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Artist Explores Boundaries Of Privacy And Geography

Nancy Klingener
Artist Hasan Elahi documents and posts his whereabouts — including his residency at The Studios of Key West.";

  Hasan Elahi is an interdisciplinary media artist. Sometimes he’s called a photographer and sometimes a privacy artist. Privacy is the subject of a lot of his art — he's best known for his project called Tracking Transience, where he posts images of his locations online. The project started after he began reporting his own whereabouts to the FBI.


Recently, Hasan Elahi was an artist in residence at The Studios of Key West<. He sat down with WLRN's Nancy Klingener to talk about his work.

WLRN: So what happened with the FBI to send you into the whole privacy realm?

 HASAN ELAHI: It all started shortly after 9/11 when I was erroneously reported as a terrorist. Or I should say, terror suspect. The authorities received a call that an Arab man had fled who was hoarding explosives on September 12th. Never mind there were no explosives. Never mind it wasn’t the 12th. Never mind I had nothing other than packrat material that I keep. The FBI agent that interrogated me realized I was harmless. Otherwise he wouldn’t have let me go home. Otherwise I would have ended up in Gitmo. And six months later, everything was finally cleared — or as cleared as one can be of these things.

Did they ask you to tell them when you would be traveling, or was that your idea?

Oh no that was a preemptive action on my part. It was like, 'hey guys, don’t want to look like I’m raising any red flags or I’m running off somewhere. Just want to let you guys know, this is what I’m doing.' I’d give them travel tips, bars to go hang out in, things like that. It was civil, it was always ‘thank you. Be safe.’ They weren’t angry — the FBI doesn’t operate like you see on the TV.

Did you conceive of this from the beginning as a kind of art project?

Absolutely not. At the beginning it was like, how do I keep myself from not getting looped up in this whole mess again. I think artists react to things differently. And now it’s just snowballed into this massive project of over 14 years now, going on 15, so there’s years and years and years of data. Tens of thousands of  images. I’ve basically time stamped my life every few moments. So if we were to go on the website right now, you would see me in this building right here. We wouldn’t see you, you would just get this very generic photo of this building that looks like a Deco building that could be anywhere. But if you know this building, you know there’s this bookstore underneath, you know it could only be this spot. And you see a bicycle parked up front. So it’s one of those things where the images are incredibly general and vague, but then they’re incredibly hyperspecific to that one location. So they become about documenting geography and they become about documenting specific locations that are completely insignificant other than, hey I’m just checking in from here.

These days we’re all constantly reporting ourselves, posting on social media what we’re eating, what we’re doing, where we are. Are we dumb to do that?

Fourteen years ago when I started this project, people thought I was crazy. Why in the world would you want to give everybody photos of where you’re at with maps of how to get there? Now when I show the project, some people will look at it and go, 'I don’t get it. This just looks like Instagram. What’s the big deal? This isn’t art.' I think it’s just a matter of time before everything is archived and everything is out there. So it’s not necessarily a matter of good or bad, it’s not a matter of whether this is smart or stupid. I think this is just a matter of these are changing cultural norms and we’re going to have to deal with these changing ideas. And we’re not going to be able to apply these rules that we thought about privacy from decades before to today and tomorrow.

The project you’re working on now is called Manifest Destiny. What’s that about?

I’m looking at territory and expansion. It’s an interesting loop because it goes out to the western exploratory painters and then that loops back into the northeast Hudson River school of painters, these gorgeous grand vistas. A lot of what I’m thinking about is this expansion of not just of the normalization of surveillance but also expansion in terms of edge to edge, expansion in terms of geography.

And how does being in Key West inform that?

I’ve been working on these peripherals or the edges, if you want to call it. We're here quite literally in a geographic edge. I’m at the edge of the country. I love these places. I grew up on Coney Island on the edge of New York City. I’m interested in these outer points. And being in Key West has really been amazing. You do feel, especially coming down Highway 1, you’re thinking this is really you’re going to the edge of the Earth. In a lot of ways we kind of are in this other world over here and you can sense that. Culturally, geographically it is a completely separate world on its own.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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