Although news about Wafaa Bilal’s camera implantation first came out in the beginning of December last year, January is as good a time as any to revisit his transformation.
The multidisciplinary artist and NYU professor’s latest project examines issues of surveillance, of seeing and of being seen. As with all of his performance pieces (see his project “Domestic Tension”), Bilal uses his body as the primary vehicle of communication. Technology serves as the catalyst for most of his projects, and the “3rdi” is no exception. In order to investigate the act of surveillance, Bilal has implanted a small, digital camera into the back of his head for a year.
The camera takes still pictures of Bilal’s whereabouts every minute of every day. Bilal and his crew then upload these pictures to a website, and archive them on a daily basis. Similar to his previous projects, we can access this catalogue of images on his website (http://wafaabilal.com/). We become the surveyors of Bilal’s day.
I am drawn to these collection of images. Perhaps the most captivating ones are the partial images, the ones that speak of fragmented stories. I keep returning to the pictures of blank walls, to images that are blurred and indistinguishable. I have sat with them, wondering what and where.
Bilal’s 3rdi interacts with memory, that which is in constant motion. Indeed, all memory is fiction; as we do, we forget. I read these rapid successions of images as an attempt to remember, to salvage the day.
On the one hand, this project addresses the ease at which society monitors our actions. Cameras exist in many places. By placing a camera on the back of his head, Bilal alludes to this mostly forgotten fact. His project reminds us that we are constantly subject to the gaze. In an age when cameras and recording devices can be found on the freeways and in items of clothing (via the use of radio-frequency identification), our sense to privacy is relative. Bilal visually reminds us of this fact with the blatant location of his camera.
On the other hand, Bilal’s implant addresses a more personal project: an act of reclamation. As an immigrant, Bilal reflects upon the images, people, and memories he has left behind in Iraq. Within the context of remembering, capturing moments, whether they are blank walls, blurred or clear scenery, Bilal is able to document and remember.
It is important to note that despite these relevant goals, the media’s reaction to the project, perhaps not unsurprisingly, does not focus on Bilal’s reasoning, but instead on the project’s oddity. The following clip from CNN is painfully clear:
The reporter’s constant grimace as she touches the camera and speaks to Bilal quickly serves to call the validity of his project into question. This report positions Bilal and his project as freakery. The questions about when the camera will be on (note that the reporter is specifically interested about whether or not Bilal will leave his camera on during sex or when he is in the shower) point to sensationalism, an act which overlooks Bilal’s project entirely.
I invite you to look through Bilal’s archives for yourself : http://www.3rdi.me/. See how he captures the everyday, making even the most mundane image valuable.