Hasan Elahi vs. the FBI: The Art of Self-Surveillance

While a solo show is certainly cause for celebration, the photographic installations and videos in “Datamine” will likely leave viewers rather disturbed. Hasan Elahi’s recent work, now on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore, stems from his ongoing examinations of the mechanisms behind surveillance, citizenship, and migration—of which he has plenty of firsthand experience.

In 2002, Bangladeshi-born Elahi was mistakenly associated with terrorist activities. He was returning from one of his frequent trips abroad (in this case, to the Netherlands) when he was detained in Detroit. The FBI opened an investigation on him, which they pursued for the next six months. Instead of panicking or resisting, he decided to collaborate by starting Tracking Transience, what he calls “a project in self-surveillance.” He monitors the locations and minute details of his day-to-day activities, then makes them available to the public and the FBI on his website and in his art.

  • Image courtesy of C. Grimaldis Gallery.

“Sequences of time-stamped photos flash by of unmade beds that I recently slept in,” Elahi has said of the project. “[T]here’s a half-eaten burger from a fast food place at an airport, some animal innards in a neatly packed Styrofoam container at a grocery store, an empty truck stop in the middle of the night, and among the now nearly 70,000 other images, every toilet I’ve ever used.”

“After all,” he says, “the FBI wanted to know everything about me and I’m all about full disclosure.”

Since then, Elahi has maintained this state of self-surveillance, as works in “Datamine” attest. Stay v3 (2016), for instance, comprises a grid of 30 individual images of unmade beds, a sampling of the many he has slept in at home and in various international lodgings since 2002. Though Elahi never appears in these photographs, his presence can be felt in the tangled sheets and creased pillows. With beds being the site of some of our most intimate activities, the photographs hint at his—and our—vulnerability.

However, Elahi has said, “While I’m perfectly fine opening up every aspect of my personal life to the public, I’m still aware that I’m only telling one part of the story.” Another part of this multifaceted story remains confidential, locked in the labyrinthine halls of national security.  


—Karen Kedmey


Hasan Elahi: Datamine” is on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore, May 19–Jun. 25, 2016.

Follow C. Grimaldis Gallery on Artsy.

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