Wafaa Bilal's "Domestic Tension"

Iraqi Artist as Human Target

For an entire month, the Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal subjected himself to a remote-controlled barrage of fire from a paintball gun. Internet users shot at the defenseless man over 60,000 times. Ariana Mirza spoke to the USA-based artist

Wafaa Bilal (photo: Wafaa Bilal)
For weeks on end, Wafaa Bilal had locked himself in a room at Chicago's Flatfile Galleries all the while a paintball gun and a webcam was aimed at him

​​After just a few days, the room installation "Domestic Tension" in a Chicago gallery resembled a battlefield. Walls and Plexiglas panels completely spattered with yellow paint testified to the constant barrage of fire. Here, under self-imposed house arrest, the Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal lived as a human target open to attack by every chance visitor to the website.

In the integrated chat room, several of the virtual gunmen attacked the Iraqi verbally as well. "There were statements of shocking brutality. I hadn't expected that, and it horrified me."

At the same time, some of the virtual visitors expressed their solidarity with the artist. A small group of volunteers even formed a kind of shield by using the press of a button to deflect the attackers' shots. "There was open access for all simultaneously, making it possible to react directly to the actions of other visitors", Bilal says about the technical features of his installation.

The insanity of the war in Iraq

Wafaa Bilal and a visitor behind a glass shield (photo: Wafaa Bilal)
Lunchtime in a virtual warzone; of 80,000,000 visits to the site only 60,000 ended with a shot

​​What is the proper term for such a drastic action? Is it interactive art? Or simply provocation? "I wanted to penetrate the border between life and art", says Wafaa Bilal: the lunacy of his extreme performance only reflected the insanity of the war in Iraq.

The artist, who has lived in exile in the USA since 1992, has already lost his father and his brother in this war. His brother died in 2005 in Najaf from American fire. The artist says that this performance is the only thing that has enabled him to surmount the feeling of powerlessness that overcame him after the news of these deaths in his homeland.

In Wafaa Bilal's "Domestic Tension", it was mostly American visitors who aimed at the human target. Iraqis visited the site more rarely, and when they did, it was to offer their countryman moral support. "Some even came to Chicago to visit me. They brought food to the gallery."

Belief in the power of art

With this spontaneous solidarity and positive press coverage, Wafaa Bilal draws optimistic conclusions from the project, despite his horrifying experiences. He emphasizes that his belief in the power of art has been strengthened. And that the anonymous cruelty he experienced was far outweighed by the repeated gestures of humanity and the experience of a "loving community".

Wafaa Bilal (photo: Wafaa Bilal)
24/7 under fire; Wafaa Bilal's extreme performance was meant as a reflection of the insanity of the war in Iraq

​​The statistics which the FLATFILEgalleries published several days ago in Chicago support the Iraqi's view. Of 80,000,000 visits to the site, only 60,000 ended with a shot. Wafaa Bilal admits that he was hardly capable of such a positive outlook during the 30 days of the performance. He spent most of the time in a state of anxiety, afraid of the hatred of the anonymous attackers. "At times I even lost my sense of reality."

In situations like this the artist really feared for his life. Of course he knew that the impact of a paintball is anything but deadly. That, says Bilal, is the crucial difference from the omnipresent deadly threat to which the people in Iraq are subjected.

Victory of humanity

In another respect as well, Bilal's art action sheds light on reality. For most people in the USA, the war in the Middle East is a media event which physically affects neither them nor their loved ones. To underline this remoteness in "Domestic Tension", the artist does not use sound in his installation. In this way his work reflects an attempt to get closer to the experience of the war, while at the same time emphasizing one's distance from it.

The gunners who aimed at Wafaa Bilal heard neither the shot nor the impact – an eerie scenario whose nuanced approach clearly distinguished it from computer war games.

Wafaa Bilal hopes to use artistic means to contribute to the victory of humanity. His work is a plea to end the insane war in Iraq, as he says in his concluding statement. He believes that hopes for peace are not unfounded: "By now 60% of Americans are already for withdrawing the troops."

Ariana Mirza

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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