Wafaa Bilal, Domestic Tension. Image via: Chicago Tribune
“I've seen a lot of activism in art,” says artist Wafaa Bilal to the National’s David Gargill “and instead of engaging, it's alienating. Since we live in the comfort zone, we're alienated by the direct message. We reject anything that's going to challenge us, so you have to balance aesthetic pleasure with the aesthetic pain.”
Not surprisingly, Bilal’s art is about creating and investigating the terms in which we (consciously or unconsciously) choose to engage issues. Gargill’s 3000 word essay on the artist’s life and art reveals much about the roots of these interests and various pieces that have achieved that goal. Perhaps the most interesting work discussed is Domestic Tension, 2007, a performance in which the artist lived in 4.6 by 9.8 meter space for 30 days, the majority of his contact to the outside world provided by a webcam. The device served as live feed to the web, and was connected to a remote-controlled paintball gun, enabling online visitors to shoot the artist in real time. The results as Gargill recounts, focibly illicit an emotional response from both the Bilal and audience.
Over the course of his month under fire, Bilal's transformation is marked, a poignant and painful narrative of decline. The jocund Bilal who wryly observes on day two that “somebody brought a box of Cheez-Its to feed me; that was nice” can be seen hours later strewn on his bed whispering in a withered voice that he wishes “people just enjoy life and stop the senseless killing”…By day 10 the traffic has crashed the server, and the gun goes offline for a brief respite; Bilal confesses his emotional collapse to his video diary. “The project is bringing up a lot of issues I haven't dealt with. The loss of my father, the loss of my brother. When the project ceased to work, I got even more depressed because the gun is my company in this space, and when it's silent, all of a sudden I cease to think about my safety, so my guards are down and so much emotion come to the surface,” he says, barely stifling tears.
I hate draw on the obvious celebrity example — particularly because it makes no commentary on the way we engage war, except perhaps to illustrate a certain privileged disengagement — but the contradiction Bilal expresses seems very related to the deaths of stars like Kurt Cobain who develop a loathed dependency on attention that arguably kills them. As Gargill reveals, the audience similarly feels some guilt once the affect of their actions are revealed.
Drawn in by Bilal's canny appropriation of the gaming interface, [the audience] operated under their habitual assumptions then had them unwittingly challenged, perhaps even changed, as a result. There's no telling how many attitudes Bilal the trickster changed with his sly trap, but from the reams of chat room posts, the effect seems convincing. “So it's causing u harm,” one young British woman wrote, “there must be a better way. Shooting seemed really fun at the time, we all feel really bad now.”
In other words, does meaningful engagement have to coerced? Certainly, Bilal’s Virtual Jihadi, (discussed previously here) a video game that casts its designer as a vengeful citizen seeking to kill President Bush for the loss of his family members in the Iraq war, seems to indicate as much. After all, it was forcibly removed from its two exhibition locations in Troy despite protests and explanatory texts on the piece (the work in question comes with a hacking history three generations long beginning as a downloadable video game which asked its players to kill indistinguishable Iraqis while hunting their leader (Saddam Hussein), then mutating into the al-Qaeda version, which replaces the Iraqis with identical Americans, their leader President Bush.) As Gargill reports the story, Bill Mirch, a prominent local Republican (and Troy's commissioner of public works) shut down the second venue issuing a spurious fire code violation, and in a radio program went so far as to say, “I have reacted to your so-called art…I don't like your video, and in my mind and in my heart I believe it's terrorism. That can be nothing but terrorism, it's so far, in my view, from art, it's just, it's terrorism.” Clearly, for some, the fear of terrorism is so great, rational engagement with the work can’t happen.
Meanwhile a public dialog will continue, as the American Civil Liberties Union, has filed an abuse of power suit on Bilal's behalf against Mirch and the city of Troy. The hearing is scheduled for September 25.
Read Target Practice in full at The National.