In November 2012, in the mining town of Baikonur, Kazakhstan, the Echostar XVI launched into the Clarke Belt, a geosynchronous orbit twenty-two thousand miles above Earth’s equator. Affixed to the Echostar XVI is “The Last Pictures,” an archival silicon wafer micro-etched with a hundred black-and-white photographs, encased in a gold plate. Maverick geographer Trevor Paglen assembled a team of artists, scientists, historians, philosophers, and anthropologists to select the images. The goal was to create an archive (and artifact) of human existence that will last for billions of years, long after our earthly extinction.
I used to keep letters from my girlfriends in a shoebox beneath my bed. “Ex-girlfriends,” my roommate reminded me. She was an ER nurse with no appetite for gray areas—night shifts leave little room for ambivalence. I was a partially employed writer who liked to daydream. Consider, I mused, the many variations of EX: the third least frequently used letter in the English language, after Q and Z. The end of a treasure hunt. The unknown variable. The way a voice disappears around the sound.
My roommate brushed my semantics aside. “They’re still your ex-girlfriends,” she said.
She had a point.
“The Last Pictures” contains no unifying theme, nor are there any captions to accompany the photographs. The sequence plays out like an eerie silent film: pearlescent cherry blossoms; Leon Trotsky’s brain; Armenian refugees standing upon the shores of Greece.
Eventually, the Echostar XVI will spin into a graveyard orbit just beyond the Clarke Belt, where it will drift into eternity in the dark expanse of the universe. In other words, it’s a cosmic message in a bottle, waiting to be found.
After the last breakup, I took out the shoebox and arranged the letters in neat rows on the rug. From the first lover, a nude sketch. From the second, a song scribbled on stained loose leaf. From the third, a poem. From the fourth, the opening line: “We’re just cosmic accidents.”
I gathered the letters in my hands and walked around the neighborhood. I distributed them in mailboxes, little lending libraries, the dark hollows of oak trees. I tucked them under the windshields of tired sedans. It felt good to spread myself wide in this way, like leaving clues to a riddle. By the time I finished, the sky had turned inky black, and crickets chirped their hushed applause.
My roommate disapproved. She deemed it a masochistic prostration, a twisted scavenger hunt for strangers. “You don’t know those people,” she said, shaking her head, “but now they’ll know you.”
I snapped my fingers. “Exactly.”
The paradox of “The Last Pictures” is the strong possibility that the ghost ship will never be found. Like the mythical Flying Dutchman, it may wander the universe forever in a haunted stupor. Even its visionary father Paglen acknowledges this reality. “It’s absolutely nonsensical,” he admits. Billions of years from now, the last souvenir of humanity could simply disappear, untouched.
Even so, the act of revelation is strangely empowering. Perhaps this is why we carve hearts into the velvet bark of trees and scribble with desperate Sharpies on dirty bathroom stalls or spend millions of dollars to launch hopeful spaceships into the upper echelons of the universe. We yearn to be seen, if only briefly, if only from a dark distance.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/nadja robot