Wafaa Bilal, professor in the Art & Technology Studies and Photography departments, talks with Caroline Ewing about how he became an artist, his recent work, and his upcoming month-long stay at Flatfile Galleries, during which people will be able to manipulate paintball guns aimed in the gallery.

above from Tandem, by Wafaa Bilal, 2005


What I’m building right now is the hardware and the software for the project, starting on May 4th. I will live in the gallery for a month, I have people helping me from the Art and Technology department, so I have a team. We are building software that will enable you to go on the Internet, and then have control over the gun and the camera at the same time.  And people will have the ability to move the gun and then a trigger to shoot.

CE. That seems like it would be really hard to go through.

It is, and I don’t know what it’s going to do to me. Since it’s hard for me to go to Iraq and see what people are going through. I want physically to put myself in that position, to be close to that. I don’t know how long I will take it and whether I will be able to go through with it.

CE. Do you see any relevance in the fact of who is going to be doing this to you?

WB. The relevance here is to attract young game-players, as well as people who like the idea of virtuality. But at the same time, these people would not be willing to participate in a war dialogue, but at the same time they are willing to play the game virtually. And there is a parallel between this act and the act of the United States military against the Iraqi people; people who are shooting at Iraqis, people who are sitting in such places as Colorado, people who are sitting in bases in the United States, and then they get a call from the military on the ground saying, “Okay, here is a target, shoot,” and there is no human face to this. They cannot associate this with the act of violence, since it’s virtual.  And that’s one of the objectives is to turn the virtual to a physical act.

CE. In documentaries, and in film footage of the war, you see that this amount of distance seems to be a new development in this war.
WB. Somebody said recently, “It’s not an American war, it’s a military war.” There is a great disengagement (between the war) and the public, and it has everything to do with, there is no association with the war, in terms of, we don’t see lots of bodies. We don’t see the devastation that is inflicted on the people on the ground, and I think whenever you have access to this footage, people will be associated with it, because now the body talks to the body. If we understand the body has its own language, then the body talks to the body, disregarding any politics. When you watch American news, on any network, it’s very clean, even the violence, even aftermath. A few minutes after the bomb, the scene has to be cleaned of bodies. You see the devastation in the markets, and on the buildings, but you don’t see bodies lying on the ground. Unlike others news, if you go to Arab news and some European news, you do have the consequences of violence.  That way perhaps we might be able to see people objecting more to the war than the population in the United States does.


Do you try to manifest that kind of violence on your body in this piece?


What I’m doing with this piece is, after I move and everything, I’m going to paint everything purely white. It has to do also with the imposed value from one culture on to another. And then the paintballs, I decided not to make them red, but instead yellow.

CE. Why yellow?

Well, yellow, subliminally, I wanted to deliver something. If you think of it, yellow represents support the troops. I don’t want to have anything to do with violence. Red is very violent. That’s one thing I’ve been recently addressing in my work, is the negotiation between the aesthetic pleasure versus aesthetic pain.  And with political art it becomes harder and harder to communicate to viewers, because a lot of political art tends to alienate the viewers. What I’m doing with this project, and other projects, is, I want to deliver something, so there is a value of the aesthetic in the piece, but then also the content. But if you want to separate the two, maybe the service of the project is aesthetic, but then the content is delivered to you slowly, instead of hitting you at the beginning, which tends to alienate the viewer, especially when the viewer is far removed from the conflict itself. If you represent the violence in Iraq through painters, for example, it’s acceptable. Why? Because they’re in the middle of it. They understand it.  But, their audience in this country is far removed from any conflict.  How to deliver the content to them is tricky.

CE. How are you going to attract these paint ball players to your project?
WB. What I’m trying to put use to is the latest way of communication, which is the viral video. You see them on youtube, you see them on myspace, you see them on google. And that’s how I intend to communicate, is by placing these clips and building a profile on each of them. I’m trying to stay away from established media because I don’t know if I have any faith in them to communicate what I want to communicate. I want to establish a network of people who are willing to engage, whether they’re paint-ball gamers, whether they’re objecting to the war. My objective is to have people talking to each other, and what better way than to use the Internet these days.

CE. And so they’ll be able to find these on searches, based on what they’re interested in.
WB. They will. But also it will be on my website, it will be on the gallery website.  People can log in from different places, through a link.  You have to wait in line to gain control to shoot. The way I’m picturing this is not that just one person could have the control. I’m building it so that a few people can have control, five people can trigger it at once. So that itself is a competition instead of one person having total control, you have several people, and one may upset the other into aiming and shooting.  They would see the video in a window, and in a window below it they’ll be notified immediately if they have control.  For example, they will see the cue that they are active, then they could start fighting over it.

