To me, there is no such a thing as a black and white. There is always, has to be, room for dialogue. Because I believe the truth doesn’t exist. The truth is very subjective and it depends on what angle you’re looking at it. So if that’s the case, how can we present something that doesn’t impose upon people, but engages them?

Wafaa Bilal was born and raised in Iraq where he survived the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, two wars, a bloody uprising, and months spent in a Kuwati refugee camp. Bilal eventually immigrated to the US and became a successful professor and artist. In 2005, his brother, still living in Iraq, was killed at a US checkpoint, and in response Bilal created Domestic Tension. For one month, Bilal lived in a prison cell-sized room with a remote controlled paintball gun. Visitors to his website could control the gun and fire it 24 hours a day. The project attracted international attention and ultimately Bilal was awarded the Chicago Tribune’s Artist of the Year Award.

Editor’s note: This interview took place in 2008.

Stephen Duncombe & Steve Lambert: How do you think about your work and the audiences that will eventually see it?

Wafaa Bilal: I always debate with myself: just how do you make a project not only interesting, but how do you engage people? And for a long time I did a lot of work that was bound by the gallery world, and I don’t know how successful or how much people were really attracted or engaged when the work is within a gallery space.

But in the last two projects that I did, I tried to break away from the gallery and perhaps establish the gallery as the physical platform and a virtual platform that exists on the website. So now you have these two things come together, which provides greater access to people who would go to a gallery and people who go online.

Since my work is political – and it seems like not only my work but other political work, as well – it alienates more than it engages. And so I started thinking about these straight engagement strategies. And for now, I’m just playing with three of them: one, is aesthetic pleasure versus aesthetic pain. Two, the body has it’s own language. And three, the conflict zone versus the comfort zone. And these strategies specifically are dealing with an artist trying to communicate a message where subject matter is very specific.

Subject matter: I am from Iraq, I wanted to do a work about Iraq. And I am currently living in a comfort zone [in the US], and Iraq is a conflict zone. And how can I engage people within this zone I’m living in, which I have become a part of? So, there is that separation; physical separation breeds disengagement. And one thing I started playing with is aesthetic pleasure versus aesthetic pain, which is: how can we engage people without directly imposing our own ideal or our own concept on them? And how can we make the work dynamic to the point that it becomes a platform for engagement, it becomes an encounter? And how can we make that encounter as a dynamic encounter?

Pictured: Wafaa Bilal in “Domestic Tension,” an interactive installation piece from 2007. Bilal spent one month in a prison cell-sized room with a paintball gun (not pictured) pointed at him. Visitors of the exhibition’s website could choose to shoot him through the click of their mouse – drawing a parallel to the dehumanized tactics used in the Iraq War and their very human effects. By the end of the exhibit, 65,000 shots were fired by people from all over the world.

So, for example, with the Shoot an Iraqi project, I also called it Domestic Tension, that was what’s behind it. It’s just like how can we put just something, make something really silly, grab people’s attention? That’s the aesthetic pleasure. Then, the aesthetic pain is delivered slowly, not only because of the content of the project, but from the engagement: when you open up the dialogue and make the platform a democratic platform, uncensored, and let other people become part of it, which makes the project an open narrative, it’s completely transformed not by the artist but by the participant. So, now with these strategies, the artist cannot become authoritarian.

To me, there is no such a thing as a black and white. There is always, has to be, room for dialogue. Because I believe the truth doesn’t exist. The truth is very subjective and it depends on what angle you’re looking at it, right? So if that’s the case, how can we present something that doesn’t impose upon people, but engages them?

S&S: Okay, so take Domestic Tension as a success story. How do you know you were engaging with the audience?

WB: That’s the simplest answer to this project. Because I kept recording everything: every IP address, every click we get. So by the end of it, which is one month long, we had 80 million hits. We knew how many shots we were directed at me, we knew how many people click left and right, and 3,000 pages of a chat room.

S&S: You had a chat room for people? Why did you do that?

