09 February 2011

Wafaa Bilal: From First Amendment martyr to Idiot of the Week

A few years ago, a man named Wafaa Bilal became a cause celebre in my old home town of Troy, New York. A dissident refugee from Sadaam's Iraq, Bilal became a conceptual artist in this country, and as artist-in-residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute caused a controversy with his "Virtual Jihadi" installation, in which he retooled a video game to make its object the death or capture of George W. Bush. Predictably, patriotic Troylets took this as advocacy for assassination (see also the reaction to the film The Assassination of George W. Bush) and Bilal was pressured into removing his work from the RPI campus. He took it to the progressive-minded Sanctuary for Independent Media, which found itself promptly shut down for long-undiscovered building violations by a Republican city administration. Leaving aside the purported artistic merit of his work, one had to stand up for the man in the face of repressive intolerance of dissident expression.

Bilal is back in the news today, but this time he has become a national laughingstock. His latest "performance" piece involved surgically installing a camera in the back of his head so it could transmit pictures taken during Bilal's daily adventures to a Qatar museum. On this occasion, not the state but Bilal's own body has censored him, painfully rejecting the installation and forcing him to have it surgically removed. The artist, now an assistant professor affiliated with New York University, believes that a smaller camera should prove more tolerable. No political context can exempt Bilal from the contempt such a pseudo-artistic project deserves. Call me a philistine, but I still think that art has something to do with aesthetics, and I don't think something becomes "art" simply because a critic or someone with academic credentials says it is. I allow, however, that there may be real artistic merit in Bilal's latest exploit -- but it is comic, and it is unintentional.

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