Artist Trevor Paglen on Satellites, Aliens, and How We're All Going to Die

Artist Trevor Paglen on Satellites, Aliens, and How We're All Going to Die
(Courtesy the Artist)

Trevor Paglen knows that his latest project, “The Last Pictures,” is ridiculous. “This is the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do if you’re a critical artist,” he told ARTINFO. It’s true: “The Last Pictures” isn’t for sale and it can’t be displayed in a museum or gallery. Instead, it’s going to be shown in outer space. 

Over the last five years, Paglen has been painstakingly winnowing down the world’s entire photographic output in order to select 100 pictures for inclusion on an archival disk. This month, that disk — which resembles Carl Sagan’s “Voyager Golden Record” and contains images ranging from the iconic “Earthrise” to forgotten rocket launches and typhoons — will be affixed to the communications satellite EchoStar XVI and shot into Earth’s orbit. Perhaps the most permanent work of art ever commissioned, it will be on view for five billion years.

“Space seemed like an interesting place to have an art installation,” said Nato Thompson, chief curator of the public art nonprofit Creative Time, which sponsored the project. In advance of the satellite’s takeoff, ARTINFO spoke to Paglen about aliens, orbital space, and why we should go into the future bearing gifts.

What is ultimate goal of this crazy-sounding project?

From the get-go, I understood that what we’re doing is making cave paintings for the future. When we look back at cave paintings, we don’t know what the heck those people were thinking. We don’t know what any of it means — or if words like ‘means’ even apply to those kinds of images. And yet, we have them. We can think about them. We’re doing that for the future. On one hand, it’s an impossible project. At the same time, I wanted to take this very seriously as a thought experiment.

What methodology did you use to select the images?

I knew I didn’t want to represent humanity. The best you can do with that kind of gesture is come up with some multicultural god-knows-what. We know what that looks like: families holding hands. So I thought, “What this should really be about is not a portrait of humanity so much as a story about what humans did to themselves.” One of the things that characterizes the contemporary moment is that humans are doing all sorts of self-destructive things and we know that we’re doing them, but we’re going ahead with them anyway. So I set up a lot of interviews with people whose work spoke to that question. For example, I spoke with a biologist named Ignacio Chapela who became famous — or rather, infamous — for doing research that showed how genetically modified corn in Mexico was spreading its genome into mice. This caused a huge uproar in the scientific community because a lot of biology research is funded by biotechnology and by agribusiness, and they didn’t want to hear that.

Would the public recognize any of these images?

There are definitely some iconic images in there. The image that is the cover of the book is “Earthrise,” which is probably one of the most reproduced images in history. For me, this picture spoke to one of the contradictions we were interested in exploring. On the one hand, “Earthrise” is often read as an image of ecology. We see that earth is a closed system that we have to take care of because that’s all there is. But there’s another way of reading this image, and here I’m drawing on Hannah Arendt’s work a little bit. It can also be seen as a terrible icon. This is an image that tells us we can be separate from Earth. And that myth leads to all sorts of self-destructive behavior.

You’ve worked with satellites in your earlier, more political work. Did this change the way you think about these machines?

On the very practical level, the search for a spacecraft that would be in orbit for a very long time led me to thinking about these things not only as instruments of surveillance — as political machines — but also as artifacts, as sculptures that will remain.

You have a PhD in geography. As someone who started out mapping the earth, what is different about mapping space?

I’ve actually written a lot of articles for academic journals about orbital space. A lot of people think that space is a kind of endless void, or just a vacuum. That just isn’t true at all. Some orbits have a pathology that is akin to a mountain range, where you have slopes and valleys that are formed by gravitational interactions with the Earth, the moon, the sun, and other planets. There’s a politics to that geography of space. There are military and commercial strategies associated with that topology.

If I were doing this project, I think I would be so overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the universe that I would never get out of bed. How do you preserve your own identity when you’re working on a scale so large that you’re barely a blip?

It was very difficult to work on this project for that reason. On one hand, the idea that you’re going to create an image that’s going to mean anything whatsoever in the far future is ludicrous. Meaning is not something that is in an image — meaning is something that we inscribe in an image. When you detatch an image from culture, you’ve got nothing. At the same time, I did feel an enormous responsibility. This is not a metaphorical project. This is not a proposal. There is a very, very good chance that these are the last images that will remain of human civilization. Navigating the contradictory feelings of awesome responsibility and this sense of utter ridiculousness was a very difficult place to spend several years.

You’ve said you created “The Last Pictures” for those of us here on Earth. But did you tie yourself in knots thinking about who might view it in billions of years? I don’t want to say the word alien, but —

I did think about it, but only at the very end, when we designed the etching on the cover of the disk. I always assumed that the cover would be something surrealistic, something that was self-conscious about the fact that it was nonsense. But I was working with an astronomer at Carleton College and we ended up wondering: If someone finds this in five billion years, would it be at all possible for us to explain to them that this object came from 2012? So we tried to create that map in the language that an alien or a dinosaur could conceivably be able to make sense of. For me, that was not so much a question of semiotics — the idea of anyone actually interpreting it is close to zero. But there’s also an ethical gesture here. If we imagine the far future as an alien or as a stranger, how do we want to meet that stranger? Do we want to say, “We have nothing to offer so we’re not even going to try?” Or should we bring a gift? And Joel, the astronomer, convinced me that we should bring a gift. Even if somebody couldn’t understand it, as an ethical gesture for ourselves, now, we should go into the future bringing gifts, rather than nonsense.

Now, onto a less existential question: What were the logistical challenges in doing this? You’re shooting it off from Kazakhstan, but I would imagine that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

You have no idea. There are only about 20 satellites every year that go into the kind of orbit we needed. To convince somebody who had one of those satellites that attaching artwork was a good idea — that was an enormous amount of work. There was also a lot of real rocket science that went into the project. You have to design an object that can withstand space, which is a very harsh environment, for billions of years, but it also can’t interfere in any way with the host spacecraft. We needed to develop material that wouldn’t fade over time to display the images — it had to have a very stable atomic structure, almost like a diamond. We ended up adopting techniques that professors in the aeronautics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology use for doing nanocircuitry to make the images.

My last question is the impossible question: If you could only have one image on the disk, what would it be?

There was an alternative cover for the disk that I like, which was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke, this old science fiction writer. It said, “Please leave me alone and let me stay here so that I can watch the end of time.” That’s another way of thinking about the project. You can think of it as a time capsule that someone in the future can recover and learn something from, but you can also think about it as us injecting a little bit of humanity into something that will outlive us all. It’s something that will remain and that will watch the Earth once we’re gone.