World

Ouch! Artist bolts camera to skull for year-long show

  • 31 December 2010
  • From the section World
Left: Wafaa Bilal undergoing the procedure to get the camera mounted to his head. Right: Prof Bilal displays his newly installed camera. Photo by Brad Farwell

"It still hurts," says Wafaa Bilal. And that is perhaps not surprising.

The Iraqi artist has a camera attached to three titanium plates, bolted into the back of his skull.

The camera is taking one photo every minute for the next year, and is feeding the images in real-time to a new show of contemporary art in Doha, Qatar. It also tracks his every move via GPS.

All this in the name of art. But the pain is getting to him just a little.

"I still have to treat it regularly with hot towels and salt water," he told BBC World Service.

Girlfriend's view

Everyday life has got a bit more complicated.

Taking a shower, for example.

Wafaa hopes to upgrade his camera to a water-proof one soon, but in the meantime, he needs to wear a shower-cap - transparent, of course.

Or going through airport security, which on his first flight proved a lengthy process, involving various scans and tests.

And what view does his girlfriend take of his unusual artistic experiment?

"So far, she is very supportive and has not imposed any lens cap curfew for any moment of our lives," he told the BBC.

But it is early days. "The entire project is very dynamic," he adds, offering himself a little get out clause.

Wafaa Bilal is a photography professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and that is one place where he has agreed to put the lens cap on, to protect the privacy of his students.

Media captionArt is a mirror, says Wafaa Bilal

When asked why he is doing it, he gives several reasons, but one is connected with having fled Iraq in 1991 - and having nothing to remind him of his former life.

"My city Najaf was under bombardment and the smoke was rising from it, I wished at that moment that I could record what was left behind," he says.

He spent two years in a refugee camp, before moving to the US, where he was granted political asylum.

Most of his family stayed behind, and in 2004 his brother Haji was killed by a missile at a checkpoint. His father - heart-broken and devastated - refused to eat or drink, and died soon after.

Surgery refused

This project ensures that he will at least have a full and permanent record of his life in 2011.

But Wafaa says the project is also intended as a comment on today's surveillance society, where people in cities spend much of their lives under the watchful eyes of security cameras.

He spent three years trying to get the project going, but hit several brick walls.

Gallery after gallery turned him away, and doctors refused his request to have the camera inserted into his head, deeming it too risky.

In the end, he had the work done at a body-piercing studio, and had to opt for a slightly scaled-down version of his original plan, with the mounting posts inserted into his head, rather than the camera itself.

His piece, called The 3rdi, is showing at the brand new Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha.

It's part of an exhibition of 23 new works that is the first ever contemporary art exhibition in Qatar, and "the largest to be held in the Arab world within a museum context," according to co-curator Till Fellrath.

Critics describe the project as a gimmick, say it intrudes on other people's privacy, and question whether it is really art.

Body in charge

"People react very sharply - should someone do this kind of thing and isn't it gruesome? But Wafaa Bilal is raising a lot of issues of our time," says Till Fellrath.

The artist has a track-record of controversial works under his belt.

Image caption Another of Prof Bilal's projects involved having his back tattooed with a map of Iraq

Earlier this year, he had his back tattooed with a borderless map of Iraq, with a dot marking the spot of each Iraqi and US casualty.

And he once spent a month confined to a gallery in Chicago for his project Domestic Tensions, where people around the world were invited to shoot him with a paintball via a webcam.

As a photographer, he likes the idea of his body - instead of his eyes - being in charge of the camera shots for a change.

"There are some quite strange ones, and many, many mundane images that individually may not be that appealing, but collectively they form a quite nice mosaic from everyday life."

He sees the camera as "part of him" and says his project provides a small taste of the future.

As technology develops, he says, instead of carrying devices like mobile phones around with us, they will increasingly become integrated with the human body.

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