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Orbital Geography: Trevor Paglen’s Cave Painting for Space

By Paul Schmelzer

If you’ve heard of Trevor Paglen, you’ve likely heard of “experimental geography,” the field melding art, social science, journalism, and research he founded. His explorations have taken him deep into the realms of the secretive, from US “black sites” and CIA extraordinary rendition flights to codenamed covert operations and unmanned drones. At first blush, his new project—a Creative Time presentation to be inaugurated September 19, 2012, with a lecture tour and book release—seems to deviate from past work that’s been focused on the how we inhabit, think about, and control the surface of Earth: with The Last Pictures he looks to space.

If all goes as planned, the communications satellite EchoStar XVI will be launched into space from Kazakhstan in October 2012, and will reach an eventual orbit around 24,000 miles above the equator. Aboard the satellite will be a silicon disk covered by a gold-plated aluminum jacket nano-etched with 100 images from Earth, left for future civilizations to discover and decode. These “last pictures” may be just that: with no atmospheric drag, the satellite’s lifespan is expected to be nearly five billion years—likely well beyond that of our culture as we know it. Characterizing The Last Pictures as a “cave painting from the 21st century,” Paglen recently discussed the project, its genesis, meaning, and how it continues the critical—and political—inquiry of his past works.

Paul Schmelzer

You wrote a paper for the August 2012 issue of Astronomical Journal with Carleton College physicist Joel M. Weisberg about geostationary communication satellites and the disk you’ll be attaching to one. You mention the fascinating fact about how they go into orbit, and then after 15 years, thrusters push them up into a “graveyard orbit.” There’s no friction, or much less friction than with gravity, so the disk will be preserved. That idea of a graveyard in the sky for the devices of humanity is eerie and compelling.


Absolutely. Over the past 50 years humans have constructed a ring around Earth, not unlike the rings around Saturn. But the ring around Earth is not made out of dust and rocks, it’s made out of machines that we built. What’s more, this ring we’ve constructed is now a permanent feature of our planet. Over the next five billion years, maybe some kind of giant squid will evolve and will look up at the night sky and realize that the Earth has many more moons than the one that we’re familiar with. But if they look more closely, they might realize that in fact those moons are the leftover spacecraft from an ancient and long disappeared civilization.

This “graveyard in the stars” is where The Last Pictures eventually live.


Your past work has a decidedly political edge. You’ve looked at everything from government black ops, drones, and black sites to shadow companies set up by the CIA to run “torture taxis,” or “extraordinary rendition” flights. Does The Last Pictures deviate from that political trajectory or does it continue on it?


Much of the work I’ve done on secrecy and covert operations is not only political investigations, but visual and epistemological and even aesthetic as well. I’ve always been very interested in what the limits of perception are. How do we make sense of things that there are no easy images for? In a broader sense, I’m interested in making work that helps us see who we are now. There’s often a political component to that, of course.


Your projects always seem to have an interface between the seen and the unseen. The patch on a shoulder of military personnel working on classified projects ends up being a visual interface with the secretive black world. A fence cordoning off a covert ops site—captured in a blurry photograph taken with a high-powered camera—is the edge of an unseen universe, of sorts. It must be the same with this project.


It’s very much the same. The difference with The Last Pictures is the thing that is unseen is a little bit more abstract, because what is unseen is the future. What is our relationship to the future and how do we go forward into it? It’s certainly more ambiguous and perhaps a bit more obviously poetic than the “patches” project, for example. I’ve struggled with The Last Pictures quite a lot. On one hand, the project is almost the opposite of what you’re supposed to do if you’re a critical artist. In one sense, The Last Pictures is a grand gesture in line with The Family of Man or the record NASA put on the Voyager spacecraft. These kind of meta-gestures have largely been abandoned by contemporary artists, for a huge number of quite good reasons.

On the other hand, what does it mean, as an artist, to be working at a moment where we are afraid of making gestures that are too big?

Having said all of that, The Last Pictures is a deeply self-contradictory project. If it is a grand gesture like Family of Man, then it is a grand gesture about the failure of grand gestures.


You’ve characterized these 100 images as “cave paintings from the 21st century.” The assumption, of course, is that we’re not going to be around, naturally, to see these images again. Our civilization will no longer exist. I find it fascinating to look at what cave paintings from Lascaux and elsewhere can teach us about species that once lived and now don’t. Do you think the images you’re sharing are going to show the causes of our demise that maybe we can’t see so well right now?


