Feb/Mar 2013

Space Trace

An artist launches an indelible portrait of civilization into orbit

Julia Bryan-Wilson

In 1971, Conceptual artist Douglas Huebler announced his intention to “photographically document . . . the existence of everyone alive, in order to produce the most authentic and inclusive representation of the human species that may be assembled.” His Variable Piece #70 was, unsurprisingly, never completed, but Huebler’s comprehensive cataloguing impulse is telling: It speaks of a desire to map the contours of civilization, to capture and behold the mass of humanity. What do we, collectively, look like? And how do we depict ourselves to ourselves?

Artist and geographer Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures takes up these questions from a perspective very different from Huebler’s, seeing in them a way to explore the difficulty of representation and the illegibility of images across “deep time.” Propelling these inquiries to their most extreme registers, Paglen assembled a collection of one hundred pictures and had them launched into space on a satellite that will remain in orbit for perhaps billions of years. These images (everything from historical documents to diagrams to landscape photos) might one day be intercepted and puzzled over by unforeseen viewers—humans, many generations from now, or species from worlds as yet undiscovered. How will our multiple pasts and scattered presents be decoded in the future? For Paglen, given the senselessness that surrounds us, it is a matter of some urgency to confront the limits of interpretation—the very fraying of sense even in our moment. “If we can’t even talk to dolphins or dogs, I reasoned, how are we supposed to find some sort of universal baseline from which to begin a conversation with aliens?”

The Last Pictures chronicles Paglen’s four-year-long process of making a small silicon disc etched with the one hundred images that are meant to provide synecdochical glimpses of the history of our world. He did not aim for encyclopedic coverage, writing that “the message would not be a portrait of life on earth” but rather will hold, long after this planet has ceased to exist as we know it, an indication of humanity’s recklessness—our “suicide.” As The Last Pictures makes clear, this was not just an idle thought experiment; in an explanatory essay, Paglen details how this multifaceted art project took shape, as well as the qualms he faced about the possibly hubristic task he had set for himself. His introduction, titled “Geographies of Time,” is a theoretical meditation on the complex relationship between space and temporality. Just when the essay’s tone threatens to veer into the portentous, the text shifts and segues into a disarmingly readable first-person chronicle of Paglen’s attempts to understand the science of orbits, for example, and an acknowledgment that the premise of the project is “absurd” and “ridiculous”—a “grand gesture about the failure of grand gestures.” Given the substantial resources it took to put these pictures into space, Paglen’s self-reflexiveness is a saving grace, pulling the project firmly back from the brink of megalomania. Analyzing precedents such as the 1977 Voyager space probes with their “Golden Records” time capsules (inscribed with images, music, and languages from around the world) and warning signs for nuclear-waste dumps, Paglen is consistently attentive to the trap of quixotic universalizing.

Paglen reports that he interviewed anthropologists and mathematicians (many of whom were equally skeptical of the premise of any totalizing archive), held small seminars to help gather and winnow images from a massive range of sources, and worked with nanofabrication specialists at MIT. The Last Pictures also contains short essays by others who were integral to the project and includes facts about the materials science that went into making this artifact. Though they make for somewhat dry reading for nonspecialists, these “field notes” provide insight into the excitement felt by a number of scientists at facing “the unique challenge of thinking far beyond the timescales of any known engineered structures.”

Paglen’s etched disc was launched from Kazakhstan on a communications satellite in November 2012; it now sits in geostationary orbit some 22,500 miles above the earth’s ground. For the next fifteen years or so, this satellite—the EchoStar XVI, working in concert with DISH Network—will beam signals to US televisions, after which time it will stop working and become a hunk of space garbage, residing for aeons far above our atmosphere, along with hundreds of other such inert man-made objects. As Paglen writes, “What does it mean that, in the near or far future, there will be no evidence of human civilization on the earth’s surface, but our planet will remain perpetually encircled by a thin ring of long-dead spacecraft? Perhaps it means nothing. Or perhaps the idea of meaning itself breaks down in the vastness of time.” Almost despite himself, Paglen becomes “haunted” by the idea that someone or something could find these images one day, and he decides to be sincere in his efforts to select and preserve them, framing such sincerity as “a matter of ethics.”

