Friday, December 3, 2010

New York professor installs camera in head

By Laura Dolan, CNN
December 2, 2010 9:22 p.m. EST
Click to play
Artist embeds camera in head
  • A New York University Professor installed a thumb-sized camera in back of his head for art exhibit
  • Iraqi born photography professor had the procedure done at a piercing studio last month
  • The camera will take a single snap-shot each minute of everyday activities for one year
(CNN) -- Some students joke that their teachers have eyes in the backs of their heads.
A New York University professor is now closer to that reality, having had a camera surgically implanted into the back of his cranium.
Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi born photography professor at the university's Tisch School of the Arts, had the procedure done at a piercing studio last month for an art project commissioned by a museum in Doha, Qatar, he said.
"This will expose the unspoken conditions we face," Bilal said Thursday. "A project like this is meant to establish a dialogue about surveillance."
The project is called "The 3rd I," and will make use of the posterior camera by taking a snap-shot photographs each minute of Bilal's everyday activities for one year, he said.
The images will then be transmitted to Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, he said, featuring an exhibit entitled "Told/Untold/Retold" in time for the museum's December 30 opening, according to a museum statement.
The thumb-sized camera is mounted on a titanium plate inserted inside the back of his head, Bilal said.
A cable runs from the camera to a computer that he carries in a custom-made shoulder bag, providing a real-time global positioning signal of his location -- viewable on a website:
"I wanted to lose that subjectivity [of knowingly taking photographs]," Bilal said. "At the same time I wanted to capture everyday mundane images."
But the project has also raised privacy questions about the constant presence of cameras in a classroom.
University authorities have tried to allay those concerns by requiring a cover over the lens while Bilal is teaching on campus.
"We place a high value on his right to free expression in his creative work as an artist," said university spokesman John Beckman. "But as a school of the arts, we also take seriously the privacy issues his project raises."
"The 3rd I" is not Bilal's first venture into the controversial and unusual.
A 2007 project called "Domestic Tension" allowed virtual users to fire paintballs at him for an exhibit that prompted The Chicago Tribune to name Bilal artist of the year, calling it "one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time."
Bilal has said that he wants his artwork to examine broader ideas and realities.
"I see myself as a mirror reflecting some of the social conditions that we ignore," he said.


  1. Eeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwwww... No thanks, I'll pass. What, you say I HAVE to have one? NO, I SAY!!! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (BASH! CRASH!! Massive destruction.)

  2. I keep thinking this must be April Fool's Day.

  3. And to think that Princeton had reservations about granting tenure to Kurt Goedel, because he was nuttier than a fruitcake... It's a cinch they didn't go out of their way to invite him to parents' weekend, or alumni reunions.

  4. How long before his skull camera inadvertently catches a subway flasher or a mugger, and his head gets subpoenaed into evidence? I give it two months.

    And not to be pedantic Froderick, but Goedel was never a faculty member at Princeton. He was at the Institute, which is in Princeton NJ, but not part of Princeton University. Doesn't stop Princeton U from claiming him (and Einstein--same story) of course. I mean, why let facts get in the way of their self-consecration, right? And it certainly doesn't change the fact that he was, as you say, a truly odd man. Not to defend him on that score, but the few people left at IAS who still remember him, do so fondly, despite his quirks.

  5. Ok, I can not wait for this art fad to go away. The number of hideously dull digital works on "everyday, mundane" images I've had to sit through in the past few years makes me want to punch something. I hate to be Nancy Negative, but this is the news because of the "ew" factor--if he wanted to avoid the subjectivity of consciously taking a photograph, he could have just worn the camera on his back via a harness, hat, or backpack, and it would have made for easier cleaning, battery replacement, etc.

    Then there's the art. Does the world really need you taking pictures when you are sleeping? How is this different from the artists that have coated rooms with webcams? My digital media colleagues are always ragging on me that because I use "conventional" materials, I don't "get it." Maybe they are right, but I feel a little like I do get it and am just underwhelmed by the actual art being made. To that point: some digital photography and video art has blown me away with how great it is. I"m just less and less interested in the "everyday urban" images that seem to be absolutely everywhere and have been for a few years. I also doubt the real spontaneity of the images: sure, he won't be clicking his camera, but if he's like most of us, unless he goes to some effort to go places and do things with his implanted head, he's going to send a lot of images of the chairbacks as he sits through meeting after meeting after meeting. You take a thousand+ photographs for every winner you get, but...I can't help having the same reaction as I did when I picked up a recent book by a photographer who photographed everything he ate for a year. I found myself asking the same questions I always ask my students: what's interesting here? If the answer is "it's about me and what I am doing" then it's going to take some convincing to get me on board that I actually care about what is going on here. Using your body or modifying your body in art has also become pretty standard; there's a lot there that this interesting and makes you think, and other stuff that just wind up being uninteresting.

