Postcommodity Tells Time
an interview with Kade L Twist and Cristóbal Martínez
In September of 2021 the Remai Modern in Saskatoon opened “Time Holds All the Answers,” an exhibition of primarily new work by the interdisciplinary Indigenous art collective Postcommodity. The current members of the collective are Cristóbal Martínez, a Mestizo of Genízaro, Pueblo, Manito and Chicano heritages of northern New Mexico; and Kade L Twist, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The exhibition was curated by Gerald McMaster, the adjunct curator of the Remai Modern and a distinguished scholar, critic and research professor at OCAD University in Toronto. “Time Holds All the Answers,” which closed on January 23, 2022, is among the most significant exhibitions mounted so far in the museum’s five-year history. It is accompanied by a 223-page catalogue that both documents the work in the exhibition and places it in the context of the collective’s production to date. Postcommodity listens to where they are. There is evidence of that awareness in the way they use language and music in their work—they are especially aware of soundings— but also in their sensitivity to the unrecognized stories in the places they exhibit.
“Place is one of the most significant determining contexts through which you can position an idea or try to make meaning around a set of ideas and propositions,” Twist says. “Place is everything.” Location is where they work; story is how they work. “We’re storytellers,” Martínez says. “We want to be able to tell this story in the most effective way possible, so we’ll use whatever means are available to do that.” In From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home, 2018, their prizewinning intervention for the 57th Carnegie International, Postcommodity’s storytelling took elements from the steel industry, the tradition of Indigenous sand painting and Pittsburgh’s vibrant history of Black jazz to compose a sculptural graphic score on the floor of the Hall of Sculpture in the Carnegie Museum of Art. In With Each Incentive, 2019, the story told on the Bluhm Family Terrace of the Art Institute of Chicago focused on the implications of the growing population of refugees from Mexico and Central and South America. Postcommodity built a series of columns in various stages of completion as a way of imagining an inclusive urban future. Martínez and Twist are Indigenous futurists, with both feet in an aesthetic and political present and their cultural memory in continual resistance to a destructive colonizing past. The process they apply is “a reimagined ceremony” that collapses time and views the conditions of the temporal—the past, present and future—as one measure of Indigenous cultural vitality and possibility.
The pieces in “Time Holds All the Answers” show the same attentiveness to place and story evident in their earlier work. South By North Is Also North By South, 2021, is an example of the careful decisions that were made around the installation. When you entered the gallery space, the sculpture’s presence was claustrophobic because only five feet separated the massive pyramidal form from the wall. Even more disconcerting was the fact that at every point where the sculpture touched the walls or the floor, the cut of the waste barrels indicated the spillage going on beyond the gallery space. The distressing suggestion is that the hazard posed by the systems of extraction and storage that the barrels emblematize is uncontainable.
Or consider what Postcommodity did with kinaypikowiyâs (the name was picked by Gerald McMaster and is Plains Cree for “snake meat”). The piece is comprised of four debris booms, which are normally used to contain contaminants; the colour scheme corresponds to degrees of industry toxicity and at the same time it represents Indigenous medicine colours. The quartered booms are suspended from the gallery ceiling and each one stands in for a place on the map of the Western Hemisphere. Taken together, they suggest that all of us living in the Americas “are riding on the back of this snake.”
Each of these pieces makes use of Postcommodity’s most effective aesthetic tool: hacking. Martínez describes it as “a strategy of breaking in, modifying a situation and experiencing a new reality.” Any system or object can be hacked, from museums to car design and urban transportation grids. In Let Us Pray For the Water Between Us, 2020, commissioned and first exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2020 and then reinstalled at the Remai Modern, Postcommodity transformed a 100-cubic-metre industrial storage tank into a self-playing resonant drum that could be heard through two floors of the museum. Overlooking the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, a ribbon of water with its own echoes of Indigenous occupation, it was a dramatic and emotional installation. In Some Reach While Others Clap, 2020, Postcommodity applied lowrider car aesthetics to the support beams of LAXART as a way of recognizing the contribution made by Indigenous cultures to the foundation of the city of Los Angeles.
