Space, the final frontier? For artist, author, and “experimental geographer” Trevor Paglen, it’s just become home to his orbital project, The Last Pictures. Commissioned by New York’s Creative Time, Paglen has, courtesy of a television satellite called EchoStar XVI, sent 100 etched images to spin round the earth potentially for billions of years, or until the sun collapses. Shumon Basar asks Paglen about what it means to prepare for post-human time, the language of non-human communication and the ways we have represented ourselves, from the caves of Lascaux to Voyager, to ourselves in images.
SHUMON BASAR: So, Trevor, your Last Pictures are about to go into space. How does it feel after researching and preparing the project for so many years?
TREVOR PAGLEN: I’m in Kazakhstan right now and the launch is tonight. I’m amazed that this project has actually happened. Mostly I’m humbled by the amount of work so many people did to make The Last Pictures a reality. One of the most amazing things about this project is how many people from different fields, from anthropologists to aerospace engineers, dropped what they were doing to work non-stop nights and weekends to make it all happen.
SB: When it dawned on you that you would be sending something up that would be there for billions of years, what was your first instinctive idea?
TP: The Last Pictures imagines a distant or not-too-distant future where there are no humans left on earth and the spacecraft forming a ring around the planet are the longest-lasting traces of our presence. From the beginning of the project, it was going to be a meditation on the fact that we know full well how we are making the planet uninhabitable to ourselves, but are going ahead with it anyway. The project evolved into something more impressionistic than that, but I think that theme is still
SB: What changed?
TP: One of the main changes was the inclusion of images of people. For several years, I was convinced that there should be no images depicting human figures. The reasoning was that the project was in no way meant to be a “portrait of humanity” or anything like that. The Last Pictures was meant to tell a story about what humans did to the earth’s surface, biosphere, climate, and so on, not a grandiose representation of humankind. After looking at dozens of ideas for the collection that had no humans, I realised that no matter what you show, if you don’t include images of humans you end up with something that looks like a very clichéd apocalyptic narrative. But the decision to include humans then came with a different “rule”, which was that I wanted to locate the people depicted in each image and tell something about their specific story. Those stories are collected in the book.
SB: Carl Sagan’s Golden Record of 1974 is still careering beyond our solar system as part of Voyager’s epic voyage. Do you remember when you first heard of, or saw, this enigmatic object, and what it said to
TP: I don’t remember when I first heard about the Golden Record, but I’ve spent an enormous amount of time studying it and learning about their decision-making process. Before I really started looking closely at it, I thought the Golden Record was a saccharine piece of feel-good multiculturalism, which it is. But as I’ve looked at it more and more, I’ve come to see it as an extremely strange artefact. They had very sincere ambitions to represent specific things about humanity to an alien
audience. But images don’t make scientific or even reasonable arguments. I think there’s a lot to learn about how images do and do not function by looking at the Golden
SB: One hundred black and white images constitute The Last Pictures. Can you describe some of the categories you have ended up with, and if they portray life on earth optimistically or not?
TP: There isn’t really any effort to portray life on earth, so much as to look at some of the ways that humans have transformed what the earth itself is. Some images depict things like genetic engineering (a fruit fly that’s been genetically modified to have legs on its face instead of antennae; cloned cows), transformations to the earth’s surface (hydraulic mining, railroads), and climate change (melting glaciers, tsunamis). But the collection as a whole is much more impressionistic, I think.
SB: You have said that the cave paintings at Lascaux were crucial in the development of your own “cave paintings for the future”. In what way?
TP: My research team and I always understood that The Last Pictures would be a cultural object radically detached from history. We spent a lot of time looking at messages or images created for the distant future, like the Golden Record and various design proposals to mark nuclear waste sites for thousands of years. The art historian/theorist Yates McKee really got me thinking about cave paintings, which are images from the distant past that have become similarly torn apart from history, floating through time in much the same way that The Last Pictures will. I think cave paintings teach us a lot about what images actually are. They are incredibly slippery things. A lot of people would strongly agree with the idea that cave paintings speak to us, but it’s not at all clear what they say.
SB: How much has cinema played a role in subconsciously influencing what you have done? By this I mean outer space is somewhere none of us have ever visited but space feels less strange to us than many places on Planet Earth.
TP: Cinema influenced The Last Pictures very explicitly. Towards the beginning of the project, we imagined the object as a kind of archive, but as we worked with the materials and images more, that evolved. I started to understand The Last Pictures as a kind of silent film for eternity. An
enormous amount of effort went in to the formal relationships and montage effects from one image to the next, the rhythm of the sequencing, and the motivic
and thematic relationships throughout
SB: Recently, you described The Last Pictures as “a meta-gesture about the failure of meta-gestures”. Throughout the whole project, it seems that you have constantly battled with the absurdity – or even futility – of what you were trying to do. At which point did you make peace with yourself and what you were conjuring, with all these different people?
TP: I’m not sure I’ve actually ever made peace about that, to tell you the truth. I think that The Last Pictures is on one hand a deeply nonsensical project, and I mean that quite literally. The Last Pictures is going to a space and time where there literally is no human sense (outer space; the distant future). At the same time, I felt an enormous responsibility to do the project in the most ethical way I could. I think that contradiction is very fundamental to what the project is.
SB: Obama has made it clear that the
frontier of space is no longer a priority for debt-ridden America, the way it once was during the anxieties of the Cold War era. Now, that race seems to be run by China, India and any other wannabe economic powerhouse. Would it be fair to say that
s/he who owns space travel owns the future down here?
TP: I think that space travel is largely symbolic, bound up with notions of “progress” and the like. There’s really no point to human spaceflight other than its symbolism. It’s enormously expensive and humans can’t do anything in space that robots can’t do better. Although human spaceflight isn’t practical in any way, it makes perfect sense that nations like China and India are pursuing it for that symbolic significance. Having said that, dominance of space is hugely important to the American military, and you don’t see much talk about cuts to the largely secret programs that are consistent with that goal.
SB: Werner Herzog, that fearless explorer of the human soul, conducted a conversation with you in New York about your project. How did he react to The Last Pictures and did you manage to convince him?
TP: Herzog is a big fan of the project, which is why he came out to New York to kick-off the project with me. But he had some quibbles with some of the images I selected. One image shows a smiling child in an American internment camp. Herzog thought that was what he called a “cheap shot”. I disagree – for me it’s an utterly horrifying image precisely because it seems to depict the normalisation of something so inhuman. Every person who set out to do a project like this would arrive at something different, which is something we agreed on. There is no “right” way to undertake such
The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen, is published by University of California Press and Creative Time Books.