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Echostar 16
EchoStar XVI, seen being prepared for launch, carries an unusual art project and message to future generations, human or otherwise. (credit: EchoStar)

The Last Pictures: Contemporary pessimism and hope for the future (part 1)

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In the history of humanity, there have been a select number of key events that define the moments when our species became truly intelligent in terms of a self-aware consciousness. One of the relatively more recent milestones is when we perceived of a true sense of the future and endeavored to preserve representations of ourselves, along with more direction information, for the appreciation and edification of our distant descendants.

Of course when one attempts to send a message to future recipients, more than just mere illumination is involved: Often enough the creators and senders of the messages into deep time want to show their remote children (or in certain cases, as we shall see, the remote offspring of other intelligences) that they and their society had something of importance to say and offer, that they mattered as much to and in their era as the recipients likely consider themselves to be of value in their own time and place.

Over the ages, the successes and failures of humanity’s efforts at cultural and informational preservation have primarily depended upon a combination of interest, the utilized technology, the education levels of the participants, and especially the location.

Objects in geosynchronous orbit could stay there in space virtually until the Sun turns into a red giant star about five billion years from now.

For example, much of what we do know about ancient European societies comes from the efforts of Roman Catholic monks and Muslim scholars who spent centuries during the Middle Ages copying and recopying by hand the relatively few surviving texts from the Greek and Roman eras. Outside of those few centers of learning and preservation, ignorance, neglect, and deliberate destruction turned those once great civilizations into literal ruins and vague cultural memories. Sadly, this has been the fate of most human societies throughout the ages, leaving us with a rather incomplete record of our ancestors’ past.

On Earth, a geologically, environmentally, and biologically active world, most of structures and objects created by our modern human civilization that survive the next several centuries of demolition, discarding, and rebuilding will one day collapse into dust and be buried. Certain deliberately designed artifacts may survive without becoming fossils for longer periods, but eventually most things built by our minds and hands will turn into mere remnant artifacts at best. Our biological remains will disappear from the natural historical record even sooner, except for those who are “lucky” enough to be fossilized or artificially preserved.

The ability to preserve aspects of ourselves changed dramatically in the 1950s when we were able to directly access space. Artificial objects in the celestial realm are subject to far less erosion and other debilitating factors than on the surface of our ever-changing planet. In the solar system, a spacecraft might last for many millions of years sitting on the lunar regolith or drifting around our sun in interplanetary space. A vessel sent into the even calmer and emptier reaches of interstellar space is expected to remain intact for one billion years or more. All of these factors involve vehicles and equipment that are protected from the space environment primarily for the duration of their missions. Anything after that is considered a bonus.

It is this feature of very long-term existence beyond Earth that intrigued New York geographer, independent scholar, and photographic artist Trevor Paglen to create an art project and a deeply deep time artifact he named The Last Pictures.

Way up in the middle of the air

While working on another photographic art composition about military reconnaissance satellites, Paglen learned that vehicles that occupy a special orbit about 35,800 kilometers above the Earth could stay there in space virtually until the Sun turns into a red giant star about five billion years from now. Anything still surviving in orbit around Earth in that distant future era will surely be vaporized even if the Sun does not engulf our planet as is currently predicted.

Before that cosmic demise arrives, however, an object existing in what is known as geosynchronous orbit or the Clarke Belt (named after science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who in 1945 popularized the potential global uses for satellites in this region) can remain up there for eons.

While natural phenomena such as meteoroids, solar flares, and cosmic rays can damage these artificial residents over time, they will remain untouched by Earth’s atmosphere. Spacecraft in lower orbits encounter relatively thicker regions of air, which cause them to eventually lose their orbital velocities and descend towards our planet to end their existences as meteors.

Nations and corporations place satellites in geosynchronous orbit to utilize the fact that an object at that height can match Earth’s 24-hour rotation rate. Such satellites appear to hover over one spot above our planet. This feature and their very high vantage point allow just three satellites spaced around Earth to provide electronic communications for almost the entire global community.

The first satellites to successfully take advantage of this special orbit were the Syncom (short for “synchronous communication satellite”) series launched in the early 1960s. Decades later, hundreds of communications satellites now circle our planet scattered throughout the Clarke Belt, conducting a wide variety of commercial and military needs. They are such a regular and vital part of our modern technological civilization that most people do not even think about the services comsats provide in our everyday lives, or even the existence of these mechanical stations themselves.

