During the last US presidential campaign Donald Trump called all muslims to report about suspicious fellow believers to the FBI, provoking a huge wave of protest and users’ creativity. Hasan Elahi, an American with Bangladeshi roots, was not surprised for a simple reason: he had done the same, repeatedly and almost obsessively since 2002. Only that he had been reporting… about himself!
An erroneous tip called into law enforcement authorities after 9/11 subjected Hasan Elahi to an intensive investigation by the FBI and after undergoing months of interrogations, he was finally cleared of suspicions. Instead of resisting, he surpassed expectations by amassing and publicly releasing tens of thousands of images and data that track his every move, meal and destination. What began as a pragmatic solution to the problem of being singled out, though, has evolved over the last years into an elaborate art project, Tracking Transience.
Elahi opened just about every aspect of his life to the public. Yet, as paradoxical as it may sound, Elahi’s work is not about him, it’s about us. First of all, it asks us to choose side: are we going to be the voyeur or empathize with the observed subject? Or even fit in the place of the investigator? Any of those positions reveals uncomfortable aspects of the current technological and political context: the passive, frustrating empowerment of the Internet user; the data producer who fuels her own surveillance; or the private and government agencies that track citizens without their consent and build databases so immense they may not even be able to read them, at least with today’s technologies.
“The best way to maintain privacy may be to give it up. - Elahi says - Information agencies operate in an industry that values data. Restricted access to information is what makes it valuable. If I cut out the middleman and flood the market with my information, the intelligence the F.B.I. has on me will be of no value”.
Elahi throws in our face an excessive amount of hyper-legible and yet obscure data. If you were a government agency collecting all of Elahi’s data, what would you do with them? Is intelligence related to data, or rather the understanding of their context? Are intelligence agencies and global social networks collecting so much data as to override the traditional role of public archives?
And again, most of us are just common users. What are *we* supposed to do with our own and our network neighbors’ data? Elahi’s recent projects deal visually and conceptually with the completely new ways of seeing the world through data. Today the social production of images works by unstoppable processes of accumulation and repetition. Images less and less mean anything out of context and most of the time don’t mean anything special according to their traditional, human-centered vision value. Images pile up on huge stacks and people, including the former expert image producers also known as artists, are developing new ways of making sense of them. But again, what happens to a society that no longer has a need to interpret and forget because everything is stored somewhere on the internet? And what happens when this huge memory extensions build up into an extremely accurate and complex machine that capture our lives?