At 15:08:56 on December 14, 2010, a photograph was taken and uploaded to a website. The image is somewhat cryptic, merely showing the shiny surface of a wooden table next to a window in a dark room. Although the date, time, latitude and longitude of the photograph are given, technically allowing one to pinpoint its exact location, the setting is at first hard to read; only the geometric pattern on the fence outside, glimpsed through the window, suggests that the picture may have been taken in an Islamic country. More images appear, one per minute, all showing the same scene but with minor adjustments—a small movement in a reflection on the window and a leaf swaying slightly in the wind. In the sixth, the camera’s perspective swings around, revealing a hotel room; in the seventh, the blurred figure of a man enters the frame. As one continues to scroll through the images, a disjointed narrative emerges: a carpark, a road lined with palm trees, a close-up of a child’s arm, a hand typing on a laptop and a dark room lit only by a wall of monitors.
This series of images—both mundane and curiously abstract—shows the view from the back of Wafaa Bilal’s head. In November last year, the Iraqi-American artist had a small camera surgically attached to the back of his skull, where it is due to remain for one year. Since December 14, when he first turned it on in Doha, the camera has taken a still image every minute and uploaded it with its GPS location, via a portable notebook computer, to Bilal’s website (http://3rdi.me). The 3rd i project was commissioned by Doha’s Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf) for one of its three inaugural exhibitions, “Told/Untold/Retold,” a show of 23 contemporary artists with roots in the Arab world. There, in a mirrored room, a wall of 42 monitors displayed images from Bilal’s online archive, plunging viewers into a turbulent sea of imagery. The speed at which pictures changed altered according to people’s movements; coming to a stop in front of one screen caused all the others to fade to white.
“It’s about the dialogue between images and their participants,” Bilal told me during one of two interviews before he underwent the implant surgery. “The image is acknowledging the person, but it is also asking that person to acknowledge the image by slowing down.” The focus of Bilal’s work over the past decade has been to set up open narratives—what he calls “dynamic encounters”—between himself, his art and a participatory audience. His physically grueling performances and jarring new-media artworks also have an activist subtext. He aims to push both himself and others outside of aesthetic and political comfort zones, often with the specific aim of raising awareness about the plight of civilians in Iraq.
“I’m very interested in mundane images that aren’t typically recorded,” says the affable, soft-spoken Bilal. “Whenever I look through a camera viewfinder, the resulting image is very subjective. I’m trying to lose at least some of that subjectivity, even if the placement of the apparatus prevents it from being 100 percent possible.”
In terms of subject matter, the majority of the images are indeed banal, yet this thread of half-narratives and non sequiturs is also intriguing. The implications of the photographs and the “dialogue” they create differ fundamentally for all who participate, be it Bilal himself, the viewers in the museum, viewers online or those who are willingly or unwittingly captured on camera as the artist goes about his life. “For me, it is a personal record,” he said, prior to the project’s realization. “But by having the camera on my head, it also makes people aware of how much we are under surveillance.”
Since 3rd i went live, the mainstream media has mainly stoked fears about what Bilal’s camera might capture. News reports have concentrated on the fact that Bilal is an assistant arts professor in the photography and imaging department of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and that after discussing the project with the university, he was asked to cover his camera’s lens while on campus out of concern for student and staff privacy. “It’s a bit ironic to be told by the photography department not to take photographs,” Bilal says, “but NYU is a private institution and they are entitled to protect the privacy of their students. It’s a difficult line for them to tread.”
Nevertheless, the media’s focus on the legal implications of Bilal’s project reflects recent societal concerns about the proliferation of personal data on the internet. When Google launched its Street View function in May 2007, protests arose over how some of the images had captured people in acts they would not want on public display, such as leaving strip bars, being arrested or urinating outside. Governments also moved to prevent Google from photographing military bases and other security-sensitive locations. While the company countered that its photographs were taken from public property, this argument was questionable since Google’s cameras, mounted on the roofs of its vans, were able to look over walls, fences, hedges and other structures that normally protect privacy. In May 2008, Google conceded and began blurring the faces of people caught on its cameras.
