Humans are fascinated by the end of the world. What will we leave behind? What will the super-intelligent life forms who show up afterwards think of us? If the gazillion apocalypse films I own are any indication, we’ll end up collectively offing ourselves in a conflagration of our own making, leaving behind skeletal skyscrapers and ruined monuments. But that popular trope is unrealistic, explains artist and journalist Trevor Paglen. In reality, our space junk will far outlast any earthbound artifacts.
Paglen is the creator of The Last Pictures, a seven-year project that reimagines satellites as monuments to human culture. The project will reach its climax this September, when a small gold-plated disc containing 100 laser-etched images of humankind will hitch a ride into space, courtesy of a communications satellite called EchoStar XVI. Affixed to the outside of the EchoStar, The Last Pictures could remain in orbit for as long as five billion years–or when the sun becomes a red giant, engulfing the earth.
Six years ago, Paglen was working as an artist in residence at MIT when public art nonprofit Creative Time approached him about a commission. He proposed a project that would launch evidence of humankind’s existence into orbit. “The spark for the project came out of a series of conversations I had with amateur astronomers,” Paglen explains. “I asked [amateur satellite watcher] Ted Molczan if he had a good algorithm for predicting how long it takes satellites to come back to Earth.” Molczan pointed him in the direction of a table that estimates how orbits decay over time, depending on the distance between the object and earth. Satellites in Low Earth Orbit accumulate more drag, meaning they fail sooner. But higher up, in Geosynchronous Orbit (around 40,000 miles above earth) some satellites are listed as having “indefinite” or “infinite” lifespans. Above that ring lies a zone called Graveyard Orbit, where satellites are placed at the end of their functional lives. Drag in this outer orbit is so low, it’s possible that craft could remain there for billions of years. When EchoStar reaches the end of its life, it will move into Graveyard Orbit–indefinitely. “It sounds like fiction,” Paglen says, “but it’s true. We should take these spacecraft seriously as cultural monuments.”
After Creative Time awarded him a budget, Paglen was left wondering what the content–and medium–of his message would be. At MIT, he had experimented with etching microscopic images into silicon, using a nanocircuitry tool that was being beta tested to rearrange circuitry at the atomic level. Used to archive photographs, Paglen discovered that the machine produced images of “super-archival” quality, meaning they might last billions of years.
The real challenge was deciding what images to send into space. “The instinct I think most people would have is to create a representation of humanity, but to me, that’s ludicrous. That’s absurd.” He began looking at other examples of lost civilizations, like the Easter Island monuments. “I thought it should be more subtle,” he remembers, “less of a history.” So for six years, he posed a single, “ridiculous” question to dozens of anthropologists, art historians, and scientists: What one image of human civilization deserves to be made permanent? “Often,” Paglen remembers, “a single image would emerge in every conversation.” Brainstorming sessions with a group of research assistants turned up other options, and Paglen eventually narrowed it down to 100, which together form a patchwork quilt of impressionistic glimpses of human life, rather than a chronological history.
So, what does it mean to be the author of an artifact that could outlast us all? When I asked Paglen, he was torn. “On the one hand it’s an utterly absurd project. The idea that someone could find it, or make sense of it, is a really difficult argument to make,” he says. “On the other hand, I take it seriously as a gesture, and it comes with a great deal of responsibility. It’s a dichotomy I’ve been living with for years now.”
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