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I came across this rather remarkable story as I was cruising to find something that covered “art” of the Gulf War and I came across an article in the National which shows how sometimes artists will go to extremes to create significant imagery. My hat is off to Wafaa Bilal an instructor at NYU, and his willingness to step into an area few will go.

From December 30, 2010 written by Sharmilla Devi

NEW YORK // Wafaa Bilal said the idea to install a camera in the back of his head to record his daily life for one year was born after he fled his native Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.

“Certain images stuck in my mind, of Kufa or Najaf, of smoke rising after the [Shiite] uprising,” said Bilal, 44, who was raised by a Shiite family in Najaf but forced to flee as Saddam Hussein crushed a Shiite rebellion that had erupted across the south after his forces had been driven from Kuwait.

After spending two years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, he obtained asylum in the United States and he fulfilled his desire to study photography as a New York-based artist.

But he could not stop thinking about what he had left behind in Iraq, about the fading memories and images.

“I began to understand how subjective or how much control we have when raising the viewfinder and pressing the shutter of a camera,” he said in a telephone interview. “And I wanted to use the body, rather the eye or finger, to capture images about the state of surveillance we now live in.”

He underwent a “painful” procedure under local anaesthetic to have the camera installed in his head last month at a New York body modification studio, which usually does tattoos and body piercings, after doctors contacted by Mr Bilal refused to perform the procedure. He did not reveal the cost or the technician who installed the camera.

The interactive/performance art project, called The 3rd I, was commissioned by Qatar’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, which is displaying live images captured every minute from Mr Bilal’s camera on the website http://www.3rdi.me.

Mr Bilal recently returned to New York from Qatar where he attended the preview of the exhibition Told/Untold/Retold at Mathaf, which features 23 contemporary works and opens today.

He found more freedom in Qatar than at New York University, where he is an assistant art professor at the Tisch School of the Arts and which demanded that he wear a lens cap when he is on campus to protect the privacy of students and teachers.

“No restrictions were placed on me in Qatar, which was a really big step for them to take. It’s kind of funny given the stereotypes of the Middle East that it was NYU that had concerns,” he said. “The only time I was stopped in Qatar was at the airport – security had to suspect something when they saw a wire coming down my neck but they were fine when I explained it to them.”

Three titanium plates were inserted under a large flap of skin on the back of his head. The skin was then reattached but three posts were left sticking out and they act as the base for the 10-megapixel camera. He will wear the camera, which is 5cm in diameter and less than 2.5cm thick, for a year until next December 15.

He has become used to wearing the camera, saying “the body has a great ability to adapt to a foreign object,” and he is continuing his normal life with no unusual events planned.

He was glad of the Christmas holiday period, which allowed him to take things easy before returning to work in the New Year.

He said his girlfriend had raised no objections about the camera although she would be seeing it for the first time when he visited her in San Diego during the holidays. Meanwhile, he noticed a decline in dinner party invitations from friends since the camera was installed.

The pictures captured this week and displayed on the website show the snow heaped on New York during the blizzard. Many other pictures are mundane and repetitive but have proved personally illuminating for Mr Bilal.

“No one would ever frame and display many of these images,” he said. “But there’s one picture taken in the night showing a burst of light from a lamp that I always keep on. I’ve struggled with sleepless nights and nightmares since leaving Iraq and this picture showed that.”

Much of Mr Bilal’s previous work has highlighted the devastation in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. His brother was killed by a missile at an Iraqi checkpoint in 2004. His siblings still live in Iraq, which he visited in 2009. His mother died there recently.

In a live event called And counting… earlier this year, two tattoo artists covered Mr Bilal’s back with a map of Iraq and individual dots to represent each Iraqi and US casualty. The dots for 5,000 dead Americans were in permanent black ink; the 100,000 Iraqis were represented by green ultraviolet ink only visible under black light to represent the Iraqi deaths as mostly invisible to the US public.

His 2008 project Virtual Jihadi was a video game in which an avatar of Mr Bilal as a suicide bomber was seen hunting for George W Bush, the former US president.

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae