by Barry Chudakov on August 30th, 2011

Hasan Elahi: Surveillance As Storytelling

Few people have as fully realized a Metalife as Hasan Elahi. Its necessity, a case of mistaken identity, was the mother of considerable invention. In 2002, when he stepped off a flight from the Netherlands, he was detained at the Detroit airport. FBI agents later told him they had been tipped off that he was hoarding explosives in a Florida storage unit. While subsequent lie detector tests convinced them he wasn’t their man, Elahi knew after this detention he would be carefully watched.


Hasan Elahi, ISEA2011 Istanbul, all rights reserved.


So rather than avoid the watching, he abetted it. Instead of pushing against constant surveillance, he embraced it. He sensed that his perceived necessity could spawn a new art form: the surveillance of his life mounted as a museum without walls. Elahi not only chose willing tracking and scrutiny as a means of verifying and documenting every moment and every day of his life; he began to continuously display that ‘work’ in a digital gallery that functions simultaneously as database and witness.


Source: Tracking Transience: Security & Comfort — a collection of over 400 toilets that I have used while in transit between December 2002 and January 2007 as development work for tracking device ongoing. All rights reserved.


Born in 1972 in Rangpur, Bangladesh, Elahi is a professor of interdisciplinary art. Logging more than 70,000 air miles a year exhibiting his art work and attending conferences, Elahi has documented and ‘lifecast’ virtually his every waking hour since 2002. He posts copies of each debit card transaction, showing what he bought, where, and when. A GPS device reports his real-time physical location on a map. Apparently the US government, while once mistakenly listing the the Bangladeshi-born artist on its terrorist watch list, has not abandoned watching him. Elahi’s server logs show hits from the Pentagon, the Secretary of Defense, and the Executive Office of the President, among others.

Yet Elahi’s Tracking Transcience: The Orwell Project is more than the perfect alibi. It is a statement of identity in the modern world. In this self-induced Metalife, Elahi chose not only an exercise in artistic expression. His Metalife became a way of being in the world, a survival kit cum Weltanschauung. But especially, Hasan Elahi became a new kind of storyteller.


Throughout the past fifteen years, I have found myself with one foot in art and one in science, and consider my media to be databases and other electronic forms of information. I am intrigued by the way humans interact with this information, and prefer to investigate the acceptance of technology rather than technology itself.


In this new narrative Hasan Elahi is both the story and teller, hero subject and harrowing object, text and ironic commentary. By pushing surveillance to its logical extreme, by enfolding and enhancing its contours he deliberately courts what most of us either ignore or avoid. He forces us to look at the stunning level of detail constant monitoring accumulates, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, location by location.


Source: Tracking Transience: Away — a collection of over 1,200 meals that I have eaten while in transit between September 2003 and January 2007 as development work for tracking device ongoing. All rights reserved.


From plastic plates of packaged sushi to airport urinals and a daily GPS update, complete with red arrow signaling his exact residence du jour hovering over a NASA Terrametrics map powered by Google, Elahi displays his life in what he calls Un/Real Time.


It is in the border between society and technology that I am interested, and my work attempts to bridge the human and virtual worlds…. At the same time, this conjunction of the physical and the virtual parallels my exploration of the intersection of geopolitical conditions and individual circumstances. Both quantitative and qualitative information is incorporated into my work, and the entire process results in translations and mistranslations between the physical and the virtual, between the body politic and the singular citizen.


This translation and mistranslation between the physical and virtual is at the core of Metalife. Elahi’s narrative echoes the shared voyeurism we see, for example, in COLOR—the location-based, photo-sharing app that takes voyeurism to post-Twitter levels by letting users see all of the photos that are being taken by strangers who happen to be within a 150-foot radius of the user’s smartphone. (Peter Pham, COLOR co-founder, described the effect of using the app as a sort of bug-eye experience—one where you’re seeing the world through dozens of lenses at once. “Essentially, everybody is sharing one lens,” said Pham.)



Elahi’s world is increasingly similar to ours. His is not a journey to which we can feign indifference: these are the airports, restaurants and toilets that constitute the transient places of our world; we travel through his checkpoints; his food is what we eat too. And so his presentation back to us, using image capture as reverberating realization, reveals him to be at the center of a panopticon. The watched is watching back. He flaunts what English philosopher Jeremy Bentham described as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Effectively Hasan Elahi is using his life to tell us of a science fiction, an alternate reality so close to our own that we might be tempted to see ourselves in it. Said Elahi, “It’s a bizarre feeling watching the government watch you.”

