Surveillance is a method of power and of control. Yet it also creates a world of images, sounds, and data: it conjures up a parallel world to the one in which we live. It is a political tool, but also an aesthetic experience.
Artist Hasan Elahi’s work explores this diversity within our experience of surveillance. Initially drawn to the topic by his own unfortunate and absurd run-in with the FBI, Elahi has since questioned the relationship of surveillance technology to resistance, repression, and visual expression. For Elahi, surveillance interacts with our personal lives, but also our aesthetic preferences and desires.
For the final piece in our series on religion and surveillance, Cosmologics talked with Elahi about his work, his own experiences with surveillance, and the ways we can elude and embrace these disquieting technologies.
—Lewis West for Cosmologics
Cosmologics: What do you think is unique about surveillance today compared to that of earlier periods?
Hasan Elahi: I feel, at this point in time, the key difference is the sheer number of people implicated in surveillance. At some level, we’re all being monitored, even when we think we’re not, whether it be by a security camera, by a credit card company looking out for a fraudulent charge, or by the local electricity company tracking when you’re home and when you’re not. The unique aspect today is the perfect storm of how cheap and accessible the technology has become, combined with how socially acceptable it now is. It wasn’t that long ago that only specialized stores carried this gear and that it was financially out of reach for most. Now, access to this has shifted dramatically. You can walk into a Home Depot and five minutes and 50 dollars later, walk out with a complete turnkey surveillance system. We didn’t have this option in the days of the historic watchers.
Cosmologics: What draws you—in addition to your own experiences—to modern methods of surveillance?
Hasan Elahi: Shortly after 9/11, and after being erroneously reported as a terrorist suspect, I created a self-surveillance tracking device to make sure the FBI knew where I was and what I was doing. At first, I felt the need to do this out of practicality. I wanted to avoid any future altercations with the FBI and felt that by pre-emptively surveilling myself, the FBI would have no need to monitor me. In the past twelve years, I’ve generated over 70,000 images that I have shared with the FBI. Most of the images don’t really tell you much on their own, but the entire collection gives you a pretty detailed image of who I am. Yet, I am never in any of the images. And while I’m telling you everything, I still live a rather anonymous and private life. I’m drawn to these dualities and how something can be both at the same time. I’m interested in seeing if I go far enough in one direction, will I end up in the other?
We tend to think of surveillance as a post-9/11 idea, but I think this is something that has been ingrained in us for thousands of years.
Cosmologics: Much of your work invokes the experiences of being watched, but also of watching and omniscience. How do you see these two aspects of surveillance as interacting with one another?
Hasan Elahi: In several of my installations, the viewer is immersed by a barrage of images from all sides, triggering a sensory overload. This reverses the panoptical relationship between the watcher and watched—and therefore the relationship between observing and understanding, or in other terms, the relationship between information gathering and information analysis. With the excess of information presented, the viewer is unsure what role to take. Are we the watched or the watcher? In this back and forth of role-play, I’m hoping the work demonstrates the complex relation between the spectator and the target, surveillance and protection, voyeurism and exhibitionism, and eventually, the nation and the individual.
For the past four years, I’ve been working on a new body of work where the viewer is unsure whether they’re watching a moving video or a still image. Very little motion is detectable in the videos and it looks like a live surveillance video feed. Although the videos are heavily processed digitally, the viewer doesn’t notice the technology and the monitors become a window through to the other side of the wall on which they’re placed (the videos represent exactly what one would see if it was possible to see through the wall). I’ve done about half a dozen of these installations so far in various cities, and they are all titled “Concordance.”
I’m interested in how the surveillance image is read and what happens when that information is hyper-aestheticized. Given the technology available these days, there is no reason why a surveillance image has to look gritty and low-tech. When the surveillance image quality doesn’t match the characteristics of a surveillance image, we have difficulty accepting it as surveillance: it moves into the territory of the landscape photograph, which in the US is very much based on the history of landscape painting. Much of this work is often from a higher vantage point and portrays grand vistas, as if it were from the perspective of the eye of God, that is, the original surveillance camera. Historically, we tend to think of surveillance (or to translate the word from its French origin literally, watching from above) as a post-9/11 idea, but I think this is something that has been ingrained in us for thousands of years.
