A few words with Wafaa Bilal

Wafaa Bilal grabbed the attention of the media last year with his performance Domestic Tension. Bilal, born in Iraq and currently teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, installed his living quarter at Chicago’s Flatfile Gallery. Viewers could peep in on him anonymously 24/7 over a live webcam, chat with him online 24/7 over a live webcam. But the twist was that the camera was affixed to a rifle-sized paintball gun-and online visitors could therefore fire the gun and shoot at the artist, or anything else in his room. 24/7. And according to Newsweek, viewers have shot the gun 40,000 times in the project’s first two and a half weeks. The work brought to Chicago the conditions of bombardment felt by citizens of his homeland.

0a3abilallll.jpgDomestic Tension. Photo Chicago Tribune

In his latest work Virtual Jihadi, Wafaa Bilal reconfigures the Al Qaeda-produced on-line propaganda video game The Night of Bush Capturing to introduce himself a character in the game, a suicide bomber based on an image of a traditional Arab warrior, and turn it into a rumination on the plight and behavior of civilians caught in a conflict zone.

0aabilalll3.jpgVirtual Jihadi, image courtesy of the artist

Bilal’s mod and installation is based on a 2003 video game called “Quest for Saddam” that involved players fighting stereotypical Iraqi foes and trying to kill the ex-Iraqi leader. The game in turn inspired an al-Qaida-produced spin-off called The Night of Bush Capturing where the U.S. president is the target. For his piece, Bilal hacked into the al-Qaida game and inserted himself as a suicide bomber who is sent on a mission to kill President Bush.


His work is like one of the missing piece of the puzzle, we get some pieces while watching TV news but the picture is not complete and the media often leaves very little space for dialog anyway. I’ll past an extract of the statement from the artist as i think every single word of it is worth reading:

My underlying premise for this piece is that hate is being taught – it’s not a natural emotion. And video games are one of the technologies being used to foster and teach hate. I am especially concerned by the ones created by the US military, which are intended to brainwash and influence young minds to become violent. Though Al Qaeda’s game where Bush is hunted down and killed generated much international outrage, the U.S. Army’s own free on-line game is equal to the Night of Bush Capturing in its propaganda motives. Since I belong to both nations fighting in this current war, and since I am an American, I have the ability and right to question my own government’s use of these video games to teach violence and hatred.

Along with shedding light on the power of video games and their manipulative uses by both Al Qaeda and the U.S. military, I want to show how civilians in war zones find themselves switching allegiances as a means of self-preservation as the balance of power shifts. Their cities are turned into battlegrounds, and survival is often a matter of obeying the power that exists at any given time regardless of any ideology.

This dynamic is apparent in various conflicts around the world, and even in any American inner-city where the gang members have more control than police; and civilians recognize this and refuse to cooperate with the police even if they don’t intrinsically support the gang members. In Afghanistan, Afghani civilians switch sides depending on who is in power. In Iraq people are constantly switching sides. Most Iraqis who support the insurgency do so not because of ideology, but because of their need for security.

The fighting forces in the Iraq war and most wars do not represent the people of either of the warring nations. It’s the fundamentalists – Islamic and evangelical -who fuel this violence, and force civilians to ally with them in order to survive.

So my character in the game will be like any Iraqi civilian on the ground, allying with the power which is dominant at the moment. At the beginning of the game the American soldiers are stronger than Al Qaeda, and I will ally with them, fighting Al Qaeda. But as the game progresses and Al Qaeda becomes more powerful, I will switch sides to fight on behalf of Al Qaeda. That is exactly what is happening in Iraq. The game will culminate with my revenge on the Bush administration for the destruction it has wrought on my country. I will be a suicide bomber who attacks Bush.

0aaabilaaaaabl.jpgVirtual Jihadi, image courtesy of the artist

Bilal gave a talk last week at the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (the video is available online) and an exhibition of Virtual Jihadi opened the same night… to be closed the day after.

