Aesthetic Portals: A Postcommodity Primer
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Aesthetic Portals: A Postcommodity Primer

Postcommodity: Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist

“Aesthetic portals” are central to the work of Postcommodity, the indigenous arts collective of Raven Chacon, Crístobal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist—doorways that open between walled national borders, that puncture this moment to reveal our continent’s precolonial history and traditions, that transport viewers into a probable future of environmental destruction, that cleanse visitors in sound, or that connect physical and spiritual planes.

In the coming month, the interdisciplinary collective’s “indigenous lens” will be featured in several prestigious exhibitions, including the 2017 Whitney Biennial (opening March 17), documenta 14 (opening in Athens April 8 and in Kassel on June 10), and at Art In General, where their commissioned installation Coyotaje will debut March 24. In preparation for these engagements—as well as their arrival in Minneapolis this weekend—we offer a primer on several Postcommodity works that address the theme of portals.

To meet the artists and pick up a free copy of their just-published essay, “2043: No Es Un Sueño,” commissioned as part of the Walker’s ongoing Artist Op-Eds series, join us Saturday, March 11 at 6 pm for an op-ed launch and artist talk—the first time we’ve activated this long-running series with a live event. (Free pamphlets are available to the first 75 attendees.) The event is presented in collaboration with Minneapolis’s Bockley Gallery, which opens the exhibition Postcommodity on Friday, March 10.

Do You Remember When? (2009/2012)

Do You Remember When? – 2009. Site-specific intervention and mixedmedia installation (cut concrete, exposed earth, light, sound). Photos Above: Installation view, Arizona State University Art Museum, Ceramics Research Center, Tempe, AZ.
Installation view, Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, 2009. All photos courtesy the artists, unless otherwise noted

This mixed-media installation creates a passage between worlds. A slab of gallery floor, cut out and placed on a pedestal—“a trophy celebrating Indigenous intervention in opposition to a Western scientific worldview”—leaves a doorway to the exposed earth, and to spiritualities and cultures tied to it, below. Site-specific audio provides a “psychosocial soundtrack”: at Arizona State University in 2009, it included a closed-circuit audio broadcast of a Pee Posh social dance song performed by the collective; at the 18th Biennale of Sydney, it featured “songs and animal calls performed by members of local communities that are part of the aboriginal peoples of Sydney.” In each instance, a microphone was suspended over the square of soil, “positioning viewers as listeners to a feedback loop of Indigenous voices in dialogue with the exposed earth” (as Mark Watson put it in his 2015 Third Text essay, “Centring the Indigenous”). The work, the collective writes, “shifts the sustainability from a focus dominated by Western science to a balanced approach inclusive of Indigenous knowledge systems.”

My Blood Is in the Water (2010)

My Blood is in the Water – 2010. Mixed-media installation, sculpture with sound. (mule deer taxidermy, wood poles, water, amplifier, drum). Dimensions variable: Structure: 15’ height, 10’x10’ base; taxidermy 70” long; drum 36” tall, 22” diameter. Detail of Pueblo drum, Installation View, and Detail of Mule Deer.

“The history of art is largely deaf,” Postcommodity’s Kade L. Twist told Bill Kelley, Jr. in a 2015 Afterall interview. “Sound is the glue that holds us together.” In My Blood is in the Water, the sound is both a pulse and a drumbeat, created by blood dripping from the carcass of a mule deer onto an amplified Pueblo drum. Created in commemoration of Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary, the piece served as “an ephemeral time-keeping instrument relaying the history and intonation of this land.”

Here’s how Lucy Lippard characterized the work:

One of Postcommodity’s most impressive fusions of “traditional” imagery and political message is P’oe iwe naví ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood Is in the Water, 2010), commemorating the city of Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary. A buck mule deer’s carcass, hung upside down, donates its dripping blood to create sounds on an amplified drum below, “memorialising the mule deer as a spiritual mediator of the landscape and [paying] tribute to the traditional means by which indigenous people put food on the table” without destroying whole species. The striking image of the deer—simultaneously beautiful and tragic—is intended to turn around “the dominant culture’s process of commoditisation, demand/supply and convenience.”

Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution (2011)

Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution (Mechelen) – 2011. Interactive four channel video and sound installation. Duration: Infinite. Photo Above: Installation view, Contour: 5th Biennial of Moving Image, Mechelen, BE.
Installation view, Contour: 5th Biennial of Moving Image, Mechelen, Belgium

This immersive multi-channel installation greets viewers with pastoral scenery—fields and mountains, pristine waters, a child picking flowers—but such soothing imagery is jarringly (and noisily) ripped away, replaced by visions from an apocalyptic future where pollution and other forms of environmental degradation rule the day. Postcommodity writes:

While engaging the seemingly meditative video installation and walking about the gallery space, audience members will inevitably step on one of eight detonation triggers embedded in the floor, setting off a concussive sonic explosion shaped by a generative physics model of real-world IED explosions—particularly IEDs that utilize found consumer objects and electronics. The audience-triggered explosions are comprised of fragments of sampled music ranging the iconic pop of Burt Bacharach, Beach Boys, and Beatles to the heavy metal of Slayer, Metallica, and Black Sabbath and punk rock of the Ramones, Bad Brains, and Stiff Little Fingers. In all, hundreds of samples are randomly utilized as sonic shrapnel. The result is an exaggerated moment in which audiences are enveloped by the physical properties of an Afghanistan hot spot and simultaneously assaulted by the sonic artifacts of Western colonialism in which members of the audience share the sudden and disorientating experience of having their collective musical memories envelop them and flash before their eyes.

Gallup Motel Butchering (2011)

Gallup Motel Butchering - 2011. Multi-channel video. Duration: 9:05. Video Stills.

A tourist hotel in the traditional homelands of the Navajo people becomes the site for an act that, only due to its setting, might seem violent or out of place. Shot from various angles with high-definition cameras, this four-channel video shows in gritty detail a Navajo woman butchering a sheep for a family feast. The woman is a former runner-up in the Miss Navajo pageant, but the year she competed, sheep butchering—a role reserved for women in Navajo culture—wasn’t a requirement. With no prior experience slaughtering sheep, she butchered the animal on camera—awkwardly, and in the awkward setting of the hotel bathroom. The work reveals “how a traditional act of cultural self-determination can appear violent and disorientating within the context of a ‘non-place’ and pose a poetic, metaphorical transgression against the assumptions of the Western imagination.” Like a rip in the space-time continuum, the work illuminates twin realities coexisting in this Gallup, New Mexico motel.

Pollination (2015)

Pollination - 2015. Immersive Installation. Peepshow architecture, viewing booths with sound, large scale terrarium, terrarium heat/light lamps, electronic arcade coin slot shutters, tokens, plants, mirrors, razor wire, monarch butterflys, odors, cleaning supplies, Kleenex, trash cans, paper towels and hand sanitizer. Installation Views, Postcommodity: SouthwestNET., Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale, Arizona. Photos: Sean Deckert / Calnicean Projects
Photo: Sean Deckert, Calnicean Projects

Installed at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, this immersive installation recasts the doorway as a peepshow window. Visitors enter one of eight doors, insert a token in a slot, and get a glimpse of a garden of earthly delights: a lush world of butterflies, plants, and floral scents—rendered surreal by artificial lighting. “Playing on the idea of the peep show and the fetishized female form—which throughout art history and literature has been implicitly and explicitly linked to the garden—Postcommodity comments on fantasy, objectification, and the male gaze,” writes Hyperallergic’s Erin Joyce. “Yet by presenting an actual garden, the piece also speaks to the powerlessness of nature in the face of mankind’s domination and abuses. The incorporation of the ‘pay-to-play’ model, meanwhile, brings in capitalism’s role in the devastation of the natural world, global market systems, land development, and the exploitation of natural resources, all of which suggest Western colonial endeavors in what is thought to be a postcolonial world. Though the piece only requires the viewer to insert her token to participate—a small gesture—it implicates her as she sees her reflection in the garden room’s mirrors.”

People of Good Will  (2014–2015)

People of Good Will – 2014 - 2015. Heritage Hall, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
Heritage Hall, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

“We are very critical of social practice art in general—it’s a colonial model, very paramilitary, to parachute artists into a community for two weeks and then leave the community holding the bag,” Crístobal Martinez told Crystal Migwans last year. But when Postcommodity was asked to be part of a two-year project in Guelph, Ontario, the collective signed on. Reimagining city development through a “ceremonial filter,” the group collaborated with the Guelph Black Heritage Society on the renovation and revitalization of Heritage Hall, a church built in 1880 by fugitive slaves who arrived in Guelph via the Underground Railroad. In addition to contributing funds and manpower to the renovation, Postcommodity helped program events by immigrants and artists of color within the space, and when they left, they left behind capacity-building tactics as well as practical tools, including a PA system for use in future events. The aim, says Martinez: fostering “self-determination in the arts.”