We know the feeling.

Once we created a lens that could see farther than the human eye, we then created technologies that enhanced the lens’s ability to survey and capture images of each other. Surveillance, and now sousveillance, provide an alternative to the injunctions and narratives of alphabetic culture—narratives that sprang from the preceding nomadic tribal cultures that formed our earliest recorded statement of the way the world is and how we ought to behave in it. Today ‘watching’ and its myriad implications is one of our most powerful narratives.



Consider Predator, an algorithm developed by Zdenek Kalal, a PhD student at the University of Surrey in England. Predator enables a camera to track, and thus allows us to watch, virtually any person or thing. After selecting something for Predator to focus on with a bounding box, the system begins recognizing patterns, learning how that object looks at different distances and angles, and even finding it in a sea of similar objects. When Kalal tells Predator to track his face, it is able to pick him out of a page full of small photos of other people. Uses for the Predator technology include, obviously, security cams and criminal identification. The algorithm can also track animals, stabilize videos by focusing on one object, or even create a makeshift mouse as the system tracks your fingers.

“The future is already here,” William Gibson famously said, “it’s just not evenly distributed.” The world Hasan Elahi presents is already here—we are waiting only for perception to catch up with distribution:

► There are 12,000+ CCTV cameras on the London Underground system monitoring the movements of millions of passengers every day. But apparently these are not enough. Now invites commuters to post pictures of strangers they find attractive or eye-catching. (Since subways are public places there are no privacy guarantees.)

Facial recognition cameras enabling automated, long-range face scanning to entice consumers are now coming on stream. A company in Japan actually put these cameras in sidewalk billboards. When a pedestrian walks by, the camera scans their face, loosely calculates the sex and age of the person, and changes the advertisement on the billboard to target the person’s demographic.

► India and Mexico are both incorporating iris-recognition into their national ID programs and using fingerprints as a secondary ID. Bank of America is also incorporating iris identification into its access control system. While iris recognition hasn’t been adopted widely (due to its expense compared with most other biometrics), it is now available in a mobile app. Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System (acronym MORIS) has a built-in iris scanner and biometrics analysis software. A police officer holds the scanner about 5 or 6 inches away from a suspect and it automatically detects the iris and takes a high-resolution image. Like other iris scanners, the MORIS system identifies 235 distinctive features in each iris. It’s like a fingerprint for the eye, assuming no two are alike. An algorithm is then used to search for a match with the signatures of others in a database.

► MORIS is an offshoot of a technology called IRIS, Inmate Identification and Recognition System. Developed by BI2 Technologies, IRIS was initially used to address the problem of mistaken inmate identity (last year a Rhode Island inmate escaped by assuming the identity of another scheduled for release). More than 320 law-enforcement agencies in 47 states are using IRIS to keep track of their inmates.

► Scientists at UK’s Kingston University are developing CCTV that can automatically monitor criminal behavior and track suspects. This new technology works by teaching a computer to recognize specific types of public behavior, known as “trigger events.” The technology is capable of following a person across multiple cameras. (A delicious Elahi irony: the technology was developed by Dr. Orwell.)

► Nielsen now uses a new metering software for smartphones that tracks app usage by time, and by app (installed, of course, with permission). Tracking user habits this way ensures better accuracy and better detail. Monica Bannan, Nielsen’s VP of Product Leadership for Mobile Media, says Nielsen Smartphone Analytics has “tremendous benefits” compared to tracking data by “recall,” or surveys. Going beyond just app usage, Nielsen can use this software to monitor other habits too: messaging, camera usage, battery and power consumption, and how many times a day, for how long, applications or phone features are used.

► At the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, researchers from Carnegie Mellon demonstrated that the same facial recognition technology used to tag Facebook photos could be used to identify random people on the street. This facial recognition technology, when combined with geo-location, has the potential to redefine our sense of personal privacy. The Carnegie Mellon researchers demonstrated that a combination of simple technologies—smart phone, webcam and a Facebook account—were enough to identify people after only a three-second visual search. If Hackers can put together a face with your birthday and hometown, they can piece together details like your Social Security Number and bank account information.

