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Sir, There's a Camera in Your Head

November 19, 2010 | Chris Payatagool
eyes_behind_head.jpgBy Erica Orden via The Wall Street Journal

Students long have complained about teachers with eyes on the backs of their heads.

A New York University photography professor is going one further by implanting a camera in the back of his head.

The project is being commissioned by a new museum in Qatar. But the work, which would broadcast a live stream of images from the camera to museum visitors, is sparking a debate on campus over the competing values of creative expression and student privacy.

Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi assistant professor in the photography and imaging department of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, intends to undergo surgery in coming weeks to install the camera, according to several people familiar with the project.

For one year, Mr. Bilal's camera will take still pictures at one-minute intervals, then feed the photos to monitors at the museum. The thumbnail-sized camera will be affixed to his head through a piercing-like attachment, his NYU colleagues say. Mr. Bilal declined to comment for this story.

The artwork, titled "The 3rd I," is intended as "a comment on the inaccessibility of time, and the inability to capture memory and experience," according to press materials from the museum, known as Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Bilal's work would be among the inaugural exhibits of Mathaf, scheduled to open next month.

Because Mr. Bilal is an active professor, teaching three courses this semester and scheduled to teach this spring, his special camera could capture not just his personal activity, but also his interactions with students.

That possibility, of exposing private encounters without participants' consent, has raised concerns among NYU administrators and faculty.

"Obviously you don't want students to be under the burden of constant surveillance; it's not a good teaching environment," said Fred Ritchin, associate chairman of the department.

After Mr. Bilal received the commission, he informed the department chairwoman, Deborah Willis, of his project in January. "I said, what if students are upset?" Ms. Willis recalled. "What if you're documenting what they don't want you to see?"

Ms. Willis and Mr. Bilal brought the issue to the attention of the deans, Ms. Willis said, and Mr. Bilal presented the concept for his project at a faculty meeting several months ago, according to a university spokesman, John Beckman.

"It's fair to say that a good deal of discussion ensued," Mr. Beckman said. The school is still determining what rules it will set for Mr. Bilal and his camera on campus.

During the course of the discussions, Mr. Bilal has informed all of his students of his plans and has agreed to cover the camera with a black lens cap while on university property, according to Mr. Ritchin. Another proposal would require him to turn off the camera while in NYU buildings, Mr. Beckman said.

Mr. Bilal's personal activity is a separate matter, of course. "I guess anybody accepting a dinner invitation will have to realize that certain things will be going on," Mr. Ritchin said.
While Mr. Bilal's project represents a novel challenge for NYU, it is hardly the first time his work has caused a stir.

For a 2008 project, "Virtual Jihadi," Mr. Bilal hacked a video game to insert an avatar of himself as a suicide-bomber hunting President George W. Bush. The work incited a wave of protests, both for and against it, and eventually the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in Mr. Bilal's defense after the exhibition was shut down.

In his 2007 work, "Domestic Tension," Mr. Bilal confined himself to a gallery in Chicago for a month, inviting the public to visit a website where they could "shoot" the artist by remotely firing a paintball gun at him.

And in June, Mr. Bilal tattooed on to his back a map of Iraqi cities for a work called "...and Counting." The names of the cities were spelled out in Arabic script, with dots added to mark the location of American and Iraqi casualties.

The new museum where Mr. Bilal's camera-based work is to be shown is overseen by the Qatar Musuems Authority, whose other projects include the National Museum of Qatar and the Museum of Islamic Art, which opened in 2008.

A curator of the exhibition that includes Mr. Bilal's work says the artist defies categorization. "He's not really a photographer, he's not really a video artist, he's not really a performance artist," curator Till Fellrath said.

"Whatever artwork he creates, he doesn't want people to just look at it, he wants them to participate in it."

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