Humanity’s space era has opened orbit around the Earth not only to space race monuments, scientific and technological advances, but last fall also to orbital art, that will become a message to the far future.
Since the launch of Sputnik 56 years ago, humans have created a series of artificial rings around the Earth, that will possibly become the most enduring archeological ruins of humanity’s existence long after its disappearance. The rings made of geostationary communication satellites orbiting at 36,000 km above the equator will experience no appreciable atmospheric drag and after completing their missions, will remain in orbit indefinitely.
The possibilities and challenges arising from this longevity have intrigued the The Last Pictures initiator, Trevor Paglen, for many years. A well-known experimental geographer and artist, he was inspired by ancient cave paintings, the Pioneer Plaques, and Carl Sagan’s Golden Records launched by NASA for extraterrestrial audiences.
Trevor has developed a collection of one hundred images, etched onto a golden silicon disc launched into orbit onboard the Echostar XVI satellite last November. The Last Pictures as a time capsule, raises some of the most fundamental questions of human existence, and dilemmas of our time.
The absurdity of such grand gestures as relinquishing humanity’s longest lasting artefacts to space, and communicating with the future, is not lost on the projects creators.
Although an important part of this project may be it’s transformative potential in the present: “Whether there is an audience in the distant future, there is a guaranteed audience now. For me, the project is an opportunity to think about a collection of fairly serious questions. What sort of attitude do we want to have towards the future? How can we begin to understand the impact of human civilization on the earth’s surface? What are some of the anxieties and uncertainties characterizing the historical moment we live in?“
In contrast to the Golden Records’ ‘utopian’ images, The Last Pictures captures the tension of a deeply troubled species, uncertain about its future, as embodied in the first selected picture the back of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. Described by Walter Benjamin as picturing the angel of history, whose alarmed face turned toward the past sees one single catastrophe, while a storm wind caught in his wings propels him into the future to which his back is turned. Trevor Paglen is well aware of the melancholy emanating from this selection of pictures, although he emphasises that this project is not a “portrait of humanity”. “It’s a montage of images expressing some of the uncertainties, anxieties, and questions that a group of people have. A group of people that lived at the time when the great communication-satellite-monuments in the sky were built.“
Whether one sees this ambitious project as an allegory of humanity, mirroring our past and anchoring our future, or as a shining hope for the distant future, the next time you peer at the sky, be careful what u wish for upon a satellite…