“Watching Me Watching You” – Hasan Elahi and Josh Begley on the imagery of surveillance

I admire much of the work Open Society Foundation does (a good thing, as I’m a board member), but I have a special soft spot in my heart for the Moving Walls program. Since 1998, OSF’s Documentary Photography program has featured exhibitions of documentary photography about human rights and social issues, choosing new artists to feature every 6-7 months through an open call process. The exhibitions provide support for documentary photographers, and inspiration and insight for the staff and visitors who see the images.

The most recent show features ten visual artists reflecting on the nature of surveillance, historically and in contemporary society. Titled “Watching You, Watching Me”, the show features archival images from the Stasi’s secret archives, curated by Simon Menner, a set of photos of weddings and other celebrations shot using a drone (prompting reflection on the ways US drones are used for targeted killings at Yemei, Afghan and Pakistani weddings), by Tomas Van Houtryve, and a deeply creepy set of photos by Andrew Hammerand, called “The New Town”, which were shot via a web-controllable CCTV installed by a property developer and left unsecured.


“Prins Maurits Army Barracks, Ede, Gelderland, 2011.” by Mishka Henner, from “Dutch Landscapes“, a set of prints of Google Maps imagery of “sensitive” Dutch landscapes with details obscured.

Accompanying the ten sets of images are a set of presentations by the artists. Last evening, Hasan Elahi and Josh Begley reflected on their installations in a conversation curated by Professor Patricia Williams from Columbia Law School.

Elahi teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and points that he lives and works in surveillance country, his campus nearly a midpoint between the CIA, the NSA and the Pentagon. Elahi has had ample reason to think about American intelligence agencies. Not long after 9/11, Elahi – a frequent international traveler – was detained by US law enforcement at the Detroit airport. His name had been put on a terrorist watchlist by an anonymous citizen who “saw something and said something”, misidentifying him as an Arab (he’s not) who “fled” after 9/11. After six months of polygraph tests and interrogation, the FBI told Elahi that he was free to go.

But Elahi notes that “once you’re in the system, you can’t really be released from it.” As Elahi traveled around the world, he worried that other FBI agents might not have gotten the message that he was free to travel. So Elahi got into the habit of calling “my FBI agent” and letting him know where he was going and what he was doing, offering reassurance that he wasn’t planning on leaving the US and emigrating to Afghanistan, for instance. “Over time, this turned into a really asymmetric relationship,” Elahi remembered. “I would write longer and longer emails, sometimes thousands of words, sometimes reflecting on personal matters. The response I got was always the same: ‘Thank you. Be safe.'”

Elahi’s artistic project for the past twelve years has been one of relentless self-documentation. If the FBI was going to watch him, Elahi wanted to demonstrate that he could watch himself even better. Elahi’s website shows his current position on a map and offers a recent photograph. Over the years, Elahi has posted 70,000 photos, some organized by themes – his meals, the toilets he’s used, the beds he’s slept in. Each is timestamped and geocoded. “It’s a form of camouflage through overexposure. The signal to noise ratio is overloaded,” he explains. “I’m telling you everything, but nothing, simultaneously.”

Elahi suggests that we think of artistic movements as responses to the military conflicts a society is embroiled within. Dadaism is a way of making sense of the surreal and hyperviolent world of the first World War, while abstract expressionism can be thought of as a response to WWII. Minimalism and Pop Art, distinctly American movements, can be thought of responses to the distinctly American wars in Korea and Vietnam. “We’re currently at war,” Elahi reminds us. “We declared war on terror. How does terror give up?” The selfie, he suggests, is the art form we should associate with the war on terror, the cultural remnant of this moment of surveillance and project of our own presence.

