When New York artist Wafaa Bilal visited Toronto recently, he got together with inventor Steve Mann to compare notes on mounting cameras on their heads. Then they jumped into Mann’s hot tub to play some music.
Bilal, an Iraqi who has lived in the United States since 1991, is a performance artist who hopes to spend 2011 streaming photographs from the camera he had surgically implanted in the back of his head. Snapshots of his apartment and the streets, cafés and shops he frequents show up in batches on his website, with black blanks indicating places where he has not received permission to shoot, including New York University, where he teaches art.
Mann, an artist, musician and engineering professor at the University of Toronto who mounted a camera on his own head back in the 1990s, could be called the godfather of cyborg art, the inspiration for artists such as Bilal to consider how they might fuse their bodies and technology.
A pioneer of wearable computers and webcams, including various eyeglasses that use cameras to enhance sight, Mann is currently researching the possibilities of directing computers through brain waves, although he warns that a brain-computer interface is a long way off. Meanwhile, he’s perfecting his hydraulophone, the first musical instrument to make a sound exclusively with water – including a model incorporated into a hot tub and dubbed the balnaphone, in which Bilal was invited to take a dip.
Of course, artists aren’t the only ones to incorporate technology into the body: Some early adopters have already implanted ID chips under their skin. With increasing miniaturization, anybody with a pacemaker in their chest or a Bluetooth in their ear could be called a cyborg; artists’ more extreme uses of computers, cameras and microphones are simply a way of asking what our growing dependence on technology directly hooked up to our bodies might mean.
The most notorious practitioner is the Australian performance artist Stelarc. Once best known for hanging his body off hooks in a gallery ceiling, he has become the agent provocateur of cyborg art, famously announcing that the body is obsolete. In 2007, he created a third ear for himself: Crafted from cultivated cells and cartilage, it was surgically attached to his forearm and outfitted with a microphone to transmit what it could “hear.”
Four years later, though, such achievements – denounced as publicity stunts by some; heralded as social critiques by others – are now almost passé.
“Stelarc embodies the cyborg thinking,” Mann says, “but at some point it’s evident that the cyborg aspect of our lives is a given. We have succumbed to the idea of technology.”
Indeed, the cyborg experience is now so mainstream that some artists are using the technology as just another tool – rather than creating work that is a self-conscious statement about the body/machine interface.
Toronto filmmaker Rob Spence, for example, is making plans to shoot documentaries using his prosthetic eye. “Anybody who loses an eye, they want to put a camera in it,” he says. But while he wants the camera to replicate eye contact with his subjects for the viewer of his documentaries and does plan to address pertinent topics in his work – the idea of the cyborg, issues of privacy, and the open prosthetics movement in which a metal leg or plastic hand is something to show off rather than hide – the content of the documentaries will be more important than any theory he has about his use of the eye-camera.
Bilal’s project is something of a hybrid, full of commentary on the artist’s relationship with the technology yet also poetic. Partly, it is an act of storytelling by an émigré artist acutely aware of all the images of his homeland he will never see: With his rear-facing camera, the exile has crafted a lovely metaphor for the backward glance. On the other hand, the work is also a rumination on the loss of privacy in a high-tech age, whether that’s because we are being captured by surveillance cameras or exposing ourselves on Facebook.
And it contains a political component:
“I am a Middle Eastern man in the United States. I am possibly being watched. Having the camera is a freeing act. If my life is broadcast minute by minute, and my life is known, what is there to be afraid of?” he asks.
Bilal argues that he has every right to shoot in the public street – just as anyone with a cellphone can – but he has respected NYU’s request he not film there. It is important to him that he is controlling the revelation of his own life and those he encounters. Mann has coined a term for this: souveillance, up-ended surveillance in which the watching is done by an individual rather than an authority.
The project does carry health risks: Bilal is currently wearing the camera around his neck because he developed an infection at the site of one of three steel posts that hold the device. Still, the physical link is crucial to the project, he says.
“I am a performance artist: we subject ourselves to endurance. It’s an important step, unifying the body and the machine. It puts my commitment to the test.”
This kind of off-kilter, artistic experiment is important, argues Toronto media artist David Rokeby: As we all become more enmeshed in technology, somebody had better be questioning the relationship.
“My concern is that the technology is moving faster than the ideas,” Rokeby says. “… We have to ask questions that aren’t being asked or are only being asked in an uninformed way. In the absence of that, provocations like Stelarc’s are useful.”
What kinds of questions?
“We are the products of evolutionary adaptation. There is a certain hard-fought balance to the human body,” he says. “What we don’t know when we put ourselves into interaction with different systems is whether we survive or become unbalanced. If you start to change the structure of the body do you move away from human culture?”
In the 1990s, Rokeby developed – for artistic purposes – eye-tracking software that he shared with a paralyzed woman. Paradoxically, he says, the technology alienated her, because it permitted her caregivers to leave the room.
Mann, meanwhile, now talks about “post-cyborg” art, gleefully pointing out that you can’t take your Blackberry into the balnaphone, and offering nakedness as a symbol of both a primordial past and a post-cyborg future.
“We are all cyborgs in some sense,” he says. “I use the analogy of clothing. We adapt to this world so much, when you’re naked it feels strange, or otherworldly.”
Bilal knows all about that kind of adaptation: He used to sleep on his back until the camera forced him to shift to his side. “We create a machine to make our lives easier, but the machine takes over. I can testify first-hand to this.”
If we can leave medical researchers to figure whether if cellphones cause brain tumours, we need artists to consider whether the blurring of the line between the body and technology changes our culture. Whether he is singing triumphantly or tweeting in alarm, the cyborg artist is the canary in the coal mine: Bilal hopes to reinstall the camera next week.