Artist Hasan Elahi gives his lecture at Hastings College on April 8 in Wilson Auditorium.

Artist Hasan Elahi talks on surveillance artwork, experiences with FBI

Hasan Elahi, a visiting artist at Hastings College, is not hard to find. A simple internet search will bring up his name and a website, “Tracking Transience,” that shows not only his geographic location, but also the food he has eaten, the beds he has slept in and the restrooms he has used.

Elahi visited HC to present his work, “The New Normal,” on April 8 in the Wilson Auditorium. Elahi is an associate professor in the department of art at the University of Maryland. Elahi has been featured in the New York Times, Forbes and several other news organizations. He has also given a TEDGlobal talk and was featured on the “Colbert Report.”

Elahi’s work began in 2002 when he was investigated by the FBI for six months in response to an allegation of housing explosives in a Florida storage unit. Elahi was found innocent, but continued contact with the FBI to make travel easier. Eventually, as emails got longer, Elahi created “Tracking Transience.”

Elahi’s work started as a way to devalue the information the FBI had on him. He did this by making the information public; he feels that the private information had value because it was private.

“We overly romanticize privacy,” Elahi said.

Now, Elahi’s work has evolved to include how attitudes to privacy have changed. To him, surveillance is common, and people feel uncomfortable when they realize they are being surveilled.

“Why do we find it okay with Google photographing us when we find it appalling that the NSA is doing the same thing?” Elahi said.

Another of Elahi’s thesis is how changes in art philosophy are closely related to war. For example, Abstract Expressionism came quickly after World War II and Neo-Expressionism came out of the Vietnam war.

“The selfie is the cultural product of the war on terror,” Elahi said.

During his talk, Elahi demonstrated how when someone holds up a phone to take a selfie, their line of sight extends to where a surveillance camera might be.

On the “Tracking Transience” website, Elahi posts photos of locations he has been to, such as airports or the supermarket. He chooses the photos based on how a viewer will understand the contents of the photos, but those that have seen that location will
recognize where the photo is. In his presentation, he demonstrated this idea with a corner and couches in the Wilson Center.

Other works includes television sets with surveillance cameras facing out to an open space. The televisions are arranged in a pattern and there is a feed from the cameras to the TV.