– Summer 2009

Against the Archive: Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s Destructivist Cinema

Chon A. Noriega

Tags: Hal Foster, Michel Foucault

Raphael Montanez Ortiz, 'Cowboy' and 'Indian' Film, 1957–58, black-and-white film with sound, 2min, still frames. Courtesy of Archives of Raphael Montanez Ortiz

Raphael Montanez Ortiz, 'Cowboy' and 'Indian' Film, 1957–58, black-and-white film with sound, 2min, still frames. Courtesy of Archives of Raphael Montanez Ortiz

In the late 1950s, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, then painting in an Abstract Expressionist style, picked up a wet paintbrush from a stack of paper towels, only to have the brush pull up several layers of the paper, leaving behind an almost sculptural artefact with paint soaked through the towel.1 Though Ortiz had learnt how to create art by adding layers of paint to a canvas, he found in this chance destruction of a pre-existing object something not conceived of as art per se, but a more radical and personal act. This accident shifted his thinking about art from additive to subtractive, from making to un-making, from creation to destruction. Soon he turned from traditional easel painting to what he called 'archaeological finds', in which he peeled away the outer layers of man-made domestic objects such as mattresses, chairs and sofas. In a similar vein, Ortiz also destroyed pianos and film reels, identifying these actions as a new 'destructivist' form of musical concert and cinema.2 His goal was not, pace archaeology proper, to retrieve a buried object from the accumulated dirt of history, but rather to tear into that object and thereby release something hidden within its very making. In this sense, his work is not so much archaeological, nor even archival, as it is against the archive.

Born in 1934, Ortiz grew up in a working-class environment in New York during the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War. But if he was deeply involved in and impacted by these events, his development as an artist was equally oriented toward the ascendant art world of New York. Since the late 1950s,

  1. In the 1960s, Ortiz went by the name Ralph Ortiz, and in the 1980s by Rafael Montañez Ortiz.

  2. Kristen Stiles, 'Rafael Montañez Ortiz', in Rafael Montañez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior, Years of the Psyche, 1960-1988, New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1988, pp.8-33, and personal interview with the artist, 7-9 June 2008.

  3. For example, Jacinto Quirarte, Mexican American Artists, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973, and Yasmin Ramirez, Nuyorican Vanguards, Political Actions, Poetic Visions: A History of Puerto Rican Artists in New York, 1964-1984, unpublished PhD dissertation, City University of New York, February 2005.

  4. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (trans. Robert Hurley), New York: Vintage Books, 1980, p.8.

  5. Emily Cohen, 'The Orphanista Manifesto: Orphan Films and the Politics of Reproduction', Visual Anthropology, vol.106, no.4, 2004, p.722.

  6. Dan Streible, 'The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century', Cinema Journal, vol.46, no.3, Spring 2007, p.124.

  7. The critical corollary to orphan film would be histories that 'expand' the archive through attention to the marginal, incidental, trash (refuse, detritus) and the non-existent. Two recent notable efforts in this regard are Amelie Hastie's Cupboards of Curiosity: Women, Recollection, and Film History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007) and Jani Scandura's Down in the Dumps: Place, Modernity, American Depression (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). If these works privilege the scrapbook and ephemera over 'official' documents, they do so as a turn within the archive, expanding not so much the archive's holdings as the historians methodology that 'makes sense' of these other, lesser materials that are already housed in acid-free folders and boxes.

  8. Harry Gamboa, Jr, 'Orphans of Modernism', in Chon A. Noriega (ed.), Urban Exile: Collected Writings of Harry Gamboa, Jr., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, pp.215-23.

  9. David E. James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, p.279.

  10. Ibid., p.280.

  11. Peter Arnett in The New York Times, 7 February 1968, p.14.

  12. D. E. James, Allegories of Cinema, op. cit., p.263.

  13. 'The contradictions in capitalist cultural production are irreconcilable and ineluctable, and they force the most extreme responses upon those film-makers who most love the art.' Ibid., p.279.

  14. Ibid., p.348.

  15. Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

  16. Recall the end of the first edition of Robert Sklar's Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies in 1975 - a book that pronounces the 'decline of movie culture' and signals the emergence of academic film history.

