Once-detained artist watches himself better than the government watchers
Published: March 30, 2011
In 2002, Hasan Elahi, artist and University of Maryland assistant professor of art, was detained at a Detroit airport upon returning to the country. The cause likely traces back to an overzealous tipster in Florida, where Elahi canceled a storage unit on Sept. 12, 2001. Elahi was released, but interrogated for the next six months at regular intervals by the FBI. Aided by “the detailed retrospective appointment list in his PDA, the successful passage of nine polygraph tests, a convincingly innocent persona, and a complete absence of knowledge of Arabic,” he made it through intact. In response, he started his art project “Tracking Transience,” which updates constantly where he is and what he’s doing. In its eight years, Elahi has amassed more than 42,000 images with the project. He speaks this week on a panel with photographer Merry Alpern and professor Thomas Levin called “Watching You: Surveillance Exposed,” which addresses social networking-as-self-surveillance versus governmental surveillance and more. City Paper spoke with Elahi by phone.
City Paper : When you began this project was it out of pure defense, or did you have art in mind?
Hasan Elahi: When the investigation began, and during the process, the last thing on my mind was, Hey, I’ve got my new project here. It was really difficult to even think about what was happening. After six months, I was able to think, Wait, what was that? What just happened? Because I was that close to being shipped off. At any moment, I could have said, “All right guys, I’m not cooperating, this isn’t legal, I need a lawyer.” But I knew that at any moment they have the ultimate authority to say, “Well we’re taking you somewhere, and we don’t even have to say where we’re taking you or why we’re taking you.”
I knew what was happening was outside the law, so it simply didn’t matter. You behave in some very bizarre ways, some very counterintuitive ways. Sometimes these things that you would think would be counterintuitive seem to actually make sense. You’re really reacting from a base of instinct. That was the initial motivation for it. After several months of me trying to understand what just happened—as I started recounting every little bit and every little thing—it slowly evolved into my current art practice.
CP : You’ve said before that by making yourself this public, you’ve actually become more private. Can you explain?
HE: There’s several things that are happening. Culturally we are at a point where we’re producing tons of information, whether we’re doing it ourselves or some company is doing it on our behalf, whether it be Google or your cell-phone company or your bank or your discount card at Safeway. We’re generating more and more data than we’ve ever had before. We don’t have to ever delete anything. We don’t even delete spam anymore. Memory has become so cheap.
Which also has some interesting philosophical questions. If deleting is forgetting, what does it mean to a society that never forgets anything?
On an individual basis, if you are generating tons of information, you can actually regain your privacy by putting more information out there. Because of that noise, I live a very anonymous and private life. You really have to do some work to find out some rather basic facts. Only until recently, my birth date was nowhere out there. Or where I went to school.
By me flooding the market, the information the FBI has of me has no value—because everyone has it. On an individual level, it’s merely symbolic. It doesn’t even make a dent. But if everyone in this country decided to do this, it would require an entire rethinking and restructuring of the intelligence system.
We’re hearing people in Washington finally say this: It’s no longer a matter of finding the information—we know it. It’s how to figure out how to make sense of this information. And until we start making that transition, things will be different. The culture of these agencies is still of the Cold War, is designed as if we were fighting the Soviet Union. That’s not a policy shift, or a technological, that’s a cultural shift.
CP : Is there an element of play in this?
HE: I’m not sure if play is appropriate, but there is a element of, All right guys, you want to watch me, that’s OK. But I can watch myself a lot better than you guys ever could. By doing that I’m doing their job better than they are.
CP : How is so much information going to affect how we look at history? Documentation for most of the human race has been selective and, thus, subjective. Now we have so much everything.
HE: We’re saving so much information now, but there’s also stuff slipping through the cracks. If you want to look at the history of record keeping, I think a lot of historians are really struggling with the fact that a lot of writers are using a word processor and not a typewriter or a pen and paper: You can’t see the words that are crossed out. I think there’s a significance in that. Follow that forward, and there’s things that are changing and it’s not necessarily a positive or negative. We’re starting to see this, the first wave. We’re starting to see corporate executives blogging about their companies and their products. Thirty years ago you would have never seen this. It was a very closed culture.
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