WB: 24 hours, and recorded. In the end, when I look at the project, the chat room is one of the most interesting things to come from the project.

S&S: Why was that?

WB: Because of the feedback. And, I think a lot of these encounters are ephemeral by nature. They don’t leave any physical object behind. But I think what was left behind in the chat room is documentation of how diverse the audience were.

One of my fears at the beginning by doing the project, and I think a lot of people online said the same thing, is you’re gonna preach to the people who’re already engaged in this line of thinking. And I think we tend to do that. Gallery work tends to do that. So, I was aware of that notion. In the beginning, I started interfering with people’s reactions; I wanted to see what would happen. And I think one of the viewers, not a participant, alerted me to the idea that I was interfering too much in people’s reactions. And then I started stepping back. So, I became the moderator of the platform, not the enforcer. And even when I was asked, “Should we shoot you or not?” I said, “We all face that decision at some point in our lives; I’m not going to tell you what to do.”

S&S: Okay, you have these people engaged, you created sort of a space for them to both engage in the artwork, shoot you, and also talk about it and so on. What do you hope happens after that? Is that the end point or is there some goal after that?

WB: It’s a good question. I think that was the beginning of it. Because what happen is, within our comfort zone, there is a lack of platform. The public space is being taken away from us; the idea of the [town] square is being taken away from us. We have no formal democratic platform to come and engage in this dialogue. But when people come together they inform each other, and they come to a starting point, not an end point.

The virtually-activated paintball gun. “Domestic Tension” by Wafaa Bilal. 2007.

What happens when you are given the opportunity to act but there are no consequences but your conscience? Because the internet allows people anonymity, so the only thing we are left with is the guilt of committing something. I think that mirrors what soldiers are going through. When you’re out there, either you shoot or you’re gonna be shot. I think it opened the dialogue because you have so many people who shot and came back to apologize.

And I think that’s one of the engagement, I said strategies of engagement, the body has its own language. So what happens is when the body is present, our body’s being affected because of the movement. So having the body streamed live, I think that affected people a lot because they see the physical impact. Also, one of the decisions I made is to release a video once a day, or two, on YouTube. So while I disengage people on purpose from the website, grainy image, no sound, I engage them mentally on YouTube because they were waiting to see what I’d been going through that day. And I did not hold anything back.

S&S: So you’re narrating and talking to the camera?

WB: Oh, yeah. And I didn’t hold anything back in terms of my emotional rollercoaster on a daily basis. Because, part of it, I think I wanted them to connected, I wanted them to be confused just like how is it terror? It looks like it’s a playful game. And look at the complexities of it. And I think that established kind of a culture around the piece. And it started spreading beyond my expectations. And because of that video I’m releasing every day, that culture around the work started growing and growing and growing. And to the point if I don’t release the video on time, people start complaining. It’s like: where is the video?

S&S: A week later, or two weeks later, a month later, a year later, what do you want those people to have taken away from it?

WB: I think to me, if the notion of the connected between these two zones [comfort and conflict] illustrates the point that we are far removed from the conflict – if people get that from the grainy image and them shooting me, versus the emotional rollercoaster I am going through every day – if people connect these two things, I think the project is a success.

S&S: So what comes of that connection?

WB: Of that connection – awareness. And with awareness comes action.

S&S: How do you know people aren’t just wanking off on the computer?

WB: Oh, that’s possible too.

S&S: I don’t mean quite sexually, but I mean—

WB: No, but seriously.

S&S: But like politically wanking off into the computer, which is, “Okay, I’ve done my job, I felt guilty, I’ve now created a human shield, and now I’m going back to work.”

WB: You know, you don’t have control over that. I mean how could you control that? Change does not come very easy. And everyone who is in art and activism understands that notion. I’m not going there and saying, “okay I wanted to change people’s lives and how they behave.” I am hoping just to touch one person’s life. And that person might touch another person, people’s life. But the fact is you have 136 countries participating in this; it led me to believe, it wasn’t just gonna stop after the project stops. And I think following that with a book also in a way is going to continue the dialogue. It’s not going to stop when the project stopped.