Once EchoStar XVI and its attached artifact reach their second home in space and the satellite is subsequently shut down, they begin their next tasks as keepers of perhaps one of the final messages to future humanity, or beings from other worlds.

Paglen became fascinated by the fact that these satellites might be among the last bits of evidence that humanity ever existed. The artist imagined an advanced alien intelligence arriving in the solar system in some remote future time and encountering this “man-made ring of Saturn forged from aluminum and silicon spacecraft hulls.” Between the methods of terrestrial erosion and his general pessimism over the long-term survival of humanity, Paglen decided to create a work that would be capable of lasting for ages, far from the corrosive potentials of both our planet and our species.

Inspired by the Pioneer Plaques and the Voyager Interstellar Records which left Earth in the 1970s to become humanity’s first physical messages to the wider Milky Way galaxy, Paglen put together one hundred carefully selected photographs he called The Last Pictures and had them nanoetched onto a disc made of silicon and ceramic. The disc was then encased for protection between two interlocking gold-plated aluminum covers, one of which has a “temporal map” etched onto its exterior. Using the language of science, this diagram should provide the finders with a method to determine the approximate era when Paglen’s artwork was created and sent into space.

The complete piece is known as the EchoStar XVI (16) Artifact, named after the communications satellite that carries this message to future places and beings. The artifact was successfully sent on its journey into space and time atop a Russian Proton-M/Briz-M rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on November 20, 2012. The primary mission of this 6,258 kilogram satellite is to provide television broadcasts for the next fifteen years for the millions of customers of the Dish Network Corporation living in the United States.

When EchoStar XVI approaches the end of its initial career as a communications satellite around 2027, ground controllers will command the satellite to fire its thrusters. This will move EchoStar XVI several hundred kilometers further away from Earth into what is known as a “graveyard” or supersynchronous orbit. Here is where many past geosynchronous satellites “go to die”, so to speak. This realm for older, obsolete satellites gives the next generations of satellites the important room they need to function in the relatively narrow and highly prized geosynchronous orbit.

Once EchoStar XVI and its attached artifact reach their second home in space and the satellite is subsequently shut down, they begin their next tasks as keepers of perhaps one of the final messages to future humanity, or beings from other worlds, or to the vast and unaware Universe far beyond Earth’s geosynchronous realm.

Discovering The Last Pictures: initial impressions

I learned about The Last Pictures art project rather recently by chance. I was perusing the science and nature section of a local bookstore when I came across a book on display. Its cover depicted the famous Earthrise from lunar orbit photograph taken by the Apollo 8 crew in December of 1968 and those three provocative words printed across the blackness of space in which our planet was and is embedded.

It did not take me very long to realize I was looking at something I and others have been advocating for quite a while now with Faces from Earth. Someone had put together a collection of photographs representing humanity—or at least their take on the subject—and put them aboard a space vehicle to endure for ages, to be seen by natives of the far, far future, if ever.

Paglen was influenced by the engraved plaques put aboard the Pioneer 10 and 11 robotic planetary probes, which were launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in early 1972 and 1973, respectively. They were the first spacecraft to flyby the gas giant worlds of Jupiter and Saturn, where their massive bulks in turn flung the two probes out of the solar system.

Etched onto a gold-coated plate of aluminum, the relatively basic messages on the Pioneer Plaques show where the probes came from using a pulsar “map” and a diagram of our solar system, with a simple image of the Pioneers flying from Earth to pass between Jupiter and Saturn and then into deep space. The plaques also depict the species which built them, represented by a nude and panracial male and female human. The man is holding up his right arm and extending his hand in what was hoped would be interpreted as a friendly gesture of salutation.

Whether the Pioneers and their “calling card” bolted to the antenna struts would ever be found by anyone roaming the Milky Way galaxy in a remote future epoch, let alone interpreted correctly, was unknown; what mattered more was that humanity had created machines which could explore distant planets and then leave our celestial neighborhood. That some folks recognized these milestone feats and commemorated them in some fashion was a wonderful bonus, a sign that human beings were finally becoming aware of the true nature of the wider cosmos around them and our overall place in it.

