Sweeping something under the rug: in conversation with Antonio Santin
by Urvi KothariDec 22, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Mar 23, 2023
At some point, not that long ago, already in our current century, and most likely in the midst of the 2008 world financial crisis, preservation became a hot topic for architects. The profession that before that moment generally headed toward pursuing the idealist future-oriented modernisation project, reached a point when it suddenly lost interest in anything that was created from scratch. That’s when the focus firmly shifted to the idea of finding comfort, even if in just the visual cosiness and safety of the past. Traces of time, whether ancient, old, recent, or even imitated, became critical and even desirable. Svetlana Boym famously diagnosed this trend when she quipped, “The 20th century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia.” Perhaps it was not at all a coincidence when during those turbulent times the work of a preservation architect Jorge Otero-Pailos took an unexpected turn.
Based on his writings in which he described how to clean and preserve buildings—by using latex casts to remove dust and dirt—Otero-Pailos was invited to create a work of conservation/art for the European Biennial of Contemporary Art or Manifesta in Bolzano, Italy. In the disused aluminium factory where the biennial took place, and from which the curators, Raqs Media Collective out of New Delhi, India, expected artists to take inspiration, he was given a chance to put his theories into practice. The curators asked him to clean a large wall and to document the process as (…) an art project. The experiment resulted in a 12 x 12 metre installation made of 175 pieces, each 1.5 metres by half a metre (at the time he did not know how to make one big piece). It was this project that transformed the preservationist into an artist.
Jorge Otero-Pailos was born in Madrid in 1971. At the age of 14, he travelled to the United States through a study abroad program as a foreign exchange student at a high school near Chicago where his art teacher introduced him to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and encouraged him to study architecture. He earned his Bachelor of Architecture in 1994 and Master of Urban Design the following year, both from Cornell, and proceeded to obtain his PhD from MIT in 1997. A few years later he became Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University where in 2016, he was appointed as the Director of the Historic Preservation program, which two years later launched the country’s first PhD program in historic preservation. In the following interview with Jorge Otero-Pailos we discussed his original interest in pollution, investigating art as a form of experimental preservation, the extent of polluting the land and the sky, the difference between cleaning a building and making a work of art, and the meaning of art which is to allow us to see the world differently.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You have become known for recording how pollution and dust settle on historical monuments. Why are you interested in this kind of preservation and how did this preoccupation start?
Jorge Otero-Pailos: I became interested in the subject of dust because it is one of the most basic materials that all preservationists deal with. Yet cleaning old buildings is often done without much thought because it is assumed that the dust that we are removing has no value. For me, that became a central question—What are we removing? To answer that question, I needed to be able to isolate the substance being removed from the building in order to look at it. That’s how I began to experiment with a technique that uses latex as a poultice. The latex is applied in liquid form. As it dries up it absorbs the dust and forms a skin that can be removed as a sort of cast of the building. The dust comes off with it. That’s how my series called The Ethics of Dust started. The idea was to examine and raise questions about the nature of this microscopic layer of dust that falls from the sky and settles over buildings, completely changing their appearance, and I would argue also their meaning.
VB: You became an architect and preservationist before becoming an artist but you were interested in art all along, right?
JOP: That's right. Back in Spain, I grew up in a family that valued and encouraged art alongside other ways of making sense of the world like science or math. My father was a landscape painter and a forestry engineer. His friend Luis Herrera, a classically trained oil painter who was deaf, took me on as a pupil. We never talked about painting. He would show me the technique and I followed him. He would take my brush and correct my paintings, demonstrating how to paint. Once I immigrated to the US, my high school art teacher pointed me in the direction of architecture as a career that integrated art and science. I went to architecture school all the way to getting my PhD in architectural history. Along the way, I was influenced by many artists that were trained as architects, especially Gordon Matta-Clark. At Cornell, I cut the walls of one of the crit rooms, for which I was rewarded with a summons from the fire department. (Laughs). I was always interested in working with existing buildings and tried to approach them artistically. Interestingly, what I was doing was well received by the world of art, more so than by the world of architecture.
VB: Let’s talk about the process of collecting dust. You use a liquid latex cast to remove dust from building surfaces. Was this technique used before or did you start it?
JOP: For centuries buildings have been cleaned with poultices. You need to use a material that will stay moist for a long time so that it will loosen the encrusted dust from the surface. The most typical materials used for this purpose are paper pulp and clay. Around the turn of the century, latex was introduced as a cleaning technique for sculpture. Then a small Belgian company, called Arte Mundit, started producing latex for conservation and cleaning larger architectural areas. I met with them to conduct experimental preservation demonstration projects, in order to push the technical limits of the medium and explore its artistic potential. The project for Manifesta in 2008 was the first time latex had been used in Italy to clean a historical building. The following year I used it to clean the Doge's Palace, and the artwork was shown at the Venice Art Biennale. As a result of all these experiments this product is now much more refined and has been used widely for masonry cleaning. And it is a great alternative to pressure washing, for example, which may be damaging to buildings. Using latex allows a controlled and very consistent cleaning.
VB: You compared pollution to "our cultural legacy, a monument as eloquent as the great works it blackens." Could you elaborate?
