“How the fuck does an indigenous people who descended from a magnificent history become labeled ‘illegal’ and ‘alien’ while remaining a part of their own sacred ancestral continent? And how in the hell did it become a reality that indigenous peoples of our western hemisphere would suffer the indignity of being called illegals and aliens for moving along the ancient migration and trade routes—as their ancestors have done since time immemorial?” In its 2017 Artist Op-Ed, Postcommodity considered the year 2043, when whites in the United States are expected to become a statistical minority, to investigate issues around migration, “nativism,” indigeneity, and linguistics. To mark the collective’s return to the Twin Cities for an October 5 lecture as Public Art St. Paul’s 2019 Distinguished Artists, Walker Reader commissioned its current members, Cristóbal Martínez and Kade Twist, to continue iterating around themes from their essay. The result, presented here for the first time, is a codex, a form of pictographic storytelling with roots in ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures, that investigates the Twin Cities’s past and present in terms of its relationship to migration, violence to the land, and Indigenous sovereignty. Its title, 44.8968° N, 93.1501° W, references the GPS coordinates of Bdote, a site of spiritual and historic significance to the Dakota people: the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, Bdote is at the center of the Dakota creation story and was the site of the mass internment of Dakota people following the US/Dakota War of 1862. Here the pair discuss the work, shared here as downloadable pdf, with editor Paul Schmelzer.
PAUL SCHMELZER (PS)
You created a codex to accompany With Each Incentive, an installation on the Art Institute of Chicago’s outdoor terrace (on view through April 26, 2020). What drew you to the codex as a form/vehicle?
The codex is a powerful medium for communicating the sovereignty of context—worldview, history, knowledge, place, and time within a culturally determined framework. Postcommodity is attracted to the codex and the legacy of this medium, because at its very core the codex is a poetic, lyrical, beautiful, and symbolic container of ontology, epistemology, and human experience.
At the Art Institute, the codex had a relationship to the sculptural structures you created—seemingly uncompleted columns of cinderblock and rebar—but in the work you’re sharing with us today, it appears to be a standalone artwork. Does it function differently as an independent piece? Or, given the many Twin Cities references, is it not a standalone work, but a site-specific companion to the Twin Cities context?
This particular codex is not a standalone work. We created this codex in dialogue with our Mia-commissioned work that will be premiering in February 2020 [presented in association with the exhibition When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Migration through Contemporary Art]. This new work transforms large chemical storage tanks (commonly utilized in agriculture) into an array of automated drums that collectively pound out rhythms derived from Dakota songs. In many ways, the piece will function as a polyrhythmic “host drum” throughout the duration of the exhibition. Of course, we still have a lot of work to do to complete this new work. And one of the most exciting aspects of it will be working with the local Dakota community to determine the rhythms and patterning and layering of these rhythms.
Going back to the codex for a moment, we think the codex has been a form of conceptual research and organizing for our Mia commission. Hopefully, the codex communicates the complexity of human relationships bound by shared sources of water that are becoming increasingly difficult to protect and preserve from waste and contamination. Of course, all of this is taking place on Dakota land, and that is the context and reality we hope to honor through our work.
Like your Artist Op-Ed, this work uses different text types (prose, poetry), tones of voice, and registers (the bottom text channel, text overprinted on imagery), suggesting a narrative logic that’s more associative than linear. What connects all these elements? And how do you think about “reading” the codex (which obviously can be different for each viewer or each time looking at it)?
We would argue that formal structures for presenting the written word are as violent, destructive, and coercive as any other formal structure of colonization. While it might be relevant for some, for many it is incredibly problematic and falls under the domain of unresolvable tension. Postcommodity has never fit very well into formal structures like these. We prefer to take what we find useful and pragmatically make it ours—conceptually, aesthetically, culturally, etc. Our hope is that by doing this we can help people sense and experience and negotiate some of the defining dilemmas of our time in new ways; from a framework outside of the Judeo-Christian, western scientific worldview.
Many of the images have local resonance—including Little Earth, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and local Hmong girls; Mercado Central in South Minneapolis; and sites of contention between Native and non-Native populations here, including Bde Maka Ska, Bdote and Fort Snelling, Indian Mounds Regional Park in St. Paul, and the Wall of Forgotten Natives encampment of 2018, as well as what appears to be a diorama of Indigenous people at the Bell Museum. Tell me about your research around these, the impulse to include them, and how you see all these elements (photos, texts) interacting?
These images reflect the complex realities of power being exercised over the land and the citizens of this land. Minneapolis is often portrayed as a liberal space of equity, access and diversity. For many, it’s the closet thing there is to the great white polite hope of Canada. Obviously, there are many great things about Minneapolis. It’s truly one of the USA’s great cities. But, what is great for one particular race or culture of people can be apocalyptic for another race or culture of people. And, in between, there is struggle and desire and love and violence and generosity and manipulation.
A balloon from your Repellent Fence project is on view now in the Walker exhibition I am you, you are too. You’ve spoken about the balloons, which in 2015 extended out from the US/MX border for a mile in each direction, as a symbolic suture, knitting together the cities of Agua Prieta, Sonora, and Douglas, Arizona, and the cultures and families that are arbitrarily divided by the border. It was a poetic and powerful way to look at “land art.” This codex seems to have a link, in that it’s both about injury (to the earth, to people of color and immigrants) and a kind of knitting together of people of different backgrounds. Can you talk about how this work fits into either Repellent Fence’s ideas or your practice at large?
We’re strong believers in conceptual DNA. And perhaps the greatest strength of Postcommodity’s body of work is that the subsets of our discourse operate across borders, disciplines, mediums, and institutions in ways that are legible and generative. For the past 12 years Postcommodity has been working in a variety of places for a variety of purposes in a variety forms. However, our conceptual DNA is always present regardless of context, limitation, or opportunity.
Tell me about the hunting scene described in the text that runs along the bottom. It’s a shift in voice from the other texts, yet feels familiar in that it addresses a relationship to the land and to migration (in this case, of the animal). It also calls to mind previous Postcommodity works—in particular, My Blood Is in the Water (2010) and Gallup Motel Butchering (2011)—that involve deer or slaughtering. How does this text relate to the rest of the piece?
The text along the bottom functions similarly to the embedded poetry, but in the form of prose. By shifting registers we provide our audiences with multiple experiences of story that enable the circulation of indigenous knowledge systems. But again, like throughout the codex, in prose we are highlighting the articulation of power exercised over land, and coming into a relationship with the consequences of colonization through potential empathy with the story’s characters. The story shows that in cases when performing our sacred traditions, like hunting, we indigenous people may find ourselves unnaturally negotiating our lands like in the Southwestern United States, which have been irradiated, bombed, and artificially cordoned as conservation labs. Our story demonstrates the systematic violence modification of a natural ecology, and the implications that such actions have for the health and wellness of all things indigenous. At the same time this story is about the pragmatism, survival, persistence, and adaptation of indigenous people in the throes of ongoing change. In terms of the animal, the story refers to migrations that led to the exploitive acts of imperialism within the Western Hemisphere, and not to Indigenous American refugees who have been compelled to migrate due to the short work of corporations, governments, and neoliberalism.
Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.