Cosmologics: In the US, religious groups, and in particular Muslim communities, find themselves often the primary targets of state surveillance. How do you understand these groups as having a different relationship to surveillance than the rest of US society, and how do you see that as impacting your work?
Hasan Elahi: As Americans, we tend to be much more detached from surveillance; we have normalized our relationship with surveillance to the point that we even treat surveillance cameras as entertainment. After all, shortly after 9/11, reality television began to take over the airwaves and shows such as Big Brother turned the surveillance camera into a TV celebrity. Even though these days it’s hardly possible to go a few hundred feet in an urban area and not be on several cameras at any given moment, most Americans think nothing of it, suggesting that the surveillance system has become invisible to us.
It’s not a matter of fearing the camera, but turning it around and making it work to our own benefit.
But to many of us in the Muslim community, it is indeed a different relationship, and unfortunately it is one far too often rooted in ignorance and, many times, in outright racism. In my personal case, the FBI received a bogus tip that “an Arab man had fled on September 12th who was hoarding explosives.” None of that is true. I’m not Arab. I did not go anywhere on September 12th. I had no explosives, nor anything that could even be remotely mistaken for explosives. I know the people that reported me. They’re not malicious people; they’re just dumb and ignorant. I’m quite realistic that I won’t be able to eliminate all interactions with dumb and ignorant people, but when your own country takes that ignorance as the basis for national policy, it’s truly frightening. Further complicating the matter, we often mistakenly interchange the words “Muslim” and “Arab” and, while we have no issues understanding secularism when it takes place among Jews or Christians, we don’t seem to understand secularism in Islam and associate all Muslims with Wahhabi Saudis, regardless of whether they come from Indonesia, Morocco, South Asia, or Saudi Arabia.
Cosmologics: Your work also speaks to the possibilities of resistance in a surveillance society. What do you see as the most promising opportunities for those facing this scrutiny?
Hasan Elahi: We tend to have a historic fear of surveillance, but in recent events, we’ve seen how the ubiquity of the camera phone has transformed power. It’s no longer the one camera watching us from above; we all have cameras and we’re just as capable of watching the watchers. On a personal level, I feel quite comforted knowing there are thousands of people looking at me on a regular basis, it strangely gives me a sense of comfort. For example, if my tracker didn’t change for weeks and was showing just one building, people would know something happened in that particular building. It’s not a matter of fearing the camera, but turning it around and making it work to our own benefit. It’s not only about reversing the power of the camera, but about initiating a similar process with many of these recent surveillance technologies (many of which grew out of military developments). It may sound counterintuitive to use these same tools for resistance, but sometimes the most counterintuitive method may result in some of the most beautifully interesting results.
Cosmologics: What do you hope for the future of a surveillance society?
Hasan Elahi: We have been incredibly adaptive and we learn quickly, but we can not possibly expect the norms of yesterday to apply to tomorrow. It’s not a matter of better or worse, but that things will be different—we need to acknowledge that and be adaptive. The challenge is finding a common ground where the technology, culture, and policy all work in sync with each other. Far too often, the technology moves at a far greater speed than that at which our culture is able to adopt it into day to day use. And unfortunately, by the time our lawmakers get around to deciding what policies to implement in response to that tech, it’s already evolved into a whole different thing. I’m hopeful that we’ll learn to adapt and will find a common ground. I’m hopeful that it’s just a matter of time until we complete the transition from analog to digital.
Hasan Elahi is an interdisciplinary artist working with issues in surveillance, privacy, migration, citizenship, technology, and the challenges of borders. His work has been presented in numerous exhibitions at venues such as SITE Santa Fe, Centre Georges Pompidou, Sundance Film Festival, and the Venice Biennale. Elahi has spoken at Tate Modern, American Association of Artificial Intelligence, International Association of Privacy Professionals, TED Global, and the World Economic Forum. His work is frequently in the media and has been covered by The New York Times, Forbes, Wired, and has appeared on Al Jazeera, Fox News, and The Colbert Report. He is currently Associate Professor of Art at University of Maryland and lives outside of Washington, DC, roughly equidistant from the CIA, FBI, and NSA headquarters.
Lewis West is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.
Image from Flickr via Thomas Hawk