A Portrait in Deep Time
Shortly before his death in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which literally turned the world upside down. Through a series of observations on the orbits of the surrounding planets and stars, Copernicus deduced that the Sun, not the Earth, existed at the center of the universe. The implications of this discovery took time to infiltrate the broader public imagination, but ultimately resulted in what is colloquially referred to as a paradigm shift; everything changed in the wake of this simple re-orientation of perspective. It took six decades until the telescope and personality of Galileo Galilei brought the implications of a heliocentric model to the full attention of the Catholic Church. If Earth was not at the center, where was God?
Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures, a public project presented by Creative Time that is scheduled to launch in Fall 2012, attempts a similar maneuver with the celestial heavens. This elaborately produced—yet conceptually simple—project not only facilitates a shift in the way we see the stars, the planets, and the ring of telecommunications satellites that circle the earth, but also a shift in our understanding of the timeframe in which they reside. While Paglen’s gold-plated disc will circle the earth 24,000 miles from earth in outer space, it will do so in outer time as well. Scientists call it “deep time,” a relatively recent concept that recognizes the vastness of geological time relative to the history of human civilization.
The Last Pictures is comprised of a disc containing a silicone wafer with one hundred images micro-etched onto its surface that will exist attached to a telecommunications satellite for billions of years. While human life operates roughly along the time frame of hundreds and thousands of years, distant galaxies and the longevity of planets are measured in millions and billions of years—deep time. This artifact, fabricated from ultra-archival materials at MIT and destined to circle the earth in an extremely stable orbit with no debris or environmental conditions to erode it, will exist in a kind of time meant for stars and tectonic plates, rather than humans. Consider, for example, the well-known cave paintings at Lascaux, France: at a mere 17,000 years old, they are recent creations within the context of the universe, and yet we stare at them as though through a haze of altered meanings. What did the cave painters actually intend to represent? It is very difficult to say, even though a great deal of writing has been produced in an effort to understand the painters’ intentions and desires. For as much as the images of human figures hunting bison with spears provide hints of what our cave-dwelling ancestors pondered long ago, they also point toward a vast gap in our understanding between then and now; the images allude to what we could know, but also point towards what we will never know. If we consider that these cave paintings are only 17,000 years old and that The Last Pictures will potentially last for billions of years, we recognize that the gap between understanding and not understanding only intensifies with time. In a sense, through this project Trevor Paglen positions human beings today as the cave painters of tomorrow.
In selecting the one hundred images for the project, Paglen consulted with dozens of scientists, artists, philosophers, mathematicians, and geologists and formed an in-depth research team that explored the implications of the project along numerous philosophical lines of inquiry. Conversations surrounding The Last Pictures delved into a variety of themes ranging from the problematics of universality to questions surrounding post-colonialism, theoretical mathematics, and the detrimental capacities of human technology. One line of thought that comes across quite clearly in the image selection relates to the finitude of humanity itself: if you could choose an image that explained to people millions of years from now why humans were no longer on the planet, what would it be? Another line of inquiry considers the paradox of communicating over such a vast amount of time: what does it means to show images to future beings that will most likely not comprehend them in anticipated ways?
Paglen’s choice of images range from depictions of the equipment used in the construction of the atomic bomb (perhaps one of the most obvious technological refutations of human progress) to smiling children in a World War Two-era Japanese internment camp. The context of many of the images, such as that of Yvonne Chevallier on trial for the murder of her husband in 1951, can only be understood through critical footnotes not readily available to the viewer. While some images hover on the razor’s edge of comprehension, others serve as direct warning about the fragile nature of the present. Following the progression of image selections, one can see quite clearly that they act as if composed as an image-based film or musical score. Each image responds to the next in an almost melancholic opera, dancing between dire warning, philosophical reflexivity, and meditation on the fleeting nature of the present.
There is something important about repositioning the Earth away from the center of the universe within our cultural mindset. And there is something equally important about considering the Earth and its inhabitants as a fragment of time rather than at the center of time. As a culture engaged in vast production, what does it mean that we make extremely obsolescent materials that will last longer than our ability to talk about them? What does it mean to appreciate how culturally specific and often disposable much of contemporary life is?
The concept of millions, let alone billions, of years can be frightening, as the dreams of the future that often riddle our public imagination tend to veer toward apocalyptic nightmares of melting ice caps, droughts, famine, and the very real potential of nuclear disaster. The future already feels flawed and damaged, and the world as imagined millions of years from now seems to surely exist past humanity itself. When we think about how long The Last Pictures may last in outer space, we come across an implication that could be interpreted as either terrifying or consoling: namely, that humanity will not survive for very long. The timeframe in which humanity exists is that of the nervous twitch on a body, the shudder of an eye, or the single frame in a film—miniscule when compared to the vast sea of time that surrounds the movement of the planets. We, as a species, are highly dependent and fragile. Our tenuous nature is only in the purest sense of survival, as even the meanings we hold in our culture—our values, our beliefs, our modes of communicability—are all hanging by the briefest of temporal threads.
In a certain sense, there is a project already in existence that could be considered The Last Pictures’ dancing partner. In 1977, Carl Sagan’s Golden Records were sent into outer space with the aim of communicating the actions and capacities of humanity to extraterrestrial life. Sagan’s project attempted to do so with a sort of brazen refusal of the extremely delicate nature of not only us as a people, but also as us as a people making sense. One could call such an act bold, but one could also call it willfully lacking in self-critique. Sagan’s Golden Records embodied the kind of optimism in space that typified our attitudes toward what Captain Kirk on Star Trek referred to as “The Final Frontier.” It was courageous, optimistic, humane, and lacking in noticeable doubt. The Last Pictures, on the other hand, is a voyage into space tinged with the kind of doubt reserved for a society unaware of just how tenuous it truly is.
Paglen has often brought people out into the desert to view the stars overhead. He comes equipped with a laser pointer that makes a visible streak across the sky so that one can concentrate his or her gaze. Instead of leading people’s attention to Orion’s belt or Polaris, he focuses their vision on twinkling lights moving gently across the night sky: spy and telecommunication satellites. In the tradition of astronomy, Paglen makes a basic shift. While we used to look into the heavens for evidence of the gods, now we see the forensics of ourselves.
Paglen has a history of turning his camera toward spaces that are meant to be out of sight. Using his background as a Ph.D. in geography from University of California, Berkeley as a jumping-off point for artistic inquiry, he has previously turned his camera toward the hidden world of U.S. military covert operations. From his series of photographs that document the United States government’s secret facilities in Nevada to his photographs of spy satellites hovering in the night sky, Paglen’s photography offers an opportunity to reconsider the political implications of what we can see and what we cannot.
The Last Pictures acts much like a tombstone or cave painting from a time long forgotten. The references and crises that currently grip our minds will eventually slide into lost time, becoming ever-fleeting as our debris and junk continue to be immune from the cultural modalities that circulate on the terrestrial surface below.
The Last Pictures evokes a bleak, mysterious dream of humanity: it is both hopeful and sorrowful, it is positioned for the future but is actually for the present, and it will be launched into space but is simultaneously critical of the colonialist tendencies that accompany the rhetoric of space travel. In its general embrace of a spiraling negative logic, this artwork exists as a poetic contradiction. And—like the Copernican Revolution—it demonstrates, by taking a new look at the world around us, just how limited our role truly is within the greater scheme of the universe. Ultimately, The Last Pictures will hover over the Earth in virtual perpetuity, reminding us, like a haunting shadow, that the greatest hope of lasting communication resides in the tenuous moment of the present.
– Nato Thompson