Blog Post

On HASTAC 2011, Chat-downs and Creative Practices

I caught an early flight out of Detroit on Sunday morning after the amazing HASTAC conference this past weekend at the University of Michigan.  

Having already turned my Public Enemy t-shirt inside out during the cab ride to the airport, I was well prepared for my TSA chat-down at the passenger pre-flight clearance zone. This Q&A process forms part of what is often referred to as “security theater,” taking place in what a friend of mine calls “the corridor of indignity”: that space where travellers are incited to purge themselves of liquids, take off shoes, belts. The script is usually the same: “please state your full name” and “what brought you to Detroit?” Since HASTAC brought me to Ann Arbor, I gave the agent and anyone in earshot a quick rundown (or “lighting talk”) on the conference with some of the highlights, including UM3D Lab and the Virtual Cave all at the Duderstadt Center.

I’ve been through a millimeter wave machine once, actually last year at the Raleigh-Durham airport returning from another HASTAC related event, and that one time being millimeter waved was enough for me. Now, I always opt-out and instead “choose” the pat-down. I’ve grown accustomed to this dance card. A blue-gloved TSA agent narrates this choreographed act, making sure that I’m made aware of the sequence of pats, prods and peering. This time the agent kindly inquired as to whether or not I knew that my shirt was inside out (the shirt is what got me in the wave machine in Durham in the first place, but it’s my favorite travelling shirt - yes, I have one of those, and socks too). These chat-downs and pat-downs give me a chance to talk to people who work in the airport while they subject me and my baggage to the newest in trace-detection technology. Each time is like an ethnographic encounter in the “sterile zone” of the airport. A Sociology of Flight.

I like the airport. I could say love, if we include some of the critical creative engagements with airports going on right now. I often have my student play Persuasive Games’ Airport Security to think about the making of rules, regulations and risky subjects. I first heard about Persuasive Games at the 2007 HASTAC conference when designer Ian Bogost (@ibogost) gave a talk and demonstration. I recently downloaded their JetSet: A Game for Airports iPhone app. I’m still trying to crack the high score. I’m also really excited by artist Pamela Z’s installation Baggage Allowance, which is now a web portal at for the ways in which this performance engages spaces of transit through creative practice. Like the millimeter wave and backscatter machines, biometric information technology, or biometrics, rely on the (often false) notion that the body, or parts and pieces of the human body will reveal the truth about somebody despite that somebody’s claims. This weekend I met new media artist, theorist and HASTAC Scholar Micha Cardenas (@michacardenas) and I’m really looking forward to seeing more of her critical engagements with biometrics and the politics, performances and poetics of the border.

Thank you to the organizing committee, attendees, participants and all involved. HASTAC V really showcased the promise of collaborative learning, doing and making. Looking forward to HASTAC in Toronto in 2013!








Hi Simone, 

I just came across this post and its so great! I also refuse the milimeter wave screening and alwas get the invasive pat down. A student of mine, who is also trans, did a project about those machines, including an article citing a doctor stating that in the long term these machines are likely to increase people's risk of cancer. Especially for frequent flyers like us, it's more of a concern. These links are amazing and I'm going to check them out. Ayah Bdeir also has a great project about invasive airport searches using wearable electronics: 

and you can read more about my work with biometrics here:

and see some of it here:



Thanks to Micha's comment coming to the top on the front page of HASTAC, I read this piece which I'd also missed the first time, Simone.  It's great.   Because of an accident several years ago, I can't lift one arm above my head so I get to enjoy being "patted" at every airport . . .    


And I think I will include your blog and Micha's response and the Persuasive Games as my part of the "gender narrative" when Dan Ariely and I do our "Surprise Endings" course (  I cannot imagine a better observational/narrative way to think about gender and race and sexuality than its performance in the oh-so-beloved xray machines at airports.   Thank you both!  


Thank you, Micha, for posting the links to your work. I enjoyed reading about your uses of Second Life through DIY biometrics, "organic" surveillance and performing the erotic. I too think that for frequent flyers, coupled with dental x-rays and other incidental and unexpected uses of imaging machines, the long term results might not be too good.

Cathy - the pleasure in the patdown! I like the work slowdown that is causes and the attention that it brings to the labour of the people that work in those "corridors of indignity". I really like the exploration between the experiment and lived experience. There was an art instillation at the Toronto aiport in 2008 called Terminal Zero One, and one of the pieces, Passage Oublie, had users follow the disapperance of those being subject to extraordinary rendition. I entered a phrase (my bad French n'oublie pas) and followed that phrase through a flight path to a 'black site' airport. All this within an airport, revealing these spaces as so contridictory: experiment, experience, and ghost flights maybe all in the same place and time.

Here is a link to Passage Oublie