Jorge Otero-Pailos and the Ethics of Preservation

Meet the preservationist-provocateur who argues that pollution — dust and grime — is part of our cultural heritage.

Jorge Otero-Pailos, The Ethics of Dust: Doge’s Palace, Venice, 2009
Jorge Otero-Pailos, “The Ethics of Dust: Doge’s Palace, Venice, 2009,” as exhibited in the Corderie of the 53rd Venice Art Biennale. [Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Foundation T-BA21]

Venice: A Wall to Clean

Jorge Otero-Pailos desperately needed a wall to clean. It was January 2009, and he had been invited to participate in the 53rd Venice Biennale, the flashy and prestigious art fair opening later that year, in May. Instead of contributing, say, a painting, or a video installation or sculpture or room-sized light exhibit, Otero-Pailos intended to clean the wall of a gothic monument with a high-tech latex solution; to wait for the latex to dry and peel it off; and then to display the gauze-like material that results — a 40-by-23-foot pelt — as a work of art with an unintentional aesthetic. Dirt settles where it wants.

But the building where Otero-Pailos thought he had identified an ideal wall — the early 17th-century Procuratie Nuove, one of three connected buildings on Piazza San Marco — proved unworkable. At best that site would have posed a formidable logistical challenge. The three-story classical building incorporates an intricate design: on the first floor, half-round pilasters are built into square columns, a motif repeated with varying levels of detail and additional flourishes as the floors rise. So instead of cleaning a vertical wall and displaying a flat pane or panes of latex, as he had done once before, Otero-Pailos would have had to contend with a meter-and-a-half of sculptural depth. And then how would he have hung the latex?

The more he climbed up the scaffolding, conducted tests, and examined the Procuratie (“put my hand in it,” he said, evoking a physician with four fingers pressed into an abdomen), the more he worried that a latex cast of one of the quintessentially Venetian window bays would come across as a model of a classical building, or even as a sort of Duchampian ready-made. Daniel Birnbaum, the Biennale curator, and the assistant curator, Jochen Volz, were especially worried, said Otero-Pailos. They thought it would “set off all these readings in the art world about Duchamp, which would, in a sense defeat the purpose of what you’re trying to do.” 1

That’s it, Otero-Pailos thought, this project isn’t going to work. If he didn’t have a wall, he couldn’t participate in the Biennale. “Because to put up a piece that says all the wrong things about what I’m trying to do is not worth it,” he said. “It’d be better not to do it.”

Jorge Otero-Pailos, The Ethics of Dust: Alumix, Bolzano, 2008
Jorge Otero-Pailos, “The Ethics of Dust: Alumix, Bolzano, 2008,” detail of pollution. [Museum of the Province of Alto Adige]

If Otero-Pailos wasn’t trying to mimic Marcel Duchamp, what exactly was he trying to do? Although he is a licensed architect (with a Ph.D. in architectural history, theory and criticism), and also a professor in the preservation program at Columbia, Otero-Pailos is not a traditional preservationist; nor is he simply an architect or theorist or artist. He characterizes what he does as “an aesthetic practice, an artistic practice,” and he explains: “I never thought it was a choice of either ‘you’re an intellectual’ or ‘you’re an artist or architect.’” Mark Wigley, dean of architecture, planning and preservation at Columbia, sees Otero-Pailos as expanding the legacy of the school’s historic preservation program — launched in 1964, the first of its kind in the country — and its iconoclastic founder, James Marston Fitch, an architect, social activist and historian who argued that complete restoration was undemocratic because it didn’t allow the public to see what had been restored and how. While most people regard preservation as a way to hold off or even deny change, Wigley explained, Fitch emphasized the ways in which preservation implies transformation and progress.