One of the curious (to put it mildly) things about the contemporary moment is that we know exactly how we’re killing ourselves, and we’re going ahead and doing it anyway. The Last Pictures, I think and hope, embodies that troubling fact.

If I had to distill the whole project into one image, it would be the famous “shaft” painting at Lascaux, which shows a stick-figure man with an erection, a bison, and a rhinoceros. It’s a bizarre image. Of the thousands of images in Lascaux, it’s the only one that has a human figure in it, and it seems to depict a scene of great violence. Historians have all kinds of theories about what the painting means, but when I look at it I see a painting of a humanoid who has just inaugurated the greatest mass extinction that the world has ever seen and is sexually excited by that. I sometimes think that the artist who painted that scene meant it as a confession to the future.

In a similar way, I imagine The Last Pictures as a cave painting for the distant future. On one hand, the conceit of The Last Pictures is that it tells a story about what happened to the humans. But at the same time, I think images detached from their historical and cultural contexts are literally meaningless.


Are there political implications in selecting images to communicate about our civilization? I mean, we have 196 different countries and thousands of ethnicities. How do you narrow it down to 100 images to represent it all?


The Last Pictures was never meant to be a representation of humanity or an archive of civilization or anything like that. I’m not interested in playing the game of “here’s a farmer, here’s a truck driver, here’s an Inuit person, here’s an acrobat,” and so on. I worked on this project with a group of five research assistants. We ran a seminar for about six months, looked at thousands and thousands of images, researched a whole array of different subjects, and raided dozens of archives. In addition to that research group, the images were in part selected after a number of interviews that I conducted with prominent anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, artists, physicists, astronomers, and others.

For years, one of the rules we had in the research group was that there would be no representations of humans at all. The Last Pictures is not a story about what civilization and human life was all about. If there’s any story at all, it’s a story about what the humans did to themselves.

But as the project developed, it definitely became more and more of a poem. Over the course of researching the images, we became quite aware of the limitations of pictures. Images don’t make arguments. Truthfully, I don’t think images represent anything at all.


In culling from thousands down to 100, what did you notice? Were there themes that emerged?


There are a number of different threads. Initially, we created frameworks, such as “Let’s look at the current state of genetic engineering and biotechnology,” or “Let’s research the origins of computer languages.” We looked at dozens of topics, some of which were broad (“information theory”) and others exceedingly specific (“messages in bottles”). We collected thousands of images related to these various themes, and many of the selections in the collection came out of that work. But at the end of the day, the project became more of a poem than an archive.


With a potential lifespan of four and a half billion years, this could be the longest run of an art exhibition ever. Tell me about the element of time and whether there’s an environmental message in it.


I can say that a lot of people talk about space junk as being analogous to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but I don’t actually worry about the graveyard orbit, which I see as more of an aesthetic problem than a practical one. There’s no environmental crisis in spacecraft in a geostationary orbit. They’re out of the way, and they’re not going to bother anybody, ever. But there is something deeper going on here about how things that we make conform to human time scales.

Take, for instance, product manufacturing. A Styrofoam cup will be used once for about four or five minutes before being thrown away. The turnover time of the industry that purchases that cup is going to be a couple weeks or a couple months, at most. Those are the time scales that that object is created for. However, the refuse of that Styrofoam cup will last for millions of years, because it’s not biodegradable. What does it mean to live at a historical moment in which the time scales that we operate on are so radically out of touch with the time scales of the temporal footprint of the things we make?

Global warming is another example of this. It’s produced by turnover times associated with energy production and transportation. How long do we use a car for? What’s the turnover time in terms of a coal plant? Global warming will probably play itself out over the course of 10,000 years, but what does it mean to live in a historical moment in which we ignore the future or in which there is such a disjuncture between the time scales that we live our lives on and the systems that we set up for ourselves?

You could make a similar argument about funding universities and funding education. In the short term, sure, you can save some money but what is the long-term effect of that on a society? Probably not so good.


