Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Iraqi-Born Artist Wafaa Bilal Let People Shoot At Him on Purpose

Still from Domestic Tension © 2007 Wafaa Bilal
Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal sits in his bedroom/office in Chicago' FlatFile Galleries, waiting to be shot. Photo and article by Kari Lydersen (In These Times)

Iraqi Artist Wafaa Bilal was asking for it, literally. Some may call it a publicity stunt rather than artwork but if you allow your definition of art to expand beyond Rembrandt and Picasso to include anything creative that causes viewers to question societal rules, conventions and traditions, and what it means to be human, then Bilal is indeed an artist of his time and place. Bilal says,
“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.” Source

From Bilal's Blog (posted just after he started the "Domestic Tension" project. The comments on the blog are fascinating:
Iraqi born Wafaa Bilal has become known for provocative interactive video installations. Many of Bilal’s projects over the past few years have addressed the dichotomy of the virtual vs. the real. He attempts to keep in mind the relationship of the viewer to the artwork, with one of his main objectives transforming the normally passive experience of viewing art into an active participation. In Domestic Tension, viewers can log onto the internet to contact, or shoot, Bilal with paintball guns.

Bilal’s objective is to raise awareness of virtual war and privacy, or lack thereof, in the digital age. During the course of the exhibition, Bilal will confine himself to the gallery space. During the installation, people will have 24-hour virtual access to the space via the Internet. They will have the ability to watch Bilal and interact with him through a live web-cam and chat room. Should they choose to do so, viewers will also have the option to shoot Bilal with a paintball gun, transforming the virtual experience into a very physical one. Bilal’s self imposed confinement is designed to raise awareness about the life of the Iraqi people and the home confinement they face due to the both the violent and the virtual war they face on a daily basis. This sensational approach to the war is meant to engage people who may not be willing to engage in political dialogue through conventional means. Domestic Tension will depict the suffering of war not through human displays of dramatic emotion, but through engaging people in the sort of playful interactive-video game with which they are familiar.

From FLATFILE Gallery
Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal, who has been living in self-imposed exile within the confines of FLATFILE galleries, Chicago, will leave the gallery for the first time in 30 days on Monday, June 4, at 5pm.

Bilal, who created the virtual paintball piece to illustrate the continual danger facing citizens in Iraq, has not left the gallery since May 4th. The installation, titled DOMESTIC TENSION, is being hailed as one of the strongest anti-Iraq-war statements to date, and is being followed in over 130 countries around the globe. Its site has received 80,000,000 hits, and 60,000 paintballs have been shot. It has polarized the community, bringing together protective groups like the VIRTUAL human shield, who take turns aiming the gun away from Bilal around the clock.

After Bilal leaves the space, the web-cam will remain on the tattered remnants of the empty room until the 16th of June. Although the installation will remain after Bilal.' departure, the gun will be silent as a memorial to all those who have lost their lives in the War in Iraq.

View Images of Domestic Tension

More Images of Domestic Tension

Video of Each Day of Domestic Tension

Chicago Tribune slide show of Bilal under seige.

Some of Bilal's other art

Photo of Wafaa Bilal by C. Taylor © 2007 Source
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 (, 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. Source

Ajrass © 2000 Wafaa Bilal "The Human Condition)

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.


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 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.”


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.” Source

Midwest Olympia © 2007 Wafaa Bilal

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.”


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.” Source

Chicago Art Institute interview of Bilal

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