22 april 2024

An interview with Trevor Paglen (The Last Pictures)

Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures

Credit: Trevor Paglen, Creative Time

On November 21, 2012 the Echostar XVI communications satellite was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Affixed to the exterior of that satellite is an archival disc created by artist Trevor Paglen called The Last Pictures. Echostar XVI has an geostationary orbit, 36.000 km above earth’s equator. Made of ultra-archival materials, the disc is expected to orbit the earth for billions of years. To create the artifact, Paglen micro-etched one hundred photographs selected to represent modern human history onto a silicon disc encased in a gold-plated shell that was designed at MIT and Carleton College. As a cultural artifact of our time, The Last Pictures is both a message to the future and a poetic meditation on the legacy of our civilization. Recently I had an interview with Paglen, about the images, time and his artistic research, which we did with Skype, an interview you can read here on the Astroblogs. Beneath the interview there are a couple of video’s, two of them about  Paglen’s Last Pictures and one of the launch of the Proton rocket, that brought the Echostar into orbit.

An interview with Trevor Paglen

In your most recent project, ‘The Last Pictures’ are encrypted into a disk made of a material that will last for billions of years. I find it interesting that these images portray a reality frozen in time, yet they can only be seen by the technological eye of the distant future.

With ‘The Last Pictures’, I don’t think they are supposed to be seen, I don’t think anybody will ever find them. There are many different ways of thinking what these pictures are or what they could be, but for me I think about the pictures to be a ‘urge’, it’s not so much that we are imagining to see the pictures but imagining the pictures as able to see us. I think about these images as a ‘ghost’ that revolves around the planet. For me ‘The Last Pictures’ are not so much about ‘seeing per se’, it’s more about materiality and trying to think ‘what does it mean to make things that last for a very, very long time’. What does it mean that humans are able to make things that last for millions of years?

Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen. Credit: Trevor Paglen, Creative Time

How did you test the material used for the disk, to see if it could last for billions of years?
The tests were based on the theoretical understanding of how atoms in that particular material work, the chemical composition of the material should be very, very stable. In terms of how everything we understand now about different materials, what the properties of the material are and its capability, we did a lot of testing on the material, in addition to that, to demonstrate that it would survive the launch of the rocket, it’s of tremendous importance that it could remain stable over the great fluctuation of temperature. When you are in Space, there is no atmosphere so temperatures are very extreme, if you are in the sunlight it could be 200 or 300 degree Celsius, if you are in the shadow, it could be minus 200 or 300 degree Celsius, these changes of temperature can happen over the course of a few minutes. So the question was to demonstrate that the thing we made could withstand the temperature fluctuation and the vacuum, as well as the radiation. We did all of those tests at the M.I.T.Was the material used in ‘The Last Pictures’ created especially for the project or is it also used in the Space industry?The material is silicon, it’ a very basic material that is used in many other components. We had to figure out some technique in order to etch the images onto it. Normally, the material is used for nano fabrication.

The golden discs Paglen made

The golden discs Paglen made. Credit: Trevor Paglen, Creative Time

Did you start the project at the M.I.T. or was it something you had been working on before the residency?
This project is something I had been working on for a while and the M.I.T. asked me to develop the project there.

Why sending the images into outer Space? Possibly many other people asked you that…
That’s a good question. Actually, the way I think about it, it isn’t Space but it’s much more sending it off into Time. It’s not going off into the Universe forever, it stays around Earth, to make something last that long, you actually need to go into Space, if you want to go that far into Time…The reason for that, on the Earth’s surface over a long, long period of time we have ice ages, glaciers,volcanoes, simple things like rain, the surface of the Earth is constantly being absorbed into the centre of the Earth and being created again, the surface of the Earth is constantly being recycled in and out of the core, again over a long, long period of time, hundreds of billion of years, if you want to make something that lasts as long as the planet, you actually have to get off the planet, because the surface of the Earth is not archivable enough. For me going into Space is a way of going into Time in a very intense way.

Launch of the Echostar XVI satellite

Launch of the Echostar XVI satellite. Credit: Echostar

Your work explores in a deep way the sense of time, possibly as much as Robert Smithson did: in his writings he continuously addresses the idea of time, yet the more this is addressed, the more this escapes a better understanding of it. Time seems to be a matter that is incredibly hard to define visually: is it circular, linear or spiral-like? In your work, in my opinion, you seem to think of time as a circular form.

