Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the GunWafaa Bilal with Kari LydersenCity Lights, $18.95

Wafaa Bilal got famous by shutting himself in a room with an automated paintball gun pointed right at him. The gun was hooked up to the Internet, and viewers could shoot Bilal with yellow paint—an opportunity more than 60,000 Web users took advantage of.

The installation, Domestic Tension, at Chicago’s Flatfile Gallery from May 4 to June 15, 2007, was a product of Bilal’s experiences growing up in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule and a response to the 2003 invasion, in which his brother was killed by an American bomb. In October, I interviewed Bilal about his new book—written with Kari Lydersen and called Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun. My piece, “Post Artistic Stress Disorder,” ran in the Reader‘s fall books issue on October 30. But the conversation I had with Bilal has many other points of interest than the ones I was able to include there, so here it is in its (somewhat edited) entirety.

Noah Berlatsky: Did Domestic Tension turn out differently than you expected?

Wafaa Bilal: I didn’t think [beforehand] about global success, or about the brutality of the Internet. One thing I did not expect at all was the aftermath of the project. I am tormented by it on a daily basis. I still cannot sleep more than two to four hours a day. That is something I did not expect. I’m still going through it. It’s tough. Some time ago I said I would give all the fame for just one good night’s sleep.

NB: So you wouldn’t do something like this again?

WB: It’s going to be hard to take another adventure like this—but you never know, and I certainly have some projects in mind that I would like to do. But I think I am still in the shadow of Domestic Tension now.

NB: When did you decide you wanted to write a book about Domestic Tension? Was it something you thought about while the project itself was under way?

WB: I never thought about it at the beginning. But as the project progressed, Susan Aurinko, the owner of Flatfile Gallery, handed me a book and said, “Record your thoughts, it’s going to be important.” By the end, I had a couple of diaries, over 40 hours of video, and over 3,000 pages of chat room discussions, and then I made a decision that I wanted to do the book. Since this is a collective effort, it belongs to the people, and I wanted to put it out there.

I consider Domestic Tension a dynamic encounter. The artist becomes the platform’s initial builder and moderator, and the rest is completed by the participants. The book belongs to everyone who participated. It is a way that the project could continue in a different form.

NB: Did you initially think the book would include your own experiences in Iraq?

WB: No, I did not. I thought about it as a book focused on my experience within Domestic Tension. But later, when I met Kari Lydersen and we started working together—Kari was reporting for the Washington Post on the project, and I was very impressed with her ability to capture the story and render it for other people, so I approached her about the book and she said yes—very soon after that we kept talking about my life, and how things in the project triggered childhood memories and memories from Iraq, and how past experiences in Iraq served me in Domestic Tension or helped me survive it. She suggested we do a parallel structure. I was hesitant because I thought maybe the life experience would overwhelm Domestic Tension. Even the publisher had hesitation. But I started seeing it was going to work.

NB: Do you hope the book will affect people’s attitude toward the war?

WB: My goal was very simple: just to share my story with others, because it becomes a very heavy burden for one person to carry. Do I think the story will change others’ attitude? I hope so, but I believe change will never happen unless people believe in it. In general, art does not change people’s minds. But it can give them an alternative opinion. That’s the most any artist can hope for.

Art is political in nature, but there is a difference in meditating on aesthetics and meditating on pain. I don’t have the privilege to meditate on aesthetic pleasure. I envy people who can meditate on aesthetic pleasure, not aesthetic pain.

NB: You aren’t able to do that because— ?

WB: Considering my background and my losses and what my family is going through, and above all considering the way my homeland and my adopted country are fighting. I tried to stay away from meditating on aesthetic pain, but I couldn’t convince myself of doing something purely aesthetic. I don’t know that I’d call it guilt as much as responsibility.

What I’m trying to do is engage people. There is aesthetic pleasure, but when you counter it and start the dialogue you see the content.

NB: You often discuss Domestic Tension as a project about war. But, especially given the narrative about your father in the book, it seems like it could also be seen as being about domestic violence. I’m thinking especially of how [when hackers programmed it to fire constantly] you discuss feeling guilty for turning off the gun. You feel bad for preventing people from hurting you. Did you see it as reenacting your childhood home dynamic at all?

WB: I never thought about Domestic Tension in terms of the domestic tension back home, but I think the project allowed me to come closer to my family and to the confinement of it—of being under attack. These things allowed me to be very close to them...

For many people the project became about domestic [violence]. A kid from the south side of Chicago said to me, “Thank you for doing this—this is what I feel every time I am at home or in my neighborhood.”

When we go through rough experiences it never fades away, and things start linking these experiences to each other. These are feelings we suppress in order to move on. Domestic Tension broke me down emotionally and physically to confront these feelings. I never admitted I lost my brother and my father until I was in Domestic Tension. I never realized until the gun was [turned off] that my life was about survival. All that emotion came to the surface.

NB: How did your family react to the project?

WB: The family was extremely supportive and proud of the project, even though they were very concerned about my well-being and my health. They felt very close to me because, even though I exist in the comfort zone, I never forget about them. I get phone calls, and people from Iraq came to the gallery and said, “Thank you for doing this”—especially after it got global attention. That was very much at the height of the insurgency and the battle [in Iraq]. People felt this was a different approach to talking about it, in directly trying to engage people. We exist in a comfort zone and we forget about a war taking place somewhere else.

