February 7, 2018

Focus on the Collection: “Repellent Fence”

Swaying slowly in the wind, a line of bright yellow balloons extends in a diagonal line over the desert scrub. The concentric circles emblazoned on four sides of the inflatable surface resemble staring eyes, encouraging sustained eye contact with these objects that seem both alive and inanimate. The repeated patterns on the floating spheres contribute to the mesmerizing effect created by their gentle movement.   

This photograph, taken in 2015, captures the temporary Repellent Fence monument created by the Postcommodity collective. This group of three artists—Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist—uses metaphors to challenge the global market and its attendant dependence on colonization and violence. The Repellent Fence installation was part of a larger collaborative project meant to encourage productive dialogues among the parties invested in the U.S. – Mexico borderlands. Postcommodity intended for these conversations—which included American, Mexican, and Indigenous individuals and government groups—to enrich discussion about the border, which is typically simplified and politicized. Ultimately, the Repellent Fence project aimed to improve the borderlands environment for all of its communities.

Repellent Fence visually represents the idea of reconnecting the peoples who have been impacted by disputes between nations. It consists of twenty-six balloons that are each ten feet in diameter. The line of floating yellow spheres extends for two miles between Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Sonora, traversing the U.S. – Mexico border and forming a link between the Americas. The design on each balloon—circles of white, black, blue, and red radiating out from a central black point—is based on the “scare eye” pattern found on commercial products used to repel birds. The circles are meant to resemble owl eyes, and the movement caused by the wind is supposed to deter crows, pigeons, gulls, and other birds. Postcommodity’s reference to these balloons, which are widely considered to be ineffective, provides a critique of the border wall’s inability to cleanly divide the communities of the borderlands.

The colors on the bird-repellent balloons appropriate the colors and iconography of Indigenous communities in the Western Hemisphere. Medicine wheels often use yellow, red, black (or blue), and white to represent the four directions, seasons, elements, and stages of life. Oblong concentric circles constitute the “open eye” symbol used by numerous Native American nations in the Americas. Further, the balloons’ movement in the wind creates a serpentine effect, which connotes Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent deity in many Mesoamerican cultures. In the Aztec Empire, Quetzalcoatl both makes and transgresses the borders between the earth and the sky. The balloons in Repellent Fence thus make several references to indigeneity, and they represent one of Postcommodity’s goals: to draw attention to Indigenous communities, such as the Tohono O’odham, whose ancestral lands were arbitrarily divided by the U.S. – Mexico border. These lands are often the site of militarized conflicts between nation-states, waged without regard for Indigenous sovereignty.   

Postcommodity’s work on Repellent Fence was truly collaborative, engaging people in a variety of roles in both Douglas and Agua Prieta. The participation of individuals and groups in these cities contributed to the final form of the installation, which took eight years to develop. As the artists said, “What had originally been conceived as a monument to futility has evolved into something much more substantial and meaningful: a bi-national suture, stitching the land and its communities back together for a moment in time.” Rather than simply pointing out the flaws of the border wall, Repellent Fence sparked productive conversations that will extend into the future.

– Nikki Otten, 2017-18 E. Gerald and Lisa O’Brien Curatorial Fellow


Image credit: Postcommodity, Repellent Fence, 2015, photograph. Gift of Russell Cowles.