In projects and writings, Otero-Pailos has become the provocateur of the field, posing fundamental questions — if not outright, then by the nature of his work — that embattled preservationists and conservationists have perhaps been too busy, or too unwilling, to ask. Why do we preserve buildings? What do we preserve? What is our cultural heritage? If preservationists are restoring objects that have already been made, is the field still a creative discipline? These are complicated queries, and articulating answers doesn’t seem as important to Otero-Pailos as stirring up conversation. Which he did, for example, in a recent project for Philip Johnson’s Glass House: Noticing the smoke stains on the ceiling of the living room — the scene of countless soirees — Otero-Pailos and Rosendo Mateu, perfumer and head of the Puig Perfumery Center, worked to recreate the atmosphere, the smells, that would have been so strong a part of the social experience of the place during Johnson’s long and convivial life.

And in addition to such unorthodox projects, Otero-Pailos has been challenging what may seem like the least arguable area of the preservation discipline; for the last several years he has been asking obsessively: Why do we clean buildings? And which ones? And how?

Jorge Otero-Pailos cleaning the wall of the Alumix factory
Jorge Otero-Pailos cleaning the wall of the Alumix factory, Bolzano, Italy, in 2008. [photo courtesy of Patrick Ciccone]

The Ethics of Dust

In 2008 Otero-Pailos was invited to create a work of conservation and art for the European Biennial of Contemporary Art (also known as Manifesta) in Bolzano, Italy. In the disused aluminum factory where the biennial was housed, and from which the curators expected artists to take inspiration, he spent a month on scaffolding with three former students, cleaning a wall with latex. He and his team spent every day at the factory, from morning to night. They painted a latex cleaning solution (called Arte Mundit) on the wall, waited for it to dry and peeled it off. They had decided earlier that the wall was too enormous to hang the latex skin as a continuous work of art: the latex would be too heavy and would snap; so instead they devised a grid system based on the factory window mullions, and hung rectangles of latex from the scaffolding. Together the rectangles created a tarnished, tissue-thin antique mirror, a reflection of the wall itself. Light from the factory windows shone though the pollution that had been transferred to the latex. Otero-Pailos called the Bolzano piece “The Ethics of Dust.”

The project was inspired, in part, by one of Otero-Pailos’s heroes, John Ruskin, the British art and architecture theorist whose prodigious literary output included a book called The Ethics of the Dust (Otero-Pailos omitted the second “the”), originally published in 1865. Ruskin, who spent long periods in Venice, believed that dust and dirt had value, and when deposited on buildings, became intrinsic to their history. He called the accumulation of grime a “time-stain” and encouraged Venetian conservators to preserve the city’s dark and dirty facades. Soiling meant age, and age was a building’s “greatest glory,” he wrote. “Restoration may possibly … produce good imitation of an ancient work of art; but the original is then falsified, and in its restored state it is no longer an example of the art of the period to which it belonged … [Restoration] is a Lie from beginning to end.” 2

Ruskin’s ideas about preservation were compelling and influential; but then as now the field was marked by ideological divisions. Ruskin’s contemporary, the equally influential architect-theorist Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, championed the reverse approach. Viollet-le-Duc never hesitated to take creative license with his restorations, adding elements that were never part of a building to begin with and arguing that monuments should be brought to a state of perfection — of “completion.” Both men were complicated figures, and from our historical distance their passionately opposing views are easy to caricature. But an important distinction distills in the simplification: Ruskin, the “conservationist,” believed that buildings should remain as undisturbed as possible and that their age was to be revered and honored. Viollet-le-Duc, the “restorationist,” wanted the monument to be remade.

By the late 19th century it was Viollet-le-Duc who appeared triumphant: Ruskin’s influence in the world of preservation began to fade in the 1890s when Camilo Boito, a Venetian conservator, dismissed the time-stain as “extrinsic filth.” Boito inspired wholesale cleaning campaigns and this view has, more or less, dominated the field for a century. Yet Otero-Pailos is not the first to find inspiration in Ruskin or to reinterpret some of his theories. The April 1997 issue of Assemblage was dedicated to the theme “Ruskin Redux.” Guest editor Jennifer Bloomer, in her introduction, noted that it would be easy to consign Ruskin to the forgettable past because of his “ignorance of building technologies,” “simplistic approach to the structure-ornament relation,” and his “failure to apprehend the spatial qualities of buildings.” Ruskin could, she suggested, be dismissed as a Victorian snob with fussy sensibilities and a loopy prose style. But actually, his “cries for architecture as a collaborative profession in which the construction worker’s skills are appreciated by a deferential architect would be very much at home on the pages of a self-critical professional journal today.” 3

