Health Problems Force Professor to Pull Camera From Back of Head

An NYU professor triggered a debate about campus privacy in November when he decided to implant a camera in the back of his head for a year-long art project.

Now the professor, Wafaa Bilal, faces a much bigger obstacle than students who might not want their pictures taken. His body is rejecting part of the implanted device.

The Iraqi-born artist underwent surgery on Friday to remove a section of the camera apparatus, which is rigged to snap a picture every 60 seconds and publish the image on a Web site set up for the project. The pictures are also displayed on monitors in a physical exhibit at a museum in Doha, Qatar.

“I’m determined to continue with it,” Mr. Bilal, an assistant arts professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, said on Monday.

Under its initial configuration, the camera was mounted on three posts. Each led to a titanium base that was implanted between Mr. Bilal’s skin and skull. The procedure was done by a body-modification artist at a tattoo shop in Los Angeles. But the setup caused constant pain, because his body rejected one of the posts, despite treatment with antibiotics and steroids. So Mr. Bilal had that post surgically removed, leaving the other two intact.

Once the wound heals, Mr. Bilal hopes to figure out a different setup and remount a lighter camera. For now, though, he’s carrying on the project by tying the camera to the back of his neck.

The professor has offered several explanations for what motivated such an extreme piece of art. The inspiration comes from his chaotic past: Mr. Bilal fled Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991, living in refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia before coming to the United States. In retrospect, he wished for a record of places he left behind.

He also sees the project’s mundane, daily images as a way of slowing life down and calling attention to the present. “Most of the time, we don’t live in the places we live in,” he said. “We don’t exist in the city we exist in. Perhaps physically we exist, but mentally we are somewhere else.” Yet another explanation: The project points to the future—a future where, as Mr. Bilal sees it, communication devices will become part of our bodies.

But why not simply wear the camera, rather than implant it?

“It’s a performance,” Mr. Bilal said. “With the performance comes endurance. But also it’s a commitment. And I didn’t feel that strapping something around my neck would be the same way I’m committed to the project as mounting it to the top of my head.”

Return to Top