However, in Bilal’s photographs there have not yet been any instances as dramatic as the kinds captured on Street View. At press time, the only images that are even vaguely controversial are of people jaywalking in New York. Bilal’s movements are considerably more limited than those of Google’s camera vans; his activity is ultimately little different from anyone taking a photo in a public space and posting it on an open profile on Facebook, MySpace, Flickr or any other website (though he does take care to inform people of the camera when entering private property.) If there is to be any scandal involving people he has photographed, it will take time to emerge.
So far, the only adverse consequences of 3rd i have involved Bilal himself. The surgery was no minor affair: at a body-modification clinic in Los Angeles, three titanium plates were inserted under his scalp and three transdermal pins screwed into it to support the custom-built camera mount. When I met him in late December, six weeks after the surgery, the physical toll of the project was already evident. Noticeably thinner, he explained that the trauma of the operation was worse than he had anticipated. In the following days, his body went into shock and he started having severe panic attacks; these have since subsided, but he now carries prescription drugs should another occur. Maintenance of the apparatus is also a demanding commitment. As the skin around the pins cannot fully heal, it is uncomfortable; Bilal has to wash the area three times a day and apply a steroid cream when the skin becomes irritated. Needless to say, he currently sleeps on his front.
On the other hand, while Bilal expected the camera to cause problems with airport security officials, when he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport to fly back to New York, his head still in bandages, the process went relatively smoothly. Though he refused when guards requested that he remove the gauze for inspection, the matter was eventually resolved when he agreed to swab the area with a cloth that was then analyzed with an explosives detector.
Aside from the physical and psychological stress, the challenges Bilal has faced have been mostly trivial, even amusing. He recalls hearing a woman talking on her cell phone behind him: “Hang on, let me get away from this guy—he has a fucking camera on his head.” (She escaped being photographed). And while he may be recording the world around him, he is also giving himself up to our surveillance. He recounts an episode in which he was chatting to his girlfriend online. “I felt like ending the conversation, so I told her I was going to take a nap. But then she said, ‘Didn’t you just take one?’ It’s harder to tell white lies these days,” he says with a wry smile.
Bilal’s surgery surprised his family; the artist initially told only his brother Ala of his plans. Evidently his relatives were alarmed when they found out from a TV news report, but he says they are proud of his work. The reception in the broader Middle East has also generally been positive. “It’s a region that endures double surveillance,” the artist says. “People take it for granted that they are being watched by their own governments, but they also have to endure the surveillance of the US, so people there identify with what I’m trying to do.”
Indeed, Bilal is not the only artist to have explored issues of surveillance and personal privacy through continuous GPS tracking. Since 2002, Bangladeshi-American artist Hasan Elahi’s “Tracking Transience” has provided online documentation of his whereabouts—a reaction to his interrogation by the FBI on the mistaken suspicion of concealing explosives in a Florida locker (See Essays, p.68). Certainly, by exploring the banality of everyday life as much as the pervasiveness of surveillance, 3rd i is more than just a critique of governmental abuses of power. And yet the reasons for its creation—as with much of Bilal’s work of the past decade—are rooted in the same post-9/11 climate of paranoia, racial profiling and wartime dehumanization of the other.
The motivations behind Bilal’s work are fundamentally shaped by his personal history. Born in Kufa in 1966, he worked as a photographer and painter in Baghdad during the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88), using his art to address issues of conflict and freedom of speech, but painting in an abstract style that would elude censorship by the authorities. When Saddam Hussein’s regime invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bilal was part of the student movement that refused to join the army as volunteers. “At that moment I knew it was the end of my time in Iraq,” he says, adding that one of the ideas that inspired the creation of 3rd i was a memory of fleeing his country during the Shia uprisings of 1991. “I was outside Najaf when it was under bombardment by Saddam’s army. I looked back and saw black smoke rising above the city. I wished I had a camera to capture what I was leaving behind.” Upon his arrival in Kuwait, Bilal was arrested and sent to a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, where he spent two years until he was granted political asylum in the US. After studying art at the University of New Mexico, he went on to earn an MFA in art and technology from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003, working as an adjunct assistant professor there afterward.
