Timothy O’Sullivan, Pyramid Lake, Nevada, 1867
Optimism inspired by space exploration is both wonderful and confusing. When we see the photo of the earth as blue marble taken by Apollo 17, or the more recent pale blue dots from Mars, the collective resources we waste to repeat dry heaves of violence seem absurd.
But, as things are now, you can’t have one without the other. Space exploration and the modern aerospace industry are very intertwined, and events like probing a comet or landing on Mars have the same technological background as inter-continental missiles, drone warfare, and military satellites.
It’s important to confront this, and there is an artist that explores this concoction of technology and human curiosity - Trevor Paglen.
Trevor Paglen, reconnaissance satellites, Yosemite National Park, 2008
Survey photographs, such as those by Timothy O’Sullivan in the 19th century, and those by the newly landed Mars Curiosity are not just for the folks back home to take a gander at.
In this short interview Paglen explains that survey photographs always have a military purpose, and that Timothy O’Sullivan was the spy satellite photographer of his day. Scientific discovery is the first order of this particular Mars survey, but
NASA has long-term plans to put humans on the planet by the 2030s, and the survey of locations, geology, chemistry and weather is part of that plan.
Timothy O’Sullivan, Carson Desert, Nevada
In both the O’Sullivan and NASA surveys the existence of water is a primary concern. Great effort and expense is made to transport cameras to
distant locations, with much of the returning evidence showing dry, empty spaces.
Mars is currently a desolate place. Just as the people in the 19th century would have to imagine a military base, railroad or mining operation in O’Sullivan’s desolate spaces, NASA is using the Mars photographs to
imagine past bodies of water, with life, and future outposts with humans.
Paglen is currently working on a project called the Last Pictures. Working with scientists at MIT, he has developed an ultra-archival disc of images, which will be placed in orbit around the Earth, capable of lasting in space for billions of years.
Yesterday this image made the rounds of tumblr -
Is it possible to have MORE THIS and LESS THIS? Can you have one without the other?
Paglen’s satellite series is provoking (identifying classified satellites), but on the wall, like O’Sullivan, the photographs are beautiful. His work shows us a tiny corner of a vast, hidden technological system that we pay more for than any Mars mission, yet rarely see evidence of. Without the promise of security and military dominance, can we be convinced to spend billions of dollars for photographs and compelling science alone? Is it possible that art can play a small part in sustaining the euphoria of discovery?