Was glänzt ist für den Augenblick geboren,
Das Aechte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.
What dazzles, for the moment spends its spirit;
What's genuine, shall posterity inherit.
– Goethe1 Faust. Vorspiel auf dem Theater
Jorge Otero-Pailos' The Ethics of Dust: Doge's Palace, included in the 53rd Bienale di Venezia on view at the Arsenale, is not much to look at. A large sheet, it hangs in a crepuscular room. Composed of latex which has been developed to remove the pollution that has accumulated on the Doge's but without removing the patina that accompanies the aging of the building. As part of a larger work, Otero-Pailos seeks to illuminate, “how pollution has changed our understanding of architecture from something stable, solid, perhaps even timeless to something unstable, fragile, and temporary.”2 Located at the intersection of monumentality and ecology, The Ethics of Dust provides an uncanny facade, a literal doubling of the Doge's palace wall. But this is no longer a building defined by its integrity: as a load-bearing object, or this-wall-not-that-wall-over-there, this ephemeral skin of the Doge's wall is also the exhaust from that bus in 1963, those dust motes from 1992, the multiplicity of multiplicity as Deleuze and Guattari might have said. Otero-Pailos' piece might be best understood as a love letter from the future:
What does it mean to love somebody? It is always to seize that person in a mass, extract him or her... then to find that person's own packs, the multiplicities he or she encloses within himself or herself which may be of an entirely different nature. To join them to mine, to make them penetrate mine, and for me to penetrate the other person's.... Every love is an exercise in depersonalization on a body without organs yet to be formed....3
This depersonalization is precisely at the heart of The Ethics of Dust, as it begs the viewer to consider life beyond simply intentionality and to consider the constellational nature of life and its production. In depersonalizing The Ethics of Dust allows for an expanded sense of not only ethics but perhaps also how we are to understand the human being, a concern that is shared by the media theorist Wolfgang Schirmacher whose ideas on artificial life (1990) allow us to consider Otero-Pailos' piece in a productive manner.
If The Ethics of Dust ought to be thought of as a love letter from the future, perhaps it is a letter from what Schirmacher calls homo generator, the characteristic humans being today that have learned to operate within artificial life, “Artificial life embraces the art of living unique to humans in giving birth to the unexpected (Arendt's natality) and releasing the event of death (Heidegger's mortality).”4 This artificial life distinguishes itself from the familiar dichotomy of Real/fake in a Nietzschean move to affirmation of humanity's place in the world as originator of all values, all concepts, and a Heideggerian concern for understanding and working through the enframing of our world that is the handmaiden of technology:
Determined by a self-generating activity, we have to reformulate what it means to be human.... Humans are alone and fully responsible for artificial life which is the only life for us. This responsibility is ethical and, therefore, never fulfilled through intentional control.5
Both artificial life and The Ethics of Dust are largely concerned with overcoming the (familiar) perennial question of intentionality. The Ethics of Dust has been composed not simply to demonstrate Otero-Pailos' abilities to preserve monuments (although in this sense his work is a success), nor has this been created to once more remind the art-viewing public that pollution exists, but to reinvigorate our understanding of ourselves in relation to ourselves. Pollution exists, yes, but it exists in a manner not unlike our unconsciousness exists: an enormous complex of productive interactions that heavily influence our lives and whose ubiquitous presence and influence largely goes unnoticed. As Otero-Pailos states, “what I'm trying to do is to reclaim a place for the unintentional within human aesthetic creativity. That is what I see in pollution: the possibility of an unintentional aesthetic human production.”6
The possibility of an unintentional aesthetic human production, as Otero-Pailos has pointed out, thus far has been largely described in unproductive manners; this is something both he and Schirmacher address. Otero-Pailos' analysis of this unproductive discussion of unintentional aesthetics is similar to Schirmacher's in that both move away from discussions of beauty and nature as entities that rest on romantic ideas about the sublime. Schirmacher states that the artist is one who, “seeks fulfillment as fulfillment — no other, only fulfillment of itself (albeit in the identity of difference of self and otherness). Culture as art of self-fulfillment is autopoetics, its emergence and its feedback are one and the same.”7 In discussing autopoetics we see that The Ethics of Dust is an affirmation of this feedback process and also an affirmation of all those processes which exist that we have yet to understand – and affirmation of living itself.
In a time when, as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, it is easier for most people to imagine the world being destroyed by giant asteroids or catastrophic weather patterns, The Ethics of Dust is a joyful celebration of generation and generations. Because the piece itself is a document written by our forebears in the ink of unintended consequences of seemingly minor decisions – decisions that the viewer simply cannot be privy to. Nor perhaps can the viewer appreciate the piece without being reminded of Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo. In coming into contact with this shape (the result of cleaning the Doge's wall), as unintelligible to us as Rilke's lump of rock without the Idea (in this moment of pollution, in Rilke's time it was the vision of the godly) the viewer can be forgiven for softly reciting, “for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”8 Then, as now, the change being called for is overcoming the nihilism in the face of the absence of some Grand Narrative that would resolve what was dissolved into that latex.
1 Faust Eine Tragödie. Tübingen. (1808). Vorspiel auf dem Theater (l. 41)Project Gutenberg.
2 Goldstein, Andrew. "The Ethics of Dust: An Interview with Venice Bienale Artist Jorge Otero-Pailos." Art We Love. August 5, 2009.
3 Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Schizophrenia and Capitalism. Translated by Brian Massumi.
2 vols. Vol. 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 35.
4 Schirmacher, Wolfgang. "Homo Generator: Media and Postmodern Technology." In Culture on the Brink: Ideologies of
Technology, edited by Gretchen Bender and Timothy Duckrey. New York: Bay Press, 1994.
5Schirmacher, Wolfgang. "Cloning Humans with Media: Impermanence and Imperceptible Perfection." Poeisis, no. 2 (2000).
7 Schirmacher, Wolfgang. "Art(ificial) Perception: Nietzsche and Culture after Nihilism." Poeisis, no. 1 (1999).
8From Ahead of All Parting: Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell New York: Modern Library. 1995.