Art in the Age of Giant Squids

Huw Lemmey



U.S. artist Trevor Paglen produces work on the infrastructure and apparatus of the surveillance state; that's what he's known for, and usually, it's what he'd talk about at events like this. But with just 15 minutes, perhaps that's too expansive an issue to discuss, with its complex issues of serious breaches of civil liberties, torture and oppression. To cram that into 15 minutes would involve being necessarily and unacceptably reductive.

Instead, he wants to talk to the Marathon audience, at this point crowded into the room which is at capacity, about his work "The Last Pictures", an artistic project dealing with an extreme, possibly unprecedented, duration. This is a project that virtually no-one has seen, and probably no-one will ever see, he explains, because it's based far outside the earth's atmosphere. It can only be experienced at one removed, through talks like this.

The earth is surrounded by a ring, not unlike the rings of Saturn; but a ring not of dust and debris but of machines. Geostationary satellites providing instantaneous communication (and surveillance) around the world orbit around 36000 km. Hundreds of machines that, outliving their use, are allowed to die, but never decay. Untouched by erosion, and outside an orbit that would eventually suck them back into our atmosphere, they just sit there, lifeless, silently waiting. Without erosion or decay, their futures are not measured by in the time of human epochs, but in the time of planets and of stars.

This ring is a permanent part of the planet.

Paglen recounts a potential future history. The average lifespan of mammalian species is about 2 million years, and we've been here for 200,000. Species might evolve into new species, or they might die out. But the earth will (probably) live on well past our the insignificant speck of the anthropocene, and see new epochs. Paglen imagines what may happen once the Age of Humans is over. We might see the age of dogs. Crows. Centipedes. Maybe another age of dinosaurs. In the meantime, the movement of the earths tectonic plates have swallowed what little human activity was left unburied by the many volcanic explosions, dust clouds and asteroids.

Imagine an Age of Giant Squids. In the depths of the worlds oceans, recovering after the pollution of the anthropocene, the Giant Squids have developed incredibly sensitive eyes to see through the murky seas. They rise to the top of the oceans, and with thee eyes, they look, like we once did, to the stars. Much moons! Very numinous! Not a single moon, like we see, but a whole array of moons. And maybe a million years later, they develop the means to investigate the moons further, and discover the moons are not natural. The moons are alien spaceships.

So the rest of the history of earth includes the age of space artefacts, a ring of human fossils encircling the globe.

We should treat these spacecraft as messages in bottles, Paglen proposes. Vehicles of messages travelling not through space, but through time. A cave painting for the distant future. A monument to the anthropocene.

Paglen was invited to be artist in residence at MIT and set about, with a team of engineers, to design an artwork that can live in space. He intended to build the most archival work of art ever made, and they worked to make something approximating a microfiche film, but built of diamonds. They build a shield for it to live in, protecting it from the trip into orbit and from the powerful attack of the sun's rays in space. It was attached to Echostar 16, a satellite in geostationary orbit launched from Kazakhstan.

Images Paglen chose included

  • A photo of the back of the Angelus Novus by Paul Klee
  • Eye of a predator drone
  • A photo of people watching a tidal wave about to kill them
  • Human transformations of the worlds surface
  • Cats
  • Malevich, because, well, Malevich
  • A fruit fly genetically modified with legs coming out of its eyes
  • Ships in the Suez Canal
  • A reaper drone photographed by a Pakistani man upon waking one morning
  • A photo of flowers in a field adjacent to a GULAG camp

Paglen says "I don't think these images drifting through time will ever be found by anybody. And I don't think images mean anything outside of their historical and social context."

Nevertheless, he recounts feeling a huge responsibility in choosing what images might represent humanity. Unlike artworks created for, say, the Voyager missions, Paglen's work is not intended for extraterrestrials, but for communicating back to earth. In an important way, it's about a reflection for the artist himself, a project about becoming self-aware as a human. It's not about communicating over space, but it's a question of what sort of relationship we want to the future.