ESSAY: An Analysis of Postcommodity

(Note: This essay was a short assignment for my Indigenous Art, Issues and Concepts class at Brown University, which I took in Fall 2020.)

As reflected in their name, Postcommodity creates works that address the contemporary global market. Using a specific "Indigenous lens," their body of work examines globalized capitalism's contribution to contemporary modes of colonization, "[forging] new metaphors capable of rationalizing our shared experiences within this increasingly challenging contemporary environment." Currently consisting of Chicano artist Cristóbal Martínez and Cherokee artist Kade L. Twist, Postcommodity's roster has previously included Raven Chacon (Diné), Nathan Young (Delaware Tribe of Indians/Pawnee/Kiowa), and Stephen Yazzie (Navajo).

Postcommodity's multidisciplinary practice has taken on many forms and different degrees of materiality--from music (In Memoriam, 2017) to architecture (With Each Incentive, 2019). It has also been developed and produced in locations across the globe, ranging from multiple environments within the continental United States, to the United States-Mexico border, to documenta 14 in Athens, Greece (The Ears Between Worlds are Always Speaking, 2017). 

While "it would be difficult to overemphasise [sic] the integral role of music, sound and noise in Postcommodity's work," another overarching element that unites Postcommodity's vast and diverse output is the group's incorporation of political and social commentary, their commitment to creating conceptual research-driven works, and commitment to site specificity. Each individual work marries these three concepts in an organic and inseparable way. This paper discusses and analyzes several of Postcommodity's works within this framework.
Perhaps Postcommodity's most recognized project, Repellent Fence (2015) is a large-scale land art work that synthesizes elements of the political, the contextual, and the site-specific: it comments on current discourses over immigration to the United States and the movement of capital across borders; it draws upon the histories and iconographies of Indigenous peoples of the area; and it is crucially located in Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora--linking locations directly across the United States-Mexico border in defiance of settler conceptions of bounded nations.

Consisting of twenty-six balloons floating one hundred feet in the air within a two-mile span, Repellent Fence's symbolism operates on several levels. On a material level, the forms and colors of the balloon reference an unsuccessful bird repellent product; the balloons also recreate "indigenous medicine colors and iconography -- the same graphic used by indigenous peoples from South America to Canada for thousands of years." On a more symbolic level, Postcommodity notes that these forms "constitute an indigenous semiotic system that demonstrates the interconnectedness of indigenous peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere."

Repellent Fence's addressing of immigration and indigeneity as intertwined questions of citizenship and the rights contained within that classification also links together historical and contemporary struggles. At the founding of the American republic, "human rights '[were] attributed to man ... solely to the extent' that he [appeared] as a 'citizen." Indigenous peoples, who were not considered to be citizens, were therefore not granted the same legal rights as settlers to be governed by civil law (as opposed to military law). In the case of current discussions about immigration, undocumented immigrants are often considered to lack the same personhood and civil rights as American citizens, resulting in lack of due process and recourse against abuse by the American government. Thus Repellent Fence, located in adjacent cities separated only by the artificiality of modern borders, references and ties together these two drives towards recognition and personhood, acting as a cross-cultural beacon of solidarity.

From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home (2018), Postcommodity's entry in the 57th Carnegie International Biennial in Pittsburgh, PA, uses its physical material composition to show how its political concerns, historical context, and site specificity are intertwined. Both an installation and an element of a musical performance, From Smoke and Tangled Waters consists of carefully arranged sections of glass shards, coal chunks, and scraps of steel, tying together various elements of Pittsburgh's economic and cultural history.
According to Postcommodity's website, the placement of the different sections references Indigenous sand painting, and also serves as a score for a solo jazz artist. Viewed from above, From Smoke and Tangled Waters undulates among rusted red steel, black coal, and gray-white glass, its flow referencing Pittsburgh's unique land features as the meeting site of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. These materials allude to the three pillars upon which Pittsburgh was founded as a major industrial city: the steel reference Pittsburgh's history as a major source of steel production in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries--to the extent it was referred to as "The Steel City" and its professional football team is called the Steelers. Similarly, Pittsburgh is known for its access to coal mines dating before the American Revolution, as well as its perhaps less widely known but no less significant history as a center of glass production.

From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home perhaps most clearly exemplifies how crucial the location of the work is in Postcommodity's creative practice, and how the expression of politics and context is derived from that choice of site. Indeed, because the work draws upon so many elements unique to Pittsburgh's history--not only as a once-major industrial city, but also as a city that developed its own form of jazz music as a result of Black settlement during the Great Migration--it could only be truly made in Pittsburgh to be authentic. Crucially (and truly befitting the name Postcommodity), the work links both the physical production history of Pittsburgh, and the role these commodities have played, with its ephemeral cultural production history as a city where formerly enslaved peoples could make a new start. It would not have the same effect or immediacy taken out of context and moved to another city.

It Exists in Many Forms (2019), one of Postcommodity's most recent projects, takes the form of a sound installation at the mid-century Miles C. Bates House (also known as the Wave House). Built in 1955, the Miles C. Bates House is located in Palm Desert, California, and is characterized by an angled, swooping Modernist roof that appears to undulate gently (hence the nickname "Wave House"), echoing the forms of a nearby mountain range. Channeling sound with the roof as an "acoustic resonator," It Exists in Many Forms was created as part of the second DesertX Biennial, DX19.

It Exists in Many Forms fits within the context of Postcommodity's oeuvre as examinations of the landscapes of political concern, historical context, and attention to site. In recent years, mid-century modern design has become an increasingly popular inspiration for interior designers and residential architecture, with recent observers noting that the style's simple, clean lines, perceived timelessness, and familiarity add to its enduring appeal. Reflecting this mindset, Postcommodity write of Many Forms on their website: "Restoration of an iconic mid-century modern home represents the nostalgic persistence of atomic age idealisms from which the contemporary veneration of mid-century modernism has emerged." 

At the time of the creation of the work, the Wave House was undergoing a gut restoration that ended in February 2020. In It Exists in Many Forms, the structure appeared in unvarnished, unfinished form, with only the iconic roof line and ensuing silhouette to distinguish it from other examples of the overwhelmingly popular home style. Presently, the Wave House is on the National Register of Historic Places and is available for overnight stays and event rentals, ironically exemplifying the point of Postcommodity's political commentary. The artists have drawn attention to this particular home to challenge the commodification of land and to question conceptions of land use and land rights that have made this site in Palm Desert--part of land taken from the Cahuilla Indian tribe--not only a quintessentially "American" artifact, but also a tourist site that perpetuates "nostalgic persistence of atomic age idealisms."

In closing, Postcommodity's practice does not simply translate the experiences of Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist (and previous members of the collective) into directly autobiographical or explicitly message-based works. Instead, they align with an indigeneity that Alfred and Corntassel characterize as an "oppositional, place-based existence," engaging with with the discursive and complex landscapes of politics, context, and place.


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