Someday millions of years from now, if not sooner, someone visiting Earth might wonder: who left these machines orbiting a cold dead planet?
And if they were to locate the EchoStar XVI communication satellite among the cloud of debris, they would find a message left by 21st century artist Trevor Paglen. THE LAST PICTURES is an archive of 100 images depicting this moment in history, launched into geosynchronous orbit from Kazakhstan on a payload destined to become space junk. It is a troubling monument, an epitaph, a question mark, speeding across the skies to the end of time.
This is not the first time-capsule humans have launched into space, nor will it be the last. Though in contrast to its precursors, this one anticipates an eerily silent future for humanity, when no one is around to tell our story.
The first Golden Record, curated by Carl Sagan and Anne Druyan, launched in 1977, offers hypothetical alien recipients a peace-loving image of Earthlings joining hands in multicultural harmony, disclosing little evidence of trouble in paradise. Voyager was a message of interstellar love, an olive branch reaching to the stars.
The Last Pictures can be seen as the reverse side of that coin, an articulation of profound uncertainty. Paglen’s archive represents a sobering amendment to the sweetly optimistic message developed by Sagan’s team. If the images on the Golden Record now look somewhat naive, with glimmers of Norman Rockwell’s America, Trevor Paglen’s tormented monochrome portraits of the 20th century are beautifully disfigured, more akin to the work of Diane Arbus and Edward Burtynksy.
As archives aspiring to convey meaning across millennia, both Last Pictures and Voyager ultimately reflect the biases of their respective cultural milieux and the personal visions of their creators; no single time capsule can speak for Earth, for all of humanity, for all time.
It’s worth pointing out another major distinction between these projects. Voyager wants to be received, or else it wouldn’t have been set on a trajectory racing past Pluto to the nearest star. Its encoded meanings imply a non-human audience, as it puts forth an idealized image of Earth’s inhabitants as if to say “Please visit us, we’re friendly and intelligent”. Last Pictures is a message in a bottle tossed from a sinking ship. It presumes that thousands of years from now, there won’t be a soul to see them. And even if there were, Trevor Paglen seems to prefer that the images remain locked away forever. An early prototype of the plaque bore the inscription:
Please do not disturb me. Let me stay here so that I may witness the end of time.
The Last Pictures serves as an epilogue to armageddon, providing indirect explanation for how we annihilated ourselves; but who is the audience for such a message?What is the meaning of a monument without visitors, or images without viewers? How does one construct a time capsule for a completely unknown, and unknowable, audience? What is the point of making art, taking pictures, or writing books if one day all will be forgotten, cast into oblivion? As an artwork, the Last Pictures embodies this unfathomable mystery and will undoubtedly have a place in our dialogues about time and responsibility as long as we are around to wrestle with the meaning of the objects we leave behind.
In conversation with Werner Herzog hosted by the New York Public Library on September 19, 2012, Paglen remarked that the future has always been uncertain, at every point in history. Our time is hardly exceptional in that respect.
It’s 2012, but let’s not forget that the future is a process; the world has ended many times before; beyond the present apocalypse, a succession of doomsday scenarios await. As any great work of art, or prophesy, the Last Pictures should provoke reflection and remain open to interpretation. For Paglen, however, there is no question that our last words will be, “we committed suicide”