Jorge Otero-Pailos, The Ethics of Dust: Alumix, Bolzano, 2008
Jorge Otero-Pailos, “The Ethics of Dust: Alumix, Bolzano, 2008.” [Museum of the Province of Alto Adige]

Thinking out loud about Ruskin one afternoon in his narrow office overlooking Columbia’s Beaux-Arts campus, Otero-Pailos noted that it was the metamorphic cliffs of the Alps that inspired Ruskin to think about the past and the future, stretching out forever in different directions. For Ruskin, stone was the foundational material of architecture; it provoked him to imagine architecture as a temporal reality. “Stone almost requires you to project yourself into the deep past and deep future because it lasts and lasts and lasts,” said Otero-Pailos. But the details of Ruskin’s far-flung travels don’t really concern Otero-Pailos. Instead, he is interested in creating iterations of his “Dust” project in various cities across the globe because he wants to loosely retrace the footsteps of Ruskin’s mind. Or, as Otero-Pailos put it, “the imagistic references in Ruskin’s writings about different places where he’d been. The places that had shaped his thinking, the kind of material environments.”

Venice: Another Wall to Clean

Venice, then, would be the perfect location for a second iteration of “The Ethics of Dust” — so long as Otero-Pailos could find the right wall to clean, in cooperation with Renata Codello, the superintendent of Venice’s Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities (roughly, the city’s landmark commission). 4 Having realized that the Procuratie Nuove wouldn’t work, Otero-Pailos paced the city’s labyrinthine streets “like crazy,” he said, searching for another building, another wall, not ready to give up. Meanwhile, he had been passing by his potential solution for weeks: He had been hanging around the Doge’s Palace, where the landmarks commission has its office, one of the spaces in the building where tourists aren’t allowed.

After Otero-Pailos negotiated with Codello, she agreed to let him clean one of the palace walls. But cleaning a wall of one of the city’s most treasured landmarks — constructed between 1309 and 1424, ravaged by fire in 1574 and since restored — would come with its own bureaucratic and logistical nightmares. Recalling them, Otero-Pailos rubbed his hand over his dark eyes. “I’m just thinking back on this and it’s giving me an ulcer.” Because the palace is owned by the commune of Venice, he had to agree to a long list of demands, including the conducting of chemical tests on the wall. He had to fight to oversee the project himself. He spent several torturous days doubting whether he would be able to obtain the special cleaning supplies he’d need, and when the first shipment of the latex solution froze, he had to have a second shipment taxied to him from the manufacturer in Belgium. And when the installation was complete and the latex was hanging from a custom-made beam, it still wasn’t a sure thing. The latex had absorbed excessive moisture and was sagging to the floor. Otero-Pailos said, “You’re just there alone with your work of art, thinking ‘This is going to be a disaster, man.’” But eventually the water evaporated and the latex shrunk back. As he walked tensely through the aisles of the Biennale on opening night, he saw one of the workmen. “Is it still there?” he asked. “Yeah,” the workman said, “And it looks great.” And it did look great, strategically lit to appear as if it produced its own glow.