S&S: Do you think dialogue, discussion, change of mind leads to change in action?

WB: If it’s a real one, yeah. What else can bring us to take an action except our belief in a dialogue or an argument?

S&S: Well, you often talk a lot about the body and moving the body, which seems like it’s a little bit separate from dialogue. I mean, when I was an activist, my job was to get someone to do something, no matter how small. Not to think differently, but to get them to do something because then I knew they would do something else and do something else. It was very bodily.

WB: But I’m giving them the option. I’m giving the option to do it or not to do it, which I think might be more effective because sometimes I see activism disengage, or alienate more than engage. But by approaching it differently, I’m not placing guilt on people. What I’m doing is to give them the opportunities to see other points of view. You have the hunters who come to the site, you have the hackers, you have the paintball players, you have the moms, you have the kids 17 and 13 years old who are hacking it, so but every one of them is just saying what’s on their minds from cursing at me and calling me a sand nigger, to highly refined political dialogue. Either way, it’s exposure to other ideas. And I think one of the things I was hoping is when we hold the mirror to ourselves, sometimes that image scares us because we are so engaged in our own beliefs that when that image is reflected we get so scared by it.

S&S: So, if your work is trying to effect change, it’s not a visible thing, it’s more internal – more in people’s minds.

WB: And it might be more true. Because if I am on the street and I just approach somebody, saying here, do something, change. He might do it just because I am confronting him, but not out of choice. I don’t want it to confront them –

S&S: You want them to confront you.

WB: Exactly. And I want the conflict to be within that person. And that might have a longer effect on people’s lives.

S&S: I’m still unclear what the effect is. That is, or do you just say: “I want people to confront themselves, I want people to have a discussion, created a public sphere where they have to think about their actions. Then I’m done, and what they do after is their business”? Or do you have an ideal of what might happen?

WB: Yeah, I mean, you can’t follow everybody’s actions, but it’s just about continuing to create the dialogue through other pieces. To me, the project was the first step.

Still from “Raze 213” by Wafaa Bilal.

S&S: Have you ever done a project that just didn’t work?

WB: Yeah. Shit, yeah, so many of them.

S&S: And why? Why did Domestic Tension work and not the other ones?

WB: There was a project I did called Raze 213, which exposed one of Saddam’s methods of torture, where the prisoner is confined to a very small cell with pipe that drips acid from different points of view. I built that project at the University of New Mexico, a lot of people were outraged by it, and even fellow Iraqis and Arabs said, “this is so fucked up.”

S&S: Why was that?

WB: Because it alienated people. And I think the effect that it generated was totally the opposite of what I was hoping. So I was hoping that, by exposing this method, people would sympathize. On the contrary. People were so shocked by it, they totally rejected the notion, totally rejected the ideas, and the project stayed idle until the state university was like, you can’t have this anymore. Just because I created so many layers into it: the body movement, the smell…

S&S: Was it performance? How did the piece work?

WB: I built a physical space but instead of a body I recorded a body and then replayed it in the space itself. But the way you view it is through a window –

S&S: From the interrogator’s perspective?

WB: Yeah, exactly, it was a window cell. It was closed down by the Health Department, which I understand. I used meat, acid, excrement, just whatever just to create the smell. And then later the History Channel did a piece on it. It was before the war in 2003, they did a program called Why They Don’t Kill Saddam. That’s the name of the project. At the time, I didn’t know their intention, but it was basically the drumbeat for war. And they came to Chicago for two days, and they recorded it with me. But then, the way they edited it, it sounds like I’m the one who built the torture method for Saddam. And I start receiving phones calls, like, “I didn’t know you designed torture methods!” So, then I fought them and they agreed not to show it again.

S&S: Tell me about the alienation thing because I think that’s a problem a lot of artists, and political activists face. Here you are, you’re trying to show the horrors of prison and Saddam, but somehow people have the opposite reaction. Why is that?

