What We Talk About When We Talk About Terrorism | General News & Politics | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Terrorism


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:09 pm

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Your book is a mixture of reportage and cultural criticism. You discuss different artists whose work relates to the War on Terror in some way. Why didn’t you just write a book of straight reportage? Why did you feel the need to include the artists?
I’m very much interested in the artists because I’m interested in how someone responds imaginatively to a given situation. Every time I have been stopped by a policeman or a customs agent or a border patrolman, I feel that that person is lacking imagination. He or she is reducing me to something that I am not and that is the failure of the state: When it cuts you down to the size of an imagined terrorist.
And therefore I am interested in those readings of reality when someone, instead of reproducing the stereotypical response, actually goes elsewhere with something. And each of these artists whom I’ve included make clear how interpretation is always involved in constructing a picture of reality. That is a more complicated thing.

Give me an example. Can you talk about Hasan Elahi and his work, which deals with issues of self-surveillance?
Here is an artist, a professor of art, who is detained at the Detroit airport after he returns from an art camp in Senegal. Hasan’s name is on a list of suspects because he was reported to be an Arab by a couple whom he had rented space from. He is not Arab, he is Bangladeshi. He’s American, but his parents are from Bangladesh. The couple report that this “Arab” man has removed a box from his storage space, and therefore they are suspicious. And so Hasan is able to prove—over a series of interviews and polygraph tests that take months—that he was at his dentist, that he was talking to his students, that he was shopping. At those moments when he was suspected of terrorism, all that saves him is his Blackberry. He has taken the idea of surveillance as the FBI might practice it and imposed it upon himself. “I will surveil myself. I will carry out my own surveillance activities.” Every time he uses his credit card, that information goes up on his website www.trackingtransience.com.
His cell phone has a program hacked into it that records his movements. So right now if we were to open our laptops and look at his website, we would know where he is. Every time he uses a bathroom in a public place or goes up on a plane and orders airplane food, he always takes a picture of that and immediately uploads it to his site. In other words, he’s offering all the information he can about himself to the government. To me, this is a cunning, subversive exercise of the imagination that holds up a mirror to what the state is doing, and in a way overwhelms it. In fact, Hasan joked to me that if each one of us started surveilling ourselves, the US would be overwhelmed and need to outsource their own activity to other countries like India.

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