Wearing garish green flip-flops and sporting dyed yellow hair, Hasan Elahi is standing in the Intersection 5M gallery and talking about his work. And talking some more. And talking even more. Elahi regurgitates minutiae about a taco he ate in Mexico in 2008, a hot dog he bought in the United States in 2009, and a bathroom he used in South Korea in 2004. For the last seven years, he has taken photos of nearly everything he's encountered (including stagnant urinal water) and created an art project that lets others view his life — toilet by toilet, transaction by transaction.
It's all so postmodern, and all so post–9/11. In fact, the 2001 attacks led to Elahi's self-surveillance project. He is a Muslim American who was born in Bangladesh. In the summer of 2002, the FBI — suspecting he might be involved in terrorism — questioned him about his whereabouts after 9/11. The agency was apparently acting on a tip from the owners of a Florida storage facility Elahi had used, who believed he was an Arab. (He isn't.) The owners believed Elahi was hiding explosives. (He wasn't.) At the time, Elahi was a well-regarded associate professor who taught electronic media at the University of South Florida. (He's still well regarded.) The FBI cleared Elahi after giving him nine polygraph tests and investigating his bona fides for months, though Homeland Security agents still occasionally take him aside at airports.
"It was basically paranoia" on the tipsters' part, says Elahi, who taught digital media art at San Jose State from 2008 to 2010 and is now an associate art professor at the University of Maryland, where he directs the Digital Cultures and Creativity program. "I've pretty much accepted the fact that you're going to meet ignorant people, and that's okay. You can't control that. You can't change that. I can almost forgive [the storage facility's owners] — they were an elderly couple that didn't know any better. But when a country — your own country — takes on this [paranoia] as the premise for national policy, it's truly a frightening experience."
Elahi's ongoing project (online at www.trackingtransience.net), which features 30,000 images, provides "evidence" of his day-to-day doings while also, however obvious, mocking authorities. It's Facebook meets Fellini for a hyperactive digital age. The exhibit at Intersection 5M adds a video screen of bank details that list where he has shopped, eaten, and purchased items, and exactly how much he paid. There's dark humor here — though the funny edges may be difficult to appreciate. For instance, the photos flash on screens that have been arranged in the shape of a computerized speech pattern. For the pattern, Elahi used Dick Cheney uttering the word "demo-cracy." Elahi doesn't announce this Cheney connection to gallerygoers. And at his website, he has made it deliberately difficult for people to navigate the information.
All of this could be mistaken for artistic hubris, but Elahi wants people to work for their understanding of his project. He's playing a kind of cat-and-mouse game ("You basically have to play the role of the FBI agent," he says), and the question is whether audiences will play along or give up in frustration. Like Miles Davis, who often performed with his back to the audience, Elahi takes an approach that is alternately inspiring and a turnoff.
A deeper message of his online project and his first San Francisco exhibit is that incessant amounts of personal information are deceiving. What do we really know about anyone whose lives are Tweeted, Facebooked, and documented ad nauseam?
"Misunderstood artist" has a bigger meaning in Elahi's case. When people find out he's Muslim, for example, they frequently assume he's devout, when he tells me he's very much secular. The dyed hair is one indication of his oppositional tendencies. Another: The 39-year-old Elahi never photographs himself for "Tracking Transience." At Intersection 5M, you won't find him anywhere in the thousands of images on display. His camera is always directed outward — at the food he eats, the planes he takes (he frequently travels overseas for exhibits, academic work, and tourism), the supermarket aisles he roams for food and consumer goods.
Stephen Colbert, who interviewed Elahi for his Comedy Central program, understood the inherent absurdity in Elahi's work and played it for obvious laughs. The security agents who still interview Elahi in airport interrogation rooms (most recently in Geneva) usually fail to find his humor. He is funny when you get to speak to him, as when he told me about the bathroom scenes he snaps: "I take them the way I see them."
Elahi has used the governmental attention to his advantage. His project gives him an outlet to make social commentary and exact a small amount of revenge on the authorities — and to essentially warn people they could be next on the accused list.
The question remains: Does his documentation hold up as "art"? Yes and no. The issues it raises about government monitoring, data collection, and counteracting wanton suspicions give the exhibit its urgency. The photos themselves are interesting, and arranged in a thought-provoking way. What's missing is Elahi. At Intersection 5M, he could have offered a video of himself talking about the interrogations he underwent or the consecutive polygraph tests he submitted to, or even discussing his first seven years in Bangladesh and then being raised in Brooklyn and Queens. Instead, there's really nothing about his personal story. And visitors become, indeed, like novice detectives — glancing at the surface of his recent pictures and bank statements, and never getting to know the man whose plight and ideas they should care about. "Just the facts" — as Elahi knows too well — isn't good enough in this dawn of the new information age.