WB: I think part of it, one, is we don’t want to be exposed to such a thing. It’s about implication. Because if we admit it exists, we are part of the system. Creating as much distance as you can is safer for us. And second, it really affects people to see, to smell it, hear it, it just affects people, and I think that’s why it created the opposite. And I think with political work in general, a lot of time, we don’t want to look at it. We close our eyes. Because if I admit that it exists, I am part of the system of oppression. So, that’s why we don’t want to look at political art, we don’t want to engage with it, and the more distance we create, the better.

S&S: A lot of people talk about media hits. And this sounds like it had an immense media saturation. The smell and everything was so effective that people were talking about prisons. Is that controversy something you want?

WB: I’ve been accused of that a lot. And the latest accusation, I’ve been called attention-whore. Some have the suspicion that I create these projects to get that attention so the art will be exposed, or that I just love controversy. I think some artists do. But we have to look at the bigger picture: what’s the objective of the controversy? Is it really just to get attention? Or is it to engage? These are two separate, different things. If the objective were to raise awareness, to let people know what you’re trying to do, I think that’s a noble objective. But if the objective is just to get media, I think that’s crappy because then the work is not going to deliver what you want, and you’re not going to go very far.

S&S: Speaking of media, do you make an effort to get media?

WB: No. I think it’s the other way around.

S&S: They make an effort to find you.

WB: Exactly, exactly. I used to send out a press release and try to get the media, but I find viral connection is much better than going straight to the media. And here’s why: a lot of times people think that the big corporations broadcast the news they want, like a George Orwell world. But a lot of it is the opposite. Look at CNN – how does a story gets to the top of their website? It’s basically by clicks. So it’s helpful to understand how the web is serving us. So, when I decided to do Domestic Tension, I did the opposite of the traditional press release, and I went to the internet from my email list, to friends’ email lists, to friends’ email lists. So that’s what creates media attention, and what happens when you have such a huge amount of attention is that it puts pressure on the established media to bring them to talk about it.

S&S: When you sit down to plan your work, do you think about your audience, do you think about effectiveness, engagement, how best to engage them?

WB: I recently give a talk, at Pomegranate Gallery about these two works. The one, Domestic Tension, and the other Virtual Jihadi. And at the end, there was a young guy who stood and said, “I’m an American soldier, I just came back from Iraq, I appreciate what you do, but please explain this to me: with Domestic Tension, you engage a lot of people, with Virtual Jihadi, you alienate a lot of people. Why is that?” And you know, one must consider who the audience are. With Domestic Tension, it was a lot about bringing people together and have them talk. The Virtual Jihadi, it was about exposing our hypocrisy and getting people who didn’t want to talk about it to talk about it.

S&S: And when you sat down to plan these projects, did you think in terms of this?

WB: You do. You have to.

S&S: So you think of the audience first or simultaneously…?

WB: No, I think the project determines a lot of things. The project can determine the media, the project can determine the audience, I mean a lot of things. Saying, “why do I want it to be this project?” – that’s the first question; second, “who do I want it to engage?” – third is “what’s the medium?” The medium is determined by the project itself. But then the audience, that’s your second question: “who do I want to engage?” Or maybe sometimes it’s the first question, too. “Who is the audience, and what do I want to do with this project?” And I think the question “what do I want to do with this project” is basically saying, “who is my audience?”

S&S: Why use art? Why not write essays? Why not go out there with a picket sign?

WB: I think it’s the medium where I can best express myself. But also writing. Writing’s a great thing. I’ve held so many signs, you know, and stopped traffic. But beyond that intersection, they move on. Art, I find it effective because way early on I found out that the [Hussein] regime would kick people out of art school if they’re in any way engaged in politics or even if their families are engaged in politics. So it has a lot of power.

Art is not concrete. The narrative is open. The idea of me as a viewer assigning my own value to the object, establishes a connection which is unique – your connection is your connection. And it has a lot to do with what I see in that object and where I’m coming from. And I think that’s why we engage sometimes in an object for so long while rejecting others.


Edited by Sarah J Halford