► The WASP (Wireless Aerial Surveillance Platform) is a spy drone created by two security consultants with about $6,000 and a military surplus FMQ-117B target drone. It flies up to 400 feet above the ground. Also revealed at Black Hat, the capabilities of the clandestine mini-plane are “breathtaking,” according to Wired:

“Personal remote-controlled spy plane, complete with WiFi and hacking tools, such as an IMSI catcher and antenna to spoof a GSM cell tower and intercept calls, as well as a network sniffing tool and a dictionary of 340 million words for brute-forcing network passwords.”


The WASP drone is built from a retired Army target drone and equipped with HD cameras and a "cigarette-pack sized on-board Linux computer" with a 340 million-word dictionary for "brute force guessing of passwords. Source: Security News Daily, all rights reserved.


In light of these and other technologies that rapidly advance our ability to monitor, capture and collate information about almost anyone, Hasan Elahi’s work takes on new meaning. You Are Being Watched, the Web site of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation, has predicted:

“Video surveillance technology will only grow more sophisticated. There will come a day when the cameras will be routinely linked with other technologies in an attempt to instantly identify you and me via face recognition, RFIDs, or other technologies.”

That day is already here.


Keeping Watch, Flickr, some rights reserved by erban, Creative Commons license.


Someone is already living that life moment by moment, day by day. He is keeping a record of what it means for all of us. He neither chose to live that life nor chose to avoid living it once the possibility arose. Realizing that he could track himself better than any government surveillance scheme, Elahi affirms self-tracking as a safeguard against disappearing. While he started Tracking Transience to protect himself, protection turned quickly into a declaration: he chose hiding in plain sight in order to escape being hidden away.

In Elahi’s narratives, his living is the telling; the contrails of his existence are the story details. He inspires wonder: Is this what tool-inspired publicy will ask of us all? Must our Metalife document our life to safeguard it, make it real? In his exploratory narrative and multidimensional storytelling Elahi, the modern day Richard Kimble, is the un-handcuffed fugitive whose life and travels present to us locale and character, detail and detritus, from a new world.

It is his world, it also belongs to us. He is telling us about a Metalife. It is a story we are telling ourselves.



More Information


Hasan Elahi is currently Associate Professor of Art at University of Maryland where he is Director of Digital Cultures and Creativity in the Honors College. He was a 2010 Alpert/MacDowell Fellow and in 2009, he was Resident Faculty and Nancy G. MacGrath Endowed Chair at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. His work is frequently mentioned in the media and has been covered by The New York Times, Forbes, Wired, CNN, ABC, CBS, NPR, Al Jazeera, Fox, and has appeared on The Colbert Report. His work has been presented in numerous exhibitions at venues such as SITE Santa Fe, Centre Georges Pompidou, Sundance Film Festival, Kassel Kulturbahnhof, The Hermitage, and at the Venice Biennale. Elahi has spoken about his work at the Tate Modern, Einstein Forum, the American Association of Artificial Intelligence, and at TEDGlobal. His awards include grants from the Creative Capital Foundation, a Ford Foundation/Phillip Morris National Fellowship, and an artist grant from the Asociacion Artetik Berrikuntzara in Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain.


Civilian Art Projects: Tracking Transience

Hasan Elahi, University of Maryland

ISEA 2011 Instanbul, The 17th International Symposium on Electronic Art

“Minority Report” Scanners Are Coming: Company Snags $15 Million For Long-Range Facial Recognition Tech

Schneier on Security: Developments in Facial Recognition

‘Smart’ CCTV could track rioters

The Surveillance Catalog: Where Governments Get Their Tools

The Visible Man: An FBI Target Puts His Whole Life Online



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From Commentary

  1. Great post. Our ‘brave new world’ isn’t so brave. It’s paranoid. Fortunately we have a model for a state that is obsessed with observing and thus controlling its citizens. North Korea. If you ask the average citizen of that strange country if they support the regime’s oppressive control of their lives they will quickly say ‘Yes, of course.’ To say otherwise would not only land them in a cell it would deny them a rationale for their entire life. It may sound alarmist but I believe we are headed in that direction. Only our Kim Jong Il is the Corporation and the ‘groupthink’ speaker is the TV. Huxley didn’t go far enough.

  2. Metalifestream permalink

    Thanks, Steve. The easier it gets to watch ‘the other’ with increasingly small and sophisticated technologies, the greater credence we give to the value of watching. It is incumbent upon us then to examine this narrative of surveillance. Of course that is what Elahi is showing, and reminding, us.

  3. Metalifestream permalink

    Thanks for the mention.

  4. Great article.

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