Memo from the Baikonur Cosmodrome: Artist Trevor Paglen writes in about launching 100 photos into outer space

EchoStar XVI; Trevor Paglen. ()
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Jed Lipinski

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At 1:31 pm Estern Standard Time on the Tuesday right before Thanksgiving, the New York-based artist Trevor Paglen successfully launched 100 tiny black and white images of planet earth into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Paglen, who lives in Manhattan and is represented by Metro Pictures Gallery in Chelsea, is probably best known for his ethereal photographs of covert military bases and spy satellites. He received a commission for the project from the public arts organization Creative Time.

As he monitored the spacecraft with a small group of people at Baikonur, Paglen took a moment to email us about the artistic challenges the project had posed.

"On one hand, the idea of sending pictures off into the vastness of space and time seems nonsensical," he wrote. "On the other, I felt like the gesture carried an enormous amount of responsibility."

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The images, Paglen wrote, were an attempt to "document the transformations humans have made to the Earth’s surface, ecology, biosphere and climate."

To make it into space, they'd been etched onto a wafer-sized silicon-and-ceramic disk, stored inside a gold-plated aluminum canister, and then bolted to the side of the communications satellite EchoStar XVI.

By now, the satellite has joined the more than 800 other satellites now in geosynchronous orbit at an altitude of around 23,000 miles. Since objects in geosynchronous orbit never fall back to earth, astronomers say, the disc will continue circling the planet until the sun finally consumes them both, billions of years from now.

In an recent profile in the New Yorker, Paglen explained that the “conceit of the project is that we're making something that is going to explain to aliens why these dead spacecraft are here.” But the project has also has a terrestrial version, in the form of a coffee table book published by the University of California Press.

Asked what future humans or other forms of life might make of photographs of the Suez Canal, Texas dust storms and Armenian refugees smiling in knee deep water, he wrote: "I think they will appear to anyone else in a similar way that cave paintings appear to us. They seem to tell us an enormous amount and at the same time very little."

“I really hope that the pictures are not too personal,” Paglen added. “'The Last Pictures’ is meant to create a framework to think about the long-term effects of human civilizations, and the transformations we’ve made to the world around us. Having said that, every person in the world would have done the project differently, so in that sense I guess it bears my creative stamp.”

Regardless of what the photos mean, getting an art project launched into space is an achievement in itself. In a short documentary about "The Last Pictures" on Creative Time’s website, Paglen explains that, after some initial setbacks, Creative Time director Anne Pasternak was finally able to persuade EchoStar to provide the host vehicle. Among other enthusiasts, the concept found a sympathetic ear in Chris Ergen, the laid-back son of billionaire and EchoStar Corporation co-founder Charles Ergen (he appears in the video at around minute 7:22).

This was Paglen's first rocket launch, an experience he described as "in a word, sublime." He added that the Russian Proton rocket was initially designed as an intercontinental ballistic missile.

"I'm glad they never used it for that purpose," he wrote.

The launch, which was broadcast live on EchoStar's website, had been delayed after a rocket failure in August. As he watched the rocket ascend, Paglen expressed some amazement that the project had finally come to fruition.

"Technically, it really is rocket-science," he said. "For myself and the team at Creative Time, it was a lot to learn in a very short amount of time. Thankfully, we had a lot of help from the Visiting Artist Program at MIT, who invited me there to develop the technical side of the project. We also had an amazing designer, Mason Juday, who didn’t sleep for about a month trying to meet our deadlines."

As part of his photography work, Paglen, a former prison activist, once traveled to Afghanistan to photograph a secret C.I.A. prison where Khaled El-Masri, a wrongfully imprisoned German citizen, had been allegedly tortured and interrogated. But travel was restricted at the launch complex, which he noted was leased from the Russian government. He had no plans to shoot photographs in Kazakhstan.

Asked whether he might someday like to travel into outer space himself, Paglen wasn't so sure.

"I think it would be a beautiful view, but I’m not someone who thinks humans will ever colonize other planets or spend much time in space," he said. "Anything humans can do in space robots can do better. At this point, manned spaceflight is mostly a symbolic gesture."