Artists take aim
at USA Patriot Act By David Porter
March 25, 2005, 6:38 PM EST
TEANECK, N.J. -- Hasan M. Elahi's response to being targeted by the FBI as a
potential terrorist after Sept. 11 ran contrary to what most people would
think to do: Instead of clamming up, the Rutgers University professor
decided to swing open the doors to every aspect of his life for public consumption.
The result is "Tracking Transience," a multimedia piece that is
part of an exhibition examining challenges to civil liberties under the USA
Patriot Act. "PatriART: Artists Defend Civil
Liberties" features submissions from artists in New York and New Jersey and runs Saturday through May 1
at the Puffin Cultural Forum. The show is co-sponsored by the New Jersey branch of the American Civil
not as visually arresting as some of the other pieces in the exhibit, Elahi's computer photos may be the most personal, and
the most compelling. It arose out of
an incident that occurred soon after Sept. 11, 2001 when Elahi,
then living in Tampa and teaching at the University of South Florida, returned from an art show in Senegal. While he was away, the owners
of a storage facility where he rented space had told police they had seen
"an Arab man" leave the facility with explosives.
Federal authorities interrogated Elahi, an
American citizen and native of Bangladesh, when he arrived in Detroit and over the next six months
before he was cleared of having terrorist connections. "They asked me who I saw, who I met
with, basically everything down to what did I see and where did I
sleep," Elahi said.
Elahi, 33, now an assistant professor at Rutgers' MasonGrossSchool of the Arts, realized as he was
assembling information for the agents that he was essentially
reconstructing his life in small steps. That led him to create a Web site
that uses GPS tracking software to pinpoint his exact whereabouts at all
The site also contains links to his banking records, a list of every flight
he has ever taken, images of the airline food he has eaten _ even the restrooms
he has used while on the road. In some ways it is a variation on the movie
"The Truman Show," in which Jim Carrey
plays a man whose every movement is recorded on cameras controlled by a
God-like figure played by Ed Harris. The difference is that Elahi is the master of his own domain. If nothing else, the piece demonstrates
that he has taken the intrusion into his life in stride.
Pamela Vander Zwan's "Shedding Light" consists of separate
photographs of subjects wearing white wool blindfolds _ "Citizen
Sheep," she dubs them _ including a mother on a park bench while a
toddler plays in front of her, two television news anchors on a sound
stage, two convenience store clerks behind a counter and a woman sitting in
the middle of an art gallery.
"In the year after 9/11, I started thinking about how Americans were
so shocked, and I was thinking, 'Why are we so surprised?"' said
Vander Zwan, a native of Belleville who lives
in Milford, Pa., and has a studio in Brooklyn. "And I thought, 'Is blindness a choice?"'
On a shelf below the photographs, Vander Zwan had arranged copies of the
Constitution and Bill of Rights, both in Braille.
"Access to information has to be a participatory event," she
said. "Even if you are blind, you can still have access."
A spinoff of an iconic American board game,
"Patriot Act: The Home Version," was inspired by "the
historic abuse of governmental powers of the same name," as described
by artist Michael Kabbash.
The layout resembles a Monopoly game board, but there the similarities end.
Instead of Monopoly money, players have red bills that each represent "One Civil Liberty." Instead of
amassing a real estate fortune, the goal is to hang onto the civil
liberties as long as possible.
That can be a challenge. For example, if you land on an "Airport
Security" square, you lose a turn; however, if you are nonwhite, you
move back two spaces and lose a turn. "If Muslim," according to
game instructions, you also lose one Civil Liberty card.
One of the exhibit's haunting pieces is Gene Fellner's
"Separating the Men," part of a series of paintings addressing
genocide. It depicts several male figures against a deep red background in
front of rows of hundreds of stick figures, all with their arms raised in
surrender. While the paintings seeks to draw attention to the tactics common
to genocide, Fellner, 52, of Jersey City, said he
sees ominous signs in the USA Patriot Act.
"When you allow people to become mistreated, it becomes a way of
life," he said. "People don't get the fact that what can happen to someone else can also happen to