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    Engravings for the E.T. in All of Us

    A small silicon disc on a space-bound satellite is a giant leap for public art--whether or not the aliens actually get it

    Maybe at some point in the future, an alien will stumble on a piece of space junk from a galaxy far, far, away. The object, perhaps still ensconced its gold-plated aluminum cover, is a silicon disc embedded with curious engravings. Like the French teens who found the cave paintings at Lascaux, perhaps the alien will perceive it as something very special, and it will scrutinize its markings for what they say about the remote culture that made it.

    Cats in Space! Werner Herzog approved the inclusion of this Cat Piano, designed by 17th-century scholar Athanasius Kircher, among the 100 images Trevor Paglen will send into orbit. The picture, showing an invention that jabs each kitty’s tail to produce a particular mew, is one of many images of subjugation of animals in Paglen’s collection.

    Maybe not.

    Even Trevor Paglen, the artist who spent five years picking 100 images to put on this space-bound time capsule, devising a return address that unimaginable life forms might understand, and creating a package that could survive billions of years, admits that the possibility of extraterrestrials finding–much less interpreting–his silicon artifact is not so good.

    Nevertheless, the staff of the public-art nonprofit Creative Time, along with the MIT students, scholars, scientists, and satellite-corporation executives who helped him along the way, honored the process. That’s how Paglen’s disc ended up attached to the EchoStar XVI, a communications satellite serving Dish Network subscribers that is scheduled to launch from Kazakhstan this fall.

    The silicon disc in a gold-plated aluminum covering that will blast off on the EchoStar XVI satellite. Dots and lines represent the place and time Paglen’s disc originated–according to the human brain, at least. The 100 “Last Pictures” are engraved inside.

    ©TREVOR PAGLEN.

    If the calculations of Paglen’s team are correct, his little archive will survive longer than people, or Earth, making it the farthest-traveling, longest-lasting artwork in the history of history. This represents one giant leap for Creative Time, whose previous forays in space include hiring crop-dusters to skywrite Vik Muniz’s cloud drawings above Manhattan and staging Tom Sachs’s Earth-bound voyage to Mars in the Park Avenue Armory.

    The book’s second picture shows a Soyuz FG Rocket launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan. Paglen calls his project “a story about what happened to the people who built the great ring of dead machines around Earth.”

    COURTESY NASA/CARLA CIOFFI.

    The organization wanted the human audience to see The Last Pictures too, so it gathered them in a book. Last week, the volume (co-published with University of California Press) was launched beneath the stars, behind the New York Public Library, at a public conversation between Paglen and Werner Herzog. The matchup seemed obvious, since the curmudgeonly director shares so many obsessions—cave art, frontiers, code-cracking—with the artist, who describes himself as a “cultural geographer.” Still, I was a little nervous for Paglen, having recently seen Herzog at the Whitney, where (in an event staged to coincide the Biennial, which he was part of) he’d denounced conceptual art and insisted it would never stand the test of time. And here he was, discussing a conceptual art project that’s supposed to last longer than we do.

    Cave paintings appear several times in “The Last Pictures.” The Pit Scene, in Lascaux, seems to represent a human, rare in Cro-Magnon art. Paglen suggests the image may be a message to the future: “Stop me before I kill more.”

    ©HANZ HINZ/ARTOTHEK.

    Predictably, Herzog did not like the “Star Trek mentality” that suggests aliens as we imagine them actually exist. But he played along with the concept, endorsing the presence of cats in Paglen’s mix and warning against using art to communicate with beings that lack sight as we know it. “How,” he queried, only partly rhetorically, “will aliens see your Paul Klee?”

    Klee’s Angelus Novus, 1920, is in the book–but seen from the back. Klee’s angel, as its former owner Walter Benjamin saw him, was a harbinger of doom.

    GIFT OF FANIA AND GERSHOM SCHOLEM, JERUSALEM; JOHN HERRING, MARLENE AND PAUL HERRING, JO CAROLE AND RONALD LAUDER, NEW YORK. COURTESY OF THE ISRAEL MUSEUM, JERUSALEM.

    But then, we can’t see the Klee either. It’s the label affixed to the back of Klee’s 1920 watercolor Angelus Novus that begins Paglen’s 100 images, which appear without any text. The captions, such as they are, are in an appendix. There, we learn that this picture, prior to being inherited by Jewish mystic Gershom Scholem, was owned by Walter Benjamin, who discussed it in his Theses on the Philosophy of History shortly before his death fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Benjamin described Klee’s angel as looking back, beholding a great catastrophe.

    Clearly, we’re not in Carl Sagan territory any more. The optimism and we-are-the-world quality of the Voyager Golden Record, launched 35 years ago, are nowhere present in The Last Pictures. The book is an intentionally perverse, obscure, awe-inspiring, heartbreaking, brain-twisting selection of images, culled from libraries, databases, and archives, that appear in a progression Paglen describes as a silent film, or a poem. The sequence of black-and-white reproductions has the dreamlike quality of a Chris Marker movie, where the documentary photos evoke science fiction and the science fiction—like the set of Escape from Planet of the Apes–seems real. The presumptive great achievements of human civilization–space travel, modern art–come off as quaint and obsolete. Ai Weiwei shows up, giving the finger to the Eiffel Tower. For every attempt at communication, there is misstep, like the Tower of Babel (rendered by Pieter Breugel the Elder), or Esperanto’s also-ran, Volapük. Images stand in for global warming, industrial pollution, and man’s inhumanity to man, expressed in deviously cheerful images of prisoners of war and Agent-Orange deformed children. Great sea creatures, like the orca and the whale shark, are captive in aquariums. Others are farmed, or cloned, or genetically altered. The fruit fly has legs where its antennae should be. Even cats are pressed into service in a sadistic piano.

    If earth hasn’t been destroyed by the time aliens find this, it could make them want to finish the job.

    A detail from Albertus Seba’s Lernaean Hydra, 1734, turns up at the 44th spot. Many people thought the creature was real, based on Seba’s rendering and a fake hydra made out of weasel parts and snakeskin that turned up in Hamburg. Other manmade monsters in Paglen’s book include a genetically modified fruit fly with legs instead of antennae.

    PHOTO: PAUL K/COURTESY SEBA.

    As depressing as all this is, it’s kind of uplifting to think of all the people who came together to get Paglen’s disc ready for liftoff: anthropologists; philosophers; cognitive scientists; aerospace engineers; experts in quantum nanostructures, materials science, message encoding, and more. As several of these specialists make clear in the book, none had illusions about communicating with aliens. But they threw themselves into this quixotic art project anyway.

    This inner beauty of The Last Pictures is the real reason it works as public art. Because no matter what happens in outer space, Paglen has been colonizing inner space all along.

    Number 96: Waterspout, Florida Keys. Paglen doesn’t say so, but this extreme weather event often occurs in the Bermuda Triangle.

    COURTESY NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION/DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE.

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