Carolyn Strauss

Slow Ground: A Review of Jorge Otero-Pailos' "Ethics of Dust"

"We think of the future as clean, but the reality is that we can’t get rid of pollution.
It is a product of the civilization that we have made."

Jorge Otero-Pailos

“Long-term thinking is in short supply.”

Lucy Lippard, Undermining1

Jorge Otero-Pailos, "The Ethics of Dust," 2016, YBCA San Francisco. Courtesy of Jorege Otero-Pailos.

Two luminous architectural volumes float in space in one of the galleries of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. They are cast from more than a century of matter that has accumulated on the industrial chimneys of San Francisco’s historic Old Mint, a relic of the California gold rush, located just two blocks away. Material stirred up by mining activity, tectonic forces, urban redevelopment, and the everyday movements of generations of inhabitants meet at the surface of these impressive structures. Walking around and entering them within the gallery space, visitors are invited to consider not only on those embedded material realities of the Old Mint and local environment, but also their less visible physical and social layers: histories of labor, migration, genocide, displacement, environmental degradation, industrialization, and global capitalism. The work on display is The Ethics of Dust: Old United States Mint, San Francisco, created by artist and architectural preservationist Jorge Otero-Pailos to encourage deeper reflection on one of humanity’s most neglected, and also most abundant, cultural products: pollution (“dust”).


Jorge Otero-Pailos, "The Ethics of Dust," 2016, YBCA San Francisco. Courtesy of Jorege Otero-Pailos.
Jorge Otero-Pailos, "The Ethics of Dust," 2016, YBCA San Francisco. Courtesy of Jorege Otero-Pailos.

Dust is ground lifted into the air and transported through the atmosphere. Widely distributed in both space and time, it is at once evasive and pervasive. We become aware of its presence (and its doggedness) when it collects under the couch, soils the surfaces of our monuments, or clogs our lungs. And yet, on the whole, we prefer to ignore it, pushing it away and moving it around rather than accepting it as an integral part of our daily lives and, more importantly, of our cultural heritage.

For Otero-Pailos, however, it is an essential record of our passage that, when sufficiently accumulated in time and space, offers tangible substance through which to reflect about the very nature of being human on our living earth. He explains that, because it contains particulates of the life that produced it, the dust that settles on an object is a document of the larger environment surrounding it. Acknowledging this, he says, “helps us understand the environment as something that is constantly being deposited.” This is happening at such a scale today, that it is transforming the very ‘ground’ we stand on: changing the carbonation of rocks currently in formation, and thereby becoming part of the geological layer. “We will have in the crust of the earth a record of our time here that will outlast any building. All of the skyscrapers and monuments will be long gone, but the pollution will still be around.”2

Jorge Otero-Pailos, "The Ethics of Dust," 2016, YBCA San Francisco. Courtesy of Slow Research Lab.

Several years ago, inspired by John Ruskin’s musings about the matter on our built environment as “stains of time,” Otero-Pailos developed a process (based on preservation cleaning techniques) for casting layers of pollution onto transparent sheets of latex, then hanging and illuminating them as objects of contemplation. In this way, as with land art of the 1960’s and 70’s (most notably the work of Roberts Morris and Smithson), The Ethics of Dust helps make visible and tangible a vast landscape that is otherwise impossible to fully take in; thereby, in the words of Lucy Lippard, “connecting the places where we stand with the places we will never stand.”3 At the same time, unlike those earlier artists who aimed to reclaim and transform polluted sites through artistic engagement, Otero-Pailos’ “cleaning” interventions seek not to remediate the sites he engages, but rather to amplify their filth. The result exists in the realm of what architectural historian David Gissen calls “subnature”: "those forms of nature deemed primitive (mud and dankness), filthy (smoke, dust, and exhaust), fearsome (gas or debris), or uncontrollable (weeds, insects, and pigeons).” For Gissen, the subnatural is a place where “we can barely exist in the state that we currently conceive ourselves, both socially and biologically.”4

Jorge Otero-Pailos, "The Ethics of Dust," 2016, YBCA San Francisco. Courtesy of Patrick Monte.
Jorge Otero-Pailos, "The Ethics of Dust," 2016, YBCA San Francisco. Courtesy of Patrick Monte.

