Saturday, December 11, 2010

You Never Had a Camera in My Head

The medium is the message, the medium is the message, the medium is the message. I can say it over and over again and painstakingly meditate on its meaning. I always get confused even though I’ve been studying this vague yet powerful construct of Marshall McLuhan’s for many years.

Enter Wafaa Bilal. Have you heard of him? He’s an Iraqi American artist who has made waves in recent years by producing art forms that have blurred the line between media stunt, public protest, and the boundary of art and real life.

He’s the guy who wrote the book, “Shoot an Iraqi”. This book is about a living art exhibit in which he confined himself at the Flatfile Gallery in Chicago. The exhibit was called “Domestic Tension” and it was Wafaa home for one month. Living art has been done this way before but he added a twist. If you visited him on-line not only could you video chat  he gave you ability to fire a yellow paint ball at him at 300 feet per second, all day, every day. I don’t know if that’s really domestic but it’s certainly qualifies as tension as over 60,000 paint balls were fired at him during his month long ordeal.

He’s also the guy who asked for people to vote for whom they would prefer to see water-boarded. An Iraqi citizen or a dog named Buddy. Wafaa received the most votes. It is rumored that he actually got the treatment.

Most recently he’s the guy that put 105,000 tattoos on his back. A tattoo artist inked a small red dot for each of the 5,000 Americans who have died in Iraq as well as an invisible ultraviolet dot for each of the 100,000 Iraqis who have died as well. Obviously when viewed normally the Iraqi deaths are hidden, and that’s the point. But when viewed under a black-light his tattoo serves as a sobering reminder of the larger cost of that war.

But all of these art forms have a well traveled lineage albeit with slight variations and levels of extreme. His latest artistic endeavor however could be a game changer. It’s called “The 3rd I” and you can find the link to this latest exhibit at

Basically Wafaa has surgically imbedded a video camera in the back of his head. Imagines from the camera are sent live at the rate of one frame per minute to produce this art exhibit. Generally speaking, with the exception of the extreme measures he underwent to have the camera imbedded in his head, walking around streaming pictures doesn’t seem like a big deal considering everyone has a camera phone these days as well as the live streaming video that already comes from webcams the world over. How then is this new medium different, vastly different from emerging social norms as I now contend, and what is the message?

First, always remember that McLuhan has stated that content is disconnected from the medium. The content is not important. That’s why streaming pictures as a rate of 1 per minute versus streaming video in HD 1080i in 3-D doesn’t matter. Certainly it’s easy enough to do if he’s already going through the pain of imbedding a camera in his head. But, for the first time, here is a crystal clear example of a medium in which the content is completely unimportant and therefore separated from the medium.

The message however is extreme. Would you invite Wafaa to your house knowing he has a camera imbedded in his head and will be recording and broadcasting his every move… or is it your every move? Privacy issues immediately come to the fore. Wafaa claims to have been disinvited to a few social events and has already offered his employer the concession that he would cover the camera lens while he was at work, on the campus of the New York University, this apparently to protect the privacy of the students. What is so different from his medium than the medium of the same multitude of protected student’s who video text daily from campus?  Or for that matter the casual friend holding up a video phone at a private party to record a rising young pop star taking a bong hit to celebrate her 18th birthday? Of course the agents for Miley Cyrus report that the bong contained salvia and not weed but that’s hard to deduce from the video that’s already all over the internet.

But something more than privacy changes when the camera becomes biologically attached to you. That’s not to say Wafaa’s camera is always on or that there isn’t an off switch on version 1.0.  But the medium is fast approaching when the camera will always be on. Remember the Truman show? Truman (Jim Carey) is debating with God (The Character Christof played by Ed Harris). He says, “You never had a camera in my head”. Meaning that while there were hundreds of cameras capturing his complete life in the ultimate reality show, the cameras could never capture his private thoughts…the cameras were never in his head. Are we now moving one step closer to our private thoughts being netted together in one universal broadcast? Wafaa’s camera is on the back of his head. We will see in his photo exhibit exactly what he is not looking at, which by inversion rules out what he has deemed of interest. But the next imbedded camera easily looks forward and we know where that leads…we can’t hide from the occasional glance in the direction of the jogger in the bikini that shows up on the web. Currently we can still edit the contents of our camera phones before the pictures get home.

We also edit our tweets sufficiently to conceal all but what we want the world to know of our thoughts. I am happy, I am sad, I am tired, I am hungry, I just went through the car wash, My plane leaves in 30 minutes, I just saw Justin Bieber at the airport, I just ran into my friend’s wife at the gate, I just had a carnal thought, I just boarded my flight, I just thought about the plane exploding at 35,000 feet, The guy sitting next to me has an iPad, I am jealous, I want to steal his iPad, I have to quit tweeting the plane is about to take off, there’s something on the wing, I have gas, I love you,…artificial airline induced blackout period..., the plane just landed safely, see you in an hour…

Of course when Wafaa flys the guy sitting directly behind him will be not be able to figure out exactly why there is a robot eye staring straight back at him that keeps winking every minute. Keep your thoughts on the seat back and tray table directly in front of you. Keep your fingers away from your nose.

In March I blogged about our journey to becoming one with the Borg. See “Assimilation Has Begun” . It doesn't help that Wafaa’s camera is distinctly Borgish in style. And I don’t think in general Wafaa’s aim is to promote our general assimilation into a technological collective. He is an artist making political statements through his medium. His message is one of peace and it is achieved by opening our eyes. He has opened our eyes in a multitude of ways with this latest technique simply taking another bold step by physically opening a robotic eye into his world. His message is not contained within the images that will stream back to his art exhibit. His message is contained within the art form itself. And while this medium is certainly effective in leading us towards a greater understanding, it plunges us further into the abyss. We’ve already stepped into it and are falling fast. There’s no turning back. Ironically as Wafaa falls he will capture our images in free fall behind him, at one minute intervals.