Eye in the Sky, Hole in the Ground
Postcommodity’s Raven Chacon on art without borders
By Sam Adams
You can buy "scare eye" balloons in most big-box stores. Detailed in bright colors and shapes mimicking the eyes of predatory birds, they're meant to ward off pigeons and crows and keep them from invading your backyard.
COURTESY OF Postcommodity
Now imagine those same devices enlarged to the size of clouds and placed where humans aren't desired. People wouldn't exactly run the other direction, but it might make one stop and think: Why I am I not wanted here? That, in a nutshell, is what arts collective Postcommodity is going for with "Repellent Fence," the third and most ambitious installation in its Repellent Eye series.
Toward the end of 2012, the group intends to raise 20 acrylic balloons that are 10 feet in diameter parallel to the U.S.-Mexico border. While there's no set site, members are working with the Tohono O'odham Nation to negotiate an area, about half a mile long, on which they'll stage the installation. "Part of this project is that it's this kind of sculptural piece," says Raven Chacon, "this kind of fence, which will run along the border. But part of it is performance in a way of us having to navigate what is safe to be called a battlefield."
One controversy surrounding the 78-mile-long border between Tohono land and Mexico is that indigenous people are being barred from moving between one indigenous land and the next. (Tohono is recognized as its own sovereign nation.)
One of the precursors to "Repellent Fence" was a giant balloon called "Repellent Eye Over Phoenix." "We made a large one, to scare away airplanes in Phoenix and to ward off Western civilization," says Chacon. Then they raised one at Manitoba Hydro in Winnipeg—basically that city’s equivalent of PNM—as a statement of providing a “watchful eye” over natural resources.
A Creative Capital grant allowed Postcommodity to shoot for a more lofty and ambitious project. "It's like this U.S.-Mexico fence wants to be an invisible fence. It wants to remain hidden but lets you know it's there. So this is exposing it for what it is—a ridiculous sculpture in itself," says Chacon. "I think the piece is most relevant as being a mockery of a fence. A fence is already a mockery of itself."
Chacon, whose mother was from the rez in Chinle, Ariz., and father from Northern New Mexico, has spent most of his life in Albuquerque. He began taking classical piano lessons at the age of nine, but it wasn't long before he realized his interest in sound—and art—expanded beyond the trappings of traditional music. This led to experiments in recording with audio cassette tapes as a teenager. He says he would tape a second of air time from 94 Rock, every hour on the hour, creating a random audio collage. It's that penchant for abstract sound work that Chacon is known for, performing in numerous bands and being a staple in the regional noise scene.
It's also what made him a perfect fit in the eclectic ensemble of Postcommodity, which he joined in 2009. Begun two years earlier and blending mediums including film, sculpture, sound and computer engineering, the collective exists as a collaboration between four Southwestern Native American artists who've gained international recognition for their sociopolitical work. A main focus of Postcommodity is engaging in a "discourse about indigenous peoples in the global market and how they respond and contribute to that same market," Chacon says, "as opposed to it being this defensive idea of the world against us."
Bolstering the group’s place in that conversation is the skill set that each member offers. That dynamic might explain their ascent in the global arts community. "It was the culmination of all of our solo work," says Chacon. "It all culminated in this project where all of our ideas were able to just explode."
Another big idea on the floor—or rather, directly beneath it—is "Do You Remember When?" The mixed-media piece will be unearthed at the Biennale of Sydney in July. Postcommodity’s invitation came when one of the festival's directors, Gerald McMaster, saw an earlier incarnation of the work staged in Arizona.
What McMaster saw in a pristine gallery was a square 4-by-4-foot hole cut in the floor exposing the dirt beneath, with tribal dance songs emanating from it. Chacon sees it as "a literal exposure of the institution for what it is and what's underneath it; what was there before."
A site-specific piece, the incarnation of "Do You Remember" at the Art Gallery of New South Wales will incorporate sounds from the area's aboriginal tribes. As a theme of the festival is communal interactivity, Postcommodity will collaborate with a group of sound artists to help put together the audio component of the piece.
As part of a project titled "T.I.M.E.: Temporary Installations Made for the Environment," Chacon erected four metal towers in Arizona's Canyon de Chelly. These conduct sound through strings, wires, mics, speakers and oscillators, and "are tuned to some Navajo corn-grinding songs," he says. The ominous towers are positioned 40 feet apart, in all four directions, creating a sort of ancestral discourse. "I wanted them to represent Navajo gods disguising themselves as enemies, as monsters."
If Arizona and Australia are too far out of the way, you can also catch Chacon staging installations, lectures and sound shows on a weekly basis at Small Engine Gallery (1413 Fourth Street SW) in Barelas. It's not like he's that busy.
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