By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun
9:17 PM EST, January 22, 2013
A rumpled pile of sheets. A Bloody Mary on an airline tray. Bags of mustard greens from a Korean grocery store. Gas station pumps, battered street signs, a steamed crab.
These are among the everyday images encountered by artist and University of Maryland, College Park professor Hasan Elahi. For the past decade — since he was detained by the FBI at an airport — Elahi has meticulously compiled tens of thousands of photos of each stop he makes in his day.
Rather than shy from government attention, Elahi embarked on a self-surveillance project. He maps his location on a website, along with photos of beds on which he has slept, lots where he has parked and meals he has eaten.
"I'm telling you everything and nothing simultaneously," said Elahi, who is opening an exhibit Thursday at Maryland Art Place in Baltimore. "It's a code you have to crack. You really have to re-enact the role of the FBI. In the process, I'm hoping that the viewer realizes that he or she could just as easily be the subject."
Elahi, 41, who heads College Park's Digital Cultures and Creativity program, had explored digital images in his work long before he says he was interrogated by a federal investigator in the Detroit airport. But that encounter drove him to delve into the issue of eroding privacy in an era in which our moves are tracked by surveillance cameras and broadcast on Facebook and Instagram.
Since then, his work has captured international attention. He has presented at TED Global, where leading thinkers gather in what's billed as "the ultimate brain spa," and the World Economic Forum. Stephen Colbert called him "my favorite terrorist" and said the sound of his name "makes my heart go up one terror alert level."
Elahi isn't sure what caused the FBI to flag him. Born in Bangladesh, he moved to New York City at 7 years old and became an American citizen. Perhaps it was his name, his Muslim faith or the fact that he emptied a storage unit on Sept. 11, 2001.
But as Elahi filed through customs on his way back from an art exhibit in Amsterdam in June 2002, he said an agent's eyes grew wide as he scanned Elahi's passport. The customs agent whisked Elahi through a labyrinth of white hallways to an Immigration and Naturalization Services detention center. Elahi said an FBI agent questioned him: Where had he been and with whom? Who paid for his trips? When had he last visited a mosque? Had he moved explosives out of a storage unit?
Elahi scrolled through his Palm Pilot, showing the agent records of meetings, gallery visits and talks. After several hours, he said, he was allowed to fly back to Tampa, where he was living at the time. But there was no way to guarantee that he wouldn't receive similar scrutiny on future trips. Since he was not charged with a crime, he says, there was no document to show that he had been cleared.
"Once you're in the system, you're in," he said. "It's incredibly disturbing when a country, particularly your own country, uses discrimination as a basis for an investigation."
For six months, Elahi says, he was required to check in with FBI agents in Tampa. He would update them on his travel and his work. After Elahi passed nine lie detector tests, he said the agents told him that he would no longer need to report to them, although he still found himself occasionally stopped at airports over the next few years.
A spokesman for the FBI's Tampa office declined to comment.
Elahi's website, trackingtransience.net, grew out of these meetings with and emails to FBI agents. He decided to flood them with information and, in the process, create art.
"When I started this project, I was really trying to understand what had just happened," he said.
For much of last week, Elahi's website showed photos and a map of the Power Plant Live complex, where he was setting up an exhibit at Maryland Art Place.
Inside the gallery, workers balanced on ladders as they hung black orbs studded with small screens from the ceiling. Elahi, a graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan who taught himself computer programming, tapped on the laptop that will enable his archive of some 45,000 images from the past decade to flash on the screens.
Constellations of larger screens hang on the walls, including six that project images from the Baltimore Street police station across from the gallery.
Amy Royce, executive director of Maryland Art Place, said the "idea of being watched and watching others" should resonate with viewers, particularly those who feel they have been unjustly accused.
The exhibit, "Thousand Little Brothers," examines what happens when people turn the camera on the many manifestations of "Big Brother" that mark 21st-century life.
"Big Brother doesn't like all these Little Brothers looking at it," said Elahi, noting several incidents in which citizens have used hand-held cameras to document government abuse, beginning with the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991.
"The cameras are literally everywhere," he said. "But when you turn the camera around, you reclaim that public space."
That's a topic that Elahi explores with his College Park students, freshmen and sophomores who are majoring in a broad range of topics but who share an interest in art and technology. The students have grown up with social networking sites and are constantly grooming what Elahi calls their "digital doppelgangers."
"How do you manage your online identity? It's something I talk about with my students all the time," he said. In other words, he said, if people fail to monitor their online personas, the Internet might portray them inaccurately.
Meanwhile, other personal information is being tracked by various entities. Anyone who uses a cellphone, searches in a web browser or swipes a credit card leaves a trail of easily accessible data, said Jeramie Scott, a national security fellow with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a District of Columbia-based watchdog group.
Government investigators don't need warrants to sift through much of that information, such as the records tracking your Internet preferences that are sold to advertisers. Surveillance cameras — those operated by police and private businesses — license plate readers and EZ-Pass toll booths can all be used to track movements of people or vehicles, he said.
And short of giving up cellphones, computers and bank cards, there are few ways to hide, said Scott.
"If you really wanted to protect your privacy, you'd really have to go off the grid," he said.
Elahi likes to think of himself as hiding in plain sight. While he has posted a plethora of information about himself online — his site even includes photos of urinals and toilets he has used — he reveals little insight into his personal life.
"You can't necessarily delete, but you can bury," he said. "It basically becomes camouflage — a massive amount of noise."
A sense of loneliness pervades Elahi's images, in part because he intentionally avoids photographing people. Subway platforms and airport waiting lounges are empty, save for a few people lingering far away. Hallways gleam, but no one casts a shadow in the stark lighting. The only hint of the presence of others are shots that show two plates of food or a bed rumpled on both sides.
But, says Elahi, a close observer could pick out clues to his intimate world. When he adopted a cat, shots of a cat box appeared. After his fiancee moved in with him, she hung new curtains in their apartment.
As Elahi sees it, the fascination with being observed — and ducking observation — is an integral part of human identity.
"The concept of surveillance is ingrained in our beings," he said. "God was the original surveillance camera."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun