Artist Trevor Paglen, who has exhibited his work the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and The Tate Modern, London, amongst others, has created a silicon disc titled The Last Picutres that will be shot into space as a time capsule. Paglen undertook the project as part of the Creative Time group.
As noted on the website, Paglen spent five years interviewing scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers to develop an artifact “designed to last billions of years—an ultra-archival disc, micro-etched with one hundred photographs and encased in a gold-plated shell.” To do this, Paglen collaborated with materials scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create the disc—”an ultra-archival disc, micro-etched with one hundred photographs and encased in a gold-plated shell” not unlike the Voyager’s Golden Records spear-headed by Carl Sagan.
The idea is that the satellites in orbit around the Earth will outlast human civilization, and will be a sort of unintentional human record. It is in this artificial “ring” of satellites that Paglen’s silicon disc would be suspended. Paglen hopes that it will even survive the moment when the Sun goes Red Giant and toasts the Earth.
Paglen’s disc will be fixed to the anti-earth deck of the communications satellite EchoStar XVI, which will launch in fall 2012. The Last Pictures will “remain in outer space slowly circling the Earth until the Earth itself is no more.”
Included in Paglan’s discussions for the project are conversations on themes as diverse as the “problematics of universality to questions surrounding post-colonialism, theoretical mathematics, and the detrimental capacities of human technology.” Another major concern was describing for any potential space travelers why humans no longer exist in a single image. And if one could do this at all, would future beings even be able to understand it?
Despite the obvious problems inherent to the project, Paglan settled on some images:
Paglen’s choice of images range from depictions of the equipment used in the construction of the atomic bomb (perhaps one of the most obvious technological refutations of human progress) to smiling children in a World War Two-era Japanese internment camp. The context of many of the images, such as that of Yvonne Chevallier on trial for the murder of her husband in 1951, can only be understood through critical footnotes not readily available to the viewer. While some images hover on the razor’s edge of comprehension, others serve as direct warning about the fragile nature of the present. Following the progression of image selections, one can see quite clearly that they act as if composed as an image-based film or musical score. Each image responds to the next in an almost melancholic opera, dancing between dire warning, philosophical reflexivity, and meditation on the fleeting nature of the present.
“The concept of millions, let alone billions, of years can be frightening, as the dreams of the future that often riddle our public imagination tend to veer toward apocalyptic nightmares of melting ice caps, droughts, famine, and the very real potential of nuclear disaster,” notes The Last Pictures website. “The future already feels flawed and damaged, and the world as imagined millions of years from now seems to surely exist past humanity itself.”
It’s not all bleak for Paglen, though. The project is not just for the future but for the present. A reminder that we are not so important in the grand scheme of things, but that we should strive for perfection even amidst all our most terrible tendencies.