A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Terrorist

Elahi In A Part of Speech Less Than One, his first collection of essays, Joseph Brodsky tells a story of a day in the gulag when the guards challenged the prisoners to a wood chopping competition. One inmate asked what would happen if he refused. (I've given away my copy of the collection, or more properly, given away my third copy to a third someone, so I'm paraphrasing in a prose far less compelling than the original–meaning both an excuse and a recommendation that you read the essay.) The guards apparently replied, then you don't eat. The competition starts, and the prisoner get to chopping until lunch, when all go to eat save the man who asked the question. He continues to chop and not only through lunch. He chops through dinner and through much of night, and over this time the guards move from ridiculing this odd act of defiance to watching in horror and eventually turning away.

For Brodsky, this was turning the other cheek. To place the story in context, the essay is a commencement address, and he was addressing the class on what one can do when faced with an overpowering evil. The answer for Brodsky was given by a reading of the sermon on the mount, the section on turning the other cheek.

If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:38-42)

Noting that each demand in the triad was met with 'submission' greater than what was asked, he had taken from this passage a different lesson than Tolstoy, Gandhi or King. Rather than a moral about pacifism, he saw in it a strategy for when your back is against the wall, of responding to the demands of an unjust but overpowering adversary with the volume of your compliance, of letting “mass production” render their enterprise absurd. (Again, I paraphrase.)

Amitava's piece on the conceptual artist Hasan Elahi, in Pratilipi, reminded me of Brodsky's essay:

Elahi is a thirty-seven-year-old conceptual artist who teaches art and visual theory at San Jose State University, California. He was born in Bangladesh and grew up in New York. Like many other Muslims in the days following the attacks of September 11, Elahi found his name on the government’s terrorist watch list. In response, he decided to open nearly every aspect of his life on his Web site, TrackingTransience.net.

At that site one can find a record of the coffee he has bought or the amount of cash he has withdrawn in the past week. Over 20,000 images on the site are time-stamped and give information about the places he has been and meals he has consumed. In May 2007, when I met Elahi in a restaurant for lunch, he took a picture of his salad-smoked salmon with strawberry dressing-and then of the urinal in the men’s room. The pictures were uploaded on his site. Having beforehand perused the list of his recent purchases, I was able to confirm that the camera he was using, a brand new Canon G7, was one that he had acquired the previous week at a shop in New York City.

The Orwell Project, which is the name that Elahi has given to his exercise, is in reality a work of collaboration between the artist and the FBI. It was the latter who inspired this work that is part-performance, part-protest.

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