CE. Do you envision sound accompanying this piece?
WB. Yes, and I’m also thinking of an audio-visual chatroom to chat with people live. While I’m chatting people can watch me through the camera and they can gain control. It’s the same way, because people don’t hear it from Iraqi people, or people on the ground there.  Am since I am regularly in touch with family back home, I know what’s going on the ground, perhaps not to the extent that they know it, because they experience it every minute, daily, and I’m a little bit far removed from it, but it doesn’t escape my mind, at all, everyday.

CE. How long has it been since you were there?

WB. I escaped Iraq in 1992 and I have not been back since to Iraq.  I tried to make it two years ago after the loss of my brother.  He was killed by American soldiers in Najaf, and I tried to make it.  But my family objected to me coming back, so I made it as far as Syria, and then my mother and my brother made it in the desert, and then met with me.  I wish I could just go now, but it has become even more difficult than in the beginning.


So, you started making art in Iraq. I saw also that you had a geology degree...


That was not by choice, but by design. Early on, I knew what I wanted to do. All these years prepared me to go to the College of Art, which at that point was one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. That was the dream, to finish high school and go there. You had to take a test to enter the school. I took the test and the professor congratulated me for making it, and he said, “When school starts just come and you will start school here.” And it was to my surprise when I got rejected. I visited one of the professors at school and he said, “It has nothing to do with us, it has everything to do with the government.” The government has a security office of intelligence at every school, and I talked to them and I learned that I wasn’t accepted because of political reasons. My cousin was executed a year or two earlier. 

So, instead of going to art school, which Saddam’s government viewed as a powerful medium to communicate with people, I was sent to study geology and geography. During these years I stayed in school but produced artwork, and as a consequence I got arrested a few times, and the last year was the biggest challenge, because I openly challenged the government and refused to go to the Kuwait war. And I knew that if I stayed there I would be captured by the government. So I made a run for it, and it took me from Baghdad to Najaf, from Najaf to Kuwait, and from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, two years in a refugee camp, then from Saudi Arabia to the United States.

All what I did in the past, in Iraq, in the camp, was painting. When I moved to New Mexico, at UNM, I started in the painting department, but for a few reasons, one of them the lack of support for political art at UNM. I saw the limitation of painting, in terms of generating impact. Painting has a powerful ability to render reality and give a narrative ready for consumption, intellectual consumption, but what it lacks is the impact on the body, in terms that we understand this is a rendering of reality, and not reality itself. But with video and photography there is a different language perhaps, our mind doesn’t understand it but our body does.  With video, there is the conceptual part, which the brain deals with. Then there is the corporal language, and the body doesn’t understand, since it’s a moving image, it thinks it exists in the present, and that’s how you generate a larger impact on the viewer. And photography, in a way, is working the same way, because the body is not re-rendered, because we associate it as part of reality, and it’s just captured somehow.

CE. I noticed the immediacy of photography in your work, but also your earlier background in painting.

Absolutely, that’s something you can see very clearly in the relation between painting and photography in my work. If you think about what photographers do these days, it’s very much what painters did earlier, because we are re-rendering reality through technology. As I said, painting is a powerful medium, because the painter has the ability to re-render anything. Photography lacked that until the nineties, until technology allowed the photographer to re-render reality to the extent of painting. So photographers, today, they are the painters of our time.

CE. What about the installation that deals with what looks like new footage, such as Baiti or Sorrow of Baghdad?
WB. Sorrow of Baghdad was done in the late 90s, a full constructed installation.  At that time I was very much interested in generating the full impact of the body with the physical structure, and also playing with the senses. So you see, you hear, and you even smell.  I wanted to hit all the senses, to transform one viewer from one place to another place, since it’s impossible for me to take people back to Iraq.

CE. What kind of smells..?

A mix of burning materials, including burning flesh. So it’s not familiar, but it repels you; you don’t want to stay in the space.  But it’s a mix of so many things coming together, to the point that you can’t escape that smell. It’s associated with the war and just how random things burn to beyond recognition, including flesh.


So, for you, video installation, photography even, and this new project all seem to emphasize the experiential.  You’re almost asking the viewer to complete the work.

