For his latest project, The Last Pictures, Trevor Paglen is doing something unconventional: He’s sending photographs into space. Paglen, an artist and writer with a PhD in geography, worked with researchers and assistants at public art organization Creative Time to select a group of 100 photographs meant to reflect on the reign of humans on earth, “a visual record of our contemporary historical moment,” according to the project’s website. In the process, he conducted interviews with scientists, philosophers, artists, and historians about the idea. He then enlisted material scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help him etch the pictures into an archival, gold-plated disc, and launched the photo set into space aboard a communications satellite. The pictures will live on there for billions of years — long past the time when humans inhabit the earth, and probably until the end of the earth itself.
If that sounds impossible to imagine, that’s because it pretty much is — if you’re anything like me, even thinking a year into the future is difficult enough. When you consider the fact that Paglen actually turned the concept into a reality — researching, planning, and executing it with help from people at Creative Time, MIT, and other organizations — well, the whole thing becomes pretty impressive.
Accordingly, I was at first enthralled by The Last Pictures, and I wasn’t the only one: Most of the press and writing around the project has been, as far as I can tell, either incredibly positive or enthusiastic. But the longer I thought about it, the more questions and misgivings nagged at me. I began to wonder if it wasn’t just one giant gimmick, a big show designed to make a splash but not do much else. After all, what’s the point of choosing and launching the world’s last pictures? Does it indicate a perhaps preposterous level of hubris? Does it go on your resume? Is it simply a brag-worthy feat of scale, organization, and planning?
At an event in Bryant Park to celebrate the project two weeks ago, Paglen explained his view of the piece as a “cave painting for the future.” In that talk, as well as in the accompanying book for The Last Pictures, he compared his culled photographs with the prehistoric cave paintings discovered at Lascaux: both are cultural artifacts trying to convey some semblance of contemporary existence to future generations, be they generations of other humans or some unknown species of alien.
As anyone who’s studied photographic theory will be quick to point out, though, that’s a big burden to put on photographs, and one that’s bound to fail. Photos — and often any kind of pictures — don’t convey set, specific meanings. They can’t. They are traces in time, indexes of events that happened, and they may or may not have been staged. A photograph raises far more questions than it answers. Paglen himself knows this; in the book, he writes:
[W]hat’s true of the Pit [at Lascaux] is true of all images: they can’t explain or narrate much of anything at all. Instead, they ask us to see what we’re predisposed to see.
Leafing through The Last Pictures, I wondered what I myself was predisposed to see, and what Paglen expected me to glean from his carefully curated collection. Many of the pictures were cryptic — a group of people who appear to be dressed like aliens with their arms sticking out — and remained so even after reading the notes in back: a still from Warning from Space, by Daiei Films. Okay, so this is one human (mis)conception of space. Clever, but worth the cut?
Others began as cryptic and gained meaning after I read the notes (which future discoverers of the pictures will likely not have the benefit of): a well-composed shot of children wading in the ocean that looks a bit cheesy turns out to show a group of Greek and Armenian orphan refugees experiencing the sea for the first time. Still others I recognized immediately — Ai Weiwei flipping off the Eiffel Tower — but wasn’t quite sure what to make of their inclusion.
“The message would not be a grand representation of humanity,” Paglen writes in the book as he describes conceiving of the project. “It would not be a portrait of life on earth. Instead, the message would be a riff on an observation made by the British historian Arnold Toynbee: ‘Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.’”
These are noble intentions, and theoretically something to set Paglen apart from the astronomers and scientists who grandly and cheerily sent a golden record into space in 1977. But aside from a few standouts — the requisite nuclear bomb shots and a chilling photo of the Illinois State Penitentiary among them — how do pictures of cherry blossoms and sand dunes and Tokyo at night and Trotsky’s brain evidence our collective suicide? Inevitably, Paglen’s pictures become the stereotype they are trying to avoid, which isn’t necessarily his fault; the very premise of their selection imbues them with a potential they can never fully reach (which, cleverly, may also be part of the point). The grandiose language throughout the book doesn’t help.
Unable to answer “how,” I returned to the question of “why”: Why send a group of photographs into space, especially when, as Paglen also writes, “The idea that someone in the future might actually find the artifact was close to nil”? (Or in the words of film director Werner Herzog, who shared the stage with Paglen in Bryant Park, the aliens “are probably not coming because they’re too far away.”)
Paglen offers up a one possible answer in the book, when he writes that the project “was inspired by the idea that we should take communications satellites seriously as the cultural and material ruins of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.” This is the strongest point he makes; I suspect most of us don’t think enough, if at all, about the metal we’re sending into space to do our bidding. These communications satellites let us watch TV and transmit our telephone calls, but they’re also galactic junk we’re accumulating, which will encircle the planet indefinitely. Paglen’s comment in Bryant Park that humans “have constructed a ring around the earth” not unlike Saturn’s rings but comprised of machines instead of space dust made me stop and think.
Ultimately, The Last Pictures is, in Paglen’s own words,”absurd.” At the event, he called it a ”paradoxical project” and a “literally nonsensical” one. (Werner Herzog, quite poetically, called it a “conquest of the useless.”) Paglen followed up these statements with a caveat, however; he thought the project was also an ethical one, “to think about what the images should be, a way for us to think about the future.”
I appreciate and buy into that. It’s a fascinating mental challenge to put yourself in Paglen’s position, to ponder what pictures you would choose and what sorts of meanings you would try to convey. But the problem arises, then: if this is indeed an ethical issue that implicates everyone, and with which everyone should be concerned, then The Last Pictures should have had far more of a public aspect to it. (Creative Time is, after all, a public art organization.) Paglen is traveling internationally to a series of art institutions to give talks — and the kickoff event in Bryant Park event was free, open to the public, and extremely crowded — but that’s really it. Could there have been a traveling exhibition or even a TV special, some way to expose more people to the pictures to get them thinking? As it is, you can either attend a talk and see some slides or buy the book ($27.95) — or I guess you could also travel into space with a magnifying glass and try to hunt down the EchoStar XVI satellite.
Spending incredible amounts of time, money (I can’t even imagine what the budget for this was), and resources to launch pictures into space that probably no one will ever see is absurd. For that reason, part of me also thinks it’s the perfect art project: There’s something wonderfully admirable and beautifully poetic about carrying such a ridiculous endeavor through to completion. But if Paglen really believes, as he says, that there’s a strong ethical sense to The Last Pictures, then he should have worked harder to make it truly public, to extend its reach beyond a faraway satellite orbiting the planet and the very earth-bound art world, which tends to inhabits its own orbit as well.