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Bilal unveiled his implant at the December 30 grand opening of the museum in Doha, where he posed—backward—for a photograph with art star Jeff Koons. As he wandered through the party, 42 screens flashed images from his head.
The next month, students at NYU got their first glimpse of the camera. "People in the hallways, they would just—when he would walk by—sort of look at the back of his head. It was sort of a strange scene to get used to," says Jian Xiong Yi, a 2011 Tisch School of the Arts graduate who was then a student in Bilal's tactical media class.
But any student who looked closely would have noticed that the camera lens was covered by a small cap. On November 16, days before Bilal's surgery, the Wall Street Journal had cited faculty members' concerns about whether 3rdi would compromise students' privacy. The same day, the university rushed to release a statement assuring the public that it would not allow Bilal to broadcast images from NYU buildings. It acknowledged the artist's "right to free expression," but added, "we also take seriously the privacy issues his project raises." In the following days, Bilal says, he made a verbal agreement with Tisch Dean Louis Scheeder that he wouldn't stream images from his classes.
It's an outcome that the artist found disappointing. "I love my office and my department. Sometimes it's painful not to see images coming from my daily life interacting with colleagues and students," he says. He was also perplexed. "I said, 'Do you see how odd that is, being in the photography department but you cannot take a photograph?' "
Bilal sees an irony in a university that installed security cameras all over its campus without anyone's permission banning his. "You look around and there's so many cameras taking your image at the same time, and how is that private?" he says.
With the lens covered, the camera continues to send images, though they're entirely blank—which Bilal says gives his project yet another meaning: "I think the black images become indicative of institutional power. That's why I accepted it."
Last winter, it looked as if NYU's decision might be moot. Just days into the semester, Bilal's dermatologist noticed that his bottom right stud seemed to be inching out. The patch of skin around the stud was red and swollen—symptoms of rejection, an immune response that can lead to serious infection. A surgeon removed it in a one-hour procedure. As the two remaining studs wouldn't hold the combined weight of the base, camera, camera holder, and cover, Bilal removed the camera from its housing and hung it from a black strap he wore around his neck.
Bilal still plans to attach a newly designed camera to his head as soon as it's ready. His hopes there rest on Sawhney, who, working within arm's reach of a plaster cast of the back of Bilal's head—and the aid of two engineers—has nudged the implantable head camera into generation 2.0 in just a few months. She has done so with a budget that is necessarily limited, as the costs for the project have already crept past a quarter-million dollars, Bilal sheepishly acknowledges.
The new camera housing, which will be made of aluminum, will be sleeker, with aerodynamic curves Sawhney says were inspired by a concept car. The base, which she designed with the help of a 3-D scan of the artist's head, will be built with a biocompatible plastic that will conform to Bilal's every bump and curve. A rubber ear support ripped from a pair of headphones will loop around Bilal's ear to provide extra support for the camera and decrease the pressure on the studs. Sawhney also found a way to connect the USB cable from the camera to Bilal's Android phone instead of his laptop, promising to take a load off his back.
Finally, Sawhney developed a way to support the camera without the use of studs, just in case. Bilal will be able to clip the camera to the adjustable headband of a wireless headset that will be suspended behind his head by ear supports pulled from a Logitech headset. It will look odd, but Sawhney says it will work.
Which raises a question: Why not just wear it like that? "Performance is a commitment," says Bilal. "It's a challenge to myself and the system. I want to continue the way I envisioned."
He hopes to screw on the new camera later this month. In the meantime, he continues a regiment of caring for the remaining two studs, washing them with warm and cold saltwater at least three times per day. "These things, I was told, they never heal," he says. "And it's true, to this day, they don't."