WB. Absolutely, going back to Baiti (Al Qaeda R Us), that project was two channel videos facing each other. The space is idle, showing in 1945 raising the flag over Iwo Jima, and the only time the project could work is if the viewer moved through the space, which triggered the mechanism.  When you’re in the space, time evolved from 1945 to the present. You see the soldiers come to life in the space, the flag comes to life, and then it triggered the second screen.  But the second the viewer moves, time falls back to 1945, and all that you hear is the wind from the space, and the still image of Iwo Jima.

CE. So this is based on America’s history of war.
WB. Exactly, and the footage on the screen is mostly from military sources and the Library of Congress, shot by the military themselves.  People have not seen lots of them and have had no access, but if you want to see this, you can go to the Library of Congress to watch it. I used that footage because it’s the military’s point of view, it’s the way the footage was shot with no commentary, just slight commentaries sometimes when you jump from one place to another. The United States was involved in 40 countries from 1945 to the present time. And I’m taking a slice of life from the United States and CIA involvement in South America to Asia to the Middle East, in a chronological order. What I’m showing in that project is that there’s a parallel between fighting communism and fighting Islamic Fundamentalism, it’s the same rhetoric, it’s the same approach as in the past.  As always, the United States wants an enemy in order to survive.

CE. Does that parallel come through in the way the footage is shot?
WB. Absolutely. It’s a forty-minute video. I thought nobody would want to sit and watch, because it’s very gruesome. Lots of mutilated bodies, lots of shooting happening in front of you. It was to my surprise I saw people watch it over and over and over. But also, I was careful to get some of the rhetoric from World War II to fighting the Communists to today and you see nothing has changed. They just replace one name for the other.  They give the same reason for attacking these countries, and this is why the United States is doing this now.

CE. Do you think Chicago is sympathetic to the issues you’re trying to bring up?
WB. Chicago has been great so far. I think there is great support for what I’m doing here.  There are great voices coming out of this city, and in Illinois in general. I travel a lot, and talk to people. I have to say that now I can call Chicago home, not only because of the support, but because of how much Chicago is trying to make an impact on the entire country. We watched that last year, and we were unmatched in our results compared to any other city or state. For me, it’s impossible to exist and do this in a hostile environment.  That’s why when I travel, there are much tougher places to deal with. Also it has to do with isolation. Chicago, and other big cities, are diverse.  And whenever we exist in a diverse place we develop an open mind, because there are many  different points of view. Also, resources are different, in terms of where you’re getting your news from. I’ve been in very isolated places, and I could see how these places feel that they exist in different time than our time here.

CE. I noticed you’re going to Dearborn to speak at the Arab American Museum.
WB. I I am, it’s an Arab American Art Forum, and it’s annual. They invite people to participate; mostly intellectuals, artists who are Arab American to come together to discuss what’s going on in their field. I’ll be on a panel called, “Art is not always beautiful,” and the title of my talk is going to be, “The healing condition in political art: aesthetic pleasure versus aesthetic pain.” I’m talking specifically about what needs to be done in terms of political art, and how we can bring the viewer into our world and convey messages rather than alienate them.


Do you think there is a lack of political art, especially about the war?


In the nineties, I was one of the few people who was willing to tackle this issue of war, embargo, genocide. There was big opposition to what I wanted to do. I remember when I applied to the Art Institute for the MFA program, many people said, “First of all, they’re not going to take you, and second, the Art Institute is far removed from any political art.” And as time progressed, and people have gotten more and more serious about what is happening in terms of foreign politics, I see more artists doing political art. But also, I see the population opening up to it. In the nineties, during the war, and also during the ten years of embargo against Iraq, people were even more far removed from the battleground. Now, I think people are more engaged, because we have more people, American young soldiers, dying in Iraq, and you see the effect first-hand in this country, and I think you see more and more artists involved, because they have an open ear from the audience engage in such a dialogue.

CE. But at the same time your use of the Internet is overcoming a lot of distance that still remains.

There are so many people saying, “Art has nothing to do with politics, and art should be about nothing.”  It’s impossible. Art by nature is politics. When we render reality into any form of art, we are either amplifying the situation in order to allow other people to pay attention.  Or we are amplifying it in order to oppose  the situation. Art, by nature, and artists by nature, are the outsiders in society.  They always like to change things, they’re not satisfied with the status quo.  But I think we also have responsibilities now. I personally cannot detach myself from the war. One, it also has to do, of course, with who I am and where I come from.  Of course I’m an Iraqi.  But of course I’m an American as well. My family is affected there. It’s like the motherland is at war with the adopted land.