Paglen’s other influence for The Last Pictures were the expanded “sequels” to the Pioneer Plaques, known officially as the Voyager Interstellar Records but referred to by Paglen and others, not inaccurately, as the Golden Records.

Far more than just a pictogram on a rectangular piece of metal, the records had images, sounds, languages, and music, as much as a representation of the builders of the Voyager 1 and 2 probes and their world could be placed into the grooves of a 12-inch phonograph disc. The more sophisticated Voyagers, launched just weeks apart in 1977, examined all four of the outer planets, many of their moons, and their ring systems they went hurtling into the galactic void as well.

I began to examine The Last Pictures in detail and read about how the project came to be, it did not take long to realize that Paglen put a lot of thought, effort, and feelings into this message-gift to the far future.

Both of these early physical Messages to Extraterrestrial Intelligences (METI), as such efforts are now called, were created and produced by a select group of individuals headed by Cornell University astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan and his colleague and Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligences (SETI) pioneer Frank Drake. Sagan’s second wife, Linda Salzman Sagan, was the artist for the Pioneer Plaque and later worked with Timothy Ferris, Jon Lomberg, and Ann Druyan on the Voyager Records. They took it upon themselves to initiate this project when NASA showed no initial formal interest in affixing so much as a commemorative token to the first human-made vessels ever to escape the gravitational confines of the solar system.

The plaques and records were designed for intelligent and technologically advanced beings from places other than Earth, to hopefully give them some idea about the makers of the likely very ancient vessels drifting and tumbling silently through interstellar space. Of course, the odds are somewhat better that their remote finders will be the descendants of humanity itself, having successfully survived its biological and cultural adolescence to explore and colonize the Milky Way galaxy. No doubt our children would appreciate these undoubtedly rare artifacts from the days of their forefathers’ first steps into the Cosmos.

As much as I was excited by the discovery of The Last Pictures, I must admit an initial bias. As I conducted my initial scan of the book at the store, noting especially the one hundred black-and-white photographs that are the heart of the project, I was concerned that what had been created was yet another bit of modern art that was more pretentious than meaningful and born of true artistic talent. I also confess I was not previously familiar with the artist Paglen or his work, which surprised me a bit considering his earlier work with photographing military satellites and their often secret mission patches and other classified government operations.

While I certainly know and appreciate that many modern artists and their works can be just as good as anyone and anything from the classical periods, I often sometimes balk at pieces I see in galleries and museums that look more like someone accidentally spilled paint on a canvas or left a pile of scrap metal to rust in a vacant lot. Then they have the nerve to add insult to injury by charging ridiculous sums of money for these claims to higher culture.

Fortunately, as I began to examine The Last Pictures in detail and read about how the project came to be, it did not take long to realize that Paglen put a lot of thought, effort, and feelings into this message-gift to the far future. He spent over five years assembling and managing a team from a wide range of disciplines to offer their insights and resources to the project. This is exactly or closely as possible to what all METI efforts should have and be like when assembling their information packages to the stars.

Of course Paglen was fortunate in a number of regards. One of them was his choice of spacecraft upon which to place the artifact: a geosynchronous communications satellite. They are far more commonly available in comparison to deep space probes like the Pioneers and Voyagers.

Over eight hundred communications satellites have been built and aimed for that specialized high Earth orbit since 1963, whereas only five robotic probes (and their final rocket stages) have flown straight out of the solar system since the dawn of the Space Age. If one satellite was not available for the art project, another one would have eventually come along relatively soon for Paglen to utilize.

In contrast, the Voyager Record team was small in number, largely self-motivated, and had only a few short months between when NASA approved placing a physical message aboard the Voyagers and completing their METI project before the two probes would have to be launched. In order to precisely fly by the four outer giant worlds in just one decade per the modified “Grand Tour” mission plan, the Voyagers had to be sent up on certain days in the late summer of 1977 or miss a rather special “window” in space that would not come again for another 176 years.

Ironically, one of the photographs in the EchoStar XVI Artifact displayed a project developed by the famous married team of Charles and Ray Eames that they created for the American National Exhibition held in Moscow in 1959 titled Glimpses of the USA. During development, the Voyager Record team had approached the Eames, who were well known for their elaborate exhibits and films explaining science, technology, and history among other subjects to the general public (such as Mathematica and Powers of Ten), for assistance in putting their own educational project together. The Eames replied that such an undertaking would require years to be treated properly and subsequently dismissed Carl Sagan and his collaborators.

