© 2013 Valerie Dionne

Trevor Paglen’s “The last pictures” by Tierney Dodge

When I heard that Trevor Paglen would be visiting Colby in October, I eagerly marked the lecture in my planner and began speculating what he would address in his talk.  I was partially excited to see some of his art and learn about his artistic process, but I must admit another part of me was greatly anticipating a peek into Area 51 or other modern mysteries.  Paglen is an American artist, geographer, and writer who has previously investigated censored and controversial locations through what he calls “experimental geography.”  When I found out his presentation was not on these topics of censorship that he usually documents and covers, I will admit I was a little disappointed.

lastpictures_publication_coverHowever, my disappointment quickly faded into excitement as Paglen began describing his most recent project: The Last Pictures.  He dramatically shut off all the lights in the auditorium; forcing us to focus on the projected images he began filtering through.  The concept of this project was to document and preserve a vision of the world today, a vision that would be sent into space on a satellite with a one in a million chance that someone or something might see it centuries from now and get a glimpse back in time.  Rather than focusing on modern geographical censorship, as Paglen often does, he decided to tackle the mysteries encrypted into the geography of time.  Time can naturally censor truths, events, or any documentation of the past.  Think about it: how many things have people (or animals) attempted, accomplished, learned or experimented with since the origination of life on Earth?  And how many of these experiences can we reflect upon and learn from today?  Not many.  By sending these pictures into space in this conceptual project, Paglen aims to give a glimpse into the world as we know it today.

Paglen is the first to acknowledge the highly conceptual nature of this project—what are the chances that these pictures, on one of thousands of satellites, will ever be located and viewed?  But more importantly, what if these artifacts are located and viewed?  What would we want these future beings to know about our lives?  Therein lies the fun in this project.  Paglen and his group of assistants scoured through millions of pictures and began filtering down their selections.  Paglen had the goal of creating an (honest) monument that tells a story: the story of human society.  He wanted someone to be able to learn where we came from, what we do, and why we operate this way.  What does the gesture of gathering and preserving these photographs mean? Can they mean anything?

At the conclusion of his presentation, Paglen stopped speaking and allowed us to view every picture he included in The Last Pictures project.  There was an amazing mixture of places, people, animals, emotions, and scenes that cannot be described in words.  Some were sad, others shocking, and a few were quite comical.  However, I found the bigger questions of the entire project to be the most provoking part of Paglen’s presentation:  what do we have to show for modern society?  What part of our world is important enough to live on through these pictures?  How can we defy the censorship of time?

As an Environmental Science major, I strongly connected with Paglen’s view of geological time and the mysteries it creates.  So much has happened that we will never know about, and there is so much in the natural and anthropogenic world that we still don’t know about today.  However, Paglen’s connection with the audience went beyond science and art—it felt as if he was an old friend.  I hardly realized that over an hour and a half went by when we began applauding, and The Last Pictures, as a project and a concept, have lingered in the back of my mind to this day.  I can’t wait to see what Trevor Paglen does next.

For more information on The Last Pictures, (just click).