Artist uses body as medium

Bilal surgically attached a camera to the back of his head in his latest project, “The 3rd I.” (credit: Courtesy of Kyle McDonald via Flickr) Bilal surgically attached a camera to the back of his head in his latest project, “The 3rd I.” (credit: Courtesy of Kyle McDonald via Flickr)

Looking at Wafaa Bilal — clad in a gray sweater, pink collared shirt, and dress pants — you would never guess that he spent the past year with a camera surgically implanted in the back of his head as an artistic endeavor. The first artist of the College of Fine Arts’ spring lecture series, Bilal delivered his presentation to a nearly-packed Kresge Theater last Monday. Bilal gave an hour-long presentation explaining the intentions behind many of his pieces, then opened up the presentation for questions for half an hour. As an Iraqi-born artist, many of his pieces deal with challenging social and political comfort zones and with confronting reality. He consistently uses his own body as a medium, manipulating and even endangering himself for his art.

In 2007, Bilal gained initial publicity with a project called “Domestic Tension,” in which he lived in a make-shift room in a Chicago gallery with a paintball gun for 31 days. Video of him was streamed live online so viewers could control the movement of the gun and fire at will. Bilal released daily video-logs describing his emotional ride throughout the process. When the project’s publicity grew, the gun would sometimes fire non-stop. The project was a commentary on American warfare, examining the lack of physical or psychological contact that modern technology provides. This audience interaction is one of the most provocative elements of his artwork.

When Bilal puts himself in extreme situations, the audience becomes a crucial element in the artwork. When asked about how audience interaction added to his past pieces he responded, “I am in a situation, and the interaction could change that situation.” Bilal claimed that one of the hardest parts of being an artist is to step back and let things unfold.

Responding to a question about why he endured so much physical pain in his pieces, he shared that he was interested in triggering something in his viewers’ bodies. He has noticed that there is a certain point when his viewers begin to feel the same pain he feels.

Bilal’s level of physical endurance was tested in 2010 with a project titled “And Counting.” It honored deceased Iraqi troops, including his own brother who was killed by a missile in their hometown of Kufa, Iraq. He made a statement about the invisibility of Iraqi civilian deaths by first having a borderless map of Iraq tattooed on his back, followed by 5,000 red dots representing fallen American soldiers and 100,000 dots in permanent invisible ink representing the deaths of Iraqi civilians. The entire process took 20 hours to complete. The dots of invisible ink are only seen under a black light, where they emerge as an eerie layer of luminous blue all across his back. In the videos of the process, Bilal remains cool and collected — even after hours of tattooing, his hands are steady.

His most recent project, “The 3rd I,” involved surgical attachment of a camera to the back of his head. For an entire year, starting Dec. 15, 2010, this camera streamed an image every minute to the project’s website and provided his exact GPS location. Through this project, Bilal wanted to examine the places that humans leave behind as their fixation on the future becomes increasingly central to their lives.

The audience’s reaction to these controversial and abnormal pieces was surprisingly positive.

“He was the most down-to-earth performance artist that I’ve ever seen speak,” said first-year electrical and computer engineering major Canute Haroldson. The questions asked by audience members lacked criticism of the art, and instead were genuine inquiries about his opinions and processes.

When an audience member asked how his work will change when Iraq is less prominent on the American radar, he responded that it is an issue he cannot distance himself from. However, he does not want to be “the one looking for the next war, the next tragedy.” He claimed that his work will be shifting slowly in the next few years.