Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen, based in both Oakland, California and New York, New York, is an artist, writer, and experimental geographer whose work deliberately blurs lines between social science, contemporary art, journalism, and other disciplines to construct unfamiliar, yet meticulously researched ways to see and interpret the world around us. He is co-author, with Nato Thompson, of Experimental Geography: Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography, and Urbanis, a groundbreaking collection of visual research and mapmaking from the past ten years that explores the distinctions between geographical study and artistic experience of the earth, as well as the juncture where the two realms collide. He published Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World, a road trip through a shadow nation of state secrets, clandestine military bases, black sites, hidden laboratories, and top-secret agencies that make up what insiders call the “black world.” Released in 2012, The Last Pictures is a collection of 100 images to be placed on permanent media and launched into space on EchoStar XVI, as a repository available for future civilizations (alien or human) to find.

The Other Night Sky series is a project to track and photograph classified American satellites in Earth orbit. To develop the body of work, he was assisted by observational data produced by an international network of amateur “satellite observers.” To translate the observational data into a useable form, he spent almost two years working with a team of computer scientists and engineers at Eyebeam Center for Art + Technology to develop a software model to describe the orbital motion of classified spacecraft. With these tools, he was able to calculate the position and timing of overhead reconnaissance satellite transits and photograph them with telescopes and large-format cameras using a computer-guided mechanical mount. The resultant skyscapes are marked by trails of sunlight reflected from the hulls of obscure spacecraft hurtling through the night.

In developing this project, he has been primarily inspired by the methods of early astronomers like Kepler and Galileo, who documented previously unseen moons of Jupiter in the early 17th Century. Like contemporary reconnaissance satellites, Jupiter’s moons were not supposed to “exist,” but were nonetheless there. With this series, Paglen asks what it means to see the traces of “secret moons” in the contemporary night sky.

The Last Pictures
In 1963 NASA launched the first communications satellite “Syncom 2” into a geosynchronous orbit over the Atlantic Ocean. Since then, humans have slowly and methodically added to this space-based communications infrastructure. Currently, more than 800 spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit form a man-made ring of satellites around Earth at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers. Most of these spacecraft powered down long ago, yet continue to float aimlessly around the planet. Geostationary satellites are so far from earth that their orbits never decay. The dead spacecraft in orbit have become a permanent fixture around Earth, not unlike the rings of Saturn. They will be the longest-lasting artifacts of human civilization, quietly floating through space long after every trace of humanity has disappeared from the planet’s surface.

Commissioned and presented by public art organization Creative Time, The Last Pictures is a project to mark one of these spacecraft with a record of our historical moment. For nearly five years, Paglen interviewed scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers to consider what such a cultural mark should be. As an artist in residence at MIT, he worked with materials scientists to develop an ultra-archival disc of images, capable of lasting in space for billions of years.

In November 2012, the television satellite EchoStar XVI lifted off from Kazakhstan with the disc attached to its anti-earth deck, entered a geostationary orbit, and proceeded to broadcast over ten trillion images over its fifteen-year lifetime. When it nears the end of its useful life, EchoStar XVI will use the last of its fuel to enter a slightly higher “graveyard orbit,” where it will power down and die. While EchoStar XVI’s broadcast images are destined to be as fleeting as the light-speed radio waves they travel on. The Last Pictures will continue to slowly circle Earth until the Earth itself is no more.

An Ansel Adams photograph from UCR ARTSblock’s California Museum of Photography permanent collection is one of the photographs that has been included on the archival disc.

• left: LA CROSSE/ONYX IV Near Alfirk (USA 152), 2007, C-print, 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of Altman-Siegel Gallery.
Debris, 2010, [A-E], 2 C-prints, 20 x 16 in. each. Courtesy of Altman-Siegel Gallery.

• Ansel Adams, Taping picture, (Television) Dr. Edward J. Triplett, April, 1966, Gelatin silver print, Sweeney/Rubin Ansel Adams Fiat Lux Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography. An Ansel Adams photograph from UCR ARTSblock’s California Museum of Photography permanent collection is one of the photographs that has been included on the archival disc. Courtesy of UCR/CMP.