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.
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.
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 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.
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?”
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.
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.