One doesn’t usually hear an artist refer to their own work as a “deeply ridiculous, deeply nonsensical project,” especially when the project in question required a huge investment of time, energy, and expertise. However, “The Last Pictures,” Trevor Paglen’s most recent art installation, is a collection of carefully curated photos that you will likely never ever see. Unless you do–in which case, Paglen, an artist and academic geographer who spoke at the UofC’s Arts|Science Initiative, will have created an artifact more extraordinary and dangerous than most anything else termed art.
“The Last Pictures” takes one hundred photos and mounts them onto a nearly indestructible microfilm, which has been attached to a satellite and booted up into space. Most people are blissfully unaware of the fact that satellites are the longest lasting manmade objects ever produced; many of them will probably last millions of years, depending on the height of their circulation. “The rings of earth are made of monolithic machines,” Paglen explained. They faithfully circle the globe long after they have been deactivated and fallen out of use. Some of them, it almost seems sure, will even outlast humankind.
There’s no way for us to know the distant future of our race, and thus no way for Paglen to know how “The Last Pictures” may impact future life, but he has found meaning for the present in compiling this uncertain time capsule. Similar projects have been attempted before, but the pictures they used seemed as if they were plucked from the pages of a grade school geography textbook: too self-conscious in their multicultural harmony. Too contrived. Paglen wanted to create something more poetic and impressionistic, “a silent film for eternity.” But as the series of pictures blinked across a screen for the earthbound to see, the reasons for the success of his project became a little more apparent: explosions, trains, movie stills, protestors, and dictionary pages made for some compelling juxtapositions and one haunting procession.
Asked whether he had a philosophy that motivated him, Paglen answered that art “helps us see who we are now.” It is something we must have continually, at every moment, even as we evolve. “The Last Pictures” attempts to demonstrate who we are now through a conglomeration of what we’ve been and what will remain, when, as Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “the lone and level sands stretch far away.”