Hasan Elahi seems awfully jocular for a guy who is under constant surveillance. We're standing in a room lined with 64 monitors, on which flash photos of his personal life from over the past seven years. “There's gas stations, all the beds I've slept in,” the artist narrates as the slideshows progress. Rutgers, Brooklyn, Santa Fe, Philly, an unidentified toilet. “All the toilets I've ever done anything in,” he grins, checking to see if we get the joke.
Nowadays, Elahi is the one instigating his own surveillance. But the Bangladeshi American, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, was once detained at the Detroit airport by INS, who then turned him over to the FBI for six months of “interviews” regarding his international travel habits. His project of comprehensive self-documentation, now on display for an exhibition at the Intersection of the Arts (and opens today, Weds/2), grew out of this “terrifying” experience.
But the terror of the interrogation room seems far away at the moment as Elahi and I sit amidst gallery staff sawing wood and arranging wiring in preparation for the opening of “Hiding in Plain Sight.”
“After it was all over,” Elahi remembers of his detainment and subsequent investigation, as he lounges in a dark windbreaker, broken-in black pants, and neon green flip-flops “I asked the agents, can I get a memo saying I'm okay? But not ever having been formally charged, it's a little bit of a problem to get formally exonerated. See, it's all extra-judicial, there's no law. But they did give me some numbers to call for when I was going to leave the country, and I called them! And pretty soon the phone calls got longer, you know, 'there's a really nice beach where I am right now, you should check it out.' And then they turned into emails. I'm a very sharing guy.”
He smiles widely at his subversion of the process, shrugging his shoulders and raising his hands up like an overgrown Dennis the Menace. It's hard to imagine anyone suspecting the man of terrorist activity.
“But it was such an unbalanced relationship! All I ever got back from the agent was 'thank you, be safe.' And I thought, why is he the only one who gets to know all this?”
So it started as a prank. Elahi wrote some “really clunky code” for his phone that tracked his geographical whereabouts, and started taking endless photos of the meals he ate, the view out of his condo window, the police van in his brother's backyard, and posted them all to an “intentionally user-unfriendly” website – simultaneously pinging the FBI agent all the while. His website, Tracking Transience, now houses over 40,000 images, give or take.
Which seems like it helped him heal -- he's certainly stoked to talk about it now. In fact, so stoked I can barely get a word in edgewise over Professor Elahi's lectures on the notion of camoflauge (“do you know why soldiers these days wear that pixelated camo? We don't fight in nature anymore, it's so that they appear to blend in with the machinery through night vision goggles!”) and externalized memory.
So he's gotta be doing something right.
Finally I interrupt. “But wasn't it, you know, scary to be getting interrogated by the FBI? Does all this--” I swung my arm around at an image of a dinner from Elahi's past at an East Bay hot plate restaurant. “Help to deal with that violation?”
Elahi pauses, but for just a moment. “It was truly terrifying. I knew who had the upper hand, the power – you know right away. You go into survival mode. In my case, that meant cooperate. Tell them every detail of everything.” He says he felt the proximity of incarceration, the planned ambivalence of interrogation questions intended to trip up incautious suspects. “The last thing on my mind was an art project.”
But being an artist, he eventually concocted a creative work to better understand what he went through. He says the deluge of information (you can't, for example, use Elahi's website to see where he was yesterday or right now, you have to sift through thousands of randomly-generated images at once) creates a role reversal, throwing the viewer into the role of intelligence officers grasping for clues of wrongdoing from a lifetime worth of information.
The irony is that in the endless self-documentation that qualified as bizarre in 2004 is now a part of everyday second life. That “clunky code,” Elahi tried to sell it to cell phone companies, but they laughed at him and asked who on earth would ever want to track their own every movement. But nowadays, I have a dozen friends who track themselves far more comprehensively for the world's enjoyment than Elahi ever did. Not to mention New York artist Wafaa Bilal, who took surveillance protest art to a new level when he had a camera surgically implanted in his head last month.
“Yeah, the project's obsolete,” Elahi chuckles, back to the easy assurance of a man far removed from the dangers of the Patriot Act. He reminds me that the information share goes beyond, even, what we put in our status updates and foursquare check-ins. “Even times when you think you're not being monitored -- PG&E knows when you're home when your utilities usage goes up.”
Which throws “Hiding in Plain Sight” into a different sort of light: from the prank on the FBI that it seems at first blush to that of a man accepting that he's -- that we're all -- being watched, and attempting to control what of the information is seen. After all, Elahi's photos are taken from his perspective – his face and those of his companions never appear.
“The information that the FBI has on me has no value because you already have it,” he says. “I actually live a very anonymous life.”
Hasan Elahi: “Hiding in Plain Sight”
Through April 23
Opening reception: Weds/2 7-9 p.m., free
Intersection for the Arts
925 Mission, SF