Wafaa Bilal’s installation re-opened this week at The Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 Sixth Avenue in Troy. The piece was to be on display through April 4, 2008, as part of a month-long celebration of art, freedom and democracy at the Sanctuary.

Unfortunately, one day after the second opening the City of Troy closed the sanctuary due to “code volition.”

Please visit the artist’s website and show your support either by writing a letter to Shirley Jackson president of RPI (president at rpi dot edu). Or add your opinion in the chat room. Brian Holmes wrote a clear and well-balanced post about the situation a few days ago. I’d also like to mention an article in The Guardian which discusses the current lack of appetite for films about the war in Iraq.

When i first contacted Wafaa to get a brief email interview last week, i had no idea his work would be censored and his view would be silenced. I must add that his work came to my attention thanks to an email from members of the RPI arts department who are very supportive of Bilal’s work. Now for your conversation:

What did your previous project Domestic Tension – Shot in Irak teach you? How did you use what you learned during the performance to develop Virtual Jihad?

0aaapaintbbbjk.jpgDomestic Tension

WB: It reinforces my notion of the comfort zone versus the conflict zone. Because of image overexposure, we need to come up with smarter tactics and strategies in order to engage people. Otherwise we will continue to exist in the comfort zone while our collective power is taken away by institutions.

In Virtual Jihad, the main character looks like you and carries your name, why do you think it is so important to expose yourself so much personally?

WB: I wanted to place it in the context of reality, the need to reflect life in art. What better way to reflect what Iraqis are going through than a personal tragedy, casting myself as a suicide bomber after the killing of my brother. I represent so many Iraqis who find themselves vulnerable to a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda taking over their homeland. They either become violent because of the pressure or they are forced to join these organizations out of fear or they join because of their outrage at what the U.S. is doing to their homeland.

Why do you use video games as a medium for your interventions? What makes them more powerful or more adapted to the kind of discourse you are engaged in?

WB: Because video games have become the medium of our time, so many people use this popular medium to convey a message. With video games, people are engaged beyond art, their senses are engaged.

Showing your works must be challenging for art venues because all the media attention (and probably mis-understanding) they get. What is the experience you have with exhibition spaces?

WB: We are certainly experiencing the problem of an artist versus the establishment. We are using the power of the internet as an encounter. The internet levels the playing field. Video games are becoming more and more powerful because they bypass the censorship of institutions.

Your work has very controversial undertones. How much do you think this helps and/or impedes the audience to understand the message your work is carrying?

0aashootairaq.jpgWB: Sometimes the project itself becomes the trigger for the dialog. I’m not necessarily interested in imposing ideas or having a project that is dogmatic. I want the conversation to be carried on outside the gallery walls. The purpose is not art itself but the conversation it triggers

Can you tell us something about your upcoming book? What will it be about?

WB: It is called “Shoot an Iraqi: Life, Art, Resistance under the Gun” to be released in Fall 2008 on City Lights Press. It is basically a dual narrative of my Domestic Tension paintball project last Summer and my life in Iraq and the U.S.

Thanks Wafaa!

However, Wafaa still has one project going on. Online! Run to Dog or Iraqi and cast your vote to decide which one — a dog named “Buddy,” or an Iraqi, himself — will be waterboarded at an “undisclosed location” in upstate New York. Waterboarding is a form of torture which dates back to the Spanish Inquisition. The person is immobilized on their back with the head inclined downward,, and water is poured over the face and into the breathing passages. Through forced suffocation and inhalation of water, the subject experiences the process of drowning and is made to believe that death is imminent. The person would (usually) be “resuscitated” at the last moment

0aadodirag.jpgDog or Iraqi

A doctor and a vet will be on hand to minimize the risk of death to the dog or the human being. At the time i spoke with Wafaa, the dog was the clear winner of the contest!

I’ll leave you with this video interview of Wafaa commenting on the RPI censorship: