The Last Pictures: Trevor Paglen's Artwork for Outer Space

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A new project by artist Trevor Paglen is scheduled to launch into space on November 20, 2012 from the Baikonur Launch Complex in Kazahkstan. Paglen's years-long project, The Last Pictures has yielded a disk encased in a protective clamshell bolted to the exterior of a satellite named Echostar XVI, which will be set on top of a Russian Proton rocket and blasted into orbit. Intricately etched onto the disk's surface, The Last Pictures is a compilation of one hundred black and white images, each measuring about 15mm and viewable without special instruments -- similar in effect to microfiche. Considered together these extensively researched images convey impressions about the end of human existence, intended to function like visual cues for another life form in the future, long after the earth has ceased to exist.

Developed in collaboration with New York-based arts presenter Creative Time, The Last Pictures cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to realize over six years of development and engaged hundreds of creative thinkers, including material scientists, aerospace engineers, philosophers, and anthropologists, among others. An extensive number of cultural specialists consulted on the project, from a curator at the Yale University Babylonian Collection to the curator of Messages in a Bottle at the Turks & Caicos National Museum in the Caribbean. The transdisciplinary nature of the project is in keeping with the artist's work: Paglen also possesses a doctorate in geography from UC Berkeley. His work frequently interrogates space, territorial politics and the politics of orbit captioned as "experimental geography." An upcoming performance-cum-lecture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art delves into the elaborate logistics and complex concerns of The Last Pictures and Trevor Paglen's recent foray into space.


Earthrise, NASA/William Anders.

Two sets of concerns guided the project: the development of the disk as an artifact for space and the selection of the images portrayed on the disk. Paglen conducted extensive research as an artist-in-residence with engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop an atomically stable, ultra-archival disk designed to last billions of years. Creating a method for reproducing images that would be "as archival as the sun" was essential to the development of work that functions as both a cave painting from the past and a time capsule for the future.

When asked if the disks might feature at an upcoming art fair, the artist only laughed -- this was not a project designed for Miami Basel. In fact, the painstakingly produced disk will go largely unseen beyond those closest to the project. The flickering of the host satellite in orbit promises to make the work a constant contradiction: both widely visible and indiscernible, as much a figment of imagination as anything else.

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Waterspout, Florida Keys, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce.

Indeed the notion of the project arose from Paglen's preoccupation with the hundreds of satellites in constant voyage overhead and the realization that certain ones, owing to stability, will literally stay in orbit indefinitely. "The dead communication satellite in orbit around the earth forever is a kind of metaphor for the civilization that makes the same things that ultimately contribute to our own destruction, in one way or another," noted Paglen in a conversation for this article. A typical satellite will transmit images for about 15 years, broadcasting about 10 trillion images over its lifetime before winding up in perpetual pointless orbit, moving through space like astronomically expensive litter.

A book, also titled The Last Pictures, functions as a widely accessible earthbound iteration of the project and offers context beyond the images, giving present day humans more insight than future beings. Indeed the existence of the book extends the scope of the project beyond the rarefied air of conceptual art and the masculine bravado of Land Art, bridging the gaps of these ideas with the shared human preoccupation with time and space. Though the nature of this project as "art" in the formal sense may have confounded some scientists who worked with Paglen, ultimately it was the challenge of making it happen that engaged everyone's inner time traveler.


Dust Storm, Stratford, Texas, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce.

Beyond material concerns, the selection of images was also daunting. Paglen is insistent that the work not be interpreted as a totalizing view of humanity, citing the challenges of photographic surveys that fail to address the nuances of history. To that end, it was critical that the vast majority of the images sample from the public domain rather than focus on Paglen's own photography. He is quick to assert, "This is not the Trevor Paglen Show in space." The collective images and stories featured in the book weave a rich impressionistic narrative that explores the trajectory of industrialization, innovation and excess.

Though the work takes a broad view of humanity, it also considers personal experiences related to the images. It was crucial to gather as much information about the individuals who took the images and their subjects whenever possible. Much of The Last Pictures can be defined as a grand gesture that examines the failure of grand gestures. "You think about the idea of progress, especially in the American imagination, and progress goes westward and up into space. In the case of this artwork, the orbit that this satellite is in is metaphorically quite different," Paglen noted. "There is a meta-gesture in the project -- and the project is constantly struggling with that, how to create a meta-gesture that is in many ways a critique of meta-gestures?" The result is a rigorously considered set of ethics around the inherent responsibilities of presenting images selected from broad swaths of culture and history.


The Pit Scene, Lascaux Cave, c. Hans Hinz / ARTOTHEK.

Summarizing the images here is a challenge that undercuts the greater task of the work. It can be observed that many of the images feature instances where humans have attempted to reroute nature and created rippling disaster, such as with images of children afflicted by the aftermath of Agent Orange and those of cloned and genetically modified animals. A sweeping vista of Grinnell Glacier in 1940 is redressed by an image of the same view 66 years later wherein the glacier is nearly depleted. Other examples show complex systems at work, including an ancient Babylonian mathematical tablet and the innards of an early IBM computer.

Despite the overarching intent of the project -- to outlast human existence -- The Last Pictures poetically and emphatically addresses the human capacity for creativity. Indeed if artists like Trevor Paglen determine all that remains of our legacy, perhaps there is hope in the universe yet.

The Last Pictures is available from University of California Press and Creative Time Books. Artist talks about the project are scheduled at prominent cultural venues around the world throughout the fall of 2012; Trevor Paglen will speak at a ticketed event at SFMOMA on Thursday, October 11. For more information, visit sfmoma.org.

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All images from Trevor Paglen's The Last Pictures courtesy Creative Time.