I was about ten or fourteen when Saddam came to power.  I saw how at the beginning how the rhetoric was. It was all about the security, it was all about the people. But as we progressed, people lost all power, and it became a police state. I’m just afraid this might happen in the Untied States. That’s why I’m fighting with all my power to stop it, to stop the government scaring people to death. I think before the last election, people were still terrified about what terrorists might do to us, and the rhetoric from the government. But people overcame this fear, and they did overcome this fear in the last election. They said, “No, we don’t believe this rhetoric anymore. We are going forward and we are asking for change.”


Sometimes it seems that we’re strangely seeing the same identity of what we say we’re opposing in our own very own government.

WB. Absolutely. And we are now seeing the result of what the government has done in the past few years, since September 11th.  People are opening their eyes. I’m hoping next year that people will voice their opinion, and elect somebody who’s opposed to this war madness.

CE. Is there an Iraqi community in Chicago that you’re in touch with?
WB. There’s a smaller community. Before the start of this war, it used to be a little bit larger of a community. It has a lot to do with a lot of people like me who escaped Iraq. Many of them since then have moved out of Chicago, and it has to do with, either they enlist with the American military as a translator. Also, many of them are being used to train American soldiers before they go to Iraq. There are camps in the United States, there are a few of them. And inside these camps Iraqi families live; they are mock-ups of Iraqi villages and cities in Iraq. The  military is stationed outside of these mock-up cities, and they attack these villages every day and night in order to train a solder in a real-life situation. People move their families to these villages. It has everything to do with money. These guys are getting two to three hundred thousand a year when they were barely making the minimum wage. And believe it or not, people are fighting to get one of these positions.

CE. Is this common knowledge?
WB. Yes, it’s open. One of them is in Virginia, one in California. It would be fantastic to have access to them. It’s known, but not very well. Apparently it’s one way they try to train the soldiers. They project it as a cultural training; they train people about the culture of Iraq. I don’t know if it works or not. But I know very well the Iraqis in this camp get subjected to violence. They shout at each other, they do a mock-up demonstration and arrest.

CE. It’s surprising that they would go to that level of authenticity.

Exactly. That’s what you see, the community in Chicago is getting smaller. There’s still a community, though, and I still meet with other artists. It’s surprising to me that people enlist, and also the extent that the military goes to do this. It has a lot to do with money as well. Because the military and the contractors are getting a lot out of this too. Yes, they’re paying Iraqis, but how much are they getting? In this war from the beginning, it was the lack of leadership and corruption, on both sides. Not only on the American side, but on the Iraqi side as well. You see that common people don’t even have their basic needs met. Why does a family only have two hours of electricity, when Iraq is making 50 billion dollars a year now? Where is all that money going? 1.5 billion barrels a day. And it has so much to do with corruption. In fact, since we’re in Chicago, the Electricity Minister was in Baghdad. And he was accused of stealing 3 billion dollars in one year. He was imprisoned in the Green Zone by the Iraqis, because it was safe. Then, somehow the soldiers freed him. And he is living in Chicago right now. The American military freed him. It makes you wonder, what is the connection here? It’s strange how it’s parallel to what Saddam was doing. He was always at war, because war gives one man ultimate control. We surrender everything, because it has to with our existence, our protection in life. As a citizen, what can you do when you’re faced with such a propaganda machine, and such real violence. Why have we spent a trillion dollars since the war?

Think how much that would have improved life in the United States in terms of health care and education. And where did all that money go? Not to the Iraqis, not to the Americans. It went to very few companies; Blackwater, that’s the biggest company. And then Halliburton, we don’t even need to mention, because it’s out there. I just learned that they moved their headquarters to the United Arab Emirates. And that’s why I believe the U.S. is not going to leave Iraq anytime soon.

I talked to my brother yesterday and people describe the base in Ballad, Iraq is the biggest United States base in the area. They’re not going to pack it up. That’s one thing about the war, is that the country stays de-stabilized, and Iraqi people think that is by design.  As long as you keep Iraq de-stabilized, the Iraqi government will need the United States’ help.

