In Progress: An Interview with Hasan Elahi of RETINA

Hasan Elahi is an interdisciplinary artist whose work examines issues of surveillance, citizenship, migration, transport, and
borders and frontiers. His work has been presented in numerous exhibitions at venues such as SITE Santa Fe, Centre Georges Pompidou, Sundance Film Festival, Kassel Kulturbahnhof, The Hermitage, and at the Venice Biennale. Elahi was recently invited to speak about his work at the Tate Modern, Einstein Forum, the American Association of Artificial Intelligence, the International Association of Privacy Professionals, World Economic Forum, and at TED Global. His awards include grants from the Creative Capital Foundation, Art Matters Foundation, and a Ford Foundation/Phillip Morris National Fellowship. His work is frequently in the media and has been covered by The New York Times, Forbes, Wired, CNN, ABC, CBS, NPR, and has appeared on Al Jazeera, Fox News, and on The Colbert Report. He is currently Associate Professor of Art at University of Maryland and from 2011 to 2014 was Director of Design | Cultures + Creativity in the Honors College. In 2010, he was an Alpert/MacDowell Fellow and in 2009, was Resident Faculty at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

He spoke with Rebecca Capper about his work in progress for WE’RE WATCHING, titled Retina.


Rebecca Capper: What inspired you to make this new work?

Hasan Elahi: Retina is really an examination of how we see things.  I was thinking about using Google street view as a camera source for this work and Retina is a blown up Google screenshot of a street view to 64 feet wide. At that scale, it does some interesting perceptual things and the image falls apart. It’s also inverted, the way an early camera obscura would see—it’s the earliest form of photography—so in a way it’s kind of this geeky photography project, but also taking into account that a lot of photography today is machines taking photos for other machines and humans will never interact with most of these images.

RC: Speaking of cameras, can you talk about your own personal relationship with cameras over time?

HE: I have a conflicted relationship with photography. It’s funny because I never identified as a photographer until recently, and only in the last year or so when photographers started saying I was a photographer. I’m not exactly trained in it. When I was in early college I shot a lot of bands and concerts, but it’s a totally different type of photography now and most of the stuff I’m doing these days is with a cell phone. I never associated my practice with a certain medium or particular discipline or technique and I’ve always looked at it as how can I find the most appropriate method for my idea and that’s how it came about.

RC: You spoke about “mediums” or “methods” a moment ago, this being a site specific piece, how has the space shaped the work? Has it affected your image sourcing?

HE: The Fisher Center is an incredible piece of architecture; it’s an iconic work. It’s interesting when you look at the outside of this gorgeous stainless steel organic form and compare the inside and its super sharp white space. I’m interested in that dichotomy and I like the juxtaposition of that. It’s as if you could see through the wall of the building and the image is the nearest Google Street View image in front of the building. I find it interesting to imagine as if there was a huge lens and a tiny hole in the building and the image came through onto the opposite wall. You see an inverted image of the original image. I’m really interested in collapsing that space. The geography and the Google Street View image could really be anywhere, but the specificity of it and the fact that it can only really be that one spot is really important in the work. I think similarly when you look at my other work, like the photos on my tracking site, those images could be anywhere, but they’re so hyper specific that if you experience that same space, it can only be that one spot.

RC:  Talking about “seeing” a bit more. The title… why Retina? Why not optic nerve or iris or some other part of the eye?

HE: I went back and forth with a lot of those. I was at my eye doctor getting my eyes checked as I’m at that age now where my eyes are changing and I’ve been much more sensitive to the changes in my own vision than I ever was in the past. I didn’t know this before, but at that appointment, my eye doctor told me that you’re always seeing everything upside down and your brain flips the image. I’ve become more conscious of my vision recently and I generally question what I’m seeing more.

RC: How does Retina intersect with the politics of surveillance for you?

HE: In considering surveillance we tend to think of it as a very 21st century concept, yet we’ve always been watched. We’ve had several thousands of years of being watched from above; G-d —all knowing— as the original surveillance camera. This might sound sarcastic, but there’s a very similar omniscience that a lot of these data companies have about us. I think we don’t consider many things as surveillance until it’s put in that context for us. Similarly, when you hyper aestheticize an image your brain no longer reads it as surveillance, but reads it as landscape and I think there’s something that also happens when you take that Google Street View image and you aestheticize it.

RC: Is there anything you think the audience should know before viewing the piece?

HE: I’m sure some of the audience at the festival will be from outside of the Bard community, but chances are the majority of people interacting with that piece will be the students and the people at Bard, particularly the people at the Fisher Center. People who are used to seeing their surroundings. They’ll recognize the shapes of the trees, for instance, and know their surroundings. The audience will bring to the work some of that predisposed knowledge. But something new will happen for them too because the image is going to be so large that it will tear up and deteriorate before them. When you take a typical screen image and blow it up to 64 feet, the information in the image degrades optically and perceptually. And yet, some of that original information will carry over and that information will still be legible to the viewer.


Rebecca Capper is a senior in the Department of Theater and Performance, Bard College.

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