  6. "He sees you when he's sleeping, you know when he's awake..."

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

    I think it might be interesting to do what Weegee and other photographers have done...put your camera in your hat or coat. You could do an interesting project on people's reactions to you. I am thinking of (God help me) a recent Millionaire Matchmaker episode in which Patti had the uptight, appearance-driven guy get made up as "ugly" by a Hollywood artist. Then he had to walk around on the street and watch people's reactions.

    Expand this to stuff about race, ethnicity, weight, the motor coordination issues associated with various neurological disorders and/or side effects of various meds, etc. and you'd have something interesting.

    @Bitchy Bear -- Have you seen the School Lunch Project. It's food photography with a bit more of a purpose, and it kind of oscillates in and out of making social statements.

  7. OMG! The Bitchy Bear has put words to something I feel but could never express!

    "it's about me and what I am doing"

    My experience with much of the digital world is exactly that. Brilliantly said!

  8. The narcissistic elements bother me, too, but mostly I'm with Froderick: eeewwww! At a time when more young people are dealing with traumatic brain injury, and baby boomers and their parents are increasingly coping with the effects of stroke, why would anyone deliberately put a hole in his head (and so open up his brain to infection), all in the name of art? A fully-functioning head is not something to take chances with. Eeewww, eeewww, eeeeeewwwww.

  9. I find it fascinating that the university administration is concerned about privacy and therefore is requiring a cover over the camera when he's in the classroom, but cellphone pictures and video of classrooms taken by students are seen as excellent ways to "catch" professors engaging in behavior that administration and other students do not like.

  10. Who needs narcissistic students with colleagues like this guy? Way to model that behavior, Digital Dude!

  11. @Bitchy Bear Agreed. The word "art" is thrown around way too casually these days and if, heaven forbid, you should disagree you are either an art snob or you "just don't understand."

    I was told by someone who went to the Museum of Modern Art that there is a piece there called "urine on metallic pigment on canvas" or some such and that's exactly what it is. If this is true I weep for humanity.

    Simply calling something art makes it as much art as peeing in the sink makes it a urinal.

  12. This same man (Wafaa Bilal) did a show back in 2007 called "Domestic Tension" where he was shot at by a internet-connected paintball gun firing yellow paintballs (the color of the "support out troops" ribbons.) Before that he was in a piece where people on the Internet had a choice between waterboarding a dog or Mr. Bilal. They chose him....that piece was entitled "Dog or Iraqi."

    I find it interesting that most of the people writing about this on this comment thread either have no artistic sense, or are grossed out by a person did to themselves. Art is no longer just painting and sculpture; these is such a thing a performance art (which is what this falls under, along with New Media Art), or conceptual art (Damien Hirst's shark in formaldehyde), and the counter to these new art movements, Stuckism (which is more like a combination of outsider art and political style protests of the art auction houses.) But I guess this is too much for many people here to take.

  13. @Strelnikov: Excuse me, but I like to think I have highly developed tastes in art, and this is just plain disgusting. I mean, VOMIT flavored.

    @Archie: Once again, I know. Goedel's wife (a dancer, of all things) referred to the IAS as "the old folk's home." Peter O'Toole's film, "Creator," made fun of it. Goedel died shortly after she did, by starving himself to death.

    The point I was trying to make was: this hayseed with the camera in his head is trying to convince some university to grant him tenure? Not if I were in that department, he wouldn't!

  14. @Bernice
    Look at the comments about Prof Bilal: "hayseed with a camera", "Digital Dude", "narcissistic elements." Then look at the comments about modern art: (9 year old) "This is dumb. Can we look at the art again?"; "I keep thinking this is April Fool's Day"; "I can't wait for this art fad to go away."

    I wrote what I wrote because there was no defense of what Bilal was doing, and no it isn't my cup of tea, though I respect what Wafaa Bilal is doing; trying to shock people out of their complacency. This is a man who fled Iraq rather than be forced into the invasion of Kuwait, taught children art in a Saudi DP camp, came to the US and got his art degree (Saddam's goverment would not allow him to learn art because his family was not "loyal" enough), had his brother killed by a US missile in 2004, now protests our idiotic war in Iraq by art. And no, I am not an art professsor.

