Where­abouts: Known

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos -

Thirty-some­thing San José State Uni­ver­sity as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of dig­i­tal-me­dia arts, self-pro­fessed tech geek, and in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary artist Hasan Elahi stepped out of his car and into the wet snow ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in the park­ing lot of a down­town Santa Fe ho­tel. “I don’t do much walk­ing in the snow th­ese days,” the San Fran­cisco res­i­dent said, scratch­ing his tell­tale bleached-blond hair and looking down at his sig­na­ture neon-green flip-flops, “but th­ese will do.” He reached into the car’s trunk, pulled out a pair of cam­ou­flage-cov­ered hunt­ing ga­loshes, and slipped them onto his bare feet. Then Elahi did some­thing he had al­ready done 50 times that day (and some­thing he prob­a­bly did an­other 50 times be­fore his head hit the pil­low that night): he took a pic­ture.

Un­like the work of the av­er­age snap­shot-happy tourist, Elahi’s pic­tures (more than 40,000 of them and count­ing) don’t de­pict smil­ing friends and fam­ily mem­bers posed against a land­scape, a sun­set, or a his­tor­i­cal marker. And his im­ages don’t make their way onto so­cial net­work­ing sites like Twit­ter, MyS­pace, or Face­book. In­stead, Elahi’s pic­tures— of the meals he eats, the toi­lets he uses, the rooms he sleeps in, the air­ports he fre­quently passes through, the printed re­ceipts of his pur­chases and ATM with­drawals — are up­loaded in real time (with a lit­tle as­sis­tance from some geo-synch­ing soft­ware) to hisWeb site, track­ing­tran­sience.net, along with a dig­i­tal map show­ing his ex­act lo­ca­tion on the planet. You can zoom in, if you like, to get a street-level view of Elahi’s lo­ca­tion.

Al­though at first glance Elahi’s in­ces­sant record­ing and post­ing of frozen mo­ments might seem like a dig­i­tally en­hanced van­ity project, the Bangladesh-born Amer­i­can artist’s true rea­son for cre­at­ing the Web ex­per­i­ment was much more se­ri­ous: he was (and still is, he in­sists) try­ing to stay out of prison. Tracking Tran­sience: The Or­wellian Project is on exhibit in the form of an in­te­grated-mul­ti­me­dia in­stal­la­tion at SITE Santa Fe as part of its One on One show open­ing this week­end.

In the exhibit, Elahi ex­plores no­tions of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance and self-sur­veil­lance. One large room con­tains mon­i­tors— ar­ranged in a fa­mil­iar shape— that flash live up­dates and im­ages from his site as well as a large-for­mat pro­jec­tion ap­pa­ra­tus, part of which casts its im­agery onto a globe-shaped “screen.”

Elahi’s ex­pe­ri­ences lead­ing up to the de­vel­op­ment of Tracking Tran­sience are mired in dual ob­ses­sions with tech­nol­ogy and se­cu­rity. In June 2002, af­ter re­turn­ing to a Detroit air­port from a trip to West Africa, Elahi — who was an art pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers at the time — stepped off his plane, only to be taken out of line by a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the Im­mi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vice. Af­ter be­ing led through a maze of hall­ways in the bow­els of the air­port, Elahi was placed in a de­ten­tion room, where an agent from the FBI waited to in­ter­ro­gate him.

On Sept. 12, 2001, the FBI re­ceived a tip that some­one who closely matched Elahi’s de­scrip­tion and had a sim­i­lar name had aban­doned a Tampa Bay, Florida, stor­age unit af­ter emp­ty­ing it of ex­plo­sives. Elahi’s name was then placed on a ter­ror watch list. When his name drew red flags with the INS in Detroit, the FBI was no­ti­fied. The fed­eral agent in Detroit grilled Elahi for six hours. There were ques­tions, he was told, that needed im­me­di­ate, detailed an­swers — like what he had eaten for break­fast. Elahi was even­tu­ally re­leased from cus­tody, and no ex­plo­sives (or any­thing else of an even re­motely ne­far­i­ous na­ture) were ever dis­cov­ered as a re­sult of the tip. Still, Elahi’s or­deal with the feds had only just be­gun.

For the next six months, Elahi was re­quired to check in fre­quently with the FBI. He re­ported on his where­abouts, pur­chases, ATM trans­ac­tions, and travel plans; en­dured nine back-to-back poly­graph tests (which he passed); and sat through nu­mer­ous in­ter­views with agents who, Elahi no­ticed, “had a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion for L-shaped, wood-grained desks.” Elahi felt an­gry and frus­trated, and he silently ques­tioned how le­gal his treat­ment was by the FBI. But more im­por­tant, and what kept him from speak­ing up and pos­si­bly mak­ing his sit­u­a­tion worse: he feared for his own free­dom and safety. “I could un­der­stand this kind of pro­fil­ing com­ing from an in­di­vid­ual,” Elahi said as he up­loaded an­other pic­ture of the restau­rant where his in­ter­view with Pasatiempo took place, “be­cause the truth is, some peo­ple just don’t know any bet­ter. They were raised a cer­tain way or cer­tain in­for­ma­tion and opin­ions were handed down to them and then ac­cepted as truth. I get that, I re­ally do. But when a gov­ern­ment be­gins do­ing this sort of pro­fil­ing, es­pe­cially with its own cit­i­zens … that’s when I re­al­ized how broad the im­pli­ca­tions of my sit­u­a­tion were.”

