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Tracking Hasan Elahi

By Ethan Zuckerman

Hasan Elahi is a conceptual artist whose life is an ongoing work about surveillance. He starts by telling us a chilling story - his detention by the INS at Detroit Airport after returning from a trip from overseas. An immigration officer scanned his passport and blanched, then led Alahi through a maze under the airport to an INS detention facility. As a US citizen, this was pretty odd - he tried to talk with the guards to figure out what was going on. But it all became clearer when the man from the FBI in the dark suit came to talk with him.

The FBI asked him about his whereabouts on September 12, 2001 - he was able to answer the questions by taking out his Blackberry and showing off his meetings. Over the course of questioning, it became clear that the reason he was being questioned was that he had a storage locker in Tampa, where he'd been teaching. Scared by 9/11, the owners of the storage area reported that 'an Arab man had fled on 9/12, leaving explosives in his locker.' There were, of course, no explosives, and he hadn't fled - just the detritus of ordinary life.

Elahi's life for the next few months involved dozens of interviews with the FBI, finally culminating in nine back to back polygraphs, which finally 'cleared' him. He explains that the power dynamic of an FBI interview leads to a very human response - the desire for survival. Elahi says that he could have questioned the legality of the experience, hiring a lawyer--but he realized that there was the possibility that any act of resistance could have gotten him sent to Guantanamo.

For the next few months, every trip Elahi took, he'd call his FBI agent and give the routing, so he didn't get detained along the way. He realized, after a point - why just tell the FBI - why not tell everyone?

So he hacked his cellphone into a tracking bracelet which he wears on his ankle, reporting his movements on a map - log onto his site and you can see that he's in Camden. But he's gone further, trying to document his life in a series of photos: the airports he passes through, the meals he eats, the bathrooms he uses. The result is a photographic record of his daily life which would be very hard to falsify. We all know photos can be digitally altered--but altering as many photos as Elahi puts online would require a whole team trying to build this alternative path through the world.

Elahi also puts other apsects of his life online, including his banking records. This gives a record of his purchases, which complements the photographs. He doesn't put the phone records online, because it would compromise the privacy of the people he talks with, and some friends have asked him to stop visiting, but he views the self-surveillance both as an art form and as his perpetual alibi for the next time the FBI questions him.

At the same time, he's stretching the limits of surveillance systems, taking advantage of non-places. He flew to Singapore for four days and never left the airport, never clearing customs. For four days, he was noplace - he'd fallen off the map, which is precisely what the FBI and others worry about. But he documented every noodle and every toilet along the way.

One of the audience questions asks whether the FBI actually threatened Elahi with Guantanamo, or whether his 'artistic temperment' might have exaggerated the seriousness of the situation. Elahi explains that it was never made concrete, but that he certainly felt the threat of indefinite detention, and that he believes the only thing that saved him was a common culture - the ability to quote the lyrics of country songs, or talk about college football, the sort of things a terrorist would find very hard to fake.

Another questioner wonders if Marianne Weems will make a show about Elahi - she mentions that an earlier piece, 'Jet Lag' tells the true story of a woman who flies from Amsterdam to NYC 167 times, again and again, until she dies of jetlag. (Still trying to find a reference to this story) Given that Elahi's life involves all the issues Weems is most interested in, she admits that a piece based on his experiences would be irresistable.

(Posted by Ethan Zuckerman in Arts at 09:46 AM)

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