  15. @Strelnikov: I agree that the comments about modern art were a bit rich--the 9-year-old comment was almost identical to original Jim's comment about his 9-year-old daughter being able to get a BA in English, but you are the only one to protest. So I guess it is not cool to talk smack about the humanities, but art is fair game. At any event, Bilal seems like a thoughtful guy, but he also clearly has a taste for self-inflicted pain. As Bitchy Bear pointed out, a lot of photographers are doing some version of the "casual image" schtick, and he could have accomplished much the same thing without cutting into his scalp. Also, I'm not an overly paranoid type, but I have to wonder what having a laptop that is constantly sending and receiving cell and wifi attached to his body 24-7 for a solid year is going to do to him. I wonder if anyone from the med school has thought to monitor him. Anyway, the self-mutilation part seems gratuitous. It doesn't have much to do with the central point of the project--unlike the "dog or Iraqi" piece. It makes me wonder about him.

    @Froderick: I did not mean to irritate you. As a former member, I get irritated when people conflate IAS with Princeton. But if you knew that Goedel was never employed by Princeton, you'd have to admit that your comment that Princeton was on the fence about his tenure didn't make much sense. They were never in a position to either grant or deny him tenure, or anything else for that matter. That said, I understood right away why you picked him as a parallel to Bilal--self-starvation is a more extreme form of body modification than mounting a camera on the back of one's head.

  16. The relevant text from the page rules are these in this case:

    Do not marginalize the experiences of other members.
    Comments and posts that seem designed purely to attack others and/or drive away readers will be deleted.

    "Art" is not a member of the blog. You're free to bitch about or celebrate a camera in the head. You're not free - here at least - to minimize each other over your perception of each other's ability to appreciate the camera in the head.

    Leslie K.

  17. @Strelnikov. I'm no Luddite; I value new forms of art and I enjoy the way in which the digital age has informed the collective human expression (and vice-versa).

    However, what this guy is doing is not, imo, art. It's more of the crap we see every day as a result of this technology, the same me-me-me-me personal narrative that encourages zero critical thinking. This is no different than the countless morons who walk around grocery stores talking on cell phones, or the idiots who walk into other people while texting in the halls between classes.

    Wanting an audience--as he clearly does--is not the same thing as audience awareness.

    He even writes, "I wanted to lose that subjectivity [of knowingly taking photographs]. At the same time I wanted to capture everyday mundane images."

    I'm not opposed to the capture of the everyday and mundane for the purpose of interpretation, but there's no intent here on making art. He says that he wants to "expose the unspoken conditions we face." He's not talking about taking something, interpreting it through a unique lens (no pun intended), and making an artistic statement. It's all personal narrative, again, and again, and again.

    You may think this is art, and you and I may argue that (preferably somewhere other than in this forum). I respect that your opinion differs from mine. I think, however, that this guy would be absolutely no fun to work with.

    And that, my friend, was the point of my post. I think this guy's Digital Dude, and I stand by it. I'm grateful he's not on the dreaded Wednesday afternoon committee to which I'm enslaved--and not because I fear the mundane that he'd capture with his "3rd I" project.


  18. I wish I had thought of this in the way Greta has. Well said!

  19. Leslie et al.

    I don't really have a dog in this fight, but Leslie's comment about the "relevant section of the rules" seemed directed at my comment above. So here goes.

    I've read the thread three times, and for the life of me, I can't see what everyone is getting worked up about. I don't see how anything that Strelnikov said in this thread could be construed as a personal attack. I guess he's made personal attacks in the past? I've always read his persona as somewhat satirical, but whatever. It would appear that his comments here are being read in the light of perceived insults of the past, because, again, there's nothing to see here, as far as I can tell.

    He made what I think was a very valid point, which was that Halil's art was being largely dismissed out of hand because putting a camera in your head is gross (which it undeniably is) and because children and the general public tend to see the kind of thing he does as "not art." Only Bitchy Bear, who we've known since RYS days is in the field, actually engaged with the substance of Halil's project, and offered a perfectly reasonable critique of the causal/mundane image fad in contemporary photography. I happen to agree with her on that score.

    What I find interesting is that by dismissing Halil out of hand because he's done something admittedly weird and extreme that doesn't correspond to what most of us understand to be art is functionally similar to what Original Jim and Not Jim did when they said essentially the humanities (and by extension humanists) are lame. That was the original flame war that led to the standard statement that is now being inserted into this thread. And the reason I find this interesting is that in that case, almost everyone (and rightly so) hammered them for their ignorance and philistine ways. But here, when contemporary art was being dismissed as silly and inconsequential, only Strelnikov came to its defense.

