Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Problem with Memory 7: Space Museums

"The collection of images included on EchoStar XVI may be easier for any extraterrestrial intelligences to find than the plaques and records flown on the Pioneer and Voyager missions." Image Source: Creative Time via Space Review.

Space, the final archive. Some may remember this post on the Voyager spacecraft time capsules. A commercial communications satellite, launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 20 November 2012, continued the tradition and carried a collection of photographs and images of artwork designed to outlast humanity. Objects in geosynchronous orbit (aka the Clarke Belt, named for writer Arthur C. Clarke) could stay in space for over four billion years; the new satellite's payload is meant to survive for this duration, to offer a potential time capsule for alien intelligences to discover.

Video Source: The Atlantic.

What an opportunity, conceived and curated by Gen X artist and geographer, Trevor Paglen! At Space Review, Larry Klaes looks at The Last Pictures and their significance in three parts (part 1, part 2, part 3). Klaes argues that those who write history decisively shape the way we (and other creatures?) will see the past.  In space, material objects do not erode and disintegrate the way they do on earth:
Over the ages, the successes and failures of humanity’s efforts at cultural and informational preservation have primarily depended upon a combination of interest, the utilized technology, the education levels of the participants, and especially the location.

For example, much of what we do know about ancient European societies comes from the efforts of Roman Catholic monks and Muslim scholars who spent centuries during the Middle Ages copying and recopying by hand the relatively few surviving texts from the Greek and Roman eras. Outside of those few centers of learning and preservation, ignorance, neglect, and deliberate destruction turned those once great civilizations into literal ruins and vague cultural memories. Sadly, this has been the fate of most human societies throughout the ages, leaving us with a rather incomplete record of our ancestors’ past.

On Earth, a geologically, environmentally, and biologically active world, most of structures and objects created by our modern human civilization that survive the next several centuries of demolition, discarding, and rebuilding will one day collapse into dust and be buried. Certain deliberately designed artifacts may survive without becoming fossils for longer periods, but eventually most things built by our minds and hands will turn into mere remnant artifacts at best. Our biological remains will disappear from the natural historical record even sooner, except for those who are “lucky” enough to be fossilized or artificially preserved.

The ability to preserve aspects of ourselves changed dramatically in the 1950s when we were able to directly access space. Artificial objects in the celestial realm are subject to far less erosion and other debilitating factors than on the surface of our ever-changing planet. ... It is this feature of very long-term existence beyond Earth that intrigued New York geographer, independent scholar, and photographic artist Trevor Paglen to create an art project and a deeply deep time artifact he named The Last Pictures. ...  
Paglen became fascinated by the fact that these satellites might be among the last bits of evidence that humanity ever existed. The artist imagined an advanced alien intelligence arriving in the solar system in some remote future time and encountering this “man-made ring of Saturn forged from aluminum and silicon spacecraft hulls.” Between the methods of terrestrial erosion and his general pessimism over the long-term survival of humanity, Paglen decided to create a work that would be capable of lasting for ages, far from the corrosive potentials of both our planet and our species. ...
Even after the satellite goes dark, The Last Pictures will remain in orbit until the Earth as we know it no longer exists—or until a new civilization, human or otherwise, finds it. “This is not a project that's supposed to explain to aliens what humans are all about and be the definitive record of human civilization,” Paglen tells The Atlantic. “It is a collection of images that explained to somebody in the future what happened to all of the people who build the dead spaceships in orbit around the Earth. And how they killed themselves.”
Therefore, Paglen's artifact is a historical monument to our self-destruction. The longer our historical reach, it seems, the less optimistic we are about history. Historic memory is currently pegged only at around 6,000 years if you do not count archaeology. The Pioneer and Voyager artifacts vastly extended the scope of recorded historical memory by projecting their narratives into a nearly infinite unknown future. These were hopeful and inspiring preludes. The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft carried messages to the stars. They imagined humanity's unusual unity around, and combined contributions to, the greatest enterprise of all, the exploration of space. Granted, the exploration of space will likely, as one friend put it, "all end in tears." But space exploration once epitomized the narrative of accomplishment in relation to the human condition for the rationalized era. That narrative is now being demolished.