The EchoStar XVI Artifact’s first image is of the label on the back of a watercolor work created in 1920 by the Swiss-German painter Paul Klee.

The Eames may have been right to a point, but as we have already seen, the record team did not have the luxury of abundant time or resources. The Eames probably would have preferred and approved of how Paglen conducted his project, as there are definite similarities between the two artists’ styles. In any case, I say both projects have their merits and our civilization is fortunate that they exist at all. We should be grateful that there are people and societies who are willing and able to create and support such an idea. These acts raise us above life and culture being just mere survival and other baser instincts.

One hundred photographs, two cultures

Although the EchoStar XVI Artifact can definitely count the Voyager Interstellar Record among its inspirations and influences, that project was a largely science-based effort to represent a cross-section of late 20th Century humanity and our celestial home to potential others in the Milky Way galaxy. The core of most of the one hundred images of The Last Pictures art project is predominantly about contemporary social commentary on the state of our species viewed through the prism of the artist.

As revealed from a quote in an article about the project in The Atlantic magazine, Paglen’s overall intentions and ambitions for The Last Pictures appear to be diametrically opposed to the purposes of the Voyager Records by Sagan and company.

Even after the satellite goes dark, The Last Pictures will remain in orbit until the Earth as we know it no longer exists—or until a new civilization, human or otherwise, finds it. “This is not a project that's supposed to explain to aliens what humans are all about and be the definitive record of human civilization,” Paglen tells The Atlantic. “It is a collection of images that explained to somebody in the future what happened to all of the people who build the dead spaceships in orbit around the Earth. And how they killed themselves.”

However, as we will see, both METI projects dabbled—deliberately and subconsciously—with the other side of their focus that British chemist and novelist C. P. Snow called in his now famous 1959 lecture as “the Two Cultures” of the sciences and the humanities. Once treated more-or-less levelly by Western culture from ancient times, the two disciplines were generally split apart with the rise of the Enlightenment. Since then there have been numerous efforts to reunite these cultures and their practitioners, or at least to gain a better appreciation for them by one side for the other. Paglen’s space-based art exhibit on indefinite “display” is among the latest serious attempts to build a bridge between these two worlds.

Nevertheless, the predominance of art and the humanities over science with the EchoStar XVI Artifact can be seen with its very first photograph. For the Voyager Record, the initial image was a simple black line circle against a white background, designed to show the finders the proper calibration for viewing the rest of the 118 photographs on the golden disc. The Record team did not want to assume that the finders would quickly and easily grasp how to view their information, even if the instrument they stored their images on would be relatively simple to operate for beings that could travel between the stars and find such a small vessel among the immensities of the Milky Way.

In stark contrast, the EchoStar XVI Artifact’s first image is of the label on the back of a watercolor work created in 1920 by the Swiss-German painter Paul Klee. Titled Angelus Novus (New Angel), the most well-known (one could go so far as to say dominating) interpretation of the meaning of the front of this piece is by the German Jewish philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin, who purchased it in 1921. Benjamin said the following about Klee’s work in his ninth thesis in the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, which is repeated in the companion book:

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

So is Paglen’s act of turning the artwork around saying that Klee-Benjamin’s “angel of history” is now facing the future that the EchoStar XVI Artifact is journeying into? A distant future that Paglen sees and describes throughout his book as one which will not be occupied by humanity due to our destructive natures. Clearly we are well outside the scientifically designed and deliberately simple opening pictorial messages of the Voyager Record.

While the Benjamin-focused symbolism of Klee’s actual work may be relevant to the central messages Paglen is attempting to convey to contemporary folks and whoever exists in the far future (neither Paglen nor Benjamin saw progress as a necessarily good thing for modern humanity), I also get the impression that this particular art piece is Paglen’s way of paying recognition—perhaps even capitulating to a point—to his fellow professional post-modern and avant-garde artists. A number of them expressed attitudes ranging from ambiguous to dismissive about this project as both actual art and any kind of real message to anyone in the future, human or especially alien.

