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Trevor Paglen Made a Time Capsule to Outlast Earth

Paglen compiled a list of 100 images culled from human history and etched them onto an ultra-archival silicon disc.
September 21, 2012, 5:35pm
Paglen's silicon disc

In geosynchronous orbit, a ribbon of space 35,786 kilometers above mean sea level, a satellite can hang out for billions of years. A few clicks in either direction, and the rate of decay is visible. In geosynchronous orbit, however, with no atmospheric drag to slow it down, a satellite can survive for an unearthly time scale — in the indefinite billions of years. This is a scale that scientists call "deep time," and it means that the satellites we've launched into space over the last fifty years will outlast not only their intended use, but — by a long margin — their makers. For any future alien archaeologists that might come along sometime before our sun turns into a red giant, these satellites will be like the Pyramids of Giza, or the slabs of stonehenge: a monolithic record of the distant human past.

The Last Pictures, a new project by the artist Trevor Paglen and commissioned by the public art organization Creative Time, takes advantage of this cosmic time-capsule. Consumed by the idea that these technological monuments will outlive us — and after years of discussion with scientists, philosophers, artists, and anthropologists — Paglen compiled a list of 100 images culled from human history and etched them onto an ultra-archival silicon disc.

The disc was designed by materials scientists at MIT and Carleton College, and has now been affixed to a communications satellite, EchoStar XVI, whose launch was set for this month from the Baikanour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but was delayed due to a rocket failure in August. The satellite – located at the 61.5 orbital location and containing 32 Ku-band transponders, to offer HD transmissions – will broadcast trillions of images over the next fifteen years. But its productive lifespan is a mere blip in the deep time of space compared to Paglen's little golden disc, which will wait patiently, bearing its curated record of the human race, for unknowable millennia. (There's a printed version too, for more Earthly time scales.)

Of course, aliens may never find it, and if they do, they may not have eyes. And if they do, they won't have the benefit of captions. At the launch event under the invisible stars behind the New York Public Library the other night, Werner Herzog, whose films have chronicled cave painting and alien visitations, ridiculed some of the pics – a girl laughing in a Japanese internment camp, for instance – as "cheap shots." ("It's nice to have an image of a child smiling… even though I don't trust smiles," he intoned.) "In one sense it's a deeply ridiculous project," Paglen told him. "Having said that, I thought it was a deeply ethical project."

Previously, Paglen was perhaps best known as an "experimental geographer," with conceptual forays around the peripheries of the military-industrial complex: he's methodically studied the visual traces left behind by covert operations, photographing military bases from miles away, stargazing for surveillance satellites and drones. Trevor Paglen's work has always illuminated the darkness, inserting beauty into bureaucracy, briefly dissipating hazes of secrecy to glimpse into some of the stranger engines of our reality. This work is no different, except for the dimensions of its field and the length of its scope: it seeks no less than to elegize (and, perhaps, also eulogize) the human race in the vast posterity of cosmic time. I spoke to him about over email.

The immediate reference here is the Voyager Golden Record, which also contained pictures, in addition to greetings and music from Earth. Where the Record takes its message about humanity out into the cosmos, The Last Pictures stays close to home. Do you see these two space-borne time-capsules working in concert?

The broad strokes of the two projects are similar, but they are very different from one another. The Last Pictures will remain in Earth orbit, haunting the planet indefinitely. For me, the image of a spacecraft in perpetual orbit is quite unlike one that travels off to the stars. Moreover, the Golden Record has images of a feel-good utopia. There are no images of war, inequality, strife or suffering. The Last Pictures is a much more melancholic project. It is a story about a deeply troubled species whose future is very uncertain.

Like the Golden Record, The Last Pictures is a stowaway: an art piece pinned, physically, to a technological object with an entirely different proscribed function. Is this a symbiotic or parasitic relationship? As an artist, how do you see your role in a scientific or technical environment?

I think about it as transforming a technological monolith into an art object. I think about the whole spacecraft as a kind of ghost ship carrying clues as to what may have happened to its missing crew.

In your introduction to the project, you discuss the enormous surveillance satellites in geosynchronous orbit that are currently the most significant human monuments in space. Is there an intended political subtext to The Last Pictures? Do you hope to complement or amend the military nature of our present space detritus?

TP: There is no political "message" in The Last Pictures, but there are of course numerous political references in the image collection. I certainly think that part of the project has to do with re-imaging what space artifacts could be in a different world.

How do you see the grand, visible permanence of The Last Pictures in relation to your past work, so much of which is concerned with the covert and obscured?

In much of my other work, I use distance as a metaphor having to do with uncertainty and ambiguity. This project is actually quite similar in relation to themes about vision, knowledge, and power. But instead of using distance as a conceptual axis, The Last Pictures uses the notion of time and the future as its horizon.

The Golden Record included recordings of human speech, music, as well as scientific diagrams. Why did you choose to only include photographs in your project?

One of the problems with the Golden Record, from a technical standpoint, is that it's not actually very archival. The gold-plated copper they used isn't very atomically stable. Over time, it will undergo a process called "diffusion" — its atoms will come apart from one another and it will turn into a piece of metallic mush. The Last Pictures is technically much [more] atomically stable. One of the drawbacks of the process we used, however, is that we could only include a relatively small number of images, and it wasn't possible to include sound.

Are there any Earthly time capsules or archives that you see as precedents to this project?

I think about this project as making cave paintings for the future. If anyone were to find The Last Pictures in the [far] future, it would be as enigmatic to any viewer as cave paintings are to contemporary humans. I spent an enormous amount of time looking at cave paintings, trying to put my mind in the frame of a Cro-Magnon artist making drawings that might be discovered in the far future.

Is this piece an alternative history of the human race? How did you choose the images, and what story do they collectively tell about us?

The Last Pictures is not a portrait of humanity or a history of mankind. It is more like a silent film for the depths of time. It tells an impressionistic story about a moment of uncertainty and danger.

In science fiction, artifacts that reveal secrets about alien civilizations – you cite Rendezvous With Rama – are called "Big Dumb Objects." Seeing as this project exists in a gray area between art and science, are you interested in science-fiction? Did you look to science-fictional examples when considering what images to include on the disk?

Funny you should ask. We spent a lot of time looking at that science fiction trope. In Rendezvous With Rama, for example, a giant, inert spacecraft shows up in the solar system, and the humans struggle to learn something from it. It's unclear what they actually learn. The interesting thing is that this scenario is actually true — this has actually happened. But it's happened in the far future of Earth. At some point there will be no evidence of human civilization on earth's surface but there will be a collection of dead spacecraft from an ancient civilization in earth orbit. It's very similar to the setup for a science-fiction story, but it's true.