The Last Pictures is essentially a black-and-white picture book, as the bulk of it consists of the one hundred painstakingly selected images laid out cleanly on the page with no accompanying captions. Given the dual emphasis on the precision of Paglen’s selection process as well as his insistence on the inevitability of interpretive breakdown, it is compelling to thumb through the images in sequence to try to piece together why each was chosen. Rather than conveying a linear chronology or narrative, the pictures are presented according to a more poetic sense of association. Some themes recur: environmental disasters both man-made and natural (the Nevada Test Site, a typhoon); feats of monumental engineering (the Great Wall of China, Levittown); and the folly of human intervention in nature (cloned longhorns, genetically modified insects).

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Greek and Armenian orphan refugees experiencing the sea for the first time, Marathon, Greece.

Pleasant shots of cherry blossoms and of women frolicking in ocean waves are exceptions—overall, the tone of The Last Pictures is bleak. Many images that seem innocuous or even cheerful on the surface (smiling children) are subtended by crimes of injustice (they are at a Japanese-American internment camp) or tragedy (they are orphan refugees). Occasionally this negativity is offset by moments of political resistance or irreverence, such as a photo of Occupy Hong Kong or Ai Weiwei giving the finger to the Eiffel Tower, but the book is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Gloved hands cradling Trotsky’s brain. Farmed chickens in corporate coops. Men in gas masks, from World War I. To attempt to absorb this montage in one sitting is to come away feeling bewildered, if not despairing. Some of the images are hard to identify or are barely legible; the inclusion of a Rorschach blot makes evident the underlying ideology of the entire project, which is the ultimate impossibility of secure or shared interpretation.

The book also showcases a diversity of photographic technologies, from surveillance shots taken by a drone to close-ups of the Ebola virus captured by an electron micrograph; this shuffling together of radically disparate scales makes for a thought-provoking browsing experience. One subtheme that emerges is that of the medium’s fundamental insufficiency to apprehend duration, especially of complicated processes that unfold over time. For instance, global warming is gestured at with two photos of the Grinnell Glacier in Montana: One taken in 1940 faces one from 2006 showing the glacier drastically reduced. But this pairing suggests a process rather than definitively illustrating it; static images that almost by definition arrest time cannot easily convey concepts of flow, aftermath, or consequence.

As we’ve seen in his recent, well-known photographs of US defense locations and military “black sites,” Paglen is not only very smart but has a keenly developed compositional eye. The Last Pictures further reveals his strengths as a formalist. Taking maximal advantage of the book’s two-page-spread format, Paglen has paired most of the images, turning the pictures into a series of diptychs. Sometimes these pairings are logical and content based (as with the glacier); others have striking compositional similarities. Some are witty and surprising, as when Paglen places a detail from Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel next to a photograph of people demonstrating the processes of licking, eating, and swallowing (staged especially for a Voyager “Golden Record”). A photograph of two policemen touching hands in Nepal is adjacent to one of a Babylonian math tablet—and though I think I see tenderness in the men’s gesture, this juxtaposition reminds me that both images are equally opaque to me.

Beyond the book’s emphasis on photography, The Last Pictures incorporates a wide span of technical images and artistic works. Extensive back matter includes further information about the images, with revealing anecdotes and scientific explanations, but, strangely, some remain unattributed even on the copyright page. A picture identified only as “shop window and tailor’s dummies” is not an anonymous gleaning but instead a well-known photo by Eugène Atget from the early 1900s. The lack of dates has the effect of flattening the specifics of history, as the pictures float between the futuristic and the anachronistic. This unhinging of time, space, and perspective provokes a visceral sense of unease about thwarted understanding and incomprehensibility. Such distancing could be compared to defamiliarization; but if Verfremdung for someone like Bertolt Brecht was a potential spur for transformation, Paglen’s book instead induces a numbed futility.

All told, The Last Pictures is a fittingly weird and disorienting compendium that reminds us of the problems of transmitting meaning in our own time—much less to a billion years from now. In the book’s preface, Anne Pasternak and Nato Thompson of Creative Time (which sponsored the project) speculate that the images could function as a warning about “the dangers of a highly capable and creative society unchecked” as we hurtle toward certain destruction. Paglen took seriously the drive to curate a summation of civilization in pictorial form and succeeded in producing an enduring object that could outlast the earth. “This collection of pictures,” he writes, “very well may be the last”—but it is too simple to defer questions of interpretation to the unknown audience of the future. Though we cannot know how the images might be received later, The Last Pictures tells a dark but urgent story about present conditions of representational frustration. In the here and now, we have this book, a partial but chilling document of what we were, what we are, and what we might become.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is an associate professor of contemporary art at UC Berkeley.