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Hasan Elahi of Oakland takes a photo from his cellphone while on the move... ( David M. Barreda )

Hasan Elahi has spent most of the past six years trying to prove that he isn't a terrorist. This is odd in a way, because during that time no one has ever said publicly that the San Jose State University assistant professor is a terrorist. Except Hasan Elahi.

While re-entering the country following a trip to Africa in 2002, Elahi says he was accused of stockpiling explosives for al-Qaida in a Florida storage locker. And though he was released following nine hours of intense questioning, he has been attempting ever since to disprove that he is the most malign threat to civilization of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Elahi says he is still fearful that he could be dragged off an airplane and taken to the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. So Elahi reasoned that if he was fated to live under a perpetual cloud of suspicion anyway, he would turn his Kafkaesque existence — every waking, quaking moment of it — into "surveillance art."

If government agencies wanted to track his movements, Elahi would do it for them, letting his life play out in surreal time for the whole world to see on the Internet. If Big Brother was watching, Elahi would bore him to death.

Part paranoia, part performance art, his project — titled "Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project" — went broadband nearly five years ago at http://tracking Since the 36-year-old Elahi began, he has documented

the vast seams of incident and insignificance characteristic of the non-jihadist lifestyle. He has taken more than 22,000 pictures of virtually every meal he has eaten, of the rooms — including most of the public toilets — he has visited, and of the roads he has traveled down.


He has turned his life into a data stream, and recently redirected that stream through Silicon Valley, where he has been teaching at San Jose State University's School of Art and Design since August, hoping to create something brand new: database art. "We don't know what the next generation of art is going to look like," he says. "We're kind of making it up as we go along. Not unlike the tech industry."

An offline version of the project was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it played on 139 video screens in a single room — part of what the festival's organizers referred to as "expanded cinema." The installation attempted something akin to building a human genome by collating the pictures of every Chinese takeout meal Elahi has ever eaten.

His move to San Jose in August seemed like the logical next step, a chance to see other artists working in the technology medium whom he had met at "nerdfests" in New York

and Berlin. For the aspiring database artist, Silicon Valley evidently offers much of the same promise as Florence during the Renaissance.


"The Medicis created this culture of curiosity, a culture of visionary thinking," Elahi says. "It creates an environment that lets a certain type of thought flourish. It's all about trying to find where that bright line is, then pushing and pushing it."

It's unlikely any of this would have occurred to him if he hadn't been briefly taken captive at an Immigration and Naturalization Service facility, given a series of polygraph tests, then released without being charged. "They told me in order to formally clear me, they would have to formally charge me," Elahi explains. "And they couldn't do that."

His name was placed on a terrorist watch list used by airport screeners throughout the United States, Elahi says. "There really is a serious danger underlying all this," he adds. "When that plane comes back into the U.S. now, I don't know what the interaction with Homeland Security is going to be. To this day, I get very nervous coming back into my own country."

Born in Bangladesh and raised in Brooklyn, Elahi is convinced that having a Muslim name remains the source of his problems going through airport security. His predicament is so unusual, it even got an airing on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" in May.

"Having this identity imposed upon me that completely misrepresented who I am," Elahi says, "I was given no choice but to take my identity into my own hands. I'm convinced that if we don't define ourselves, other people will do it for us, and inaccurately. In my case, not only was it wrong, it had potentially disastrous consequences for my life."

The FBI will neither confirm nor deny Elahi's claim that he was detained because there is no official record that it ever happened. A field agent in the bureau's San Francisco office responded to a description of Elahi's story as "not likely," but no one at the FBI with direct knowledge of the case returned calls.

Assuming there ever was a case. There's no proof that Elahi is making up his story, but then again, there's no proof that he isn't. It turns out that even the most tech-driven "database art" requires the underpinning of a compelling story. Without it, Elahi would be just another guy posting cell phone pictures online, like the compulsives on

"He's grown up in a generation for whom everything is media-ized, and therefore is subject to question," says Joel Slayton, executive director of the digital art festival 01SJ and the man Elahi replaced on the San Jose State faculty. "Everything is suspect, and the only way you can survive is by being slightly schizophrenic — both in it and out of it at the same time."

Elahi's Web site includes bank records and credit card receipts, proving that he has actually lived every scintillating second of the life he is posting. He has a software filter that scrubs out his name, address and credit card numbers, so he won't become easy prey for identity thieves. But, as he says, "Would you really want my identity the next time you're getting on an airplane?"

He doesn't know exactly when the project will end, but Elahi has come up with a denouement to it that even Kafka would admire. He has been commissioned by the city's public art program to design an installation for Mineta San Jose International Airport's new terminal, scheduled to open in 2010.

"He's a very interesting artist," says Barbara Goldstein, the program's director. And she's never even seen him go through a metal detector.