When art intersects social issues | The A List
A hoarding in the courtyard of Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film in Middle Road turns artist Hasan Elahi’s private life into a public show of art. (Photo: Objectifs)

When art intersects social issues | The A List

Focus group discussions, petitions, open letters and forums – these are perhaps the things that come to one’s mind when talking about social issues. For me, however, art pops up too.

Art has the power to draw people into discourse. It offers a space for people to come together and deliberate social issues in a constructive way. Artist Hasan Elahi’s work, Tracking Transience, brings home this point poignantly.

A self-surveillance project running for 15 years, Tracking Transience has popped up in the courtyard of the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film in Middle Road for two months until May. It comprises thousands of images from Elahi’s personal, private life – the meals he eats, the places he visits, the things he does – publicly displayed on a hoarding. The images also play on loop in two video installations near the hoarding.

The project was conceived by the Bangladeshi-born American artist post-9/11. An erroneous tip-off had caused him to be subjected to months of investigation by the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation. Eventually, he was cleared of suspicion, but the experience moved him to create a self-tracking system. It makes his whereabouts open, providing him a 24/7 alibi with the public as witness.

His work is on show here as part of Objectif’s annual programme, Stories That Matter. It spotlights issues and trends in non-fiction visual storytelling and it includes film screenings and workshops. This year, it is themed Who Cares and it aims to highlight through art and image-making, how issues of care, community and caregiving are complicated in this digital age by social media, surveillance and big data.

Tracing his every movement and moment through the pictures on display proves fascinating. Yet I also find it somewhat appalling to be able to piece together an intricate account of his days from the images. I am forced to reckon with the power that images hold over us and how much of our lives can be mapped out by data and pixels alone. It is also chilling to think that our Instagram feeds are in some ways, a variation of Elahi’s self-surveillance project. Do we participate in a similar type of surveillance on our own accord, yet remain blind to what is happening right under our nose?

As much as Elahi’s art points the camera on his life, it also provokes me to consider my own. I am now more than ever aware of the trade-offs that come with sharing information, and the line between individual privacy and public security.

Art itself offers no pat answers on this issue of social surveillance, but for me, it is a timely push towards making better informed decisions. Please excuse me now, I need to go audit the data and privacy settings of my digital life.

Details about Stories That Matter: Shroud here.

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