JOP: Pollution lasts for a very long time. Few of the buildings around us will last for thousands of years. But our pollution will be there. And not only the time scale of our pollution is so much greater than the time scale of buildings, but so is its spatial scale. Just imagine, the dust from Roman mines was carried by trade winds to South America, then up through North America, before it was deposited at the North Pole. In other words, the cultural production of the Roman Empire was not just limited to the land around the Mediterranean. It extended to the entire atmosphere. Our pollution is a monumental megastructure that occupies the entire sky and will be around for millennia. Through my art, I began understanding the atmosphere as a cultural object, a monument that we are collectively building.
As I produce my works of art, I cannot help but wonder—where does all that dust come from? By some estimates, 40 per cent of greenhouse gases and airborne particles come from buildings. Not just the objects, but rather a much larger construction that encompasses the entire atmosphere. This raises the question of what comes first when we make architecture—the foundation or the manmade sky. As we construct buildings, we pollute the sky first. We start by manufacturing the building materials and transporting them to the site, all of which entails making pollution. Chronologically polluting, dispersing materials in the sky comes first, then comes assembling materials on a plot of land. So, pollution comes first, then comes architecture. Currently, architecture is practised, exhibited, and published ignoring everything beyond the property line of the plot of land. The focus is on the building itself. My artworks expand that focus to visualise traces of the architecture that we have been collectively assembling in the atmosphere.
VB: You did one of your pieces at the Doge's Palace, which was displayed at the 2009 Venice Art Biennale in Arsenale. Then after the show you offered to donate your piece to the Doge’s Palace, which they refused. Why?
JOP: Let me start with the fact that Doge's Palace is a very important building in the history of preservation because a series of key innovations happened there. According to one of the principles outlined by the 19thcentury Italian conservationist Camillo Boito, during the process of restoration, pieces that are removed from buildings need to be saved and archived. The Doge's Palace became the first experiment of that idea. So, they started removing the column capitals from its façade and replacing them with copies, while the originals were preserved inside the building. In a way, the building is digesting itself, so to speak, and it has a depository of all the original pieces, while on the outside it has been turning into a copy of itself. So, when I cleaned one of the oldest walls in the palace, I told them that the dust I removed was original to the building. Some of it comes from the eighth century. Naturally, I suggested putting my piece into their museum. I was serious but they thought it was a joke. In the end, the work was purchased by the TBA21 Foundation based in Madrid and Vienna.
VB: Where else can your pieces be found?
JOP: This is a loaded question, isn’t it? I have been influenced by Duchamp. I take dust found on monuments and move it into other contexts. The dust is a fragment of the monument that is considered to have no value while it is found on the monument. But once it is moved onto the latex, we perceive its value differently. This movement is important in relation to value. That is why I began the series of artworks called Distributed Monuments.
VB: When did the Distributed Monuments series start?
JOP: It began after Artangel's public art commissioned me to create an Ethics of Dust installation in Westminster Hall, a 1000-year-old building that serves as the entrance for the British Houses of Parliament, as well as the place where monarchs lie in state. We spent six years removing the dust from Westminster Hall.
By coincidence, the installation opened during the Brexit vote. As crowds gathered to protest outside Parliament for days on end, the artwork became associated with that historic event. A number of museums expressed interest in the work, and after much discussion, we made the decision to cut the work and distribute fragments to museums in each of the nations of the UK. So Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England all received a work. The installation was close to 50 metres long and 7 metres high, so every museum received a very large fragment. This dust was nondescript until I removed it from the building. It was the act of distributing the fragments that paradoxically made the dust appear as belonging to the building. The distribution brought value to the dust, and also showed how the dust brought value to the building.
VB: Was that a cleaning project or was it an art project?
JOP: Well, this question sits right at the heart of my work. It is both.
VB: How did they define it?
JOP: In the UK Parliament we worked primarily with two offices—one presiding over architectural preservation and the other over curating works of art. And they are often in conflict because every time an art curator wants to put a new artwork in the building, they need to put a nail into a wall and that nail becomes the source of a lot of debate with the preservation office. So, there is a centuries-long history of tension between those offices. My work was defined as a work of preservation while it was on the wall. Removing the dust was architectural preservation but the moment it came off the wall it became a work of art. But I am invested in both art and science. In my artistic process, art and science inform each other. For me, art can be a scientific method for preservation. My artworks bring together artistic and scientific ways of caring for the existing world.
VB: How would you describe your work and the kind of art that you would like to achieve?
JOP: I think of my art practice as a method of care. Every act of care is an attempt to make sense of the existing world, to recognise its significance and value. Of course, recognising something is also allowing it to become meaningful for us. Changing how we see things is one of the key functions of art.
VB: You said about your latex pieces that they are works of documentation as much as works of art. What would you say makes them art?
JOP: I think their ability to sustain attention over a long period of time. They enact questions that are urgent and contemporary, and they are not immediately answerable. There are no obvious answers and the questions they pose are still meaningful and worth pondering. Art allows us to see the world differently. I think my work can create a space for that by offering a different way of seeing the material fragments of our existing world. The meaning that artworks acquire within each person can be very unexpected. It has been said that my works pick up meaning along the way.
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