In offering his perspective on the narratives that need to emerge in these inhabited and natural places, Cristóbal Martínez argues for a radical rethinking. “It’s our time as Indigenous people,” he says, “to complicate the centre, to extend, reconfigure, reimagine and hack the world view that has been present on these lands for over 500 years.”
How’s that for a proposed hack?
Postcommodity has had 18 solo exhibitions and 35 group exhibitions, and has organized 32 sound performances. In 2015 they installed the Repellent Fence at Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Sonoma, cities on the border between Mexico and the US. The fence, a 3.2-kilometre-long land art installation comprised of 26 balloons tethered 30.5 metres above the landscape, was an inspiring artistic suture that stitched together the peoples of the Americas.
The following interview was recorded on Zoom on April 15, 2022.
BORDER CROSSINGS: Where did the name “Postcommodity” come from?
kade l twist: The name originated in 2006 around some backyard conversations that involved Steve Yazzie, Nathan Young, Andrea Hanley, my wife at the time, and myself. I was working as a public policy professional and I started facilitating a plan over two days of meeting, and Andrea came up with the name “Postcommodity,” and even though a lot of other names were mentioned, hers stuck. So we had a name, we had a minimal strategic plan and we had mapped out all our relationships that were relevant for the project. Essentially, we were organizing around two things: one was reframing Indigenous arts discourse in the United States. A lot of that had already taken place in Canada with two artists in particular, Edward Poitras and Rebecca Belmore. Those two had really altered the discourse landscape of contemporary Indigenous art. In the US everything was around object making. Alan Michelson, Edgar Heap of Birds and James Luna were pushing towards new directions here, but the Indian artists who were working in the United States were market-driven whereas the Indian artists in Canada were grant-driven. We wanted to move that discourse beyond an us-versus-them model and implicate ourselves in globalism through the portal of consumerism. We also wanted to shift from “us-versus-them” to “we’re all in the same boat now.” If we could implicate ourselves through consumerism, then we could speak more clearly to the complexity of the issues. If we weren’t implicating ourselves, it would be too binary, too simple, and it wouldn’t hold water.
I get the “commodity” part but what about the “post”? Words like “postmodernism” or “post-colonialism” imply a set of aspirations, as well as a before and an after. Inside that time frame and sequencing, what did Postcommodity want to be? Where was it that you situated yourselves?
klt: Well, “commodity” is one of the first words used in The Communist Manifesto. The assumption is that a lot of artists of colour who are politically minded and tackle economic issues are Marxist. We wanted to get outside that Marxist echo chamber. The idea of Postcommodity was to move beyond relationships defined by commodities that had been experienced through government-to-government relationships. The other influence came from the field of cultural anthropology. “Postcommodity” is a term used to describe the psychological and social relationships that individuals have with consumer objects, in particular the transformation of relationships that extend the use of these objects over time. It was a chance to riff on anthropology but also to take from it. Among a vast ocean of negativity, this term was one that was generative and with which we could identify. It became a good tool because it fits into something that Cristóbal brought to the table, which is rasquache. Rasquache deals with pragmatic architecture and with pragmatic forms of remaking material and objects into new things, or things alternative to their original intent. You take things that may have been discarded as trash or something unusable, and you hack them to do something entirely different. A lowrider is an example; it’s taking an old, unvaluable American car and hacking it to do something that cars were never intended to do, which was not drive fast but drive slow. When you think of the relationship of velocity to highways and roads and everything that the city is built around, and you reconsider the lowrider, it becomes a systematic approach to hacking causeand- effect relationships within Western systems that are at the core of civil engineering and civic infrastructure.
