Tens of thousands of feet above Earth, the remnants of our communication satellites orbit in a ring with such stable conditions they will last for billions of years. But what if someone or something ever discovered them? That's the question artist Trevor Paglen, commissioned by Creative Time, decided to tackle in a five-year journey talking to scholars, scientists, philosophers, and artists. The result is "The Last Pictures," a time capsule of images, hand selected by Paglen to represent our uncertain times, set to launch into space on a rocket later this year.
GOOD: Can you explain exactly what "The Last Pictures" is?
TREVOR PAGLEN: By way of a set up: When you look at the orbital characteristics of communication satellites, you see that they're really far away from earth, about 24,000 miles. Most other satellites are in lower orbit and they get pulled back to earth eventually, but these communication satellites never get pulled back. The implication is that they will be the longest lasting remnants of what humans have ever made and will possibly ever make. I think of them almost as monuments to this particular historical moment, floating around the earth and space forever.
My project is really trying to take that seriously. Imagine a future in which human beings have come and gone. There are no traces of humans on the earth's surface. In that future, there will still be a ring of these satellites around the earth.
GOOD: These images don't exactly paint a rosy picture of humanity.
PAGLEN: It's not meant to be a portrait of humanity, it's supposed to be about this uncertainty. A lot of people around the world are really wondering about what the future is. There's a lot of uncertainty around economics and climate change and technology. There are a lot of things going on that people are very reasonably concerned about. So these images speak to this moment of uncertainty that the monument came out of.
GOOD: Once you conceptualized the idea, how did you actually go about implementing the technical aspects of it?
PAGLEN: One of the other questions in terms of putting the project together was how do we make images that can work in space, that will be archival for billions of years? In other words, how do we make the most archival art that anyone has ever made? As an artist-in-residence at MIT I worked with the material science guys there. The trick was to work with materials whose atomic structure is very, very stable. We figured out how to do that with silicone. They had some machines that they were testing designed to do nano fabrication for very small computer circuits. We used these machine instead to write images. We ended up with a wafer disk that atomically is very similar to diamond; like a microfiche made out of diamond.
GOOD: You have said this would be “a story about what happened to the people who build the great ring of dead machines around Earth.” Were you worried you were sending yet another dead machine up to space?
PAGLEN: The rocket was going anyway. The disk is bolted to the rear end of a communication satellite that will launch from Kazakhstan. What's fun metaphorically to think about is that over the course of it's lifetime this satellite will broadcast over 10 trillion images, all of which will be as fleeting as the radio waves that are carrying them. It's a communication satellite in several senses of the word.
GOOD: Let's say future life forms found these visuals, what do you think they would say about the world right now?
PAGLEN: I have no idea. The guys at MIT think that it will be found by robots. The robots will scan it and will understand that these are images. I have my opinion about whether the images will ever be found and other people have theirs. That's part of the fun of the project.
Photos from "The Last Pictures" courtesy of Creative Time