New York University professor Wafaa Bilal has surgically implanted a camera into the back of his head as part of a performance art piece. But Bilal’s decision to give up his own privacy is igniting concern for the privacy of those around him. He discusses his controversial project.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: While some people are determined to guard their personal information, others relish putting it all out there for the world to see. Case in point, Iraqi-born artist and New York University professor Wafaa Bilal, who is recording his own movements for an entire year, as part of a performance piece commissioned by Qatar’s new Museum of Modern Art. In fact, Bilal has surgically implanted a camera in the back of his head, creating a sort of third eye that will snap one picture per minute for the next year. The unedited images will be transmitted to an interactive installation at the museum in Qatar and will also be available to view online. But the method Bilal has chosen to comment on our surveillance culture has made his employer, New York University, a little uneasy. It’s requiring him to wear a lens cap over the camera while on campus, to protect student privacy. Wafaa, welcome to On the Media.
WAFAA BILAL: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure being here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the museum in Qatar commissioned this piece a year ago, but you've been developing this idea for quite some time.
WAFAA BILAL: The idea really came in 1991 when I left Iraq. The city of Najaf was under bombardment by Saddam’s regime during the Shiite uprising of 1991, and I looked back and I saw the smoke rising out of the city and I wished at that moment I have a camera with me to capture what I'd leave behind. But studying photography, I started understanding how subjective the image could be when we look through the viewfinder or the LCD, and how much that is taking place in our finger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words, when you frame the image, the image that you choose to shoot is colored by your own impulses, your own instincts, and you wanted to take instinct out of it.
WAFAA BILAL: That’s exactly it. And I wanted to also bring attention to the mundane, our mundane daily life, the corners of our life we don't pay attention to. But, on top of this, this project is really raising awareness about surveillance. Our image is being taken probably hundreds of times a day, yet that has remained invisible, so acting as a mirror, as an artist, trying to make that invisibility visible by having the camera very visible, implanted in my head, in order to raise awareness and bring people to the platform I want them to engage in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wafaa, does it hurt?
WAFAA BILAL: The camera, just the, the operation?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
WAFAA BILAL: It hurt a lot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They cut into your scalp, they put in three titanium plates under a flap of skin?
WAFAA BILAL: The body modification artist made an incision on top of my head and lifted the skin – it’s about three inches – and inserted each of these plates with a post underneath, and the post punctured the skin. And that’s where the camera was mounted. The operation was harder than I thought, so I just received a local anesthesia. I'm sure when the project is over, I'm going to ask for a full anesthesia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Tell me why you chose to implant it. Why not just perpetually wear a hat with a highly visible camera in the back?
WAFAA BILAL: We, we deal with two zones in our life. That’s one of comfort, one of conflict, if you will. I don't want to slip into the comfort zone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not?
WAFAA BILAL: Why not? Because performance artists, that’s what we do, is we place ourself in a situation that is completely uncomfortable because it is a challenge to us and to the system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: By “challenge to the system,” do you mean your own physical body or do you mean the, the system at large, the world around? And is your intention to shock?
WAFAA BILAL: It is a challenge to my physical system and the system around me, but with each project there is an objective. Perhaps on the surface it look shocking, maybe naïve idea, but the objective is to engage people. So let's not call it shock, let's call it a hook. That [is] probably a better term for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re voluntarily allowing yourself to be tracked, and in addition to the constant image capturing you’re going to be wearing a GPS device that will allow anyone and everyone to see where you are. Some people would be distinctly uneasy with having so much information out there for the whole world to see.
WAFAA BILAL: But do we really have any privacy? [LAUGHS] If you have a cellphone, I could track you and pinpoint exactly where you are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay Wafaa, so what happens when somebody you photograph, they just happen to be walking past the back of your head, and they don't want to participate in this piece? Does your personal art piece have the potential to invade someone else’s personal space?
WAFAA BILAL: I don't think so. I mean, how is this different from any other photographer? If I step into their private place and take their photo, yes, that’s an issue. But if I am on the street, everything is a subject.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, NYU, as I mentioned, asked you to have the lens covered while you’re on campus. Were you surprised by that reaction?
WAFAA BILAL: Kind of. I work in a photography department, and it’s kind of odd to say no photograph in a photography department. But saying that, NYU is a private institution, they have the right to protect the privacy of the students. And they do support my research and the faculty research, so it’s a double thing they're trying to balance, and it’s a hard thing to balance for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I read in the Wall Street Journal that some people have removed you from their guest lists.
WAFAA BILAL: Fortunately they re-invited me. Some of them [BROOKE LAUGHS] re-invited me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I can just foresee a whole new [WAFAA LAUGHS] dress code, ties and lens caps –
[OVERTALK/BOTH AT ONCE]
WAFAA BILAL: Lens caps. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - required.
WAFAA BILAL: [LAUGHS] The, the great thing so far - the girlfriend have not imposed the lens cap, so that I'm happy for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, let's talk about the girlfriend. She lives in another city but you visit her a lot. And sooner or later, some intimate pictures of her are likely to appear on the website that is hosting all the images from The 3rd I project.
WAFAA BILAL: So far there is no lens cap, no censorship being imposed, but I can't wait for the moment that one of these pictures going to appear on the Internet. That might change the conversation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] Wafaa, thank you very much.
WAFAA BILAL: It is a pleasure being here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wafaa Bilal is an assistant arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts.