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.
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.”