If you want to know where Hasan Elahi is, just check his website. Every day for the past decade, the University of Maryland art professor has voluntarily updated his location and posted snapshots of his day online so the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can more easily track him. Altogether, he’s uploaded about 72,000 images, some of which are currently on view at the Open Society Foundations in New York in the installation “Thousand Little Brothers” (2014). “I trust that the FBI has seen all of them,” he told Hyperallergic.
The project started after an acquaintance reported him to the authorities as a terrorist suspect following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Though his FBI interrogator quickly figured out they’d received a bogus tip, Elahi was already in the system. Papers had to be filled out, a process followed, superiors satisfied. Though his name was supposedly cleared in 2002, Elahi said the databases weren’t completely updated across various agencies until years later, so he kept having run-ins with the Department of Homeland Security when he traveled.
Making the mundane details of his life publicly available became “a very pragmatic solution to keep from being shipped off to Guantanamo.” He still faithfully updates his location every time he makes a major move — from his house to the gas station, from the gas station to his job. And he takes pictures of literally everything he does, whether shopping at the grocery store, eating at his favorite Chinese restaurant, or peeing in the bathroom. Strangely enough, Elahi says doing so has allowed him to live a relatively anonymous, quiet existence. “I like to think of it as aggressive compliance,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated with Magellan and the concept of circumnavigation: going far enough in one direction to end up in the other.”
But while the project started out as a response to state surveillance, it’s become a parody of the way people now put their entire lives online for anyone — friends, stalkers, government agents — to follow. And it’s remarkable how quickly it’s happened: when Elahi first started photographing his meals, his friends thought it was weird. Now everyone does it, and some restaurants even have no-photo policies. Elahi doesn’t think what he’s doing is any stranger than if he were constantly tweeting, checking in on location apps, or posting photos on Facebook. “These days, we’re so wired 24/7 that you have to go out of your way not to be connected,” he said.
He’s still never heard directly from the FBI about the project, but he says he knows they’ve checked it out because their hits are logged on his server. It happened a lot during the Bush years, less so after Obama came into office. “I really don’t know why all these government agencies are interested in my work,” he said, “but I’m hopeful they have an appreciation for art.”
Hasan Elahi’s “Thousand Little Brothers” is on view as part of Moving Walls 22: Watching You, Watching Me at the Open Society Foundations — New York (224 West 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 11.
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