    It reminds of something that happened to me more years ago than I care to remember. As a much younger scholar I won a fellowship to participate in an interdisciplinary seminar on a complex theme that I won't name specifically because it could be a giveaway. Anyway, speakers from various disciplines came and workshopped papers with the fellows and then gave public lectures. These outside people came from the fields of physics, astronomy, history of science, and analytic philosophy. The fellows were incredibly deferential, often to the point of silence during the workshop sessions with these luminaries. Then a very famous scholar in film studies came as the visitor. Suddenly everyone had something to say, and felt free to say it, no matter how silly.

    Afterwards some of the fellows raved about what a great session it had been. I kept my own counsel, but I, in fact, felt that it had been the worst of the sessions to date. The discussion had, to my mind, quickly descended into the trivial. I wondered about this for a while, and ultimately I came to the conclusion that the discussion had been lively because at heart, the fellows didn't take the film studies luminary seriously. When the famous physicist came to talk everyone deferred because decay in nature was a serious topic and one should only speak when one had serious things to say. But movies? We all went to the movies, so we had license to say whatever the fuck we wanted about them.

    I think something of the same thing played out in this thread, and while Strelnikov was not articulating it quite in the way I just did, he was making a valid point. And I honestly don't think any community standards were violated either. But perhaps the new regime is less tolerant than the old one?

  20. There is a fine line between contemporary art and cultural pollution.

  21. And Greta, I just read your post. I agree that Halil is not somebody I'd want to work with or serve on a committee with. I also agree that the way he's gone about this particular project achieves levels of self-involvement that exceed the already tolerant norms of the artistic temperment. That said, some of the things he's done in the past were clearly thoughtful. So while I think this particular project is a bit much, I wouldn't dismiss him entirely.

  22. @Archie

    You'll note that no comments have been taken down. But some comments on this thread and some emails that have come to the site suggest that Strelnikov's 10:11 pm comment was a problem for some, where as his 8:03 am comment was not. (The 8:03 comment, in fact, was noted by 2 emailers who said they'd love it if THAT Strelnikov was the only one on the site, not the one who "puffs out his chest and belittles others." And the complaints about him are not just about this thread. Along with Jim (who seems to have disappeared) and Tim (Not Jim), he has been brought to the moderator's attention several times.

    Fab hated this part of the moderator job. He didn't want there to be conflict, and he didn't want to make judgment calls. If I feel the rules of the page get violated, I'll pull a comment. I've not done it yet. I believe, like Fab did, that if we just remember we share space here, it won't ever be a problem.

    I do, however, take seriously complaints and comments, especially when a consensus starts to form.

    I'd like the page to continue on. It won't if reasonable people don't want to visit.

    Leslie K.

  23. For the record, I wasn't insulted and didn't take Strelnikov's comments as any kind of insult or personal attack. S/he may be abrasive sometimes, but so am I. So are a lot of people. There's a difference between deliberately insulting someone and expressing opinions in a bit of an abrasive way. I'm not going to debate the way in which Strelnikov or any other posted expresses him- or herself here, and the only thing that would make me complain to the moderator is a real personal threat. I didn't feel marginalized by Strelnikov's post, nor did I (obviously) feel unwelcome. I was, in fact, more engaged by the genuine difference of opinion and the rare opportunity to discuss something cerebral.

    Frankly, I was delighted that someone--anyone--would engage me in a conversation about art, something that doesn't have anything to do with deadlines, salvaging end-of-semester grades, assessment, final exams, budgets, or the suddenly wintry weather. I would love to debate this with interested parties, but I realize that this forum may not be the place for it (which is why I said so in my last post).

    Neither am I suggesting that those upset by Strelnikov's (or others') posts shouldn't be. Like Archie, I just don't see any rules broken--but I'm not the moderator.

    And, Archie, I will check out Digital Dude's previous work. Thanks for the tip!

  24. Leslie,

    I get all that, and I certainly appreciate that being moderator is a thankless job, and that somebody will always be unhappy with you no matter what you do. So better you than me, and I'm glad that you are willing to subject yourself to it so that CM can motor on.

