Eating, sleeping, living down the barrel of a gun; Wafaa Bilal’s month-long “self-confinement” comes to an end
On Monday, June 4, the Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal completed his month-long stay at Flatfile Galleries. During the month of May, Bilal lived, ate, slept and worked at the gallery, all the while under the threat of a paintball gun firing yellow pellets which deployable by the public via his website. Through daily video blogs, online chats, and the constant image of the paint-splattered room that he lived in, Bilal’s goal with his live-in art piece, Domestic Tension, was to draw attention to the false sense of distance between those who enact violence in war and those who are the victims of such violence.
The overwhelming amount of attention—both good and bad—generated by Domestic Tension was greater than Bilal and his supporters predicted. During the month of “self-confinement,” the team’s servers crashed repeatedly, funds ran low, and hackers prowled, making numerous attempts to take control of the paintball gun. Ultimately, over 65,000 paint balls were fired, making sleep or concentration exceedingly difficult for Bilal. Shielded behind a portable plastic barricade, Bilal was on view at all hours of the day and night as he lived his life under siege.
Bilal, who lives in Chicago, told me that he “did not want the piece to be didactic.” Instead, he put control in the hands of millions, for whom the paintballs, the demolished living space, and the resultant political dialogue created multiple sites of interaction “to talk about the political disappointment we have with the war in Iraq.” For those who claimed, in the increasingly broad chat room and message board activity online, that Bilal’s performance was a self-centered act of artistic egoism, Bilal replies: “My performance was not a cry for attention but a plea to end the madness of the war in Iraq. Everything material that is destroyed in war can be replaced, but the loss of human life and dignity cannot.”
The title itself, Domestic Tension, refers not only to the difficulty of surviving in a space constantly under assault, but also to the impossibility of shielding a domestic space from the terrors of war. The nature of the piece is an attempt to replicate the kind of environment Iraqis are living with every day: unpredictable violence, isolation, and fear of the unknown. In describing the innovative nature of the piece, Bilal says, “It goes beyond the notion of interactive art, because there is nothing predetermined in it; the outcome of it is completely open. That is why it becomes other people’s performances; you get hackers, you get people who sit on their computers and perform.” Bilal himself fled from Iraq in 1992, living in a Saudi refugee camp for two years before he moved to the United States. His family still lives in Iraq. US troops killed his brother in 2005, his father was killed as a result of the war, and he has not been back to Iraq in over 15 years.
As a result of his “self-confinement,” Bilal was under constant surveillance and attack by the other “performers” in the piece. Kept awake by the frequent “gunfire” in his living space, he was able to chat online with people from all over the world, some of them “shooters,” hackers, and anyone who simply wanted to speak to the artist. In this way, Bilal multiplied the sites of performance to extend not only beyond the gallery, but beyond national boundaries. Integral to a work like Domestic Tension is the reception and interaction that the work generated by Bilal’s endurance and commitment.
Although the piece ended several weeks ago, Domestic Tension as a performance piece is just the beginning of a larger project. Due to the multiple media forms which grew out of the original website, there are massive amounts of information which will reveal much about the effects of Domestic Tension. With such data as over two thousand pages of chat logs and a thousand pages recording the IP address of every shooter, Bilal has plans to combine the video blogs and the recordings of the living space under assault into a documentary film. A book project is also underway, which will include images documenting the progressive destruction of Bilal’s living space, analysis of the discussions which grew out of the online chats, and other content that Bilal says he “has not yet revealed.”
Bilal did not pursue the mainstream media as a way to get the word out; instead he relied upon the “viral” phenomena that is responsible for many of the trends, images, and knowledge spreading throughout the internet. Although media venues such as newspapers and television were not on Bilal’s radar at the outset of the project, word quickly spread as to the massive popularity and political relevance of Domestic Tension. When Bilal was contacted by the Chicago Tribune halfway through the month-long performance, he welcomed the attention as a way to widen his participatory audience. When all was said and done, Domestic Tension had been featured in Newsweek, the Washington Post, and Bilal was interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
His intended audience, however—the online “gamers” who Bilal suspected of remaining disconnected from the consequences of violence—were intentionally targeted through YouTube videos, gaming chat rooms, and the website digg.com (articles covering the piece garnered over 1847 “diggs”). As a result, Bilal was able to spread awareness of the piece, and to achieve his ultimate goal, which was to invite as many people as possible to engage in a “political dialogue” of any sort. Bilal’s Youtube diary is a revealing and public way to access his bearing through the month-long performance. Bilal says of the Youtube online blog: “It reveals the physical impact on me, which serves to reveal the larger picture of Iraq.”
The Artist’s Progression
A change in the artist’s demeanor is evident through his daily video blog posts. On the third day, wearing protective goggles and a scarf and cover-alls, he reports being “a little tired,” as he takes the viewer on a tour of the space. He walks carefully around the space, making sure not to step in the line of fire. The gun shoots every 15 seconds or so, and Bilal seems fairly relaxed. By contrast, the post on Memorial Day, the 24th day of Bilal’s stay, is one of the most disturbing moments in Bilal’s documentation. On that day, the heaviest amount of gunfire was reported, and Bilal seems frazzled; his brow is furrowed and he has to yell to overcome the sound of the gunfire.
As much as the noise and tension caused Bilal visible distress over the course of the month, what hurt most were the angry and hateful messages he had to contend with during his online chats. “I can honestly say that the words hurt more than the gunfire,” says Bilal.
The purpose of the online chats , according to Bilal, was “to highlight the difference between the comfort zone and the conflict zone.” At times, those who could comfortably fire the gun or write anger-filled messages were confronted with the physical and emotional toll imposed on Bilal. “The way the website was set up highlighted the disconnect; there was no sound [when you fired]. But then, the connection happened when people saw the video blog.” After seeing the face of the person they had been shooting at, many contacted Bilal to express their regret and to apologize. Reactions to the piece were also posted on Youtube, including one from a photography student who confessed to Bilal, “it’s really easy to press a button shaped like a gun…it took watching your video diaries to sink in what I was doing to you.”
Other unexpected forms of connection occurred. Says Bilal, “We had the guy who re-wrote the Bible in the chat room, line by line.”
Bilal’s experience was not overwhelmingly negative, however. He says, “During my time of self-confinement in FLATFILEgalleries for “Domestic Tension,” I simultaneously experienced the pain of anonymous and disconnected cruelty and the best of human kindness and compassion.” Evidence of this kind of compassion evolved in the creation of the Virtual Human Shield, a string of code written by web surfers that caused the gun to aim off to the side and away from Bilal. “It formed because of this project, and their goal was to stop the brutality of the shooters by asking people to keep the gun pointed away from me, to the left, at all times.”
By the end of the piece, Bilal is visibly tense; he decided to “add one more day to the project, to prove to people who said that I couldn’t last the whole month, that I was committed to the project.” On the last day of the piece, Bilal and friends can be heard counting down to the final seconds of the piece while the gun fires almost continuously. Against the backdrop of a wall nearly covered in yellow paint, Bilal makes his final statement, saying, “We have silenced one gun today; I hope we will silence all the guns in the future.”