Frontera Fund News

Largest-Ever Binational Art Project Unites Border Towns

Photo courtesy Postcommodity.
Photo courtesy Postcommodity.

From October 10 through 12, the public can watch as two communities divided by a border wall become connected by… balloons.

There’s something unnerving about the 28 “scare eye” balloons hovering over the U.S.-Mexico border this weekend. The red and yellow eyeballs’ pupils peer across the desert like cameras scanning for migrants. “Big Brother is watching,” they seem to whisper. 

That’s roughly the mood artist collective Postcommodity envisioned when they conceived this 2-mile-long installation six years ago. The project would be a satirical nose-thumb at surveillance-heavy border wall proposals and “papers, please” legislation

But as artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martinez, and Kade L. Twist traveled the borderlands, forming relationships with residents in three states and two countries, the “Repellent Fence” project evolved into something more inspiring.

Now the trio sees the largest-ever binational art piece as a “suture” stitching together two communities severed by militarization. 

Artist's rendering of Repellent Fence.

Artist’s rendering of Repellent Fence bisecting the border. Photo courtesy Postcommodity.

Together with the artists, residents of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora will inflate the 10-foot-wide balloons and suspend them 50 feet above the desert near their communities. 

“The installation itself is significant, because it is a large-scale manifestation of intense binational dialogue, collaboration and diplomacy,” says Martinez. “This represents the self-determination of Douglas and Agua Prieta to collaborate with one another and unify their communities despite the border wall.”

The project will be on view as part of numerous events October 9-12 including discussions, workshops and art walks in Douglas and Agua Prieta. (Note that due to high winds, the Friday, October 9 launch was postponed to Saturday. One test balloon is flying as of October 9. Please check @Postcommodity or @FronteraFund on Twitter for updates.)

It all began, significantly, with birds.

Several years ago, Santa Fe-based Kade Twist’s wife bought scare-eye balloons to frighten away birds nibbling on their fig tree. The birds didn’t even notice the helium-filled “scarecrows.” But Twist did. 

A member of the Cherokee Nation, Twist recognized the balloons’ “open eye” pattern as an icon of indigenous cultures from South America to Canada. He recalled that red and yellow are Indian medicine colors, and that birds are considered spiritual mediators to indigenous peoples.

He joked to his fellow artists that one day they’d create an installation with scare-eye balloons. 

In 2008, Postcommodity suspended a balloon like an evil eye over Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Phoenix headquarters.

In 2008, Postcommodity suspended a balloon like an evil eye over Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Phoenix headquarters. Photo courtesy Postcommodity. 

All three artists have indigenous backgrounds – Chacon is a member of the Navajo Nation and Martinez is Mexican-American with Tewa ancestry. So Repellent Fence taps into their own backgrounds as well as the indigenous ancestry of most immigrants. 

The balloons will bridge and overshadow the border wall – a reminder that thousands of years of cultural connection supersedes a few decades of division.

“This act of re-inhabiting historically shared terrain and marking it with contemporary versions of ancient icons reveals the U.S.-Mexico border to be what it is: the arbitrary and artificial overlay of power derived through coercion,” says Gordon Knox, director of the ASU Art Museum, which is supporting the project.

The project’s evolution is also a reminder that, through collaboration, a statement of division can become a celebration of connectedness.