When Austin director Sam Wainwright Douglas began work several years ago on his new documentary Through the Repellent Fence, he couldn’t have guessed just how timely his project would become. The film follows the art collective Postcommodity — comprising three native U.S. artists of diverse heritage, Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist — as they prepare a massive outdoor installation spanning Douglas, Arizona, and Aguas Prietas, Sonora. The installation, made up of 28 large, printed balloons arrayed in a 2-mile-long stitch pattern along and over the border between the two towns, was conceived as a ceremonial “suture” to relink a transnational community torn in half by the militarized border.
Titled “Repellent Fence,” the installation was completed over four days in 2015. That same year, of course, Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign with a racist verbal attack on Mexican immigrants and the promise of a “big, beautiful” border wall. Postcommodity’s project is an antidote to fantasies of wall-building. The artists speak passionately of the centuries-old importance of cross-border relationships between peoples and communities in the region — not to mention the indigenous heritage of many of those currently refused passage at the border, detained on the U.S. side or forced into life-threatening situations as they evade authorities. The collective’s work evokes the deep roots and durable bonds that can and do transcend all manner of destructive border edifice.
The film, which has yet to be released to a wide audience, receives its second Texas screening (the first was at SXSW in March) on Thursday at Ballroom Marfa, just 60 miles from the border and at the opposite end of the Chihuahuan Desert from Douglas-Aguas Prietas. Those of us unable to make the trek to the remote art mecca will get a chance to see the film on PBS in the near future, Douglas says. Through the Repellent Fence arrives for public consumption as the Trump wall slouches toward South Texas — a federal official told the Observer last week that construction may begin in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge as soon as January 2018.
The artists of Postcommodity, though very much politically aware, stress that they do not want their work to be viewed primarily in the context of current events. “Our thing is not protest,” Twist says. “It’s definitely not anti-Trump. … We tell stories about where we came from. And for better or for worse, the border wall is where we come from.”
Douglas’ contribution as director is similarly rooted more in history than advocacy. He aims to bring the history of the U.S. land art movement — often associated with 1970s artists like Robert Smithson, James Turrell and Michael Heizer — to bear on pressing contemporary issues. For a whirlwind tour of land art’s history, Douglas enlists Chris Taylor, an architect and professor who has helped lead the Land Arts of the American West “semester abroad in our own backyard” study program for undergraduates since 2001, first at the University of Texas at Austin and more recently at Texas Tech.
The tone of this section of Through the Repellent Fence is appreciative, but it also sets up a problem. As many critics have noted over the years, there was something missing from the great land art works of the 1970s: the input of the people who actually live in the landscapes being sculpted, or of nearly anyone besides the coastal, cosmopolitan artists who jetted into fragile desert spaces to make their massive mark upon the land.
Here, too, Postcommodity provides an antidote. “Repellent Fence”avoids permanently disfiguring the landscape, and the artists are rigorously focused on process and involving the people of Douglas-Aguas Prietas in their work. Onscreen, we see the three artists holding workshops in schools, partnering with volunteers from all walks of life and relying on the community to help them overcome the challenges of mounting a large-scale work near a highway sign that reads “Next services 93 miles.”
Going into a project like this without a clear idea of how it will turn out can be messy, and the strain shows at times in the artists’ faces as the drama of their project’s unveiling builds. But the same unpredictability is a pleasure for viewers of Through the Repellent Fence, who get a sense of the social fabric of Douglas-Aguas Prietas — from schoolchildren to the Border Patrol — as the artwork takes shape through and around them. Particularly memorable is a recovering addict who finds a sense of personal connection to the work and pride in achievement as he volunteers for the physically demanding, high-pressure task of helping transport the inflated balloons into the windy border area.
“Art is supposed to … make you see what’s going on in a place,” one of the film’s talking heads opines. The same can be said of great documentary film, and Through the Repellent Fence rises to the occasion with warm, buoyant social observation.