CE. Until it reaches a boiling point somewhere.
WB. I It’s very possible. I think ultimately the American people have to do something to stop it, and that’s the same thing that happened with Vietnam. But Iraqis believe that it is intentionally left de-stabilized not only to stay there, but also to attract people who want to fight the United States. When Bush said, “It’s better there than here,” Iraqis were very upset by it. Iraqis are saying, “You are openly saying, you are turning our country into a war zone. And then on the other hand, you say you’re bringing in Democracy.”

CE. It doesn’t seem that the goal is peace.

I don’t think the goal is democracy. These are the slogans to sell it. It’s all about control. Iraq, if you think about it, has nothing to do with September 11th. The United States was the one to put Saddam in power. We were fighting him when Rumsfeld himself visited him, shaking his hand in Baghdad. It’s using an unfortunate situation, and taking advantage of it. If you think of the location, Iraq has the second largest known oil reserve. But it also has to with the location in relation with China, as well, so strategically, Iraq was an ultimate place to capture. That’s why the United States is not going to move out of the country.

CE. Is your website, crudeoils, a collective, or is it a shared webspace?
WB. In 2001, I met Shawn Lawson, the cofounder of the site and a collaborator as well. One thing struck me about him; we were from totally different cultures, but we have the same direction in terms of, most artists either take the scientific approach to art, or the humanitarian approach. We both take both and complete each other in a sense of what we’re trying to convey through technology. We’re trying to empower; and we decided to collaborate. Somehow it made sense that an Iraqi and an American, what do they have in common? They have crude oils in common.

CE. So it’s a collaborative concept?


Exactly. A lot of the work, the interactive work, has a lot of technology involved in it. And Shawn is a brilliant programmer, and could make anything happen. I come to him with these crazy ideas. For example, we’re working on a piece called Sardanapalus and the piece is going to be a living creature. It’s going to be an electronic piece, and it’s going to live for 400 years and after 400 years it’s going to die. It’s going to be inside a computer. If you put one in Chicago and one in Paris, they will evolve differently because they read the light, they read the temperature. It’s based on these senses, and is going to evolve differently. It’s based on The Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix. So, with that piece, the water is going to rise. The story is that Sardanapalus was a ruler of an empire in Syria, and when he was surrounded by the enemy, he gathered everyone and killed them all. So we’re going to have the water rise over a period of 400 years. And under the water you’ll see the painting in the space disintegrating; the disintegration has to do with the input of the light, the rise of temperature, the sunlight. It’s going to look like it’s in a dim space, because the light is changing according to the sun’s position. So the water’s going to rise over 400 years, and when it reaches the top, the piece is going to die. It’s a manifestation of technology, but also you can see that most of the work has a humanitarian concern. 

I worked on a piece called Midwest Olympia, and when you look at Midwest Olympia, the last image you think it is an image of war. When I said it’s about war, people were kind of surprised. Because what I’m saying here is that the war seen in a mirror. When you dry the resources from a population, we’re creating individuals who are disengaging from dialogue, and we are creating isolated individuals. When you look at that image, it has so much to do with consumption. We create a void inside of us, and that void will be filled with the promise of happiness, which is the object. The promise is, that as much you consume, the happier you get. In fact, it’s not true. It’s a void, it’ll never be filled. It’s a one-hour shot of a person in a very domestic place, opening their place to us. I wanted to see that, I wanted to show the effect of aggression going inward, and that’s using the same analogy as Jeff Wall and his destroyed room, the very early piece. It’s a still photograph. That’s the idea I’m playing with, is the sign value. It has everything to do with having an open narrative on the surface, then we come and impose our own narrative on the piece. That’s why when you sit in a room with Ms. Midwest Olympia, after a while it becomes about you, about your life. It offers you a meditative state, which a lot of works of art don’t offer you. Painting does, and I’m trying to do the same thing with video. Not like life, where everything is fast-moving. I wanted to slow reality down, and that’s why you see 400 years of video, trying to give the space for give people to think and meditate and reflect inside, and just impose their narrative on the artwork.



That’s a very different take on the normal way of thinking about videos, as opposed to the passive registration of images by the viewer.


Exactly. But that piece, Midwest Olympia, is unlike other interactive pieces, because other interactive pieces, takes the input of the viewer.  But this one has no viewer. It is linear; it has a beginning and an end. It’s a slice of life, one hour and 62 minutes, an unedited take. You have the space to face somebody you don’t know, in a very, very private situation, and you’re just facing that. And after a while you see all the objects occupying the space, and you cannot help reflecting on your life.

^Thanks to Sarah Cameron for valuable sound help.