“Art”. It’s a nebulous term at the best of times. Nobody can agree on what it actually means, never mind what it does – or, for that matter, if it does (or should do) anything at all. Sticking with visual art (in itself quite a slippery concept) and leaving literature, music, film and the rest aside, there’s no better example than that thing we call “contemporary art” – the realm of unmade beds, formaldehyde-treated sharks and everything on the Turner Prize shortlist which makes older members of my family repeatedly shout “What is that!?!” In a sphere where a blank canvas can be considered a finished article rather than a resource, it’s harder than ever to agree exactly what constitutes “art”.
Well, consider this: Wafaa Bilal, a professor of photography at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts, is taking one photo a minute for the space of a year to be relayed back to an exhibition in Doha, Qatar, with his position tracked by GPS. This week, however, the project has encountered problems – because his body rejected one of the metal posts keeping the camera bolted into the back of his skull.
Bolted. Into the back of his skull.
When interviewed about the thinking behind 3rdi at the end of last year, Iraqi-born Bilal recounts his escape from the war-torn country in 1991 (how times change). Fleeing his home in Najaf as bombs fell around, he had no way of recording what he was leaving and no connection to his former life: at least this is one year of which he has a full and permanent record. However, he also intends to make a quite serious comment on the “surveillance society” in which we live, forever followed and recorded by CCTV to the point where our lives can barely be considered private any longer.
After doctors refused to perform the procedure on the grounds of excessive risk, Bilal had the camera attached at a body-piercing studio in Los Angeles. Despite treatment with steroids and anti-biotics, he was still experiencing pain and, as the risk of infection grew, it became necessary to remove the device. Hoping that the wound heals quickly so that the camera can be restored, he is maintaining the flow of images by leaving the camera attached by a strap around his neck.
I don’t think I really need to state that I think this man is insane, but I just did. We’ve all heard of people who have done extreme things in the name of art, but this goes a long way beyond Method acting or, for that matter, everything else I can think of.
One of the many, many embarrassing anecdotes that my friends pull out on occasion was directly instigated by contemporary art. During my second year, my housemates and I visited Yoko Ono’s exhibition at the Baltic in Newcastle, and amongst the exhibits was a large, transparent plastic maze. Like many other visitors, I filed in through the narrow gap in the wall – but promptly got lost. This was not helped by the fact that, the maze being transparent, it had not occurred to me that there may actually be a wall in the place where I was about to walk. Needless to say, when the whole gallery resounded with a crash, I shouted “OW!” and the couple of hundred serious art fans in the building all turned to stare at me in outrage as I desperately tried to escape, I learned my lesson. Cringe as I might, and laugh as I know you will (it’s fine – my housemates are still giggling over a year later), this basically sums up my relationship with art: getting drawn in is easy, but I can’t negotiate it with any dignity whatsoever.
Bilal’s current work must be problematic even to people far more artistically aware than I. On the one hand, he does raise some serious questions about the world in which we live; the importance of memory as well as the ways in which Big Brother watches us every second of the day. The dominance of CCTV everywhere we go is a form of socially mandated stalking, to be used to our cost as well as our benefit, endemic to the point where we may as well carry our own camera around with us. Still, the extent to which Bilal has gone is quite disturbing – the extent of the danger and the pain he has put himself through may liken him to many great artists, but they were all somehow mad too. Moreover, it’s difficult to reconcile his ideas about privacy and observation with the fact that, though his girlfriend hasn’t yet imposed any limits, his institution has. To protect the rights of students at the Tisch School of Arts, while Bilal is at work he has agreed to keep the lens cap on. It may be art, but it would seem that it isn’t above compromise.