Somebody’s Watching Me
Hasan Elahi turns surveillance into art
Published: February 20, 2013
Thousand Little Brothers
By Hasan Elahi
At Maryland Art Place through March 23
Artists who capture the public’s imagination, like all popular superheroes, usually have a good origin story. Hasan Elahi’s is a juicy one, wrapped in current affairs, loaded with identity politics, and sprinkled with international intrigue. In the year following the 9/11 attacks, when anthrax and paranoia were in the air, Elahi, who was born in Bangladesh, endured several FBI interrogations due to a case of mistaken identity and racial profiling. The artist was detained by the INS while returning from a trip to Europe and made to account for his whereabouts in the months leading up to and following the terrorist attacks. Consequent to the incident and months of repeatedly being called in for questioning, Elahi began documenting his location at all times: first with emails of travel plans and photos to the FBI, and soon thereafter with DIY tracking software on his phone. Eventually, the constant need for an alibi evolved into the self-surveillance website trackingtransience.net.
Those who find Elahi’s life story interesting will be delighted by his solo exhibition Thousand Little Brothers at Maryland Art Place. . . because Hasan Elahi’s work is all about Hasan Elahi. His MAP show—the latest addition to a curriculum vitae that includes exhibits at the Centre Pompidou and the Hermitage—features prints, video, and installations documenting where he travels, the food he eats, and even the toilets where the food ends up. It is a rare case of a straight male artist for whom the personal is political.
The entrance gallery is dominated by “HERE,” an 8-foot-tall red neon sign in the shape of an arrow. It is a nod to the cursor that follows Elahi’s location across satellite imagery on trackingtransience.net, simultaneously existing in the digital and real when Elahi is present in the gallery. The integrity of the gesture is somewhat compromised by the fact that “HERE” remains illuminated even when Elahi is not physically in the space. Deprived of its function, the symbol becomes a mere branding logo, more akin to Power Plant Live’s sea of signage (in which MAP is immersed) than to its referent web counterpart.
Flanking “HERE” are four dozen 22-by-30-inch digital prints. Each print in the series, “PIXEL,” consists of a grid of pixelated-square landscapes. At first glance, they can read as periodic tables of cryptic elements. On closer inspection, they are calendars. Each square presumably an abstracted image of the artist’s location on a given day. Trying to organize the months in chronological order by playing a game of mental Tetris is a maddening exercise in futility; they are best viewed singularly and up-close.
The variety of locales Elahi appears to inhabit in any given month would lead one to believe that airport security should by now be more than familiar with the artist. Occasionally the viewer encounters a week-long block of images reminiscent of grand European plazas, monolithic Soviet-looking structures set in vast parade grounds, or uniform Washingtonian streetscapes. These allusions to state-constructed architecture and its hierarchical relationship with the pedestrian reinforce the current of “big brother” angst permeating the show. Hasan Elahi has captured the aesthetic of fascism with a most economic rationing of megapixels.
Punctuating these subtle changes in scenery are days that suggest metro stations, airport terminals or tarmacs, and blurry highway roadsides. The ubiquitous “placeless” places become even more universally banal when detail is removed. Stripped of signage, the mass-produced, built environments of transience read less like proper nouns and more like verbs. Elahi has created a visual vocabulary to document his travels, albeit one that speaks in hazy generalizations rather than the specifics that one would expect from an artist whose overriding concept is disclosure.
My favorite piece in the show, “CONCORDANCE,” transforms the rear wall of the gallery into a one-way window through a grid of flat-screen TVs. The monitors expose to visitors a life-size view of the Baltimore Police Department’s Central Booking building across the street from MAP. Eerily still, it is not apparent whether or not it is a live video stream or merely recorded footage from the other side of the wall. Focused on the bunker-like building’s sole vulnerable orifice—the parking garage entrance—the installation paints the kind of liminal blandscape that both appeals to Elahi’s aesthetic sensibilities and interest in state authority.
Finally, “ORB” reveals un-manipulated snippets of the artist’s life in a starburst of video screens suspended from the ceiling like a stock-exchange trading floor or the command center of a fictional intelligence agency ripped from the set of 24 or Homeland. Circling “ORB” and gazing up at the slideshows of images is a bit overwhelming. There is a sense that Elahi has defeated surveillance at its own game; overloaded with information about the artist’s life, one realizes that it would take one person’s entire lifetime to fully observe another’s.
The irony of Elahi’s work and its ascent to public attention is how rapidly it has been eclipsed by the extremes of self-surveillance now practiced by the mainstream. The average teenager discloses far more personal information in a day of using Twitter and Foursquare than Elahi does in one of his pieces. Prior to viewing Thousand Little Brothers, I had been thinking about documentation as the most burgeoning (and yet least critically discussed) product of visual culture. Artists increasingly present documentation of design projects, activism, social practice, or even agricultural endeavors as gallery pieces. Contemporary society obsessively documents itself through reality television, social media, and user-generated content such as Instagram and the ubiquitous “selfie.” Hasan Elahi has, in a sense, merely synthesized these two paradigms into one art/life practice.
Although rooted in very real concerns over the dehumanizing civil liberties infringements of the Bush years, Elahi’s work reads very differently in this decade to someone who came of age beneath the harsh flashes of blue-light cameras and the soft glow of web-connected devices. Watching image after image of Elahi’s life pass over “ORB,” I was embarrassed by my reaction: Rather than feeling sympathetic toward a person responding to a gross invasion of privacy, I found myself envious of the artist’s jet-setting lifestyle, full of in-flight bloody marys, exotic dinners, and plush hotel rooms. I felt as though I were clicking through a slideshow of an acquaintance’s vacation on Flickr.
The morning after the opening, I looked at my Facebook and realized I had checked in at a nearby bar and even detailed the route I walked from MAP and who I was with. Perhaps as someone privileged enough to have never felt my privacy forcibly violated, I am less inclined to defend it. I think I now appreciate Elahi’s tendency toward the out-of-focus, low-resolution, or cropped-below-the-neck photograph, though I hope I never fully understand it.
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