Seen through Gissen’s lens of “subnature,” The Ethics of Dust is a direct challenge to the very foundations upon which structures like the Old Mint are erected (read: ground). Typologically cloaked in the Greek Revival style, the building is intended to inspire lofty, post-Enlightenment notions of “civilization” and “progress,” overriding and undermining5 the less-than-lofty details of its raison d’être and the myriad of events that have unfolded around it. In that sense, the pollution that Otero-Pailos has extracted from the surfaces of the building’s two chimneys offers a more truthful narrative of people and landscape–embracing the spectrum of bodies, human and non-human, that have traversed the site, exposing its inherent contradictions and contested histories–and hints at its potential as a tool of subversion and resistance. As a form of “subnature,” Gissen explains, “its inherently alienating character enables us to consider how more comforting forms and dynamic images of nature are often used to reproduce existing forms of power in society.” It is a “provocation in the contemporary urban sphere” that can transform how we engage both the built environment and notions of “ground.”6


Adjacent to the installation in San Francisco, a historic photograph shows the city in 1848: a calm expanse of nature dotted by a handful of houses. Within months, the discovery of gold would unleash a firestorm of human activity that continues to this day, dramatically transforming the physical environment and touching nearly every aspect of contemporary life.

Jorge Otero-Pailos, "The Ethics of Dust," 2016, YBCA San Francisco. Courtesy of Patrick Monte.
Jorge Otero-Pailos, "The Ethics of Dust," 2016, YBCA San Francisco. Courtesy of Patrick Monte.

Interventions like The Ethics of Dust help us recuperate some of our connection to those lost landscapes, by offering tangible evidence of our intimate intermingling with a web of other-ness: we are not separate from our outputs or from the rest of the living world, but rather are among many “vital players”7 engaged in dynamic, enduring interaction across infinite spans of space and time. Shifting to embrace this fact of our interdependence enables an understanding of “ground” as part and parcel of our very selves, and creates a deeper sense of accountability for our collective existence.

The Ethics of Dust: Old United States Mint, San Francisco was commissioned as part of the exhibition SLOW DIALOGUES: Time, Space, and Scale on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from April 22–July 31, 2016. Curated by Slow Research Lab.

  1. Lippard, L., Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, The New Press, 2014 (p.148). 

  2. Jorge Otero-Pailos interview with Slow Research Lab, March 2016. 

  3. Lippard op. cit., (p. 89). 

  4. Gissen, D. Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009 (pp. 22-23). 

  5. “Undermining literally – as in pits and shafts that reflect culture, alter irreplaceable ecosystems, and generate new structures; undermining’s physical consequences, its scars on the human body politic; undermining as what we are doing to our continent and to the planet when greed and inequity triumph; undermining as political act – subversion is one way artists can resist." - Lippard, L., op. cit., (p. 2). 

  6. Gissen op. cit., (p. 24). 

  7. Political theorist Jane Bennett explores this idea in detail in her book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. There she elaborates about the importance of cultivating receptivity to other bodies: “The ethical aim becomes to distribute the value more generously to bodies as such. Such a newfound attentiveness to matter and its powers will not solve the problem of human exploitation or oppression, but it can inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations.” Bennett, J., Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press Books, 2010 (pp. 12-13). 

CAROLYN STRAUSS is founder and director of Slow Research Lab, a multidisciplinary research and curatorial platform based in the Netherlands that investigates an expanded field of human awareness and engagement through research residencies, immersive study experiences, exhibitions, publications, and in-situ dialogues.

JORGE OTERO-PAILOS works at the intersection of art, architecture and preservation. His artwork has been exhibited at major museums, festivals, galleries and foundations, including Manifesta7, the 53rd Venice Art Biennial, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and La Galerie Louis Vuitton. He has received awards from organizations including the Kress Foundation, the Graham Foundation, the Fitch Foundation, and the Canadian Center for Architecture, and in 2012 was honored with the UNESCO Eminent Professional Award. Otero-Pailos studied architecture at Cornell University and holds a PhD from MIT. He is the newly-appointed head of Historic Preservation at Columbia GSAPP in New York. He is founder and editor of the journal Future Anterior, author of Architecture’s Historical Turn (2010) and a contributor to scholarly journals and books including Rem Koolhaas’ Preservation Is Overtaking Us (2014).