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Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Hiding in Plain Sight" -- Hasan Elahi Exposes Big Brother's Tactics by Spying on Himself

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Hasan Elahi exposes the absurdity of the surveillance state.
  • Hasan Elahi exposes the absurdity of the surveillance state.

There's a new method of civil liberation for those dealing with Orwellian paranoia. You may have heard of it; it's called full disclosure. Here's an example: Artist, professor, and exhaustive self-documenter Hasan Elahi has installed something akin to a dystopian private investigator's office at Intersection 5M. LCD screens of varying sizes flicker from photo to seemingly trivial photo on four walls, showing us where Elahi has eaten, slept, traveled, and -- importantly -- gone to the bathroom.

Another screen gives a comprehensive report of the artist's credit card transaction history. On another wall, a projector shows us exactly where Elahi is at this very moment, which also happened to be right where we were standing last night during the opening of his exhibit, "Hiding in Plain Sight."

Why the extensive self-detection? Elahi had reason. In 2002 he was suspected as being in league with the 9/11 terrorists an placed on a government no-fly list.

Hey, FBI: Here are the records of all my transactions.
  • Hey, FBI: Here are the records of all my transactions.
So the artist set out to show the government exactly who he was -- and was not.

Elahi was on hand to introduce his anticipated counter-counterintelligence project to a curious gathering. He explained why he has willingly, for nearly 10 years, uploaded photos detailing his whereabouts and other minutiae from his life to his web site, and also directly to the FBI. He also explained how doing so has turned the tables on intelligence agencies.

On the surface, the project could seem like an exercise in the mundane, as if Elahi had started a Facebook account and couldn't resist every impulse to update his status constantly (and perhaps someday we'll willingly post our bank statements on Facebook, too, as Elahi has done here). But taken as a whole, there are expressive truths to be surmised.

"Hiding in Plain Sight" calls our post-9/11 world and the resulting surveillance state into question, and it even pokes fun at the process of surveillance with countless photos of toilets and urinals. But Elahi's method of countering years of surveillance has been remarkably peaceful for someone who has endured such hounding. He has left the militant rebel's pitchfork at home, in favor of the almighty camera and diarist spirit.

A wall of monitors displays the thousands of photos Elahi shot since 2002 documenting his own whereabouts.
  • A wall of monitors displays the thousands of photos Elahi shot since 2002 documenting his own whereabouts.
For six months in 2002, the FBI demanded that Elahi report his whereabouts thoroughly, and doing so became a matter of survival, he said. His actions became "primal," as cooperation meant freedom -- to an extent.

The documenting became an obsession, but also a way of reclaiming his life. If he owns the process and floods the system with data -- as he posits in this 2008 Colbert Report interview -- how valuable can information on his own head be?

Interestingly, Elahi said that extreme right-wing Libertarians have been most vocal supporters of the project, viewing it as something of a middle finger to big government and Big Brother. If the project is an attempt to devalue Elahi's own stock amongst intelligence gatherers, what does it mean that roughly 600 million are essentially doing the same thing on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media sites every day? Many of us volunteer potentially damaging information, but could doing so confuse or upend the efforts of government intelligence agencies? Or are we voluntarily headed back toward 1984?

The happy go lucky Elahi said he holds no ill will toward the specific false accusation in question, but he is extremely wary of a society that stands behind draconian laws such as the Patriot Act.

"When a country adopts this as its national policy, it can be very dangerous," he said.

"Hiding in Plain Sight" continues through April 23 at Intersection for the Arts' 5M gallery. Admission is free.

You can also track Elahi at his website,

Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF
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Chris Trenchard


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