Tracking Transience Talk

Visiting artist Hasan Elahi provides surveillance, technological, and security insight

Illustrator: Jaye Ahn

Illustrator: Jaye Ahn

Over a decade ago, the United States government mistakenly featured interdisciplinary artist Hasan Elahi on their terrorist watch list. The irony of pinning an artist who examines issues of surveillance, citizenship, borders and frontiers, and migration … undoubtedly a renowned art project came of the experience.

Standing in front of an overflowing audience in the InFlux auditorium at the Regis Center for Art, Elahi introduced himself to the group on March 30, as he stood below a giant cherry red arrow pointed at his stature.

Seemingly comfortable with his lack of aloofness, Elahi eagerly welcomed those who came to see his visiting artist’s talk by showing everyone a direct pin of where they were, which included pictures of the auditorium and the building, as well as everyone’s altitude, latitudes, and longitudes in the InFlux auditorium.

The University welcomed the now assistant professor at the University of Maryland, who came to speak as a guest of the Visiting Artists & Critics program. According to the art department, these talks are meant to “foster a greater understanding and appreciation of contemporary art through dialogue.”

While his talk was open to the public, undergraduate and graduate students in the art school had the opportunity to attend workshops and further lectures with Elahi.

Elahi was introduced for his most notable project in response to being a “person of interest” for the FBI. The project, called “Tracking Transience,” began after they tracked and interrogated him extensively for years thinking that he was a terrorist. After a while, he decided to track himself to make it easy for “his own personal FBI agent,” he said.

“My FBI agent realized that I was totally harmless,” Elahi said, “but the system simply does not trust itself to let the FBI agent make distinctions on their tips.”

By acting in compliance, Elahi was truly trying to be defiant. “While something like this is going on, you basically revert to a very animalistic instinct of survival. In my case, it meant cooperate,” he said.

Beginning in 2002, nearly every hour of Elahi’s life is documented. Sporadic appearances of these photos were featured throughout his discussion: copies of every debit card transaction, every toilet he has used, dish he has eaten, bed he has slept in, airport he has traveled through. A GPS device in his pocket reports his real-time physical location on a map.

“At first the project started as a way of keeping myself out of Guantanamo, but I’m maintaining my privacy by putting it out there,” Elahi said. “By putting it out there, I’m telling you everything and nothing at the same time.”

This Tracking Transience project lead to a lot of work for Elahi relating to further issues of surveillance, privacy, migration, citizenship, technology, and the challenges of borders.

“At first the project started as a way of keeping myself out of Guantanamo, but I’m maintaining my privacy by putting it out there. By putting it out there, I’m telling you everything and nothing at the same time.”

His talk featured 25 years of his work as an artist, most of which was debuted after his most renowned project. These exhibits were commissioned in places like Spain, Germany, and the American Southwest.

Heavily influenced by war, circumnavigation, and camouflage, his work incorporates his infamous daily photos that are pixelated or arranged to make up greater structures.

When asked about his satiric attitude toward surveillance, Elahi noted that his opinion on privacy was anything but sarcastic. In fact, he takes the notion of privacy very seriously, but he thinks the way to stay safe is by staying transparent.

“I personally prefer this option of hiding in plain sight. I’m not interested in putting a mask on to be in public. I’ll let you decide what’s valuable information,” Elahi said, “Going off grid is not an answer, it actually raises more red flags.”

Elahi hopes that his art will inspire others to help restructure agencies. He thinks the day will come when all of us will be putting so much information out that the need for agencies such as the FBI to archive all our activity will no longer exist.

“This is totally symbolic on an individual basis,” Elahi said. “It’s not going to change the FBI, by me doing this, but if billions of people do this, it forces the restructuring of the entire intelligence system.”