Planning to travel in the post-9/11, terror-sensitive world? Big Brother has some tips: pack lightly, wear slip-on shoes, and please, no firearms or religious apparel. If you’re not white, please be patient. TSA officials will greet you with a smile and rubber gloves.
Hasan Elahi, a 30-year-old Bangladesh-born artist sporting red dreadlocks, apparently didn’t get the memo. In 2002, after departing an overseas flight that landed in Detroit, the FBI detained him. Elahi, a U.S. citizen, had no idea he was stockpiling explosives in a Florida storage unit.
The problem lay in the faulty methodology we use to detect would-be terrorists. In Elahi’s case, as with many wrongfully detained individuals, it involved rummaging through mountains of digital information: flight records, bank statements, surveillance photography, video, and, of course, ethnic descriptors. Intelligence? Not quite.
Elahi endured months of interrogations and passed nine lie detector tests. But the FBI wasn’t entirely convinced of his innocence. So the bureau asked him to stay in touch. He complied. He filled the Bureau’s inbox with a torrent of identifying information: his GPS location, travel plans, bank statements and pictures of meals, urinals and toilets. In 2004, Elahi upped the ante by turning the gesture into an online art project (Tracking Transcience) that documents all of his activities. Displayed at Intersection 5M as Hiding in Plain Sight, this voluminous digital prank lampoons the emerging post-911 security state.
The exhibition space resembles a security center. The walls are dimly lit and festooned with monitors. One supports nearly 100 small screens; on another we see a giant projection of the artist’s satellite location. Most of the screens cycle through thousands of images: of meals, toilets, road signs, motels, parking lots, gas stations, grocery displays, airport terminals — everything you can capture with a point-and-shoot camera.
Other monitors display years of bank statements and retail purchases. The most impressive aspect of Elahi’s electronic footprint is just how massively uninformative it is. One can only imagine the inner dialog of the agent whose job is to sift through all this garbage. Elahi’s in-flight snack. “Delete.” A road sign. “C’mon.” A urinal. “Christ!”
Surveillance art, like Elahi’s, is a powerful way to draw public attention to privacy issues, especially those raised by government intrusion into our personal lives. Artists like Jason Bruges have transformed the ability to track people with cell phones into light installations at public landmarks. Christian Moeller has exposed privacy breaches by projecting local surveillance video onto city walls. Benjamin Males has even incorporated race. His tracking system converts visual information from the subject’s face to digital readouts of how dark their skin is. Elahi, by placing himself in self-surveillance mode for the last nine years, has pushed the government’s arguments for ever-increasing levels of intrusion to their absurd, illogical conclusion.
In spewing his personal life across the Internet, he’s created a real-time alibi that will probably keep the FBI off his case. But in doing so, he’s demonstrated the limitations of technology and the boundaries of the state. Ironically, for all he’s given up and put on display, it’s what’s not shown that seems most important. The information most valuable to an FBI agent trying to stop a terrorist threat is not what’s conveyed in bank statements, pictures, locations or a racial profile. It is Elahi’s thoughts, motivations and emotions. Those he keeps hidden someplace else. Someplace private.
Watch Hasan Elahi on the Colbert Report.