When Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal decided to sequester himself in a Chicago art gallery for 42 days with a paintball gun that people could aim and fire at him over the Internet, he thought he might get a few shots per day. He never guessed that by day 20, more than 40,000 shots would be fired and that hackers would program the gun to fire automatically.
His exhibit, “Domestic Tension,” shows the constant stress and fear under which his family and others in Iraq live. And it highlights the detached, remote way both the American public and soldiers experience modern warfare.
“To the Western media it’s a virtual war going on in Iraq – we’re far removed in the comfort zone,” he says. “We’re allowed to disengage from the consequences of war. We don’t see mutilated bodies, we don’t see the toll on human beings.”
It is unclear how well he has conveyed his first point.
It is chilling how well he has conveyed the second.
To judge from the blog and chatroom posts on various websites that have linked to his website (www.wafaabilal.com), the majority of people who took shots at Bilal as they watched him over a live Webcam seemed either oblivious or hostile to his antiwar message. The bulk of the more than 62,000 people from at least 128 countries who took aim were apparently video-game and paintball junkies, intrigued by the possibility of shooting someone hundreds of miles away with a click of their mouse.
“They’d say, ‘This has nothing to do with politics. I just wanted to see if I could fire from Minnesota and hit someone in Chicago,’•” he says. “It was much different on opening night [which was a] very playful atmosphere. I wanted to draw people in by doing something playful. But then when all the people left, the shooting continued.”
After two and a half weeks of confinement in a simulated bedroom/office in FlatFile Galleries, Bilal was suffering ear and chest pain, sleep deprivation and overall stress from the constant ear-shattering blast of the gas-powered paintball gun, which he has maxed out his credit cards to supply with new balls.
The 40-year-old professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is no stranger to physical hardship and political tension. In Iraq, he was arrested as a dissident under Saddam Hussein’s régime. Because a member of his family had been accused of disloyalty to the régime, he was not allowed to study art at the university. When Hussein demanded “volunteers” to attack Kuwait, Bilal infuriated officials by refusing. He began organizing with opposition groups and spending time with dissident artists who painted anti-authoritarian calligraphy on walls at night.
“There was so much fear, you couldn’t even talk to your brother or sister – the saying was that the walls had ears,” he says. “You could make a simple joke and end up disappeared and tortured. There were a lot of people fighting the régime, but it was so brutal it didn’t make any difference. A whole village could be disappeared.”
Bilal fled Iraq in 1991 and spent two years in a Saudi refugee camp. There, he scrapped together supplies to paint and teach children art in a studio he built out of adobe with a plastic-sheeting window.
“We realized we weren’t going to leave any time soon,” he says. “We were given tents to live in, and the desert has no mercy when storms come.”
In late 1992, Bilal came to the United States and studied art at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he lived until moving to Chicago. In 2005, his 21-year-old brother, whom Bilal describes as “apolitical,” was killed by shrapnel as he stepped outside the family’s home in Najaf. Soon after, Bilal’s father died. It was then the idea for “Domestic Tension,” which he originally considered calling “Shoot an Iraqi,” began to brew. (He later decided that name would be too incendiary.) A news story about a U.S. soldier sitting in Colorado firing missiles in Iraq cemented his desire to showcase the technological, remote aspect of modern war. He said his family thinks he’s “crazy.”
“I tell them, ‘Desperate times require desperate measures,’ and this is a desperate time for Iraqis, and Americans too.”
The number of shots skyrocketed after his story was reported on the sarcastic, vaguely political website Digg.com. The majority of comments posted were hostile and aggressive. Some complained bitterly when Bilal left the space for a few minutes or when the server went down. “Dude get a decent server so we can play some Waffa [sic] Ball!” wrote one. And another, “Too bad we can’t waterboard him.”
People who posted comments with a political message or just pleading for more sympathy for Bilal were attacked and called “jihadist sympathizers.”
“I learned all these new things about myself. I learned I was a nigger, and a sand nigger. That I was gay. Part of it is demonization, then you can justify trying to shoot me.”
Meanwhile, participants on his own blog, where Bilal made daily updates through YouTube videos, carried on their own dialogues.
“It varied from hardcore politics to people trying to date each other,” he laughs. “They’d exchange email addresses and then disappear from the site. The Internet user has such a short attention span, this story has been reborn so many times. The other day there was a spike from Canada and Switzerland. I said, ‘Why is Switzerland shooting, you guys are supposed to be neutral.’ They said, ‘We saw it on the news.’•”
Many participants were obsessed with trying to shoot out his one light – “this symbol of hope,” Bilal calls it. When he brought a small potted tree into the room, it became an immediate target.
“People do go after the tree, so I stand in front of it and let them hit me.”
Bilal’s previous work has taken a similarly unconventional, dynamic and interactive approach to challenging viewers to think about war and repression. His installation “Sorrow of Baghdad” includes footage of a well-dressed boar sitting in an easy chair with desert sand and oil wells at his feet, laughing at videos of destruction in Iraq. Bilal’s website explains: “The boar represents big business literally running wild for ever-larger profits, while these corporate leaders do not care who is hurt.”
In New Mexico, health officials shut down his exhibit “Raze 213,” which subjected viewers to the stench of a piece of meat decaying in acid, a reference to a common torture under Hussein in which a prisoner would be held under a network of pipes dripping nitric acid at random times and places.
His coming works will highlight the human effects of the Iraq war. In August in San Francisco, he will recreate rooms from real destroyed Iraqi houses, covered in a layer of ash, including that from human remains. He also hopes to hold an exhibit wherein a Middle Eastern family stands in a room for the viewing public to scrutinize like animals in a zoo.
While Bilal considers himself a political artist, he abhors the dogmatic approach. “Someone once said art was a hammer, but we get so alienated when it’s used like a hammer that it’s not effective,” he says. “You have to understand the culture and use it to reach them. People use the Internet and people are looking for something to bring them together and occupy their time, so this [installation] pulls them in and later you engage them.”
Matt Schmid, a former Marine, dropped by the gallery to bring Bilal a new lamp after his was shot to shards. “I know a lot of service members who aren’t interested in art galleries, but if I tell them to go online and shoot this paintball gun, they’ll look it up,” he says. “When you’re in the Marines you’re supposed to support the cause. If you’re fighting in combat, you can’t think about who that person is or if they have a family. This gives you a different view of the war.”
“Art doesn’t have to change life, it just has to start something,” Bilal says. “It’s a success if that simple encounter gives birth to conversation. No matter what people think, they will come out of this encounter changed.”