Images for Aliens to Orbit Earth for Five Billion Years

There’s a ring of man-made satellites orbiting the earth that will outlast human civilization.

To send a message to the future, artist Trevor Paglen decided to micro-etch 100 images on an ultra-archival disc created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers and blast them up there.

(For a slideshow featuring the images, click here.)

With the support of Creative Time, Paglen finished the five-year project, and “The Last Pictures” will soon launch on the satellite EchoStar XVI.

Encased in a gold-plated shell, the images will circle the earth for the next five billion years -- ready to be found by a curious extraterrestrial.

I met Paglen at his book-filled downtown apartment overlooking a giant swath of New York harbor.

Lundborg: How did you come to conceive of this idea?

Paglen: I was interested in secret satellites, the idea that you could go out and see things that aren’t acknowledged to be there.

I wanted to know how long it takes for a satellite to come down once it’s been put up into orbit. And then I realized that once you go up to very high altitudes, particularly in the geostationary orbits around 36,000 kilometers (22,356 miles), they never come down.

Lundborg: So you thought, let’s put some art among the dead machines?

Poetic Gesture

Paglen: I thought maybe we should insert some humanity into that, make some kind of cultural mark on one of these spacecraft to acknowledge the fact that we’re putting these things out into time.

I thought this would be sort of a poetic gesture.

Lundborg: The first problem was finding the material for your pictures?

Paglen: How do you produce an image that can last four or five billion years?

Materials engineers at MIT figured out how to make these ultra-archivable images with a crystalline atomic structure, something that wouldn’t come apart on its own.

Lundborg: How did you choose the images?

Eternal Machines

Paglen: Most people would imagine that what we should do is make a representation of humanity, explain what humanity was all about.

It didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t want to create some kind of grand narrative about civilization.

I started thinking what does it mean that we’ve built these exquisitely engineered machines that will stay there forever and outlive us.

Lundborg: You mean the human race?

Trevor: Yes. That seems typical of the contemporary moment where we are building things whose long-term future we don’t necessarily think about.

A Styrofoam cup thrown in a landfill won’t biodegrade for another million years. That’s a better story to tell.

Lundborg: So you’re going to send out a message about our ignorance and incompetence?

Trevor: It’s more poetic than that, but that’s the place my head was coming from.

Lundborg: You talked to a lot of people, scientists and philosophers among them?

Paglen: We looked at everything from alchemy in the Middle Ages to cybernetics, from advertisements for agribusiness in the 1960s to messages in bottles.

Metaphorical Mathematics

Lundborg: What made the biggest impression on you?

Paglen: Rafael Nunez, who’s at the University of California at San Diego, shows how mathematics is a series of metaphors that we use, that it is a human artifact. Mathematics is just as much a human language as English or Swahili or Japanese.

Lundborg: But it’s the language of science?

Paglen: It is the language of science but it is a language. Mathematics for him is not something that is inscribed in the universe.

Lundborg: Many of the images you chose benefit from explanation, so are you including context?

Paglen: No. I thought about cave paintings. There are animals, but the vast majority are not figurative paintings. We don’t know what they are -- dots and lines and dashes. They’re deeply enigmatic.

We are making cave paintings for the future.

Agent Orange

Lundborg: Why did you include the Vietnamese family with the abnormal child, still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange?

Paglen: It’s complex, but one thing I wanted to point out with that image is obviously the lingering violence of warfare, and how war becomes a part of bodies, of the land and of the chemicals that are all around us for much longer than when the peace treaty is signed.

Lundborg: Another photograph shows smiling little girls, but they are actually in an internment camp.

Paglen: What does it mean that we put children in concentration camps? And what does it mean that they can smile inside the concentration camp?

There’s something exquisitely and very intimately human about the image and at the same time something extremely inhuman about it.

Lundborg: All your images are designed to evoke a complex response?

Paglen: For this collection of pictures, the audience is actually here and now. The odds that it will ever be found are very, very remote.

But I hope it’s a project that poses questions that are worth thinking about for a while.

On Sept. 19, Paglen will be speaking about his work with filmmaker Werner Herzog and poet Tracy K. Smith in Bryant Park, at 42nd St. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, under the auspices of the New York Public Library.

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For more information about the project:

(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)