"It's bullshit. I don't buy it," insists filmmaker Werner Herzong, looking at the projection screen behind him. He repeats this phrase 30 minutes later when discussing Walter Benjamin, but for now, he's referring to the screen behind him, which displays a cave painting from Lascaux. Herzog scoffs, "It's a misreading that there's an erection." The crowd of a nearly a thousand self-serious academics, artists, suited-up businessmen, and science geeks seated in front of him gleefully erupt in giggles.
The Pit Scene, Lascaux Cave.
We're gathered in New York City’s Bryant Park for a free, open-air event put together last night by the New York Public Library and Creative Time, where the sharply-opinionated Herzog is engaging in a freewheeling conversation with artist Trevor Paglen about Paglen's ambitious art project, The Last Pictures—a collection of photographs etched into a silicon disk that will launch in space this November via a communications satellite. The Lascaux painting was one photo carefully curated by Paglen to send into orbit, as were a hundred other extremely varied shots—ranging from panoramas of remote geographic regions, to close-ups of grinning children in internment camps. (Herzog: "It's nice to have an image of a child smiling… even though I don't trust smiles.")
Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park, Montana, (2006).
Greek and Armenian Orphan Refugees Experience the Sea for the First Time, Marathon, Greece.
With its timeless infinitude, outer space provides fertile material for grand metaphors about the human condition. Even the most sober-minded scientists sometimes fall prey to waxing poetic about mankind's humbling insignificance. Yet, Paglen insists repeatedly that his project is not meant to be a time capsule—or, worse, a grandiose portrait of humanity. "There's no grand narrative," he says, "It's very contradictory. On one hand, the project feels like a very important, symbolic gesture. But at the same time, it's completely ridiculous."
Herzog latches on to this point about sci-fi-esque absurdity (and inherent hilarity) of imagining future E.T.s poring over these images billions of years after the Earth has vanished, and all that remains are the remnants of our space junk. He quips, "It's important to amuse the aliens" with pictures of cute cats, but ultimately points out that the likelihood of future aliens finding the disc—and understanding what they'd be looking at—is non-existent. "Don't wait for them," he intones, "They're not coming. How can the aliens care about these cheap shots? We're talking to ourselves when we talk about aliens. We can't conceive what they would be like."
Soyuz Fg Rocket Launch, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.
Suez Canal, Egypt.
Paglen's space endeavor, then, is a portrait of our world meant to be dwelled on not by future aliens—but by ourselves. When asked how The Last Pictures differs from the LPs and plaques Carl Sagan also sent out to space on the Voyager and Pioneer years ago, Paglen pauses. "It's much more melancholy," he finally concludes. "These images come from a place of uncertainty."
Typhoon, Japan, Early Twentieth Century.
Dust Storm, Stratford, Texas.