigenous peoples, who just appropriated those forms of believing and created syncretic movements for life. In many cases this syncretism represents a way that indigenous peoples continue to organize, mobilize, learn and adapt.
MP: Do you think that Repellent Fence can also be understood as ceremony?
CM: Yes. Not in the traditional sense, but as reimagined ceremony. And our hypothesis going into the Repellent Fence was that the more people saw themselves a part of the ceremony, the stronger the opportunity to build political, economic, spiritual, and psychological capacities to reify the notion of a singular city divided by a border wall, as opposed to two different cities on each side of the wall.
MP: Let me ask about one more thing I heard in Douglas. I believe you were talking about future projects being focused on the land as agrarian land?
CM: All of our projects are in one way or another connected with ideas about the land. Every project that we do is concerned with the sovereignty of context, and a lot of times building public memory includes, to various capacities, working with communities, and that’s oftentimes just a reawakening of public memory that already exists. And so I think farming practices influence what we’re thinking about when we do our work because we all come from agrarian communities. Both Raven and I come from Northern New Mexico; our ancestors since time immemorial were farmers; my grandparents were farmers and used their traditional indigenous knowledge systems – or should I say that when my grandparents farmed, indigenous farming knowledge systems circulated within the space in which they produced food. And Kade grew up in Bakersfield, where farming was industrialized but the farmers themselves, the workers, were indigenous people who, unfortunately, were being exploited for labour. But nonetheless, we’ve always been around our peoples, indigenous peoples, who are farmers. And so we oftentimes think about that, because farming requires a particular kind of reciprocity amongst people, it requires accountability in relationships, and it requires responsibility. These things have been outlined by the indigenous scholar Bryan Brayboy, who talks about these four R’s. These core values are encoded by the practices of farming where we’re from. We carry these values with us and we try to encode them through our own work. Farming, cultivating a practice of art that encodes the same values – it’s just us being the way that we were raised by our families.
Phoenix, November 9, 2015