It is the contrast between the stability of his life in the US and his family’s predicament in Iraq that has fueled his work in recent years. “When I arrived here I adopted Iraq as an issue because I didn’t, and still don’t, have the luxury of disconnecting myself from my family and the reality there,” he says.
The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 profoundly changed the course of Bilal’s life and work. In 2004, an unmanned Predator drone flying over Kufa fired at a checkpoint, killing his brother Haji. Weeks after his death, Bilal’s father died of grief. “For two years I debated how to engage with that,” Bilal says. “In May 2007, I saw a TV interview with a US soldier in Colorado who operates the drones that fire on Iraq. At that point it struck me how we can become disconnected from reality when we live in a comfort zone.”
Bilal’s response was Domestic Tension (2007), staged at the Flatfile Galleries in Chicago, where he spent 31 days confined in a room, accepting only donated food. Online viewers could access the project website to operate a robotic paintball gun in the gallery, which would fire yellow pellets at the artist at any time of day or night, though with a brief time restriction between shots. Bilal describes the pain of being hit by a paintball as excruciating, and potentially life-threatening if it strikes the head. To sleep he had to tie himself down in his bed in case the sound of the gun made him sit up and into the line of fire. While he spent most of his days dodging the onslaught, he took some moments of respite at a desk—protected by a plastic screen—where he communicated with the shooters via a live webcam and a chat room.
“I started seeing people from all walks of life—video-gamers, paintball players, hunters,” Bilal recounts. “I’d ask the hunters why they are doing this and they’d say, ‘Well, you’re in season.’ One group of people I didn’t anticipate was hackers, who loved it.” Bilal describes communities of hackers forming spontaneously and altering the nature of the game. Within ten days, one group had hacked the gun’s software to make it fire on full automatic, but another group soon protected him by keeping the gun aimed to the side. By the end of the event, 60,000 shots had been fired by people in 128 countries, and the website’s comment board was filled with messages that ranged from expressions of admiration and encouragement to the most vitriolic racist diatribes. Bilal shows no bitterness toward those who attacked him online, but he is emphatic about the significance of their actions. “I allowed people to act out their impulses and sometimes it brought out the worst in them because they felt no accountability. It matters that there are soldiers sitting in the US directing weapons elsewhere in the world. They feel no consequences, no physical connection to the target.”
In reliving a close approximation of the extreme duress Iraqis have experienced every day since 2003, Bilal’s method was indeed sensational, but he feels that it is a necessary means to stimulate discussion about the war in the absence of vigorous debate or protest among the broader US society. In spite of the central role he played in the performance, Domestic Tension was ultimately nothing without the participation of its online users. With every shot they fired, they conflated reality with entertainment and bloodlust.
Bilal further explored the politicization of the video-game medium in The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi (2008). In 2005, he saw a CNN report about Night of Bush Capturing, a first-person shooter game, purportedly made by al-Qaeda, in which players can kill US soldiers and, ultimately, the former US President. “I was intrigued by this idea of a terrorist organization in a cave making a video game,” Bilal says. During his research, he discovered that the original version of the game, entitled Quest for Saddam, was in fact made in the US in 2003 and allows players to hunt Saddam Hussein and eliminate Iraqi terrorists, all of whom bear the dictator’s face. Al-Qaeda’s subsequent version simply replaced Hussein’s face with those of US soldiers and George W. Bush.
“I was fascinated by how the simple act of changing the skin could outrage people,” Bilal continues. “All of a sudden we become the hunted, not the hunter. At that time I wanted to raise awareness about suicide bombers and why Iraqi society had suddenly become so violent.” For A Virtual Jihadi, Bilal hacked al-Qaeda’s version of the game and made himself the game’s protagonist, drawing on his own life story to highlight the vulnerability of aggrieved individuals to recruitment by groups such as al-Qaeda—the narrative presents Bilal as an Iraqi-American living in the US, who, radicalized by the deaths of his brother and father, decides to become a suicide bomber.