The feds even­tu­ally loos­ened the leash on Elahi, and for his co­op­er­a­tion dur­ing the fi­asco, Elahi asked for a let­ter from them clear­ing his name. “I sim­ply wanted some­thing, like an of­fi­cial piece of pa­per with con­tact num­bers on it, that I could show to im­mi­gra­tion, se­cu­rity agents, and air­line per­son­nel,” he said, “so that I wouldn’t find my­self in this sit­u­a­tion again — or worse.” The FBI de­nied Elahi’s re­quest, stat­ing that it “doesn’t com­ment or make pub­lic con­fir­ma­tions or de­nials on mat­ters of na­tional se­cu­rity,” ac­cord­ing to Elahi. (Calls by Pasatiempo to the FBI’s of­fice in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to con­firm Elahi’s ini­tial de­tain­ment were not re­turned.) The Tracking Tran­sience project came to­gether or­gan­i­cally, Elahi said, af­ter an epiphany. “Af­ter about a year of tele­graph­ing my ev­ery move to the FBI, I re­al­ized that I shouldn’t fear this sit­u­a­tion. I should em­brace it. I asked my­self, Why is this agent so spe­cial that only he gets to know all of th­ese lit­tle things about me? So I started post­ing the pic­tures and other data on­line for every­one else to see, too. I con­sid­ered it sim­ple eco­nomics. Data is the FBI’s cur­rency, and all I did was flood their mar­ket, mak­ing that data set use­less by virtue of its enor­mity. Peo­ple are very good at col­lect­ing a lot of in­for­ma­tion, but an­a­lyz­ing it prop­erly? We’re not very skilled at it.”

Since 2003, Elahi has been fea­tured on Com­edy Cen­tral’s The Col­bert Re­port, CBS Evening News, in Wired mag­a­zine, and other ma­jor me­dia out­lets, leav­ing some to won­der whether Tracking Tran­sience is in­deed art or just an elab­o­rate ex­er­cise in ag­i­tat­ing some poor gov­ern­ment hack, who is sit­ting at a (pos­si­bly wood-grained, L-shaped) desk while sift­ing through the moun­tains of mun­dane im­agery on Elahi’sWeb site.

Elahi ac­knowl­edges that he has re­ceived more at­ten­tion lately from the main­stream me­dia than from the art press, and he’s comfortable with that sit­u­a­tion. “The art I have al­ways liked most is the work that barely passes for art,” he said, “which is es­sen­tially what this feels like. With the Tracking Tran­sience in­stal­la­tion at SITE Santa Fe, I’m act­ing al­most as a sur­ro­gate. By re­mov­ing my­self from it — and by that I mean there are no ac­tual pic­tures of me or my friends on the Web site, just places and ob­jects and data and maps and lo­ca­tions — the viewer can in­sert him­self into the po­si­tion of the sur­veyor. ... He or she be­comes the col­lec­tor/sifter of this data. It also gives you a chance to think about how oth­ers are assem­bling your own data. And the viewer can see that the more of your data that some­one has to sift through, the more anony­mous you can be­come. You see a large cache of un­con­nected bits and pieces from some­one’s life, but truly, the

flight at­ten­dant serv­ing my meals and the waiter serv­ing my lunch in a restau­rant prob­a­bly know more about me at any given mo­ment than the gov­ern­ment, be­cause I’m there; and they can see me. And when some­one goes to my site, the re­al­ity is, I learn a lot about them too.” (Sift­ing through Elahi’sWeb logs, one dis­cov­ers that some very cu­ri­ous peo­ple with ac­cess to U.S. gov­ern­ment com­put­ers have vis­ited his site; records show hits from the of­fice of the sec­re­tary of de­fense, the Pen­tagon, and the ex­ec­u­tive of­fice of the pres­i­dent.)

Elahi be­lieves that the gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to gather and sort data gives it a false sense of se­cu­rity be­cause, in this dig­i­tal age, al­most every­one trades heav­ily in the mar­ket of in­for­ma­tion. The ac­tions of the gov­ern­ment and its peo­ple with re­gard to data are the same. What Elahi ex­plores in­di­rectly are the mo­tives be­hind those ac­tions.

“Twenty years ago, shar­ing cer­tain com­pany se­crets and speak­ing to your ‘en­e­mies’ in busi­ness was con­sid­ered cor­po­rate es­pi­onage, a form of trea­son,” he said. “To­day, CEOs are blog­ging, and peo­ple are watch­ing and read­ing. I don’t think gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions are quite comfortable yet with the way tech­nol­ogy and our everyday ac­cess to it have been un­fold­ing. Big Brother doesn’t seem to like it when 1000 lit­tle broth­ers are just as ca­pa­ble of star­ing right back at them.”

Hasan Elahi: Se­cu­rity & Com­fort v3.0, 2006, C print; im­ages cour­tesy the artist

Alti­tude v2.0,

2006, C print, 40 x 52 inches

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