- Published on Saturday, 21 April 2012 10:59
- Category: Art
Comfort zones are equally as damaging as they are protective. Harmful because they isolate, desensitize, and in the case of many Americans living a snug distance away from major conflict zones, they dehumanize, simplifying entire populations into images on a TV screen where the choice to flip a switch off is all we need to disconnect ourselves from ongoing violence that much of the world cannot escape.
Where engagement stalls, artists have long stepped in subvert stereotypes and instigate dialogue. Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal is no exception. Working from a childhood of violence and oppression during Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime and an adult immigration that opened him up to the vulnerabilities of ignorance and discrimination, Bilal is an artist who doesn’t condemn, but rather holds up the mirror, reflecting the flaws of both Iraqi and American society, taking us out of those comfort zones and into those where understanding can begin.
Now an assistant professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he is best known for his 2007 performance piece Domestic Tension, in which he lived in a Chicago gallery for a month in front of a paintball gun that could be fired remotely by Internet users watching from a web cam. The work started as his own personal reaction to his 21-year-old brother’s death by a drone strike operated by a soldier in Colorado, but quickly escalated as an examination of detached racism and the ease of dehumanizing military targets when they are seen virtually, like an avatar in a video game, which he wrote extensively on in his subsequent memoir Shoot an Iraqi. His later pieces, including Dog or Iraqi, Virtual Jihadi and The 3rd I, are all just as provocative and political, dealing with the issues of war and oppression and the Iraqi experience, both in Iraq and in the United States.
In this exclusive two-part interview with Aslan Media contributing writer Amanda Rogers, Bilal opens up about the personal and political impact of Domestic Tension, creating work outside comfort zones and the role of art in creating human solidarity.
Aslan Media: You wrote that before Domestic Tension, you hadn’t really spent a lot of time online, and you hadn’t ever participated in a chat room before. Throughout the course of the project, you came face to face with the best and the worst of what the Internet spheres have to offer. In what ways has this experience changed the way that you interact online?
WB: I think every experience we go through, it often changes us but one thing I did not anticipate in Domestic Tension that changed me is the [aspect of] digital warfare, and I think most of the shooters online were, in part, due to the anonymity and there is also no…they felt a shield from any accountability and responsibility, and I think one main reason [was that] they felt they were free to shoot at any time, but also that the Internet shields them psychologically from their actions, and especially that they exist in their own comfort zone.
AM: Your work was criticized by some observers for reaching out to audiences, such as leftists, who were already opposed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Was the goal of Domestic Tension to reach out beyond the art world and encounter the everyday American citizen who might accidentally find this online, or to bridge the gap between art and politics in any specific way?
WB: I think when I set up myself to do Domestic Tension, I had in mind a gallery audience versus people who were not engaged in the art world, and anti-war activists, versus again, people who are not willing to engage in a political dialogue. I have written and spoken many times about this before, I really wanted to reach people in their own comfort zones—in their offices and homes, and regardless of their stance against war—but, particularly I was interested in reaching people who are not willing to participate in any dialogues, because I think it is counter-productive, and not useful to reach to the people who are already against the war nor to the art world.
The art world is, in a way, shielded from politics and it has a lot to do with the nature of the business, but again, we speak about art and politics as if they are separate. The fact of the matter, I think, these things are; well you can’t separate them. And especially coming from a place like Iraq, we always are artists that are … well, art is politics and we really can’t separate them. Because, above all, what are we trying to do? We are trying to express ourselves through a medium. And this is a medium I find myself I can express myself and [I’m able to] to engage people with it. And at the end, really, art is assigns value to an act or an object. So, to me there is no difference between art or politics.
AM: A compelling aspect of the project is the emotional bravery that it must have taken to blend your memoir and history, not only in the gallery space, but also in your book, which warfare in innovative ways. In addition to bringing home the impact of conflict on individual viewers, did you intend for this project to serve as some sort of personal catharsis?
WB: Well, we’re really talking here about vulnerability as one of the strategies employed in my work. I think the first time I came across it is [actually] in Domestic Tension—I was not aware of it, at all. But I think when I entered the room, I really entered to answer questions for myself.
You know, I existed in my own comfort zone while experiencing losses of my family from far away and I shielded myself emotionally, and I did not admit my losses, and I think it has a lot to do with protecting myself emotionally and psychologically, but then under the severe circumstances in Domestic Tension, [which was] physically and emotionally exhausting, I start noticing these barriers that I erected start dropping and I become more vulnerable. And I think that vulnerability allowed the viewer and the participants to connect with me because [at that point] no longer am I trying to impose an ideological point of view on them; [but] rather, I open myself up to them to allow them to see what is happening to this person because of this war.
AM: Did Domestic Tension receive any hits from the Arab World, or do you know? You mention in the book that traffic from Western Europe was much pronounced than you expected; did people from Bahrain, or the UAE, or elsewhere try to participate in the project as well?
WB: I think people from all over the world participated, and perhaps not on the same level. Let’s remember this was 2007, so there was the digital divide that existed in the Arab world, as well as censorship of the Internet in general, but the hits I got from the Arab world were way less than anywhere else, and even I remember there was one hit from Baghdad and the shooter said, “This is from Baghdad, from the Green Zone for you.” And I only assumed it was an American soldier. Yeah, so there were some from many Arab countries, but I think it was probably due to the Internet access.
AM: In your work—despite the fact that it does build connections and forges a certain sense of human solidarity, trauma it is most fully enacted on your body. Considering the mental capacity and emotional stamina it takes to withstand all the negative impacts, what keeps you going? How are you able to do so many of these pieces in succession?
WB: What happened here is, I do use the body as a device to engage and what I mean by that. I believe that the body has its own language and in order to have my audience connect to the subject matter that I’m speaking of, the body is language. And I think when the body is in motion and we can see that not only in performance but in video and so on, the body in motion, the audience sees the body in motion is in the present time, because no longer only on just an intellectual or conceptual level, but we go into the body language level which means the body is connected to the other body in motion, so people are more connected to the project. And this all started in Domestic Tension.
I think what keeps me going is, really, the ability to connect to people and the results, you know. I received so much email from people from people embracing what I’m doing, and I also received so much email from people rejecting what I’m doing, and I think of these two reactions as a success, because not only is there a sort of rejection or a sort of acceptance, which means [that] I am building the very platform I am trying to build, which is either the virtual or the physical one which allows people to speak their minds, and no longer I’m imposing on them but allowing them to communicate to each other and to inform each other. And I think that achievement itself, it allows me to go on.
Stay tuned for part two of our exclusive interview with Wafaa Bilal about censorship, the impact of social media on the Arab world and and political art as a responsibility of “good citizenship.” You can find out more about his previous artwork, including Domestic Tension, Dog or Iraqi, and Virtual Jihadi at his website, www.wafaabilal.com.By Amanda Rogers, Aslan Media Contributing Writer