Part of this reaction from select members of Paglen’s peers could be due to sheer professional jealousy. Paglen received a lot of support and publicity across multiple disciplines as he spent almost half a decade developing The Last Pictures. Having the final results of his efforts literally rocketed into the heavens—bolted to a commercial communications satellite, no less—must have seemed extravagant to a community that generally stays on the humanities side of the cultural fence. That no one in this generation, and for likely many more to follow, will ever see the actual photographs again must appear paradoxical, even an affront to the post-modern art world, where even they insist that an artist’s work at least be somehow visible to them and any interested members of the general public.

There is, of course, the official book with all the photographs, along with their explanations and the history of the project. Paglen also went on a lecture tour to various cities around the globe displaying and discussing his artwork, but that is not quite the same, or good enough.

Even if the actual artifact were physically accessible to people on Earth, one would need a magnifying glass, or something stronger, to see the tiny collection of pictures, which sit on a thin wafer of silicon roughly the size of an old US silver dollar coin. That The Last Pictures would also be sitting on the surface of our planet and thus be subject to the mercies of human nature and the rest of terrestrial nature defeats the purpose and point of its existence in the first place.

I also think that by showing the back of a painting (and then sending it into space indefinitely), Paglen is imploring his colleagues, and, by default, the rest of humanity, to think outside the box of what our culture calls art, be it modern, classical, or any other labeled form. Art does not have to be confined to some gallery or park, nor should it. Instead it should reflect and comment upon the society which creates it. Certainly The Last Pictures succeeds in this goal to a literally high level.

As for the “literally high level” of the art, Paglen is also attempting to get people to think outside the spherical box called Earth and their even smaller places upon its surface. For despite his overall comments in the book and through interviews expressing discouragement about the fate of his species and his civilization, Paglen’s artistic gesture is ultimately a warning and a wakeup call – and those are usually not done unless there is a sense of hope and concern to keep us from the path to degeneration and extinction – even if Paglen does not quite see it or admit it to himself.

Space age cave paintings

The key piece of The Last Pictures is among the most ancient surviving renditions of human-made art, the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux in southwestern France. Archaeologists estimate they were made between 15,000 and 18,000 years ago, millennia before the first true civilizations appeared anywhere on Earth. Paglen included in his little art show two different scenes from the walls of Lascaux cave and one other example of rock art: a much more recent series of Native American petroglyphs whose symbols and messages are clearly understood by modern archaeologists.

“I actually think about The Last Pictures as cave paintings for the future,” Paglen told one publication.

Paglen chose a particular section from Lascaux located in what is called “the Pit” or “the Shaft of the Dead Man” section of the cave. Painted on the yellowish mineral surface is what appears to be a bison, possibly injured from a hunt, attacking a stick figure representing a man, while a prehistoric rhinoceros is shown walking away nearby. Next to the man is a bird on a long stick. Of the over two thousand representations on the cave walls of Lascaux, this is the only one to clearly show a person.

What exactly this scene and the rest of the Lascaux paintings mean and why they were created has been a subject of wide and intense debate ever since they were discovered in 1940. Theories have ranged from straightforward pictorial recordings of real events to efforts at “sympathetic magic” to ensure good hunting to depictions of constellations and other celestial objects. The interesting and frustrating aspect of these serious suggestions for the paintings is that all of them are plausible as much as our separation from these ancestors in space and time and a lack of written or even oral records allow.

Paglen explores the Lascaux painting extensively in the companion book, devoting much of Chapter 2 to the ancient artwork. As he explained in a recent interview with e-flux journal, “Cave paintings are an example of images or records we have from cultures that have been radically torn from any historical context. They are to us what our spacecraft may be to the future. I actually think about The Last Pictures as cave paintings for the future.”

Incidentally, the Pioneer Plaques have also been referred to as “interstellar/intellectual cave paintings” pretty much from the time they were created by such people as Eric Burgess, who co-authored Pioneer Odyssey: Encounter with a Giant (NASA SP-349), the official publication by the space agency on the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes. Even though the METI artifacts that have been sent into space were manufactured as deliberate carriers of information for minds that may bear only the slightest resemblance to ours, they too may become the subject of intense debates over their true meanings as wide ranging and just as plausible as any ancient terrestrial cave art. Almost certainly the time between their creation and their discovery will be much longer than the chronological distance between our era and the Paleolithic. How wide the gap will be between our minds and the recipients’ and if it can be bridged in any capacity is another matter.