  17. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History (trans. Tom Conley), New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, p.5.

  18. D. E. James, Allegories of Cinema, op. cit., p.195.

  19. In subsequent editions of Movie-Made America, when it was apparent that Hollywood had not died, Sklar added chapters on women and blacks as Hollywood's latter-day redemption.

  20. For an interesting consideration of Minimalism, 'understood as an ineluctably secular, materialist undertaking', and the impact of its patrons' 'cultic designs', see Anna C. Chave, 'Revaluing Minimalism: Patronage, Aura, and Place', Art Bulletin, vol.40, no.3, September 2008, pp.466-86.

  21. Today, El Museo's director is the only US Latino member (and director of a Latino museum) in the Association of Art Museum Directors of Canada, Mexico and the United States.

  22. Hal Foster et al., 'The Politics of the Signifier: A Conversation on the Whitney Biennial', October, vol.66, Fall 1993, p.3.

  23. See Y. Ramirez, Nuyorican Vanguards, Political Actions, Poetic Visions, op. cit.

  24. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith), New York: Pantheon Books, 1972, p.129. 

  25. Interview with the artist, 4 December 1993.

  26. D.E. James, Allegories of Cinema, op. cit., p.242.

  27. Bruce Jenkins, 'Explosion in a Film Factory: The Cinema of Bruce Conner', 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II (exh. cat.), Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1999, p.186.

  28. Raphael Montañez Ortiz, 'The Computer in Art', manuscript, September 1982; and 'Computer- Laser-Video' (1984), in Raphael Montañez Ortiz, op. cit., p.53.

  29. Susan Jarosi, Art and Trauma Since 1950: A Holographic Model, unpublished PhD dissertation, Duke University, 2005. See especially Chapter 2, on Ortiz's computer-laser-videos. Latino Media Arts, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp.183-207.

  30. See Scott MacDonald, 'Media Destructivism: The Digital/Laser/Videos of Raphael Montañez Ortiz', in Chon A. Noriega and Ana M. López (ed.), The Ethnic Eye: Latino Media Arts, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp.183-207. In the video, the kiss is framed by a brief shot of a street scene taken from elsewhere in the film, playing up the gendered contrast between public and private. While I have focused on those films of Ortiz's that draw from a single-source passage, he also works with composite passages edited together from two or more films, as in Kiss Number Also (1994), which juxtaposes scenes from Against All Flags (1952) and Child's Play (1988).

  31. Michael Zyrd, 'Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy', Senses of Cinema, no.10, November 2000. Also available at http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/04/32/alone_life_wastes_andy_hardy.html#1 (last accessed on 9 March 2009). Martin Arnold's work is often identified as an exemplary and sometimes exceptional instance. See Akira Mizuta Lippit, 'Cinemnesis: Martin Arnold's Memory Machine', Afterimage, vol.24, no.6, May-June 1997, pp.8-11; William C. Wees, 'The Ambiguous Aura of Hollywood Stars in Avant-garde Found-Footage Films', Cinema Journal, vol.41, no.2, Winter 2002, pp.3-18; and Michele Pierson, 'Special Effects in Martin Arnold's and Peter Tscherkassky's Cinema of Mind', Discourse, vol.28, no.2-3, Spring/Fall 2006, pp.28-50.

  32. Quoted from Arnold's website at http://www.r12.at/arnold/pages/alone/alone.html (last accessed on 9 March 2009).

  33. Conversation with the artist, 7-9 June 2008.

  34. R.M. Ortiz, 'Computer-Laser-Video',Digital Media and the Arts, Maastricht: Stichting Moora Studio, State University of Limburg, 1985. Reprinted in Rafael Montañez Ortiz, op. cit., p.53.

  35. On this last point, see André Habib, 'Ruin, Archive and the Time of Cinema: Peter Delpeut's Lyrical Nitrate', SubStance, vol.35, no.2, 2006, p.121.

  36. See Hal Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', October, vol.110, Fall 2004. 
37 Ibid., p.21.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Ibid., and Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (trans. Eric Prenowitz), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp.11-12.

  39. H. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', op. cit., pp.21-22.

  40. M. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, op. cit., p.130.