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08.23.10

The Orwell Project

One Muslim artist responded to his mistaken FBI investigation by creating an online record of his every move, meal, and travel. An excerpt from Amitava Kumar’s book on global reactions to the U.S. war on terror.

If you don’t want to be sent in shackles to be interrogated in a shed in Guantánamo, you can photograph every meal you eat and every urinal you use and upload it immediately on your website. A GPS-based device on your phone can broadcast your exact location at any given time of day or night. You can make public your phone records as well as every purchase you make on your debit card. You can adopt this form of self-surveillance as a strategy not so much because you know that the government monitors your movements, but because it gets things wrong. That is why it is the government. You can monitor yourself much more accurately.

“If 300 million people were to offer up the details of their private lives, you would need to hire another 300 million people just to keep up.”

You do this if you are Hasan Elahi.

Elahi is a 37-year-old conceptual artist who teaches art and visual theory at San Jose State University in California. He was born in Bangladesh and grew up in New York. Like many other Muslims in the days following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Elahi found his name on the government’s terrorist watch list. In response, he decided to open nearly every aspect of his life on his website, TrackingTransience.net. At that site one can find a record of the coffee he has bought or the amount of cash he has withdrawn in the past week. Over 20,000 images on the site are time-stamped and give information about the places he has been and meals he has consumed. In May 2007, when I met Elahi in a restaurant for lunch, he took a picture of his salad—smoked salmon with strawberry dressing—and then of the urinal in the men’s room. The pictures were uploaded on his site. Having beforehand perused the list of his recent purchases, I was able to confirm that the camera he was using, a brand-new Canon G7, was one that he had acquired the previous week at a shop in New York City.

book-cover---a-foreigner-carrying-in-the-crook-of-his-arm-a-tiny-bomb
A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. By Amitava Kumar. 232 pages. Duke University Press. $21.95. ()

The Orwell Project, which is the name that Elahi has given to his exercise, is in reality a work of collaboration between the artist and the FBI. It was the latter who inspired this work that is part performance, part protest. On June 19, 2002, Hasan Elahi returned to the U.S. from an artists’ residency program in Senegal, and, on arrival at the airport in Detroit, was detained for questioning. He became the subject of an FBI investigation that went on for six months and concluded with nine polygraph tests administered within the space of one day. The owners of a facility where he rented a locker had wrongly informed the police, on September 12, 2001, that an “Arab” man had fled the country and had left explosives behind. In order to prove to his interrogators, over the course of dozens of interviews, what he had been doing on that particular day as well as the days that followed, Elahi showed them all the information that he had available on his PDA—the record of his appointments, his itineraries, his phone calls. And when the investigation was over, Elahi began working on documenting publicly his every move. He was motivated partly by concern that his unpleasant experience with the FBI could easily be repeated, but also by the subversive desire to hold a mirror to the agencies that watch us. His aim is to overwhelm those who have him under surveillance—the log for his site, incidentally, reveals addresses that belong to a variety of U.S. government agencies—with the information they need. With an expression of a happy cheerfulness on his face, Elahi said to me, “If 300 million people were to offer up the details of their private lives, you would need to hire another 300 million people just to keep up.”

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Amitava Kumar is a writer and journalist born in Ara, Bihar; he grew up in the nearby town of Patna, famous for its corruption, crushing poverty and delicious mangoes. He is the author of several works of literary nonfiction, including Husband of a Fanatic, and the novel, Nobody Does the Right Thing. Kumar is professor of English at Vassar College.