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San Francisco Hasan Elahi’s Surveillance Protest Art

Alex Constantine - April 16, 2011

Hiding In Plain Sight - A Solo Exhibition by Hasan Elahi

Tue, Apr 5 | 12pm - 6pm | FREE. Please Note: Sat. 4/16 gallery hours 12 to 5pm.

Track Hasan at his website here.

Gallery Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 12-6PM. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Location: Intersection 5M, 925 Mission Street (@ 5th), SF CA 94103. One block from Powell Street BART Station.

elahi intersection 21 - San FranciscoHiding in Plain Sight, the first exhibition of multimedia artist Hasan Elahi's work in San Francisco, is the latest installment of a much larger project, Tracking Transience, which began in 2004 and continues today. Falsely accused of involvement in the 9/11 terrorist plot, Elahi became the subject of an intensive F.B.I. investigation. After months of interrogations and nine consecutive lie-detector tests, he was cleared of suspicion. Following this harrowing experience, Elahi conceived Tracking Transience, a self-surveillance project that continually and publicly presents his exact location, activities, bank records, and other personal data. Although the daily images of places visited, food eaten, and money spent can be seen as details of contemporary life, for Elahi the subject matter becomes evidence of his life and his actions, establishing a voluntary and perpetual digital alibi against future accusations. For many artists the dissolution between art and life is a theoretical practice, yet for Elahi it is a permanent routine that brings the viewer a record of life as a citizen and a life as working artist. His work raises powerful, undeniable questions about privacy, and about who is watching us, when, and where. Elahi is represented by Michael Klein Arts in New York, NY.

Watch Hasan Elahi on The Colbert Report: 


Looking at you looking at me: surveillance protest art

By Hana Baba | KALWNews.org

Streaming Audio: 7:22 min:  WEB.Elahi_


Descendants of immigrants and refugees from countries in the Middle East and South Asia often find a hard time living in the post 9/11 United States because they have Muslim names. Take former San Jose State Professor and artist Hasan Elahi. After September 11, while trying to catch a plane, he was detained and interrogated by the FBI, and compelled to share a lot of personal information with the Feds: where he went, what he did.

He was eventually cleared, but the experience inspired him to launch a project called "Hiding in Plain Sight" in which he photographs every single detail of his daily life - no matter how mundane - and uploads it on his website for the world - and the FBI - to see. It's a form of "surveillance protest art."

Elahi's exhibit "Hiding in Plain Sight" is on display at the Intersection for the Arts gallery through April 22, at San Francisco's Hub SoMa.

In this piece from the KALW News archives, KALW's Hana Baba sat down and asked him about the project.

* * *

HASAN ELAHI: Basically, six years ago, I was reported as a terrorist ... terrorist suspect, I should say. There was an erroneous report that the authorities received that an Arab man - never mind I'm not Arab - but an Arab man had fled on September 12 with explosives.

HANA BABA: Fled from where?

ELAHI: From a storage unit, in Tampa, Florida, where he was hoarding explosives.

So, I found out about it many, many, many months later. It was June 19, actually. I was flying back into Detroit from an exhibition overseas, and it's one of those typical - you come in through immigration, you hand your passport through, they swipe it, you go.

Except this time, I came in and he swiped the passport and he just turned completely white. I asked him, "Is there something wrong?" And he doesn't acknowledge me, doesn't even look up. He says, "Follow me, please," and I end up in an INS detention facility, which is highly unusual for a U.S. citizen.

BABA: No explanation?

ELAHI: No, I still have no idea what's happening. And I'm in this huge, huge, huge room with all these foreign faces from every corner of the earth. You can just see the fear in everyone's face - that this is their first day in the United States and it's not a good day for them.

And of course, I'm here with the red dreads coming out of my hair and smelling really bad because I'd been on a plan for the last three days. And I'm trying to ask the guards there, "You guys got any idea what I'm doing here?" They just looked baffled; they were like, "What are you doing here? You're obviously not waiting for an interpreter and you have that U.S. passport .."

Anyway, it felt like an eternity. I don't know how long it really was but it felt like an eternity. And then this man in a dark suit walks straight up to me, looks at me and says, "I expected you to be older." And then I asked him, "You mind explaining what's going on?" And he looks at me and says, "You got some explaining to do yourself."

And we go around into a small room and, out of nowhere he asks me, "Where were you September 12?" And really, I had no idea. I said, "I can look it up for you." So I pulled out my PDA and say, "Okay, let's look at my appointments."

It said at 10 o'clock I went and paid my rent at the storage unit. Ten-thirty, I met with my graduate student; 12 o'clock, I had my intro level class; three o'clock I had my advanced level class.

So at the end of all this, he said, "Okay, everything's great." I said, "Okay, wonderful. Can I get a letter saying everything's okay?" And of course, the problem is that, in order to be formerly cleared you have to be formerly charged. So, I'm in this bizarre predicament, saying, "Guys, all we need is the last guy at the last airport not to get the last memo and here we go all over again."

The intelligence agencies, this entire "War on Terror" - it's such an incredibly massive system. It's impossible to work at 100% efficiency. It's too big of a system. So, the reality sunk in that at any moment I could be caught back up in this. I could be caught right back into this whole situation.

And then I started thinking to myself, I have a file at the FBI, but how accurate is it? What do they know about me? Then I started saying, "Well, in theory, if I tell everything to everyone, then that file is much more comprehensive than any information the FBI has." What that basically does is borrow the simplest of all economics principles, where by flooding the market with all this information that I have of myself, the information that the FBI has about me has absolutely no value whatsoever.

In that sense what happens is that we become completely anonymous. So that's one side of the project.

BABA: So, what would you do exactly? Take us through what you would do.

ELAHI: Sure. Basically what I started doing was time-stamping my life, every few moments when I make a significant change in location. So, if I'm sitting at home all day, you'll see a couple of images. But if I'm moving around a lot, you'll see a lot of things.

BABA: So, wherever you go, you take a picture.

ELAHI: Exactly.

BABA: Whatever you do, you take a picture.

ELAHI: Exactly, and that photo gets uploaded. There are over 32,000 images on this site right now.

BABA: I've looked at your 400 toilets, and you've been to some filthy toilets.


BABA: And some pretty slick ones.

ELAHI: Some pretty nice ones, too.

BABA: And a very dirty one in Geneva, Switzerland?

ELAHI: Yes, can you believe that?

BABA: I did not believe that!

ELAHI: It's pretty bad, yeah. It kind of goes with the methodology of, "Okay guys, you want to watch me? You're going to get everything."

BABA: More than they bargained for.

ELAHI: Exactly. And, on top of that, it's like, "Okay, you want to watch me? That's fine, but I can watch myself a lot better than you guys ever could and get detail that you will never have access to."

BABA: Do you know if the government is looking at your website?

ELAHI: Absolutely, yeah. One of the things is when you're looking at it, I'm actually looking at who's looking at me. So I'm looking at who's looking at me looking at me.

BABA: Two-way mirror.

ELAHI: Yeah, exactly, literally. It borrows the surveillance metaphor of the two-way mirror.

So I can see who's hitting me when, and I get some very interesting visitors. I get visitors from the NSA, the CIA, the Pentagon, the Office of the Secretary of Defense. You name it.

The best one was a thing called EOP.gov. Most people have no idea what EOP.gov is. And even if you go toEOP.gov, there's nothing there; there's no website configured at that address. It's the Executive Office of the President.

BABA: Oohh, that's what it stands for.

ELAHI: Yeah.


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