Cristóbal, what was it that attracted you to Postcommodity? When do you officially come into its collective orbit?
cristóbal martínez: I officially came in 2009 and worked with Postcommodity on a work called If History Moves At the Speed of Its Weapons, Then the Shape of the Arrow Is Changing. It was inspired in part by the philosopher Paul Virilio’s book Speed and Politics, and was an exploration of terminology. We were thinking about the theory that in a context of war, a group with the fastest weapons is the group that wins the war. We looked at a paradoxical case study where that wasn’t the case: the Pueblo Revolt led by the revolutionary San Juan native Popé in northern New Mexico in the 1680s. So for me, the attraction was to a collective that wasn’t interested in us-versus-them narratives. I never understood us-versus-them because I’m Mestizo. I come from a lot of backgrounds, and people who come from mixed backgrounds often feel stranded by the racializing structures of contemporary life. Seeing an Indigenous collective that was willing to render themselves vulnerable by self-implicating within the construct of contemporary life was more irreverent than anything that I had seen. That was very punk to me, it was metal. What was being talked about in Postcommodity, as it was with Radio Healer, was Indigenous reimagined ceremony. Implicating oneself within systems of capital and recognizing the ways that we’re all suspended by them required the creation of immersive interactive environments and scenarios in which some kind of ritual action would render the self-implication of our audiences highly legible. I was fascinated with the idea of not the object as metaphor but the experience as metaphor. Right there I became immediately hooked into the work of Postcommodity. This piece I’m talking about is a working example of exactly that. The context is the 400-year celebration of the founding of Santa Fe as a Spanish city. What happens with this installation is that you walk into a room Postcommodity has painted in gold and you’re ambushed by simple sonic tones representing four major weapons used by the Pueblos during the revolt. While in the installation you hear sonifications and see representations of weaponry flying around and you suddenly find yourself within the position of the colonizer. I like making art where audiences have to embody a situation. That was super-powerful for me, because it was an opportunity to hack a system (the City of Santa Fe) by staging scenarios.
I’m intrigued by the notion of hacking. It seems to provide all kinds of space to mess with things. It’s a strategy of subversion.
cm: Absolutely. It’s a strategy of breaking in, modifying a situation and experiencing a new reality. We do that with material, or we hack an object to create a new tool that can then be used to hack a discourse with a combined way of doing, being, believing, valuing. A capital D discourse, like an art museum and all its trappings, which may not necessarily be conducive to the stewardship of an Indigenous world view. We need to create a technology, so we’ll hack a material and use that as a vehicle for hacking the discourse of the museum. A great example of that was Facing the Wall (2021) at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon, where we took all the Picasso prints and faced them against the wall.
By putting the Picasso prints verso you foreground the African and Oceanic works, transforming what were footnotes to modernism into the main story. But you don’t do that only with objects, you also do it with space. In the Minneapolis Institute of Art, you displace the Doryphoros, a Roman copy of a Greek bronze, with your drum in Let Us Pray For the Water Between Us (2020), and at the Carnegie Museum you locate Black jazz musicians playing inside the museum’s neoclassical Hall of Sculpture for From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home (2018). Does the classical world offer you even richer opportunities to hack?
klt: We want to go as far back as it’s relevant to the ideas or the work. Inevitably, Western forms of music and sound sculpture go back to the Greeks. Thinking about those formal Western architectural spaces also connects to the ambitions of Carnegie himself. They were so tacky and gaudy; he didn’t want a system; he just wanted the heuristics. He wanted the cheat sheet to legitimacy, right? So he went after some sculptural jewels and brought them into this formal weird building, seemingly modelled after a prison. So there’s a lot going on in terms of the original landlord’s namesake. What we did was to hack that legacy through his own taste and values and goals. It was also a way of hacking the legacy of the artist who placed a Cherokee syllabary on the ceiling. No respect to Cherokee language, grammar, or syntax. It was just decorative. One of the most brutal colonizing statements is to see your language discarded as decorative. We were also considering Mike Kelley’s Kandor installation for the Carnegie International in 2008. We wanted to put our best foot forward and occupy the same space as Kelley did and let history judge the difference, in terms of how contemporary artists engage a loaded colonizer space like the Hall of Sculpture. Our installation was a way of creating strategic juxtapositions to dig into aesthetic systems not rooted in that Western world view. We wanted to hack the landlord and his hubris, and then hack the Greek traditions. Jazz is a perfect music for that because it represented a revolution of community self-determination and involved a lot of organized labour. You could say that the success of organized labour leading to the unionization of Black labour at US Steel, one of the first labour unions in the United States that allowed Black people in them, was a significant rupture of not just self-determination but a position of power in collective bargaining. And you could say that paved the way for a civil rights movement.