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This fall, as he does every semester, NYU photography professor Wafaa Bilal will talk to his students about the deep devotion that's required to succeed as an artist. "I tell my students this a hard profession to be in, a hard profession to succeed in," he says. "You have to be dedicated." If Bilal's words don't convince his students of this, his example surely will. Whenever the professor turns his back to the class, his students will see a camera implanted in the back of his head.
Or so he hopes. Since December, Bilal has been wearing the two-inch-diameter,10-megapixel camera as part of an art project called 3rdi. Once per minute, the camera automatically captures a still image, that is sent via USB cable to his laptop (which he carries at all times, in a tote bag), then instantaneously published on his website and displayed on a 52-inch LCD screen in Doha, Qatar's Mathaf: the Arab Museum of Modern Art, which commissioned the work as part of Told Untold Retold, a 23-artist exhibition that marked the museum's opening last winter.
Yet becoming a human camera has not been easy. First, NYU ordered Bilal not to transmit images from school property, citing privacy concerns. Then, in February, his body rejected the implant, forcing him to wear the camera around his neck; Manhattan industrial designer Nisha Sawhney is now racing to design a lighter housing that will allow Bilal to re-implant his camera safely before the start of the fall semester.
A 45-year-old Iraq native who immigrated to the United States 20 years ago, Bilal has built a career creating art that makes you worry about him. In 2004, Bilal's brother was killed by a U.S. missile at a checkpoint in Iraq. His father died two months later—"from grief," Bilal says. In his work since then, he has gestured toward the violence of the Iraq War by inviting people, including his audiences, to harm him. Visitors to a downtown gallery last spring winced as they watched Bilal absorb the repeated pricks of a tattoo gun that drove 25,000 tiny dots, each representing a casualty of the Iraq War, into his back. A year earlier, Bilal asked an online audience to vote on who should be water boarded: the artist or a dog. (The audience chose Bilal, and he was water boarded, without an audience, at an "undisclosed location" in upstate New York.) For his most famous work, 2007's "Shoot an Iraqi," Bilal locked himself for 30 days in a small cell in a Chicago gallery, with a paintball gun aimed at him that visitors to his website could fire remotely. More than 60,000 people shot him.
Bilal traces 3rdi's genesis to a different American intervention in Iraq: the Gulf War. He was a young man living in his hometown of Kufa during the 40-day bombardment of the country by U.S. forces in 1991. "I wish at the time I had a camera to record the story," he says. "The memories I have, they're all fading away." (He soon fled Iraq for refugee camps in Saudi Arabia, where he remained for two years before being granted asylum by the United States.)
His artistic purpose for the project is harder to discern. It's not that he won't discuss the matter. He says it can be interpreted as symbolizing the desire to record life's fleeting moments, that it's a prediction of a future when embedding gadgets in our bodies may become commonplace, and that it's meant to provoke discussion about surveillance in American cities. Finally, you realize that he wants 3rdi to mean whatever it means to you that a camera has been surgically implanted in the back of the head of a man who is not certifiably crazy. "I try to avoid to dictate my point of view," he says, adding, "As an artist, I am a mirror."
One thing 3rdi is certainly about is pain. To date, Bilal has endured two surgeries. The first was performed—"probably illegally," he admits—by a body-modification artist in Los Angeles, where he flew one weekend in November after a Manhattan dermatologist who had agreed to perform the surgery pulled out just weeks before the scheduled launch. The goal of the procedure was to insert under Bilal's scalp three clover-shaped metal pieces, each consisting of a flat titanium base and a quarter-inch stem, with the bases resting on his skull.
The video of the surgery, parts of which can be seen in a short documentary on view at the 3rdi installation in Doha, is difficult to watch. The body-modification artist slices a neat line across the back of Bilal's head, slides the pieces under the skin, then presses the studs back through the scalp as blood streams down it. (Bilal, who took only a local anesthetic, describes the procedure as "painful.") He then attaches to the back of Bilal's head the plastic plate that will serve as the camera base, sliding it over the studs and screwing in pins to secure it. The next week in class, Bilal hid the base under bandages and a hat.