Postcommodity Reimagines the US-Mexico Borderlands in ‘Through the Repellent Fence’

In Sam Wainwright Douglas’s new documentary, Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film, the theoretical divide between wall and border proves to be more than the stuff of geopolitical debate, becoming, instead, a potential site of transnational healing and self-determination.

Premiering at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight 2017 series less than a month after President Trump issued an executive order calling for the immediate expansion of the U.S.-Mexico wall, Through the Repellent Fence documents the installation of Postcommodity’s massive land art project, Repellent Fence (2015). A binational, ephemeral fence built across the U.S.-Mexico border., Repellent Fence featured 26 enlarged replica “scare eye” bird chaser balloons staked equidistantly over a two-mile-stretch of land, stitching together the sister cities of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico. To stress the temporality of constructed barriers, the piece was designed to last only four days. Douglas’s documentary acts as a record of this event and its communal significance within the border towns it joined.

Running counter to the current national discourse of the borderlands, Douglas’s film works, as he stated, to “dispel the myths of the border,” which often depict an area cannibalized by violence and crime. Tonally, the film achieves this by merging art study and observational filmmaking, juxtaposing the oppressive elements of the border with visions of land art. A lengthy stretch of x-shaped Normandy fencing, for example, appears alongside untitled images of Spiral Jetty, Double Negative, and The Sun Tunnels at the top of the film, elevating the fence itself to a plan of artistic potential. As for violence, it comes by way of wind and brush, making the central physical threat of the film the actual terrain of the borderlands, as opposed to gangs or guns.

While the film comes at a time when the borderlands face a renewed threat of increased political and geographical tumult, Postcommodity’s Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist conceived Repellent Fence as a response to a long history of divisionary practices that have disrupted cultures and communities along the border. For the past decade, the U.S. has strengthened its military presence in the area, installing surveillance in the form of law enforcement, motion sensors, radar systems, watch towers, and drones, in addition to hundreds of miles of fencing built in accordance with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), which mandated the U.S. to install 700 miles of fencing along the border.

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Chris Alexakisart