Paglen's EchoStar XVI (16) Artifact testifies to our growing consciousness of deep time.  But where spacebound historic artifacts once documented humanity's progress, this Millennial turn of thought shows a change in perception, a sense of inevitable failure, not only conveyed in Paglen's cultural historic catalogue, but in the soon-to-be dead satellite which carries it. The satellite, which will provide 15 years' of Dish Network television feeds for customers in the United States, will be another relic of our throwaway culture.

With his choices to include images of Agent-Orange-deformed babies and exploding atomic bombs, it is unfortunate that Paglen could not rise above the Millennial, self-conscious, 'we have doomed ourselves' mentality. To get a sense of Paglen's (precious and tiresome) post-Postmodern irony, the first image on the artifact is a picture of a label on the back of a 1920 painting by Paul Klee. This is history, cast as  self-effacing apology for all humankind's presumed future total failure, combined with the peculiar hubris to launch the thing into space and preserve that message for over four billion years! Another image spins our ignorance rather than our relentless search to expand knowledge: Paglen included a photo of the printout of the 15 August 1977 Wow! signal.  This is what happened to the liberal imperial arrogance of the 19th century: it has become the liberal disillusioned arrogance of the 21st century.

Perhaps, however, Paglen's 5-year project reflects the fact that the humanities have suffered for some time, and still suffer, from the conviction that a rejection of grandeur is akin to higher moral awareness. The artifact's statement, while seeking the longest possible message, is remarkably limited in temporal terms. The chosen images show an over-attachment to how human affairs and created works are relevant in the very short term. 

And in that regard, the artifact received no general notice from historians and dismissive responses from artists, much less future alien explorers. Even when we are talking to aliens, we are really talking to ourselves. Rafael E. Nunez, a cognitive scientist from the University of California at San Diego, added critical commentary to the book published around Paglen's project:
“no actual forms of extraterrestrial aliens—dead or alive—have ever been documented empirically, such beings are, scientifically, nonentities… Aliens, as we know them, are the product of human imagination.” The professor sums up his essay in the companion book that “if we want to believe that talking mathematics to aliens makes sense, we must humbly accept that we are anthropomorphizing, big time.”
Thus, Paglen's artifact will likely serve as a memento to ourselves, not to aliens. Accessed fifty years from now, Paglen's agenda of human failure will undoubtedly look quaint, outdated, and distinctly Millennial.

Regardless, the artifact may set a practical precedent for the preservation of essential human records and archives in the Clarke Belt. Surely, we will soon build space museums which preserve the history of the world, as those who write it now see it. One need only consider the enormous impact of monastic preservation of collected knowledge through the medieval period to grasp the potential cultural capital gained by those with foresight enough to preserve history in this manner and to write history as they see it (and this is not necessarily always a good thing). I can just imagine historical revisionists traveling up to the Clarke Belt to collect space museum artifacts and change the four billion year projected history of the world, every twenty years.

The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen was published by University of California Press in 2012. From the book's blurb:
Human civilizations' longest lasting artifacts are not the great Pyramids of Giza, nor the cave paintings at Lascaux, but the communications satellites that circle our planet. In a stationary orbit above the equator, the satellites that broadcast our TV signals, route our phone calls, and process our credit card transactions experience no atmospheric drag. Their inert hulls will continue to drift around Earth until the Sun expands into a red giant and engulfs them about 4.5 billion years from now.

The Last Pictures, co-published by Creative Time Books, is rooted in the premise that these communications satellites will ultimately become the cultural and material ruins of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, far outlasting anything else humans have created. Inspired in part by ancient cave paintings, nuclear waste warning signs, and Carl Sagan's Golden Records of the 1970s, artist/geographer Trevor Paglen has developed a collection of one hundred images that will be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc. The disc, commissioned by Creative Time, will then be sent into orbit onboard the Echostar XVI satellite in September 2012, as both a time capsule and a message to the future.

The selection of 100 images, which are the centerpiece of the book, was influenced by four years of interviews with leading scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and artists about the contradictions that characterize contemporary civilizations. Consequently, The Last Pictures engages some of the most profound questions of the human experience, provoking discourse about communication, deep time, and the economic, environmental, and social uncertainties that define our historical moment.
Below, see a selection of the 100 photos Paglen included on the disc.

Paglen: "Cave paintings are an example of images or records we have from cultures that have been radically torn from any historical context. They are to us what our spacecraft may be to the future. I actually think about The Last Pictures as cave paintings for the future."

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