Human civilizations’ longest lasting artifacts are not the great Pyramids of Giza, nor the cave paintings at Lascaux, but the communications satellites that circle our planet. In a stationary orbit above the equator, the satellites that broadcast our TV signals, route our phone calls, and process our credit card transactions experience no atmospheric drag. Their inert hulls will continue to drift around Earth until the Sun expands into a red giant and engulfs them about 4.5 billion years from now.
The Last Pictures, co-published by Creative Time Books, is rooted in the premise that these communications satellites will ultimately become the cultural and material ruins of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, far outlasting anything else humans have created. Inspired in part by ancient cave paintings, nuclear waste warning signs, and Carl Sagan’s Golden Records of the 1970s, artist/geographer Trevor Paglen has developed a collection of one hundred images that will be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc. The disc, commissioned by Creative Time, will then be sent into orbit onboard the Echostar XVI satellite in September 2012, as both a time capsule and a message to the future.
The selection of 100 images, which are the centerpiece of the book, was influenced by four years of interviews with leading scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and artists about the contradictions that characterize contemporary civilizations. Consequently, The Last Pictures engages some of the most profound questions of the human experience, provoking discourse about communication, deep time, and the economic, environmental, and social uncertainties that define our historical moment.
Though Paglen admits that it’s unlikely that the images will ever actually be discovered by yet-unknown future aliens, he took seriously the science that would make it even remotely possible. At an artist’s residency at MIT, he worked with scientists who developed a hyper-archival, gold-plated disc, on which pictures are micro-etched. He also took seriously the question of which images should be sent up, assembling a research team and interviewing anthropologists, artists and scientists.
In the end, the EchoStar XVI will launch, bearing 100 images into the depths of time. What are they? “The images are not meant to be a grand representation of ‘mankind’ or a portrait of humanity. Instead they are a montage about a civilization that finds itself in a moment of deep uncertainty about its own future,” says Paglen.
Sourced from governmental agencies, libraries and artists (including Paglen’s own work), many of the 100 undated pictures circle around the topics of science, technology and the environment. Many suggest that the miraculous scientific and technological advances mankind has achieved—the very ones that enabled us to launch a satellite that will orbit for millennia—are the means to our end.
Other images seem spectacularly random: One picture shows gloved hands holding Leon Trotsky’s brain, while “A Study in Perspective” by Ai Wei Wei shows the dissident artist flipping the Eiffel Tower the bird. Extended captions to many of these images are available to us in a catalogue, but one wonders how the future aliens would make any sense of them. The inscrutability of these images happens to also be part of the point.
The sometimes oblique images chosen for The Last Pictures were partly inspired by the mysterious visual remnants of ancient civilizations, like the cave paintings in Lascaux, and the moai, for which Easter Island is famous. Those artifacts have never entirely yielded their meaning, and yet they were made relatively recently, in terms of the “deep time” of space. “The notion that the message could actually mean anything at all seems ridiculous…but the probability of people on Earth thinking about it here and now is guaranteed,” writes Paglen in the book that accompanies the project.
And it’s true. It seems inherently valuable, if desperately sad, for us to visualize a time when we won’t exist. The processes, with which we are making ourselves extinct, are still ongoing, after all.
(Editor’s note: The Last Pictures is one hell of a book. It captures the triumph and struggle of the human spirit in 100 photographs.)