    I also agree with everyone here that Original Jim and Not Jim crossed the line and deserved what they got from the collective (and it really was unanimous in their case, as far as I could tell). Strelnikov, not so much... but again that's because I think his persona is largely satirical, and I don't really take everything he says at face value. I wouldn't want Original Jim and Not Jim to have free rein, but I wouldn't want a small handful of people who are willing to bother the moderator establish some false consensus that allows them to dictate standards to the group either. I, for one, appreciated Fab's reluctance to censor (and censure), but the fact that people are complaining about this thread actually makes me worry that over the long run we will slowly slip into profhacker territory. We'll all be so busy making nice that nothing worthwhile will get said anymore (in the Pacific Northwest they call this mode of interaction "northwest nice" and it makes me want to scream).

    But I don't want to hijack the thread (a term I've only just learned) so no need to pursue this further. I get what you are saying, and I'm glad no comments got taken down in this instance.

  25. @Archie,

    All very well said. Your take on all of this is reasonable and much appreciated.

    I've noticed a few comments have been deleted by their authors in this thread, along with a few comments by a single writer from a thread yesterday.

    I have not deleted anything, nor do I want to.

    I have mixed feelings about how forthcoming I should be about the email that comes in to me privately. It truly feels private, sent to me rather than posted in the comments, so I would never reveal anything about the identity of those writers.

    But, I also feel that I should have some latitude to report on the type of email that comes in, especially when it comes from people who I recognize as CM community members.

    My own comments in this thread, for example, are VERY much a result of feedback I've been receiving via email. It's also been a bit of a nasty day as one person has been rather abusive in his/her emails to me. Luckily for me, this tactic is not especially successful, and I've just deleted subsequent emails that have followed.

    I'm a bit of an old hand at the blog wars, and nothing that's happened here is surprising or unusual.

    My only goal is that folks who want to use the space get to do so.

    Leslie K.

  26. I walk away and the Treaty of Berlin gets signed...I am being sarcastic when I say things like "the students need a good walloping with a lead-weighted pool cue", absolutely serious in what I wrote about Wafaa Bilal or neoliberal economics....Leslie K., I thank you for keeping the posts up; I was always against having posts removed because then people 3 days, 4 months, 5 years later can't make out what the Hell happened and why - just that arguements vanished. Even if I later regret a post, I never take it down. Finally, I have to admit that my words cut like shattered glass; too many years playing "The Dozens" does that to a person. If anyone here feels insulted I apologize. Also I am not a woman; if I were, the name would be Strelnikova and not Strelnikov ("the hunter.")

  27. Strelnikov,

    I don't care what you say about students, and I doubt very much that anyone else here does either.

    What people in the comments don't seem to like is when you take swipes at the rest of us, who also think of this as our page, our "shared space."

  28. @Strelnikov--Now, , I suspect you were reacting to some of the other commenters when you said people don't know much about art; on most days, my colleagues would say I'm competent to comment. But your reaction is a bit problematic, too. Yes, just because an artist doesn't use conventional materials doesn't mean that he's disqualified as an artist. It's clearly possible to do brilliant work digitally or with your body or any of a million nontraditional materials.

    However--and this is what I find irritating about my colleagues who get defensive--just *because* you are doing something nontraditional does NOT exempt you from critique. If these artists want to be taken seriously (and I do take this work seriously), then you are going to have to have to assume that at some point, people like me are going to ask: yes, it's different, but it is meaningful?

    This particular artist has done quite interesting things before, but he's also really good at getting himself in the media. This is not a criticism: artists who are not good getting attention for their work are generally known as "people who better have trust funds if they enjoy eating and paying rent." However, in getting attention, you can do things that I think undermine the actual merging of process/outcome that this particular artist does quite well. In particular, I think that if you are going go to the trouble of having your body modified for a year...I'd hope for more interesting output of that process than, simply, digital images of what goes on behind a guy in New York. The time investment doesn't seem worth it, the body mod doesn't seem worth it. I suspect that when he's done he'll do something more interesting than that all sounds right now: one of the problems with getting all your buzz upfront about a project like this (stressing the WOW BODY MOD aspect of it) means that I just find it to be underconceptualized right now. Look at the lingo surrounding it: "an examination of the conditions we're in." You have to do that from the back instead of the front? Pictures of homeless people, taken from the back of my head! What he says he's doing and why don't pass the smell test to me. And that's OFTEN the way it is when you are at the start of a piece; you discover as you make.

  29. Huzzah, Bitchy.

    When I told a pal about this story while quaffing some beer last night he said, "Why doesn't he just stick a camera in a fucking hat?"


  30. @Bitchy Bear
    I can see what you are getting at, but my reason for writing was due to the pure mockery from some of CM commenters, most of which reminded me of the pure whining about modern art you would see from Morley Saffer on "60 Minutes" in the 1990s.

    @Reg W.
    If this is schtick it isn't working.


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