The Ethics of Dust: Trajan’s Column
Photography: Courtesy of Peter Kelleher and the V&A Commissioned by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and exhibited in 2015, Jorge Otero-Pailos’ “The Ethics of Dust: Trajan’s Column” is a conservation-latex curtain hung from a metal ring armature (foreground) that recorded the layers of dust and dirt accumulated over a century and a half inside the 1864 cast of Trajan’s Column (middle and rear).

“The Ethics of Dust,” an ongoing project by architect, historian, and artist Jorge Otero-Pailos, AIA, addresses both the moral implications of pollution and the practical implications of cleaning monuments. Pollution, he contends in the account that follows, can never be eradicated—it can only be displaced. Our shared cultural heritage, then, is about monuments and prosaic structures alike, but it is also about the residue of architectural production. Furthermore, says Otero-Pailos, we can design all the grand structures we like and even make copies of those structures in perpetuity—as his project for Trajan’s Column demonstrates—but our chief product as a species is nothing more (or less) than toxins.

I think of pollution as the chief product of the Anthropocene. It’s clearly the material that one can turn to as the evidence of the Anthropocene. It’s the anchor of this concept of a new geological era. That, to me, is really important, especially in light of the recent climate talks. The best they can do—the leaders—is look for solutions in preservation. But which date do we turn ourselves back to in terms of an ideal time when pollution was minimal?

What is amazing is this conceptualization of the atmosphere as an object of preservation. We have been talking about architecture as interior rooms—as buildings that go to a lot line, vistas, landscapes—and now we’re talking about not just air, but the entire atmosphere of the planet as one object that needs to be tended to. The idea of turning an object back to its original moment is suspect, though—it’s problematic for preservationists. But pollution is evidence of the lack of inventiveness and intellectual sophistication around the climate discussion. If the best we can do is to imagine the return of the atmosphere to some date in the past—1985? 1995?—that’s an issue.

This is a huge challenge for civilization to preserve our atmosphere, unlike the way you can easily preserve an interior or a building, a district or a park. With every increase in the size of the object to be preserved, we’ve had to imagine new institutions. We don’t currently have an institution in place capable to address this task for the atmosphere.

In preservation, we’ve made this claim for a very long time that the public good cuts across property. When you think about a view shed, it runs over many people’s private properties; but it’s in the interest of the public that we regulate all that private property. Nobody likes to talk about regulation, but, in fact, to recognize that regulation is in the nature of private property

I think this is where the big challenge is, and it’s an incredible opportunity: to define the nature of atmosphere as an object. We have defined it in terms of technology—something that we can manipulate or exploit. We can even use technology to bring it back in time. But in terms of preservation, we are also dealing with the atmosphere as a cultural object— which by definition has significance across multiple generations. It’s about heritage. We cannot fix the problem by thinking just technologically. We do not have a global culture of understanding the atmosphere— and that’s the challenge. That is the basis of intergenerational equity—leaving the world to our children in the way we first found it.

We are consumers, so we consume. We are a species at the top of the food chain without a predator, and so we cannot regulate ourselves. But we must, and that’s where preservation comes in.

The interesting phenomenon for me is the idea that historical evidence is untampered. There really isn’t such a thing as untampered evidence. All evidence has to be prepared, cared for, manipulated to specific codes, and so on. Think about O.J. Simpson’s glove—the whole conversation was how that glove was handled by the police. What are the standards of evidence? They are culturally specific. Over time, different objects have been considered historical evidence, and the threshold for what disqualifies objects as evidence has been moving. Nevertheless, we continue to think of evidence as something pure. The nature of preservation creativity is acknowledging the necessary manipulation of the record of evidence that is extraordinarily obvious, but is meant to be ignored. Forensic experts qualify evidence. It’s the same thing with preservation. If you are not a preservationist and you begin manipulating a building, that building isn’t considered a preserved object.

The world is constructed, and so is physical evidence. Naturally, that leads to a great deal of anxiety for people. We like certainties, but—I will tell you—it doesn’t mean we cannot be certain about things. We can, but we have to be certain about the truth that our world is a constructed world. Truth is a claim on reality. We make claims on reality that are conceptual and physical, and one of the most exciting creative fields is preservation.

One of the ways to engage climate change is to recycle, but Trajan’s Column was another way in which I could look at that phenomenon. Recycling is a physical ritual and reminder of the limited resources that we have. In my work, the idea of exhibiting the work of preservation as art is one of the ways in which I try to bring objects into a new narrative. In the end, my work is concerned with engaging monuments in today’s conversation in a new way. We are told that monuments should mean a certain thing—evoke a certain memory or event. But they will have continued relevance if we can reinterpret them.

Experimental preservation is a theoretically informed practice that’s about testing hypotheses of what preservation can be. It is—by nature of this testing— pushing the notions of interdisciplinarity because preservation has always been interdisciplinary. But what are the relevant disciplines for preservation today? What is relevant knowledge and technology and aesthetics for the field? This push outward that experimental preservation is about is also a way to reaffirm the unique disciplinarity of preservation. Preservation has a very stable locus, but its borders are shifting through practical engagement with the world.

For example, I think artists and art are hugely important to preservation. They always have been; some of the greatest conservation scientists and restorers have been artists. But art has been pushed aside because of a fear that there is a divide between preservation and art—one being about conservation and the other about creation. That’s a false dichotomy. Look at Ai Weiwei, who is going out and buying ancient wooden temples and preventing them from being sold in the market for real estate development. It’s the same thing that happened in the 1920s—buying interiors and installing them in their homes. But that’s an aside from the point that the major artists of today are seriously engaged in questions of preservation. So we preservationists have to seriously engage those artists.

I’ve never thought of myself as an activist, but I certainly am an actor in the world—as are we all. Preservation has an activist history, certainly.

I think of preservation as the organization of attention—at a very basic level: If you put a velvet rope in front of a monument, people line up. It’s about telling you what to look at and what to value as important. It’s about putting a frame on the world. Activism is one version of that—and it is part of the continuum of preservation. At a certain level, there are no frontiers between the arts. They are all connected, and what you strive for in life is to transcend barriers.

Architecture, preservation, art, and so on were all disciplines that were re-codified in the 19th century and accompanied the industrial revolution. I think these disciplines are radically changing now into new ones, and so I’m perfectly comfortable with inhabiting all of them. It’s our responsibility to move them into the new reality—the world we live in.

One of the things I find interesting about our world is how many theories of the end that we have—positive theories, such as cyborgs, and negative ones, such as the Armageddon. Basically, we’ve all given up on human beings. That’s not good. We need a new plan. And it’s related to preservation because we talk about preserving everything except ourselves— monuments, buildings, the atmosphere. The thing is: We can’t do one without the other. —As told to William Richards