It is often said that great artists suffer for their work. Few artists can attest to that claim as well as Iraqi-born Wafaa Bilal, who lived for one year with a camera surgically implanted into the back of his head. This camera streamed images non-stop to the internet. This performance—cleverly titled “the 3rdi”—was a commentary on the prevalence of surveillance and monotony in modern life.
On Thursday, April 12, Bilal joined Beau Bothwell, doctoral candidate in Music at Columbia University, and Alberto Pepe Gentile, information scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in the Carpenter Center’s Sert Gallery for a lively panel discussion about the body as a site of artistic expression. The event was part of the Carpenter Center’s Bring Your Own: Voices of the Contemporary series, which has brought dozens of emerging artists, thinkers, curators, and innovators into conversation with one another.
Bilal, who now works as a professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, creates art that is strongly influenced by his Iraqi identity. He left Iraq in 1991 to escape oppression under the Saddam Hussein regime. “I consider myself existing in two places,” said Bilal, speaking of his turbulent past. “One is a comfort zone and one is a conflict zone. As an artist, there is always a desire to bridge these two places.”
In 2007, following the death of his brother in Iraq during the US occupation, Bilal created a controversial performance installation entitled “Domestic Tension.” The installation acted as a bridge between those experiencing the conflict and those who simply observed it. “This project tried to connect my viewers to the conflict zone using mobile devices with a very clear objective; that is, to engage, but not to create a didactic encounter,” Bilal said.
For a month, Bilal lived within range of a loaded paintball gun in a Chicago gallery. The gun was connected to the internet, and online participants could aim and shoot it as they wished. Bilal uploaded daily video diaries recorded within this self-imposed “warzone.” He also let users chat with each other on the site. “The body is a central element,” he said. “I played with the idea of being vulnerable and induced that vulnerability in my viewers as well. That connects them on a different level other than a cerebral one.”
Thirty-one days and 65,000 paint bullets later, the gallery was completely destroyed. Bilal recalled the smell of the fish-oil-based paint and the sight of yellow pigment all over the walls. The project brought forth an unexpected reaction from the public: people donated money to buy paintballs, came to the gallery to keep Bilal company, and even formed an online “Virtual Human Shield” in which users logged on and aimed the gun away from the artist.
In a related project, Bilal had the cities of Iraq tattooed on his back and then overlaid them with thousands of dots representing Iraqi and American casualties. These dots were tattooed in invisible ink. Under UV light, Bilal’s back becomes a map of the human cost of the war. “I think that [this masochism] comes from the idea that the body has its own language,” Bilal said. “There is a long history of performance artists using their bodies. It’s not that I want to hurt myself or that I like the pain but that I want to connect my viewers to larger issues.”
Gentile provided another perspective on the idea of bodies as forms of artistic identity. He focused on the spatial organization in airports. The layout of the airport encourages movement and shopping; benches are designed to make it impossible to lay down, and gates are announced at the last possible moments. According to Gentile, airports are just like prisons. Passengers are essentially tagged with information about their destination and identity, and the task of the airport is to match their flesh bodies against their digital bodies. “Airport passengers are constantly watched and managed, which increases [their] alienation and disembodiment,” Gentile said. He adds that airports are also a site of class stratification because they are divided into admiral’s clubs and first class lounges that separate those who can afford to pay more from the majority who fly economy.
Gentile cited pat-down exams, strip searches, and full body scans as evidence that airport security has “reached a point of…dehumanization.” He told a story of a woman passing through airport security, cupcake in hand, who was compelled to relinquish her sugary snack on the grounds that it contained an unacceptable quantity of gel-based frosting. “The cupcake, which is a symbol of modernity, becomes the threat that we are so concerned about,” he said.
The three panelists all touched on issues of the body in relation to modernity; the absurdity of airport security policy creates a sharp contrast with the brutal reality in Iraq that inspired Bilal’s work. Together, they highlighted the significance of the body as valuable tool for artistic expression.
—Staff writer Ola Topczewska can be reached at email@example.com.