Of all the images that have ever been made, would you be able to select just 100 to represent our species and human achievement? Trevor Paglen’s Last Pictures is a project to do not only that, but also launch those images into geosynchronous orbit around Earth – all so that long after humans are gone, any space-wanderer will be able to fathom what humanity was all about.
The project is based on the idea that after billions of years, all signs of human civilization will have eroded away on Earth, but its satellites will still spin around the planet, making them the best bet for an indefinite time capsule.
“Any group of people would come up with 100 totally different images, but that is part of the fun. It’s an impossible project. Part of it was to engage peoples’ imaginations,” says artist Trevor Paglen, who conceived of the concept and collaborated with scientists, anthropologists, curators and corporations to get the images into space.
Writer and artist, Anya Ventura, coordinated the work of five researchers who whittled down the image selection from 10,000 to 500 to 100. With every choice open to debate, it was a mindful experience.
“We’re inundated with images, but we don’t stop to look at them,” says Ventura. ”The Last Picturesnecessitates the act of looking. It’s a project that sticks with me because of our discussions about what makes a good photograph. We were tackling issues of representation and decoding images.”
But choosing the images was only the beginning – two more giant problems loomed. Firstly, how does one fabricate those 100 images to survive billions of years in space? Secondly, how does one get them into orbit?
Brian Wardle, associate professor at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and director of the Nano-Engineered Composite aerospace Structures (NECST) Consortium consulted on design and fabricated the vessel for the images. He and Professor Karl Berggren, a quantum nano-structures expert, were mostly concerned with preventing diffusion – the incredibly slow movement of molecules which over millions of years could potentially degrade the sharpness of the image.
“By using a single material, Silicon, and etching physical features in that material, the Artifact will maximally resist diffusion. Usually the ‘sands of time’ erase writings through erosion, but in this case we used sand/Silicon against time to resist its effect,” says Wardle with a poetic flourish.
To that end, the Last Pictures are nano-etched onto a silicon disc – referred to within the project as “the Artifact” – and secured within a gold-plated aluminum clamshell.
Paglen now knew the images could survive, but how to get them up there?
Creative Time, a stalwart New York arts organization, and Last Pictures partner was on board to help with the logistics, but even when the project manger telephoned every company that put hardware into space they drew a blank.
“The cold-call approach didn’t work,” says Paglen.
Short on options, Anne Pasternak, Executive Director of Creative Time, began making pleas to audience members at her numerous public speaking events for contacts within the satellite industry. Two connections and a few phone calls later, Last Pictures had an agreement with EchoStar Corporation, a Colorado-based telecommunications company responsible for maintaining Dish Network’s satellite fleet. (EchoStar also owns SlingBox.)
Once the deal was done, Paglen waited for a window. It came in December 2011 when Palo Alto-based Space Systems Loral were in the final stages of manufacturing the next EchoStar satellite.
“Echostar gave us a month to get the disc tested and flight ready,” says Paglen. ”Many engineers stepped up over the Christmas holidays.”
After two delayed launch attempts, the 6,600 kilograms EchoStar XVI is set for launch on November 20th, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, on the back of an ILS Proton Breeze M Rocket. EchoStar’s main cargo is 32 Ku-band transponders which will deliver direct-broadcast satellite (DBS) signals back to earth for suped-up local HD channels among other things.
Last Pictures‘ efforts have reminded many of Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record which included 116 images of animals, food, architecture, portraits and daily human life, as well as sounds. Ventura says the Last Pictures team were a bit sniffy about the appropriateness of Sagan’s images to farily represent unified humanity but when they took on a similar selection process, “we realized how difficult it was,” says Ventura.
“At the beginning we imagined the images as an archive, but later we started to think of them as a silent film, like poetry. We made aesthetic decisions,” says Paglen who in the book arranges many images in pairs based on formal relationships. ”I guess that’s where my artistic influence came in.”
Paglen and his team deliberately included images to challenge viewers.
“We’re making cave paintings for the future,” he says. “A lot of images are enigmatic. There’s stories outside of the images. Enough to keep the aliens on their toes!”
One curve ball is an installation shot of Malevich’s work at the Last Futurist Exhibition in St Petersburg, 1915. It is Paglen’s nod to the convergence of art, philosophy and science and to the definitive differences between the American and the Russian space programs.
“The U.S. space program has mythologies attached to pioneering and conquering, but the Russian tradition is very different,” says Paglen. “In the Russian tradition, the ultimate goal of humanity was to resurrect all humans. In the late 19th century Russian Cosmists such as Nikolai Fyodorov believed we need to go to space to collect all the particles of all the people who had ever lived. Cosmism says going into space is going into the past.”
The majority of the images, which are published in the Last Pictures book, carry layers of narrative. Percival Lowell’s 19th century maps of “canals” on Mars surface are typical of the tension between reality and perception. Lowell wasn’t out to fool anyone but the conflagration of tiny aperture and a eye condition he wasn’t aware of had him seeing things.
“He thought he was mapping canals on Mars, but he was really seeing blemishes in his own eye,” says Anya Ventura.
No one on the team is pompous about the selection. Rather Last Pictures is an interstellar version of the question, “If your house was burning down, which photos would you save?” It’s about questions, not necessarily answers.
“It’s a paradoxical project. It is about time and space, but also ambivalent,” says Paglen. “Last Picturesquestions material circumstances. What does it mean that we make machines that exist as long as the sun?”
For those who are uncurious about the answers to these questions, fear not. Ultimately the project taxed only a relatively small amount of resources.
“The Artifact hitched a ride on a satellite that was going up anyway, and the delta in payload was absolutely negligible relative to typical mass budgets and this one specifically,” says Brian Wardle of MIT.
The host satellite will only broadcast signal and orbit Earth for 15 years. Scheduled for 2027, the mission profile of Echostar XVI includes an end-of-life maneuver into a spacecraft junkyard just beyond the Clarke Belt.
“Creative projects are rarely the result of a single person’s efforts,” says Paglen. ”Technologically, it is not hard to launch an object into space. Emotionally, it has been difficult.”