The work ran into severe opposition and censorship. It was first exhibited on March 5, 2008, at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, but the school’s administration shut down the exhibition the next day on the grounds that it “derived from the product of a terrorist organization, and it suggests the killing of the President.” Within a week, Bilal was able to relocate the exhibition to the Sanctuary for Independent Media, also in Troy, but the video continued to attract vigorous criticism from the city’s public works commissioner, Robert Mirch, who publicly called Bilal’s work an “act of terrorism.” In a blatant politically motivated move, city officials subsequently notified the Sanctuary’s managers that the venue was “unfit for occupancy,” citing building codes that require doors to be 30 inches wide (the Sanctuary’s were only 29 inches.)
“Hate is not a natural emotion, it is taught,” Bilal says. “Al-Qaeda’s game is similar to the ones the US military uses to recruit and train its personnel.” While Bilal’s methodology in A Virtual Jihadi was open to misinterpretation—those who did not understand that it was a twice-hacked game assumed the artist was advocating the assassination of President Bush—the collective responsibility of a democratic society nonetheless is to address its own contradictions and engage with different perspectives, not suppress them.
“Fighting for peace” is the clichéd contradiction often used to justify the US invasion of Iraq, and yet as we approach the war’s eighth anniversary on March 20, mainstream media remains quiet about the still-increasing death toll. The Iraq Body Count database has documented approximately 99,000 to 109,000 civilian deaths, and US military deaths are rapidly approaching 5,000, with tens of thousands more soldiers returning disabled. Intending to memorialize the dead, on March 8, 2010, at New York’s Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Bilal held the first in an ongoing series of live performances entitled And Counting. . . , in which visitors read names of the dead while Bilal has his back tattooed with a borderless map of Iraq covered with one dot for each civilian and military casualty, placed near the cities where they died. While the 5,000 US soldiers will be represented with visible red dots, the 100,000 Iraqi deaths are being tattooed in ultraviolet ink that is visible only under black light. Bilal is raising one dollar for each dot and is donating the proceeds to Rally for Iraq, a charity that provides educational scholarships for Iraqi and American children who have lost parents in the war.
Bilal describes the process as intensely painful: it is impossible to separate so many dots, so most of the time the tattoo artist’s needle is penetrating the same area over and over. Seen under black light, the work is a lurid smear reminiscent of burn marks. He is covered with 20,000 dots so far and plans to have the 5,000 red dots for the US soldiers tattooed somewhere in Washington, DC, perhaps near the White House, on May 30—Memorial Day.
Timely in its political activism, Bilal’s practice is also visionary in its technological experimentation. Developed at the same time that WikiLeaks released hundred of thousands of classified documents and while Facebook and Twitter have played growing roles in facilitating antigovernment protests in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Iran, 3rd i is the product of a nascent era in which technology is radically altering the balance of power between governments and their citizens. Bilal is keen to explore this uncharted territory. At present he is developing a 3rd i application that will allow anybody to mimic his project with their own Android smartphone, automatically taking photos once per minute and uploading images to Flickr or any other server of their choice. While the service the app offers in itself is already commonplace—approximately 2.5 billion photos are uploaded to Facebook every month—it is its automation of this process that matters. It may represent one further step toward a future in which all human activities and thoughts are documented in some form.
For all its potentially prophetic qualities, Bilal’s physically grueling work is a means of coming to terms with his past, from the oppression of life under Saddam Hussein to the catastrophe of the country’s mismanaged occupation by the US and the deaths of his brother and father. “Being in a state of vulnerability is when you truly let out your grief,” he says. “Lately it’s hit me more and more how these atrocities have shattered my family. Committing myself to a performance that makes me physically and emotionally vulnerable helps lower barriers. It brings me closer to reality and allows me to comprehend what I have lost.”