We often think of time as a line that connects the past and the future, this is a recent understanding. I think of the circular idea of time as coming out from people like Walter Benjamin, he talks about how the linear notion of time and of progress that we have is generally perceived as being an advantage. Benjamin seems to have serious issues with that, pointing out that history is one turnover of recurring crises, whether economic or humanitarian crises that are produced and reproduced over and over again, however history needs to be reconsidered from the circular perspective to try to understand how these great crises are produced and reproduced and, only by recognizing that action, imagining a future in which those crises are not perpetuated eternally.There is a strong element of contradiction in ‘The Last Pictures’, in the way you refer to time, for example the use of black & white images, some of which belong to specific moments of the human history, remind me of how fragile our life on Earth is and yet the material where the images are encapsulated is conceived to outlive us.Everything about it is contradictory and I find it important, I like that. The choice for the black and white images is partly technical, also, going back to the question of time, making all those images in B&W allowed me to granulate time, to make juxtaposition where I can play with our sense of time, and in that way, again coming back to the Benjamin’s theory of history and crises, I can try to show some of the ways in which crises repeat themselves. For example there is an image of a tidal wave in Japan, a lot of people when they see the image think that it’s from a few years ago but no, actually it’s much older, again this shows the recurrence of crises.

Impression of the Echostar XVI

Impression of the Echostar XVI. Credit: Echostar

I find it interesting that your research method allows you to bring together different disciplines in a very organic way, this is not always the case with artists working in multidisciplinary projects. Sometimes the multidisciplinary research doesn’t lead to a result that can have an impact on the way we perceive things for example, and stays very superficial. How did you develop your research method? Was your artistic training important for that?

Philosophically, I am not somebody who thinks ‘art is over here’ and ‘social science is over here’ or ‘science is over here’, those categories don’t make much sense in terms of understanding the world, if you are going to make yourself more disciplined in your way of thinking, you are going to miss a lot. Methodologically, how I see the work is from having trained as an artist and then as a geographer, also one of my best friends is a very, very well respected investigative journalist and we worked together in a number of projects and he ended up teaching me a lot of those methodologies which are very different from the methodologies we find in social science and to those associated with art making. This is definitively not something that I invented in terms of the different techniques, but I think I am able to make them blurry. I have been working for longtime with these methodologies, trying to understand them as well and trying to master them. So many times if you are an artist there are some visual things that are tempting to work with, but I think it’s more about going beyond that point. To really see something differently, it takes a tremendous amount of work, to understand what is in fact what you are looking at. I make a new project every five years and I think a lot of artists don’t work that way. So many of us are on deadline, I did that as well but in this long term projects I try to understand as much as possible and that takes time. If you really want to understand something and really get into the idea, it takes a longtime to investigate any idea and the methodology.


Project Video:

Trevor Paglen – The Last Pictures Project Video from Creative Time on Vimeo.


Trevor Paglen – The Last Pictures from Creative Time on Vimeo.

Launch of the Echostar XVI:

Source: Creative TimeKurzweil.



  1. Danielaaaaa, apart from a simple “WOW!!!!” I am speachless…..a condition which, as you well know, very seldom happens to me…ha…ha..!!

  2. Yep, I second that Jan. Great interview and a great story too. Fascinating idea, that high above our heads there’s a satellite that contains hundred pictures, that will last forever, eh… sorry a couple of billion years. When we humans have wiped out ourselves – peace of a cake as you can see all around you – than that orbiting mortuarium is eventually the last that remains of us. And this other idea: that earth has a ring – just like Saturn – and that is’t an artificial ring, made out of machines. Woehahaha, sounds like the Matrix. Daniela, you made my day! 😀

  3. Olaf van Kooten zegt

    I totally agree with me colleagues, great interview and it invokes fundamental questions about our place in the depths of time, and especially our future legacy 🙂 Although I believe our legacy will be far greater than that. I don’t believe in extra terrestrial visitors – I believe that filling the universe with inteligence is OUR task, we are the ones to lead our legacy into immortality and a longlasting imprint into the universe itself. But that’s just my opinion 😉

  4. Excellent interview Daniela. I hope menkind will send more pictures in future so Trevor Paglen’s pictures will not be the last. It’s a brilliant idea and well done. Again I’m convinced we all are star dust, now and after billions of years te come.

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