Jorge Otero-Pailos, The Ethics of Dust: Doge's Palace, Venice, 2009
The original Doge’s Palace wall (left) and its pollution, transferred onto latex (right), in Jorge Otero-Pailos’s “The Ethics of Dust: Doge’s Palace, Venice, 2009.” [Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Foundation T-BA21]

The Ethics of Preservation

Cleaning buildings has been central to the practice of historic preservation and conservation since the field’s inception — since Ruskin, Viollet-le-Duc and Boito — a way not only to maintain buildings, but also to uncover the original aesthetic intent. Otero-Pailos began thinking about cleaning in relationship to preservation because he became interested in the division of labor in the field. “Most of the people in charge are men, most of the people who have crappy jobs are women. A lot of the cleaning gets done by women,” he said. 5 For Otero-Pailos, the critique of cleaning — that it valorizes shiny materials and in the process can uphold sexism, and perhaps classism and racism — led to another realization: our relationship to the age of buildings changed with industrialization, when dirt came to mean pollution. In a sense his work in Bolzano and later in Venice is asking us to acknowledge pollution’s place in our lives and recognize our role in producing it. Otero-Pailos calls dust the “edge condition” of life — “dust to dust.”

And as he sees it, historic preservation consolidated into a discipline when dirt was no longer valued as a time-stain but instead was derided as filth. “The material source of preservation’s existence is pollution,” he said. “Had there been no pollution, I sincerely doubt we would have preservation as we know it.” When Otero-Pailos conservatively cleans a building wall to leave a patina (which Ruskin would have liked) and displays the latex cast of the pollution as art, he is conserving both the wall and the dirt. He is letting the dirt tell a story (and sometimes even going so far as to have it analyzed in a lab for its make-up). “While it’s important to continue to care for built heritage and art, we also have to recognize that what we’ve been caring for is pollution. Some might see this as polemical, but pollution is our cultural heritage.”

And in fact some do see this is as polemical. “I’m not sure I’d call pollution our most important product,” says Jeanne Marie Teutonico, an architectural conservator by training (a graduate of Columbia) and associate director at the Getty Conservation Institute. But Teutonico does think that Otero-Pailos’s work reinforces the strong intellectual and creative element in preservation and conservation; that his work has been shown in biennials suggests that her professional peers aren’t “just a bunch of antiquarians who like ruins,” she said in a phone interview from California. Philip Marshall, a professor at Roger Williams University since 1990 and the coordinator of its Historic Preservation Program, remembers hearing Otero-Pailos give a talk about the contemporary Spanish architects Jesús Aparicio and Héctor Fernández Elorza, who discovered a de-mapped subway tunnel below the 1933 Nuevos Ministerios in Madrid, where they were commissioned to create a new lecture hall, and who then exposed the tunnel in creative ways. For Marshall, the project wasn’t exactly preservation, because “some pretty good material was being compromised” and it didn’t represent best practices. But he found the project interesting: “I was quite enamored.”

Yet Teutonico wonders how transparent Otero-Pailos’s message is to the public. “Jorge is an architect,” she points out, “and he’s using his art and design to be provocative.” Just as historic preservation as an academic program was “invented” at Columbia, perhaps what Otero-Pailos is helping to invent now is preservation as a radical social, aesthetic, experimental and technical practice. When he joined the Columbia faculty, in 2002, the program was beginning to experience an internal division between what Wigley calls “a design-oriented, transformative idea of preservation and a more protectionist approach. So Jorge landed right in the middle and said, ‘let’s talk about it.’” For Otero-Pailos, who defines preservation in part as the “organization of attention,” this middle ground is ripe for discussion. What do we attend to? As Wigley puts it, “Jorge is using preservation as an acupuncture point to open up a whole series of questions about the nature of the built environment, the nature of art, the nature of culture, communication, and memory.”

Jorge Otero-Pailos cleaning the wall of the Doge’s Palace
Jorge Otero-Pailos cleaning the wall of the Doge’s Palace in 2009. [photo by Michele Nastasi]

“It has to do with time”

When the Biennale was over, Otero-Pailos wanted to donate “The Ethics of Dust” to the Doge’s Palace, which has a museum housing relics removed from the building as elements were replaced or repaired. But the museum wasn’t interested. “My argument was that [the pollution is] intrinsic to the building, but clearly for them it isn’t, if they’re allowing it to be removed,” he said, the last “it” referring not to the dirt that came off in the cleaning, but rather to the many layers lost in the wholesale cleanings that the palace has often undergone. 6

