2011 has given me a lot of awesome things. This is one of them.
Hasan Elahi and “Tracking Transience”
Hasan Elahi is an artist and a teacher. The FBI decided that he also looked like a terrorist because, you know, he was flying into Detroit from Florida. And traveling to lots of other places. And he looks kinda of “Muslim.” This was enough for our fine boys and girls and blue to spend nine months questioning Elahi, polygraphing him repeatedly, and going through his stuff. Because, again, internationally known installation artist is a perfect cover for a would-be terrorist.
Once the FBI got bored and moved on to harass someone else, Elahi decided to fight back. With art.
As he describes in his awesome TED talk, Elahi created a website–which eventually became “Tracking Transience“–upon which he posts detailed, micro-level information about his life. What he eats. What gas stations he goes to. Where he sleeps. What flights he takes, where, and when. What he spends his money on. Using photos, Google Earth, and direct links to his bank account, the TT site lets any visitor determine Elahi’s specific location at anytime and trace his movements and actions in the past.
The trick is that you can’t navigate the site in a logical way. It’s not designed that way. Rather, you have to wade through all of these individual pieces of data–photos, coordinates, spending information–and fashion some kind of meaning out of it yourself. There’s no narrative thread for you to follow; you have to make one for yourself, even as you navigate pages full of time-stamped, anonymous, specific, colorful, super-specific information.
For me, Elahi’s work is a gift from 2011 because it suggests to me that seeing isn’t the same thing as knowing. When Elahi was picked up by the FBI, it was simply because they saw individual pieces of data in his life–what he looked like, where he’d been, how frequently he’d travelled–and, from that, fashioned the narrative of Potential Terrorist. The FBI didn’t know him, nor was that the purpose of their investigation. Rather, they needed to be convinced that what they were seeing didn’t mean what they assumed that it did; that the meaning they’d made from it was– misguided, shall we say.
So here’s the thing: TT tells me that, no matter how intrusive the government is into my life, how much I post or don’t post on Facebook, on my blog, write in any sort of public space (Blackwatch Plaid!), it’s fucking hard to know someone just from the ephemera of their life. What websites I visit, or what books I buy, or what stories I write, or what I buy at Kroger: ultimately, these tiny pieces of information won’t tell you a damn thing about me. There’s no master narrative for anyone to follow about my life, and it’s this lack of stability that a) makes postmodernism awesome and b) gives the feds or the cops or whoever the wiggle room to make up whatever kind of story they want to about you. So, you know, pluses and minuses.
I post the hell out of my slash fic. I say what I actually think on Facebook, in front of my profs, in front of my students. Actions always hold the potential for consequences, but that need not be a negative thing, I think. Dude, I’m tired of watching every word, every thought, every glance because, let’s face it: I have no poker face.
Thanks, 2011, for sending Elahi and TT my way, for reminding me that being seen isn’t the same as being known, that most people aren’t paying that much attention to you, anyway, even if the NSA and the Office of the President visit your online art installation. Which? If I find out Joe Biden has cruised past this site, I will have new hope for the future of this country. And then I’ll email Jill and let her know what he’s been up to.