Early on I knew what I wanted to confront was not regular gallery goers or people who are opposed to war. I wanted to confront people who have emotional distance from the war and people who have been deceived by the media to view the war as a video game. You have two different kinds of audience: one is online, protected by physical distance and anonymity, and then you have people who come to the gallery who create an emotional connection. And there was a dialogue between the two. Some people online did not believe this was happening, so some kids from the suburbs came and saw me and then went online and said, “This is real.”

I know some people who shot [at me] felt guilty and became part of the people who defended me. There was a group called the Virtual Human Shield, and their mission was to defend me by pointing the gun to the left side. That was the hope: to establish the dialogue.

NB: But there were also people who just treated it as a game, or enjoyed the violence.

WB: There were also people who insulted me and called me names. But I think that’s what happens when we demonize—we give ourselves license to abuse and attack. People dehumanized me so they could feel the pleasure they wanted to feel. No project will reach everybody, but it did reach quite a few people and change some people’s minds.

NB: Much of your art is extremely provocative, and has provoked censorship. [Virtual Jihadi, an altered video game that casts Bilal as a terrorist recruited to assassinate George Bush, was “suspended” from an exhibition at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, last March.] You’ve talked about your opposition to censorship, and your hope to promote free expression. But aren’t your projects in part about provoking extreme reactions, including censorship?

WB: I am not doing these projects with the objective of being censored, but in each project I am posing a question and trying to engage people. And, of course, they do provoke people. Art always does that ...

When art or philosophy poses a question, we deal with it, we address it, and then move forward to another one. Censorship never works. Every time it does the opposite.

NB: Is that the case under oppressive regimes as well? It seems like censorship might bring attention to works in the U.S., but in Iraq under Saddam Hussein—

WB: My projects in Iraq were not nearly as provocative as my projects in the United States. An artist is a politician as well—you have to understand the situation, and sometimes plan your escape route. Censorship in places like Iraq is almost a death sentence. [But] censorship can serve you: it allows people underground to sympathize with you, gives some kind of hope that it is possible to speak out and be smart about speaking out without being hurt.

NB: Domestic Tension was a huge success partially through viral marketing, and it’s made you quite famous for an artist. At the same time, viral marketing was what caused so many people to fire the gun, making your life a misery. Did the project cause you to think about the upsides and downsides of media attention, either for artists or for people in a combat zone like Iraq?

WB: I did pay a heavy price for the successful marketing campaign. I didn’t know it was going to be as brutal as this. Did I want to stop in the middle of it? I wished so many times it would end. But I thought I would disappoint so many people and myself above all.

You don’t want the [combat] zone to be forgotten. Media attention is not always good, but it’s good in many places. For example, if we could have more media attention to the south [side] of Chicago, with all the shooting, it probably will pressure people to do something about it. Media attention on Iraq probably made a lot more people aware of it. The draped coffin—how the government did not want that to be seen, and then a brave solider leaked his picture...

[But] I’ve seen media attention work totally the opposite. When Fox had Virtual Jihadi on, or when MSNBC had it on, it gave people the completely wrong idea of my intention. But better to have media than not to have media. Allow people to talk to each other.

NB: Domestic Tension is a very Chicago project, both in its many connections to the School of the Art Institute [through assistance from SAIC faculty and a grad student] and its interest in linking art to community in innovative ways. Its success has in part helped you get a position at New York University. Any regrets at leaving Chicago? And do you think the city and art community could do more to keep big-name artists from moving elsewhere?

WB: I have not been impressed by New York or New Yorkers so far. This is because I love Chicago so much, and I saw how generous the city and the people are, and how they come together for the common good. I would have stayed if I got a similar opportunity.

But I think one thing: Chicago, the business community, and the state have to support good [art] publications. New York has a great advantage when it comes to exposure, and artists survive on exposure. The city and the business community have to know that.

And a lot of us want to stay. When I got the offer from NYU, I talked to the Art Institute, but the SAIC couldn’t compete with it. If any opportunity came to come back to Chicago, I would. Chicago felt like Baghdad—it felt like home. The only time I felt at home after I left Iraq was when I was in Chicago.

NB: In one of your recent projects, Dog or Iraqi, you had people vote online to see who would be waterboarded, you or a dog. And of course, you won, and you had yourself waterboarded. Journalist Christopher Hitchens also had himself waterboarded recently. Do you see what he was doing and what you did as similar?

WB: Christopher Hitchens is a very big supporter of the war. It is kind of confusing when you support the war but oppose waterboarding. I think it’s just a cry for media attention. Christopher was not gagged when he was waterboarded, which means he was able to hold his breath. I wanted to raise attention about waterboarding. I wanted to be gagged so I could not hold my breath, because that’s when it does simulate—not simulate, but actually is—drowning.

NB: He is opposed to torture, though.

WB: That’s contradictory [when] you support war. I think he just needs to make his mind up.

I didn’t want any media attention. I did it in a basement with only a few witnesses. I did not want it to be only a publicity stunt.

The idea here is to stretch the event, playing with the aesthetic pain versus aesthetic pleasure. I never had the intention of waterboarding the dog. The idea is to build engagement. But in the process the talk was about waterboarding, and the silly idea of the dog is the engagement. My intention is to raise engagement.v