Repellent Fence, 2015

Postcommodity’s most ambitious project, Repellent Fence (2015), was also the genesis of the collective’s formation. It began in 2007 with a simple premise: intervening, somehow, on the US/Mexico border. The initial idea was to “create a monument of futility that mocks the concept of borders, particularly, their fortification, militarization and marginalization of peoples and cultures within the contested space of their geographic location.” They continue, “Our hope was to facilitate public dialogue that specifically addressed the human and cultural violence instigated and perpetuated by borders as geopolitical implements that uproot cultures from their traditional homelands, and divide indigenous peoples and communities from each other.”

In the ensuing eight years, the group embarked on a project to work with community members in the border cities of Agua Prieta, Mexico and Douglas, Arizona, as well as with the US Border Patrol and the Mexican government, in creating a land art work that refused to touch the ground: Repellent Fence‘s visible manifestation was comprised of 26 giant “scare-eye” balloons that for four days formed a two-mile line bisecting the US/Mexico border. The balloons’ “open-eye” motif—an indigenous symbol appropriated and printed on commercial bird deterrents used by gardeners and farmers—seemed to echo the border’s constant state of ominous surveillance, but the ten-foot orbs ended up reinforcing a different message. Members of the two communities—who began programming events, including a binational art walk, around the project—came to see Repellent Fence as a tool for healing, as a “suture, reconnecting two bodies of land that had been divided… a monument to inter-connectedness,” Twist says.

The Ears Between Worlds are Always Speaking(2017)

Product shots of the LRAD 500X, which its maker says unparalleled long-range communication and scalable non-lethal, non-kinetic Escalation of Force
Product shots of the LRAD 500X, a long-range acoustic device advertised as offering “unparalleled long-range communication and scalable non-lethal, non-kinetic Escalation of Force.”

Just announced, Postcommodity’s contribution to documenta 14 in Athens will consist of a “long-form, two-channel hyper-directional opera projected upon the ancient ruins of Aristotle’s Lyceum.” The work’s physical manifestation will be limited to two LRADs—commercially available long-range acoustic devices, or “sound cannons,” typically used in military or law-enforcement contexts, including against water protectors at Standing Rock—mounted on rooftops around the edge of the site. Visitors navigating ruins of the school where Aristotle gave his major lectures will experience a hyper-directional sonic call-and-response. The artists explain:

The Lyceum, situated between the Athens War Museum, Hellenic Armed Forces Officer’s Club, and Athens Conservatory of music, offers a rich environment for engaging oral tradition [and] contemporary and ancient history, as well as a sense of embodied learning. Each day, the installation will perform multiple movements of music spanning the hours in which the Lyceum is open to the public, continuing as a cycle throughout the duration of the exhibition.

By activating a contemporary variant of Aristotle’s peripatetic learning on the ancient site, Postcommodity will focus its shared indigenous lens to dialogue with Aristotle, as well as implicate audiences as part of an international dialogue on global market systems in relationship to walking and movement upon lands.

In the exhibition’s Kassel manifestation, Postcommodity will create a related work, Blind/Curtain, at the entrance of the Neue Galerie, as the collective’s “indigenous gift and blessing to the visitors of documenta 14.” This sonic curtain, the trio writes, will “act as a threshold for audiences to cleanse themselves of the outside world, and prepare their hearts, minds and spirits for engaging the transformative experience of documenta 14.” A doorway itself, they note that Blind/Curtain will be “a physical and conceptual threshold for demarcating outside and inside, and acknowledging and reifying the spaces and artworks of documenta 14, as well as the spaces and contexts between.

Simultaneously, Blind/Curtain is aware of itself as a node of power—it is a determiner of space—a border. It is a membrane constructed of pink noise and submerged poems. Blind/Curtain is a human dilemma that contains secrets, provides access, creates the illusion of privacy (prevents access), provokes surveillance, and embodies love.”

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