Geosynchronous satellites are destined to become the longest-lasting artifacts of human civilization, floating quietly in Earth orbit long after humanity has vanished from the planet. Trever Paglen’s The Last Pictures is a project that marks a geosynchronous satellite with a visual record of our time in history. Over a five-year period, Paglen interviewed scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers as he considered the content of such a cultural record. Working with materials scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Paglen developed an ultra-archival disc designed to last billions of years. Paglen micro-etched the disc with one hundred photographs and encased it in a gold-plated shell. In Fall 2012, the disc was launched into geostationary orbit aboard the satellite Echostar XVI. The Last Pictures will thus remain in Earth orbit far into the future.
Watch Trevor Paglen's "The Last Pictures Project Video."
AWB AstroArt Project chair, Daniela De Paulis in a Skype conversation with Trevor Paglen, about images, time and artistic research.
DP: In your most recent project, “The Last Pictures” are encrypted into a disk made of a material that will last for billions of years. I find it interesting that these images portray a reality frozen in time, yet they can only be seen by the technological eye of the distant future.
TP: With “The Last Pictures,” I don't think they are supposed to be seen, I don't think anybody will ever find them. There are many different ways of thinking what these pictures are or what they could be, but for me I think about the pictures as being an “urge.” It's not so much that we are imagining seeing the pictures but imagining the pictures as able to see us. I think about these images as a “ghost” that revolves around the planet. For me 'The Last Pictures” are not so much about seeing per se; they’re more about materiality and trying to think about what it means to make things that last for a very, very long time. What does it mean that humans are able to make things that last for millions of years?
DP: How did you test the material used for the disk, to see if it could last for billions of years?
TP: The tests were based on the theoretical understanding of how atoms in that particular material work; the chemical composition of the material should be very, very stable. In terms of everything we understand now about different materials, what the properties of the material are and its capability, we did a lot of testing on the material. In addition to that, to demonstrate that it would survive the launch of the rocket, it's of tremendous importance that it remain stable over the great fluctuation of temperature. When you are in space, there is no atmosphere so temperatures are very extreme. If you are in the sunlight, it could be 200 or 300 degree Celsius. If you are in the shadow, it could be minus 200 or 300 degree Celsius. These changes of temperature can happen over the course of a few minutes. So the question was to demonstrate that the thing we made could withstand the temperature fluctuation and the vacuum, as well as the radiation. We did all of those tests at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
DP: Was the material used in 'The Last Pictures' created especially for the project or is it also used in the Space industry?
TP: The material is silicon, a very basic material used in many other components. We had to figure out some techniques in order to etch the images onto it. Normally, the material is used for nano fabrication.
DP: Did you start the project at MIT, or was it something you had been working on before the residency?
TP: This project is something I had been working on for a while and MIT asked me to develop the project there.
DP: Why send the images into outer space? Perhaps many other people have asked you that.
TP: That's a good question. Actually, the way I think about it, it isn't space but it's much more sending it off into time. It's not going off into the Universe forever, it stays around Earth. To make something last that long, you actually need to go into space, if you want to go that far into time. The reason for that, on the Earth's surface over a long, long period of time we have ice ages, glaciers, volcanoes, simple things like rain. The surface of the Earth is constantly being absorbed into the centre of the Earth and being created again; the surface of the Earth is constantly being recycled in and out of the core, again over a long, long period of time, hundreds of billion of years. If you want to make something that lasts as long as the planet, you actually have to get off the planet, because the surface of the Earth is not achievable enough. For me going into space is a way of going into time in a very intense way.
DP: Your work explores in a deep way the sense of time, possibly as much as Robert Smithson did: in his writings he continuously addresses the idea of time, yet the more time is addressed, the more he escapes a better understanding of it. Time seems to be a matter that is incredibly hard to define visually: is it circular, linear or spiral-like? In your work, in my opinion, you seem to think of time as a circular form.
TP: We often think of time as a line that connects the past and the future, this is a recent understanding. I think of the circular idea of time as coming from people like Walter Benjamin; he talks about how the linear notion of time and of progress that we have is generally perceived as being an advantage. Benjamin seems to have serious issues with that, pointing out that history is one turnover of recurring crises, whether economic or humanitarian crises that are produced and reproduced over and over again. However, history needs to be reconsidered from the circular perspective to try to understand how these great crises are produced and reproduced and, only by recognizing that action, imagining a future in which those crises are not perpetuated eternally.
DP: There is a strong element of contradiction in “The Last Pictures,”, in the way you refer to time. For example, the uses of black and white images, some of which belong to specific moments of the human history, remind me of how fragile our life on Earth is and yet the material where the images are encapsulated is conceived to outlive us.
TP: Everything about it is contradictory and I find that important; I like that. The choice for the black and white images is partly technical, also, going back to the question of time, making all those images in B&W allowed me to granulate time, to make juxtaposition where I can play with our sense of time, and in that way, again coming back to the Benjamin's theory of history and crises. I can try to show some of the ways in which crises repeat themselves. For example there is an image of a tidal wave in Japan, a lot of people when they see the image think that it's from a few years ago but no, actually it's much older. Again, this shows the recurrence of crises.
DP: I find it interesting that your research method allows you to bring together different disciplines in a very organic way; this is not always the case with artists working in multidisciplinary projects. Sometimes the multidisciplinary research doesn't lead to a result that can have an impact on the way we perceive things for example, and stays very superficial. How did you develop your research method? Was your artistic training important for that?
TP: Philosophically, I am not somebody who thinks “art is over here” and “social science is over here” or “science is over here.” Those categories don't make much sense in terms of understanding the world; if you are going to make yourself more disciplined in your way of thinking, you are going to miss a lot. Methodologically, how I see the work is from having trained as an artist and then as a geographer. Also, one of my best friends is a very, very well respected investigative journalist and we worked together in a number of project. He ended up teaching me a lot of those methodologies which are very different from the methodologies we find in social science and to those associated with art making. This is definitively not something that I invented in terms of the different techniques, but I think I am able to make them blurry. I have been working for a long time with these methodologies, trying to understand them as well and trying to master them. So many times if you are an artist there are some visual things that are tempting to work with, but I think it's more about going beyond that point. To really see something differently, it takes a tremendous amount of work, to understand what is in fact what you are looking at. I make a new project every five years and I think a lot of artists don't work that way. So many of us are on deadline. I did that as well but in these long term projects I try to understand as much as possible and that takes time. If you really want to understand something and really get into the idea, it takes a long time to investigate any idea or methodology.
DP: Thanks Trevor!
Matthew Whitehouse, Daniela De Paulis, Thilina Heenatigala.