Trevor Paglen described satellites as human’s most permanent footprint. Not only are satellites made from particularly durable materials, more importantly, most of the thousands that have been sent into space are locked in geostationary orbit around the planet 36,000 km away. They are in deep space, as well as in deep time. They are not subject to the forces that on Earth corrode, decompose, degrade, wash away, and otherwise materially break down objects, buildings, and organic material over time (tidal waves, pressure, chemical processes, bio-degradation). In Paglen’s words, if one were to calculate the life span of a satellite, the number would be astronomical. That is, the life span of satellites is the life span of planets and stars.
Our planet dates back to 4.6 billion years, and will be absorbed by the expanding Sun in about 7.5 billion years, though by then, Earth will have long not been a habitable place (as we currently understand life). Barring eventualities, Paglen stated, satellites will continue to orbit our planet until they too are absorbed and destroyed by the Sun.
These satellites, made by a race that has been around for a mere 200,000 years (depending on how one defines humans), will outlive its creators by astronomical lengths of time. Humans might have moved on to different planets or solar systems, evolved into an entirely different race or simply succumbed to extinction. Satellites will be locked into orbit, unable to fall into Earth nor break out of orbit and float into outer space, for billions of years.
Whether one considers this to be a triumph of humankind or a tragic testament to our waste-creating capabilities is irrelevant. Satellites will cease to be satellites. They will become merely things. A satellite is an object – that is, it is both its physical materiality and concept. Any object is a combination of both. The concept may be functionality, cultural significance, historicity or any form of meaning that is defined and endowed by humans. Without humans around to define them as such, satellites will cease to be satellites, will cease to be objects, will become merely things. In similar fashion, the satellite image on the gallery floor will be eroded by the passing by or over of people moving about in the gallery. Movement represents transformation; the unpredictable changes that humankind will undergo in the astronomically far future –the passing away of humans. The image of the satellite now gone leaves only its physical, material remains, representing the transformation of satellites to mere thing, a physical shell devoid of name, functionality, concept.