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Cruz Ortiz
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Cruz Ortiz at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, Texas, summer 2010.


In an installation overflowing with the oozy pathos of cumbias (Columbian folk dance music), Cruz Ortiz assembled a tenuous culturescape forged in the Do-It-Yourself, born from the streets rasquache style. As such, he eloquently speaks to a disheveled, romantic, and willful remix era of Hispanic artists who combine art and action into social and political critiques and conversation.


Ortiz uses an alter-ego, an amalgam name called Spaztek as a guise and guide into his own flux-ridden identity. Blending the terms spastic and Aztec—rich cultural legacies and body-fervor—he freely pursues identity-making in the hypothetical post-race era, documenting a body trying to free itself from typical identikits: this is Chicano, this is street politics glocalized, this is honest country music in irony-laden times.


In the messy world of heartache, transnational politics, and musical melancholy, Ortiz grabs at it all. He mostly succeeds at conveying the accidental beauty and seemingly endless power that he can muster through rather simply accretions and juxtapositions of tents, paintings, bicycles, and radio antennae.


Featuring ad-hoc vehicles and vernacular street art posters, his work melds an array of influences and movements that speak in tandem, glued together by an action art impetus. For example, his wooden-metal-plastic-copper tower that sat astride the museum’s sleek aluminum exterior simmered with Zapatista-style media insurgency, cumbia radio rollick, and a fondness for things combative.


Rudimentary and ramshackle, built from a combo of old bicycles and leftover wood, and adorned with the lovelorn idiomatic Spanglish phrase “Tengo Hungry Por Tu Lovin’,” it resembled a lo-fi pirate radio vessel, a gigantic Mexi-punk bicycle, and a media making crucible. One part homage to Bolshevik agitprop trains that traversed Russia’s hinterlands in the dizzying post-Revolution era, the siege tower was equally medieval as well, speaking to mobility, raw power, and the defeat of old systems.


Immersed in casual but concise wisdom and lovelorn poetics, Ortiz also understands the stubborn failures of bureaucratized politics. More like John Lennon than Vladimir Lenin, he seems to insist that dancing makes the revolution worthwhile. 


Riddled with pop culture detritus, manufactured goods that blur national borders, the tower became the architecture of old school pre-Internet guerrilla media, featuring a low watt, proudly AM bandwidth radio station that beamed into the museum basement. Morphing as needed, it also served as a space for impromptu screen-printing.


Ironically, radio stations can foster communities by providing access to networks, honoring local issues and music, and dispelling myths and misinformation, but they can also be the tools of insidious zealots from rural America to Rwanda. Ortiz highlights the affirmative possibilities, reveling in a homespun democratic ethos and heart-on-the-sleeve yearning.


Like media ‘from below’, such radio might become a weigh station for the disputes and desires of marginalized people as the invisible airwaves capture ethnic street sounds understood by an artist navigating between cultures and spaces, from the bodega to the gallery, and back again.


More impure, ‘broken’, syncretic phrases (“Mi Gusta You”, “Mamacitas Tu Eres Puro Heartbreak and Misery”) adorned paintings in the basement, echoing cumbia’s achey-breaky style. Surrounding a handful of pup tents installed in the basement of CAM, the vibe was part festival grounds or urban ‘contested space’ but part bleak housing, too.


As a public high school teacher, Ortiz funneled the gripping, first-hand narratives of African students displaced and forced into transient zones, symbolized by such tent cities. The hardscrabble but necessary camps mark life at the fractured edge of nation-state fabrics, where language, tribe, or color can get you killed, and religion and ideology foment virulence. The tents were non-descript and life saving—urgent front-line buffers against malnutrition, homelessness, and disease.


In the age of Haiti, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, the tents also evoke a different kind of siege than the radio tower. They embody duress and encampment, the defense and deployment of sparse resources against often overwhelming forces: natural and cataclysmic, manmade and equally monstrous. Man, machetes, and machines may ravage, but the tents hold the keys to future life and hope, transformation and transmigration.

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