By Kathryn Poindexter
New-York-based artist and writer Trevor Paglen creates compelling conceptual work entrenched in the scientific and the political. It doesn’t answer questions—it explores and creates them, and investigates the paradoxical assumptions upon which many of them operate. “What does it mean that we can now make machines that will far outlast us, not only individually, but as a species?” is one of the questions explored in his recent project “The Last Pictures.” Currently being shown at the UC Riverside ARTSblock as a part of the exhibition, “Free-Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration,” “The Last Pictures” is the result of a five-year collaborative process in which Paglen and scholars in diverse fields posed questions that grappled with the commissioned project of assembling an archival disc of one-hundred images that would be sent out into space on a communication satellite. “It is very, very unlikely that there will an audience for the project in the future,” says Paglen. “But there is an audience for the project right now . . . There is a chance that these actually might be the last pictures, and in that sense the title is not a metaphor.”
“There were a number of rules about the project; one of those rules, at first, was that there would be no humans represented,” said Paglen. “I didn’t want it to be anything that was even remotely going in the direction of being a ‘portrait of humanity.’” And yet the notion remains an irrevocably grand gesture in itself; Paglen and his team simultaneously worked to both resist and explore ideas of the “grand gesture” through their research and discourse.
There have been important precedents to Paglen’s project; Carl Sagan’s “Golden Record” that was sent into space in 1977, which conversely sought to paint a picture of humanity for extra-terrestrial life in a rather romantic sensibility, now often interpreted as a somewhat naïvely-utopian portrayal, which omitted some of the grittier events of his time and cultural climate. When asked about perceived differences regarding feelings toward “the future” between the early 1960s, when communications satellites first started being used, and the present, Paglen said, “Well, speaking to the American context—there was an optimism and relation to the idea of the ‘frontier’ before—we’re more wary of the future now . . . But the future is also what we’re making right now.”
One of the many considerations that came into play while Paglen was researching the project was that if these images were ever hypothetically accessed, the inherent omission of the cultural context within which these representations were created would render the images completely “context-less,” and therein bizarrely meaningless. Paglen likens the idea to our perception of the ancient cave paintings discovered in Lascaux, France. “When I started the project, I started thinking that what we’re basically doing here is taking images and removing them from history,” says Paglen. “The closest analog that we have, in my opinion, is cave paintings . . . We have these remnants but we really don’t know what they mean, or if this idea of ‘meaning’ even applies to them. And we’ll never know—images can only ever be mirrors, in a way. They can only reflect back at us what we bring to them. And I think that this, perhaps, is true of images in general.”
In relation to art history, Paglen identifies two main threads that have been pivotal to his development as an artist. The first is artists who have worked within the arenas of politically- and critically-oriented art-making, noting figures such as Hans Haacke, and the collectives Critical Art Ensemble and Gran Fury. The second is artists who were working at times when notions of visual perception were radically being re-defined and whose work reflected and catalyzed these changes. This includes nineteenth-century Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, as well as many abstract artists working in the early-to-mid twentieth century, such as Mark Rothko and Kazimir Malevich.
“The Last Pictures” satellite was launched in September of 2012 and will remain in orbit, even after it’s powered down, for billions of years. We will never know whether it achieves any sort of communication or encounter with extra-terrestrial life—in fact, it’s overwhelmingly unlikely. But that was never the point, anyway. The important work has been done and the many questions that it’s prompted remain here on Earth, to continually be re-defined and periodically bounce off of the concrete reality that these may very well be the last pictures.
“Lecture: Trevor Paglen” at UCR ARTSblock, 3824 Main St., Riverside, (951) 827-4787; artsblock.ucr.programs/Lecture-Trevor-Paglen. Fri, Mar 22, 7pm.