Otero-Pailos is working on new “Dust” projects, still following in Ruskin’s footsteps. Right now he’s focused on one in Murcia, Spain, set to open at the end of this year. Without the support of an institution or powerful figure in the art or architecture world, the goals are daunting. But he’s been lucky so far. “A lot of people criticize biennials, but biennials help,” said Otero-Pailos. “They make certain works possible. They deal with art that is very expensive, ephemeral, difficult to produce and collect. Some of the themes are not necessarily more radical, just harder to make a reality,” he said, shrugging off the notion that he’s “just a biennial artist.”

Otero-Pailos spends a lot of time in and with buildings, not casually, but with purposeful attendance, like sitting bedside. During one summer break from college, in the early 1990s, he and two friends — a musician and a filmmaker — were traveling in Spain, where Otero-Pailos was born and spent his early childhood; they convinced a woman who ran tours at the Santa Maria del Naranco, in Asturias, to give them a key to the 9th-century structure — a former palace, now a church. They spent two weeks hanging out at the old stone building, filming inconsequential stuff, making drawings and eating McDonald’s take-out. Finally, in the midst of this summer project, they decided that the secret of the church was its shadows, and they set about mapping them around the four corners of the structure by placing flagged stakes in the ground, filming as they went. In the end the flags made patterns of undulating ripples, much to the annoyance of the woman who ran the tours.

“We had no idea what we were doing. There was no purpose. There was no client. We had endless time. My grandmother lived close by. It was like going to work … it was an amazing experience, to spend time with this building,” said Otero-Pailos. “I don’t understand how people can grasp architecture in a few minutes. So having the ability to spend time in this place was a way to grasp it, and to grasp what makes a building a work of architecture.” As Otero-Pailos talked, in his office at Columbia, students in an architecture studio next door were playing ambient music — Philip Glass if he’d never gone to Juilliard — and the discordant beeps and horns reverberated through the halls. “And I really think it’s not the style of a building that makes the difference,” he said. “It has to do with time.”

  1. All quotes are from interviews with the author.
  2. John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), quoted in Norman Tyler, Ted J. Ligibel, Ilene R. Tyler, Historic Preservation: An Introduction to Its History, Principles, and Practice, Second Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 22.
  3. Jennifer Bloomer, “Ruskin Redux,” Assemblage, Vol. 32, April 1997, 8–11.
  4. Daniel Birnbaum selected Otero-Pailos to create something for the 2009 Venice Art Biennale, and Francesca von Habsburg, founder of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (T-BA21) commissioned the new work.
  5. See Jorge Otero-Pailos, “Conservation Cleaning/Cleaning Conservation,” Future Anterior, vol. 4, no. 1, Summer 2007.
  6. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary foundation purchased the work and it’s now part of the collection in Vienna.
Laura Raskin, “Jorge Otero-Pailos and the Ethics of Preservation,” Places Journal, January 2011. Accessed 30 Sep 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • namhenderson

    01.19.2011 at 13:30

    Wonderful project. It seems as if it hold two purposes. It first functions as an artistic performance piece. Yet, it also serves the "practical" purpose of cleaning a building. While his work does call into question some of the social/political structures 'embedded' in the act of cleaning or decision to clean, it seems as if it could also be a very performative and pedagogical method to study/teach preservation in one form, at least.

  • Z. Sachs

    01.19.2011 at 17:21

    Fascinating. I want an exhibition of Rachel Whiteread, Gordon Matta-Clark and Otero-Pailos: 'the syntax of building.'

  • Jay

    01.23.2011 at 19:57

    A beautifully artistic and social expression...

  • Patrick Fox

    01.24.2011 at 10:16

    A fascinating piece, the excellent writing made me curious to know more.

  • 09.05.2013 at 16:02

    By indexing the indexical surfaces that are his subjects, Otero-Pailos memorializes and celebrates architectural character.