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Hiding in Plain Sight

Art for the Information Age

The ease and popularity of applications such as Flickr, Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter have allowed us to leave our digital footprints all over the world for all the world to see. Whether you’ve just hiked the Appalachian Trail, met the Pope, or ordered a Jamba Juice, you can let all your friends and family, plus millions of strangers, know in a matter of seconds. While this ubiquity of personal information on the Internet is often seen as a threat to privacy, Hasan Elahi has not only adopted it as a form of personal protection, but also recast it into the role of art.

Hiding in Plain Sight is essentially a mass of ever-changing images that provides a perpetual alibi for every moment of Elahi’s life since 2003. In 2002, Elahi was investigated by the FBI for a (non-existent) connection to the events of 9/11. Even after the investigation was dropped, Elahi continued for months to inform the FBI of his travel plans in the hopes of circumventing any future trouble with them. Ultimately, he realized that between geolocation and date-stamping, he could provide the FBI with a continual account of his whereabouts and activities. Thus was his “Tracking Transience” project — and website — born. Hiding in Plain Sight is but a selection of the mass of data collected in “Tracking Transience.”

In terms of aesthetic appeal and interest, “Hiding in Plain Sight” resembles an extremely huge Flickr stream, with the expected mix of the spectacular and mundane, of grainy, poorly framed shots, and outstanding compositions. Spread across sixty-four screens are approximately 32,000 images of half-eaten meals, sublime sunsets, toilets, subway stations, and empty hallways.

Slept-in beds, chain link fences, stained-glass windows in gorgeous churches, outdoor cafes, a giant shrubbery dog, an untold number of airport terminals, tacos in every flavor, gas stations, and countless other scenes and objects that a man passes by in his life are captured, date-stamped and geo-located to provide an impenetrable alibi. Add in the lists of bank account activity scrolling slowly on six other screens and there is not much left unexposed, except perhaps conversations. Perhaps Elahi will soon choose to capture these, as well.

Though the aesthetic component is not particularly striking, as a concept, Hiding in Plain Sight is quite fascinating. A self-portrait that travels through time, a diary that provides such overwhelming detail that it really tells very little; the project reveals a glimpse of Elahi that blinds the observer with its mundanity.

Searchers and surveillers covet this information, yet when it is revealed so willingly and in such abundance, it no longer bears such significance. As Elahi himself says, “I’m borrowing a very simple economic principle and flooding a market to a point where the currency has no remaining value whatsoever.” Who wants it when it is so easy to get? And of what value is it when everyone has it? Looking at the images, one realizes that the everyday details of the average person’s life are not that interesting — as many may have realized after following Facebook posts and Twitter feeds for the past few years.

And though this flood of personal detail is practically indistinguishable in its content from the mass of images and information revealed through the average social networking site, its purpose is quite different. Rather than a self-obsessive exposure of one’s every movement, Hiding in Plain Sight, and the greater Tracking Transience project, is a blanket of protection that keeps Elahi safe through its exposure of his life to prying eyes. It cloaks him in pure transparency and makes any unusual behavior or disappearance immediately send up a red flag not only to the FBI, but also to his friends and family. It is not only difficult for him to perpetrate illegal acts; it also makes it hard for him to be a victim of them.

Though the actual content of the photos and data streams is totally mundane, the impact of their sheer mass is great. And the context and purpose of this project truly set it apart from any social networking application, generating interesting questions about privacy, safety, surveillance, and who is watching whom.

Intersection for the Arts
March 2nd through April 23rd
Tickets: Free