Does the project have an affinity with the Long Now Foundation, the group that’s building a 10,000-year clock in a Texas mountain? The questions they pose on their website seem pertinent:

If you have a Clock ticking for 10,000 years, what kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it suggest? If a Clock can keep going for ten millennia, shouldn’t we make sure our civilization does as well? If the Clock keeps going after we are personally long dead, why not attempt other projects that require future generations to finish? The larger question is, as virologist Jonas Salk once asked, “Are we being good ancestors?”


I talked to them quite a lot at the early stages of this project. They’re much more optimistic, even sentimental, about the future than I am.


One difference with The Last Pictures and the 10,000 Year Clock is that people will actually be able to visit the clock. Only through the book and the lecture series can people interface with this notion of a satellite that’s literally launched into space. Is it for this moment, in that regard? Or do you hope that the ephemera around it exist for a long time to remind people, as well?


The spacecraft will certainly be visible through a telescope for the rest of my life and yours, and that of anyone you know. But you’re absolutely right that the project is only really accessible through the book or through whatever media we produce around it. You can’t go to the graveyard orbit and look at the artifact mounted to EchoStar XVI, for example. But you’ll be able to go to museums and see what it is that we made.


You coined the term “experimental geography.” Is this an expansion of that, how we imprint, not just on land but also on space? Is there a term for it? Geospatial geography?


Geography is primarily concerned with the surface of the Earth and the dialectical relations that are at the surface. But when you start to look at infrastructures, you realize that the Earth’s infrastructure goes up to about 24,000 miles in the case of geostationary spacecraft, which are very much a part of the Earth’s human environment. Just as there are politics around territory and sovereignty on Earth’s surface, there are similar politics and geographies of orbital space. However, those orbital geographies are, at the same time, very unearthly in the sense that the relationship between territory and politics is very different in space than it is on Earth.

I very much think of this project as not only an intervention into the space of Space, but also into the myths we tell ourselves about space and time.


The paper you wrote with Joel Weisberg focuses on the map you etched on the disk that’ll be attached to the satellite and how it’s a map not of our location but rather the “epoch of origin”—our time. That notion of “now” is the key to the entire project.


Yes, exactly. To sum the project up, it’s a silent film about struggling with the deeply contradictory aspects of this contemporary historical moment. To me, the spacecraft itself is a congealed metaphor for a moment when we’re killing ourselves and know exactly how we’re doing it, but going ahead with it all anyway. This vehicle will go in orbit, work for about 15 years, go up to a graveyard orbit, and remain there forever. So that spacecraft itself is something of a relic from a long-gone society. It’s a kind of memento mori, in that sense. But ultimately, the point is not to explain to some kind of space-faring squid four billion years from now what happened to the humans so much as to create a way for us to think about what we’re doing here and now.

Conversations Beyond Elections

Based on the belief that artists’ voices are vital in the conversation about creating a better society, this series of discussions is interested in politics with a lowercase p—concerns about power, inequality, and participation—and ways that artists’ personal values interface with it.

The Last Pictures Image 5: Earthrise

Trevor Paglen

Courtesy the artist

The Last Pictures archival disk

The silicon disk is encased in a gold-plated shell, designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carleton College.

The Golden Record

A 12-inch gold-plated copper phonograph record was placed aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft upon their launch in 1977. The contents, selected by a panel chaired by Carl Sagan, consisted of “115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals.”

The Last Pictures Image 8: Construction of NORAD, Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, Colorado

The “Shaft” Painting at Lascaux

The Last Pictures Image 91: Cherry Blossoms

The Last Pictures Image 7: Glimpses of America, American National Exhibition, Moscow World’s Fair

The Last Pictures Image 9: Migrants Seen by Predator Drone, U.S.-Mexico Border

The Last Pictures Image 4: Greek and Armenian Orphan Refugees Experience the Sea for the First Time, Marathon, Greece

The Last Pictures Image 2: Soyuz Fg Rocket Launch, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

The Last Pictures Image 93: Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park, Montana, 1940

The Last Pictures Image 94: Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park, Montana, 2006

The Last Pictures Image 6: Old Operating Theater, St. Thomas Church, Southwark, London

The Last Pictures Image 95: Narbona Panel, Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation

The Last Pictures Image 98: Dust Storm, Stratford, Texas

The Last Pictures Image 3: Typhoon, Japan, Early Twentieth Century

The Last Pictures Image 96: Waterspout, Florida Keys

Etched onto the disk is a temporal map indicating the spacecraft’s Epoch of Origin