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
2006, C print, 40 x 52 inches