Multi-Faceted Artist Trevor Paglen: The Merging of Science and Art, in Space

Jackson Leeds

For the annual Erik J. Ryan lecture, artist Trevor Paglen gave a talk about one of his recent projects, “The Last Pictures,” last Wednesday, March 20. Paglen is an artist who works in a variety of media, as his work is in conversation with science and contemporary art simultaneously. In addition to a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Paglen also has a PhD in geography from the University of California at Berkeley, where he currently works as a researcher. He has received numerous grants and exhibited at museums like the Tate Modern as well as in group and solo shows around the world.

“The Last Pictures” is an exciting project that one can hardly wrap his head around. Paglen referred to it as a public art project that no one can see, which is certainly an intriguing concept. It is strange that Paglen refers to his art as public art, even though it is not in the visible sphere. Most public art projects are usually very much in the public eye, but that does not seem to be a concern of Paglen’s.

Although Paglen’s work is filed under contemporary art, “The Last Pictures” also heavily involves science. Paglen has done research on satellites placed in orbit by companies like Dish Network, fascinated by certain properties of these objects. He mentioned that these satellites just might be some of the most permanent objects that humans have created, which makes them a perfect canvas for an everlasting artwork.

Most satellites decay, but the one Paglen has used for his project does not. It will exist until an unimaginable amount of time from now, making it somewhat of an artistic time capsule for those living in the future to see, even if it is only visible via telescope.

Paglen’s project is very much related to old paintings found in caves, which were some of the first art we know of. That being said, Paglen is doing this knowing that his project will last forever, whereas those who painted the Neolithic cave paintings probably had no idea we would see them at some point.

The satellite that he created for “The Last Pictures” was designed by Paglen himself. He convinced Eccostar (parent company of Dish Network) to allow an image plate on the satellite. The image Paglen chose was relatively abstract – something the artist did on purpose. By making the image simple and abstract, Paglen increased the chances of a future generation understanding what he was trying to do.

Will anyone ever run into Paglen’s project in the incidental way he is describing? It seems unlikely to a certain extent, seeing as Paglen’s work is one satellite among many orbiting slowly around the earth. Interestingly, Paglen left no signature on the image plate. Apparently, it never even crossed his mind.

It was a pleasure to hear Paglen talk about his work, as it is so different than anything I have seen before. He is clearly just as much of a scientist as he is an artist, even though those two professions seem somewhat oppositional. “The Last Pictures” is one of the only projects of its kind and it is certainly an impressive accomplishment.