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Art Prof Lets World Peer Through His Surgically Embedded 3rd Eye

By Richard Adhikari
Dec 6, 2010 6:00 AM PT

For the next year, Wafaa Bilal, an assistant art professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, will record his life through still images taken at one-minute intervals by a camera surgically attached to the back of his head.

Art Prof Lets World Peer Through His Surgically Embedded 3rd Eye

The photos will be sent to an art museum in Qatar which commissioned the work.

Bilal is known for controversial art projects, and this latest one has stirred up the faculty and staff at NYU.

His project could be seen as one type of "sousveillance" -- the recording of an activity from the perspective of a participant.

Details of the Installation

Bilal had three titanium plates implanted under the skin in the back of his head at a body modification shop. The plates each have a post attached that sticks out through the skin when it's sewn back over the plates.

A 10-megapixel color digital camera measuring one inch by two inches was then screwed on to the posts.

The camera will regularly snap images, and the photos will be transmitted to his server via a cell phone worn on his body. Ultimately, they'll be sent to the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, which commissioned the project, called "The Third I." The museum, which will open Dec. 30, will display a live stream of the photos.

"No doctor wanted to do this, so piercing was my next best option," Bilal told TechNewsWorld. "It was done safely."

Fallout From the Project

Bilal has already seen some fallout from his efforts. NYU asked him to cover the camera with a lens cap while he was on university property, in order to protect the privacy of staff and students. He has agreed to do so.

That might put a crimp in his ambition to document his life minute by minute for the next year, but Bilal has come up with a solution -- blank images tagged with the time,, date and GPS location will be sent back to his server when the camera lens is capped.

Apparently several acquaintances have taken him off their guest lists for future gatherings because of the camera as well.

Further, as can be imagined, Bilal has trouble when trying to sleep -- he can only sit up, propped up by pillows.

A Road Less Traveled

Bilal has racked up a bit of a reputation for himself with his projects.

Earlier this year, he reportedly received over 100,000 tiny tattoos on his back to commemorate those killed in the war in Iraq, where he was born.

The project, titled "... and Counting," consisted of his getting the names of Iraqi cities tattooed on his back along with 5,000 red dots to represent American military personnel killed there and 100,000 dots in UV ink to represent the official death toll for Iraqi citizens. The entire procedure was streamed live on the Web.

In 2007, his dynamic installation "Domestic Tension" had him sit in front of a paintball gun, with cameras streaming this over the Web 24 x 7.

A 2008 project, titled "Virtual Jihadi," consisted of a video game into which he inserted an avatar of himself as a suicide bomber hunting then-president George W. Bush.

Is Bilal really a publicity hound?

"I am nothing if not a storyteller," Bilal said. "All of my work to date has been concerned with the communication of public and private information to an audience so it may be retold and distributed. The stories I tell are political dramas."

I See You

Bilal's latest project may be thought of as a type of sousveillance. The term was coined by Steve Mann to describe the recording of an activity from the perspective of a participant.

Mann's a professor in the University of Toronto's department of electrical and computer engineering. He worked at MIT, where he was one of the founding members of the Wearable Computers Group in the MIT Media Lab.

Dec. 24 was denoted World Sousveillance day in 2001. Sousveillance by citizens of a state has been credited with exposing problems such as electoral misdeeds or election fraud. For example, voters in Sierra Leone and Ghana used mobile phones to check electoral malpractice and voter intimidation during elections in 2007.


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