Indelible Images


Trevor Paglen's new project intends to immortalize human culture in space. Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan explains:

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.

After the EchoStar reaches the end of its life, it will move into Graveyard Orbit, where drag is so low that the satellite can remain there indefinitely. So, how did Paglen decide what images to send?

"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.

Update from a reader:

I clicked through to those Trevor Paglen links. Can it really be tha all the photos are moody black-and-white shots? This is the record of humanity that is to endure for five billions years, yet no color at all?? Funny to think of something as arbitrary as the predilection for b/w in art photography having such a potentially lasting consequences.

Update from another:

In response to your reader who thought it sign of an obnoxious artist that the images are in black and white, consider the medium. Etching into metal can only be done mono-chromatically. Moreover, our particular biology lends itself to viewing colors as we do, and though I'm well outside my expertise, I would think that an alien's would be very unlike to have evolved identically.

(Image: An early operating theater for surgery, one of the images chosen for Paglen's project)