Hasan Elahi, Thousand Little Brothers at MAP

The origins of Hasan Elahi’s project Tracking Transience are very likely familiar. This is because they have been relayed numerous times by Elahi and others in catalog essays, exhibition reviews, op-eds, and even a 2011 TED Talk since he initiated the project and corresponding Website in 2002. To recap, in June of that year Elahi was stopped entering the country at the Detroit airport, taken to the airport’s Immigration and Naturalization Service’s office, and questioned about his recent activities abroad (he was returning from an international trip including stops in Senegal, Mali, and the Netherlands), as well as his specific activities on September 12, 2001. Supposedly, and erroneously, on that day (whose significance in this country needs no recount) he was seen leaving a Tampa, Florida storage unit carrying explosives. Elahi underwent questioning for the next six months and, after passing several polygraph tests, was cleared of suspicion. Concerned for the possibilities of interference with upcoming travel plans, Elahi asked if he could have assurance that no such issues would  arise. He was told to check in periodically with the F.B.I., and so he started doing so voluntarily by setting up the website Tracking Transience. The site registers Elahi’s location at any given moment via GPS, and also holds a vast archive of snapshots illustrating every place he goes, meal he heats, toilet he sits on, or bed he sleeps in. Meticulously well-documented, the site is also nearly impossible to navigate. It offers the possibility of a perfect knowledge of his life while simultaneously thwarting the notion that such a knowledge could ever really exist.

The critical and narrative structures in place for interpreting Elahi’s work revolve around notions of shrinking private life in an age of advanced surveillance, the Internet, and post-9/11 fear culture and racism. Tracking Transience is posed as an act of protest via extreme compliance, with Elahi taking canny advantage of the availability of many of the same technologies of surveillance and tracking that might otherwise have been used against him.  Commenting on why he started the project in New York Times op-ed from October 2011  Elahi writes, “My thinking was something like, ‘You want to watch me? Fine. But I can watch myself better than you can, and I can get a level of detail you will never have.'”

A fascinating detail of Elahi’s recount of his initial arrest and questioning that may be sometimes overlooked is the fact that even before this incident, and before the start of Tracking Transience, he was already, in his terms from the same op-ed, “neurotic about record keeping,” and it was this fact that helped get him off the hook. When I.N.S. asked him about his whereabouts during his travels and on September 12th, he was able to show them detailed calendars and agendas on his Palm Pilot. This makes Tracking Transience not only a product of unique circumstance and access to technology, but also something already present in Elahi’s personality. It might explain why the project has continued into the present and constituted the center of his artistic practice for over a decade even after his name has been ostensibly cleared. Elahi seems to derive some personal satisfaction from the ability to track and present his entire life online, and whether this results from existing neurosis or even narcissism feels sometimes unclear.

Elahi’s show at MAP features a variety of ways of displaying the data that he presents on his site: pixelated prints of images taken from his every day life and arranged in conceptual grids; screens displaying these images in a variety of forms and sizes, one a grid of screens containing within it a smaller grid of images, another a larger grid of screens showing just one image; finally, screens set up in orb-like clusters displaying slide shows of images. While Tracking Transience the site and its origin story act as a provocative comment or node within discussions of privacy and surveillance, the role of the translation of this Web-based practice into an installation one feels less clear. It brings to mind books published to house the content of Tumblr pages which, although providing the creator’s sometimes much-deserved opportunities for monetization, seem to defeat the beauty of such pages in being somehow live, relevant, and most of all transient.

In 2008, Elahi’s work was featured in an exhibition organized by Independent Curator’s International and Artist’s Space called  The New Normal. While the works in the exhibition were often frequently related to the political implications of new surveillance technologies, the essays in the catalog broadened the discussion. Michael Connor, in an eponymous essay writes, “Yet the rise of state and corporate surveillance has not been the only, or perhaps even the most definitive factor affecting the private sphere since 2001. Equally remarkable has been the willingness demonstrated by millions of us to document and reveal our own behavior and the behavior of others, in personal photos and video clips hosted on blogs and online diaries or just sent via e-mail” (14). If this was true in 2008, it has only grown more so in 2013. In viewing Elahi’s work at MAP, something we were struck by was the fact that having voluntary photographic access to the contents of a person’s meals and whereabouts at any given time is perhaps no longer as shocking or novel as it was when he initiated the project. While intentions must be acknowledged as quite separate, the effects of Elahi’s site and the personal pages that make up our daily data streams and newsfeeds have grown to resemble one another. They participate equally not only in discourses of surveillance and privacy, but of a contemporary world fundamentally lived in and through technology.

Thousand Little Brothers runs through March 24th. MAP is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 to 5. For more information visit mdartplace.org.

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