Reflecting on Elahi’s work, Professor Williams notes how transgressive it seemed a decade ago. “Now your webpage looks like my son’s Facebook feed.” Elahi notes that our phones now create a data trail not unlike the the trail he’s worked to create for a dozen years. “Is it still art if a billion people are doing this?” Elahi asks himself. One possible response is that artists, unlike scientists and engineers, benefit from returning to the same questions that haunt them. “Engineers like to solve a problem and move on. Artists solve the same problem again and again.” The banality of the images Elahi creates may be the point: it’s too much imagery for any human, including “his” FBI agent, to process. The absurdity of the desire to collect every piece of information as exemplified by NSA surveillance may show Elahi’s work to be prophetic.

At OSF, Elahi’s images are shown as a multi-colored, wall hung tapestry, one of dozens of ways the images have been shown throughout the years. The piece is titled “Thousand Little Brothers”

Josh Begley’s contribution to the show, “Plain Sight”, plays with the same questions of surveillance and banality, though the imagery in question is radically different. Begley describes his work as “snapshots of experiments in progress”. A computer programmer and data scientist, Begley interrogates contemporary and historical data sets and draws narratives that are both visually striking and politically provocative out of them. Racebox.org is an exploration of how racial categories have changed over time by presenting the racial identification question presented on the US census from 1790 to the present. Prisonmap.com examines “carceral spaces”, the 5,393 prisons, jails and detention centers that represent America’s geography of incarceration. Using data on the location of these facilities compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, Begley wrote a script that captured images from Google Maps for each of these facilities. They are presented as tiles on a vast page, images that look like planned communities or walled cities, but which represent “the landscape of the warehousing of black and brown bodies”.

Recently, Begley created Dronestre.am, an API for information the US government has been utterly unwilling to share: information on where and when US drone strikes have occurred. Imagining an API with this information, Begley built a series of applications that use data from the API, including a mobile phone based tool that alerts you when a drone strike has occurred. Using information from the press – not from the US government – the API is live and reports on known drone strikes as they occur. He notes that more people have now been killed by US drone strikes than were killed in 9/11, but the invisibility of their deaths allows American policy to continue unchecked and largely unquestioned.

His contribution to the OSF show is a piece titled “Plain Sight: The Visual Vernacular of NYPD Surveillance”. (Much of the same material appears online at profiling.is.) It’s the story of a wing of the NYPD which remade itself in the image of the CIA, becoming an intelligence gathering agency with assumptions about what and who should be under surveillance. The secretive unit, initially called the Demographic Unit, and later renamed the Zone Assessment Unit, monitored the daily lives of people with “ancestries of interest”, people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Albania and two dozen other countries. (“American Black Muslim” was one of the ancestries of interest.)

Armed with census data, plainclothes agents – usually in teams of twos – tried to “blend in” at coffee shops, barber shops and cricket fields, chatting people up. The officers filled countless files with quotidian observations, endless mundane details about Albanian men drinking tea, Egyptian cab drivers picking up lunch, and so on.

These units became notorious for damaging law enforcement relations with Muslim communities (turns out that most people don’t like being surveilled) and for violating civil rights. Photos, maps and other documents were leaked to the Associated Press, and Begley built tools to capture and present that information in different artistic forms. In the exhibit, a photo mosaic made of surveillance photos is layered on top of thousands of one-line observations of utterly banal events. Another wall shows maps of NYC’s boroughs in terms of points of interest to different communities.

“What does this archive say in aggregate?” asks Begley. “It’s completely banal. It tells you everything and nothing.” Despite years of effort, the demographics unit never produced a single actionable lead for the NYPD. Begley notes that it did end up producing a really excellent map of ethnic restaurants, though. “What doesn’t appear in the frame is the entrapment of young men, the pattern of interrogation that resulted from this surveillance.”

His critique is not just of a particularly inept surveillance effort (finally shut down, under pressure from civil rights group), but the broader NSA strategy of collecting as much information as possible. “We’re creating a haystack of useless information.” Here Elahi’s work and Begley’s come together: the visual detritus of surveillance, whether it’s self-surveillance or surveillance by the police, is utterly banal. But, as Professor Williams observes, despite the repetitiveness of the imagery, “there’s nothing neutral about the mechanisms that creates them.”

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