Would You "Shoot an Iraqi" in Cyberspace?
For a month Wafaa Bilal lived in a cell with a paintball gun pointed at him, controlled by an internet audience who could shoot at him 24 hours a day.
Last spring, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal moved into a cordoned area set up in the back of a Chicago art gallery, where he would remain for one month. The makeshift cell contained a computer, desk, bed, lamp, coffee table, and stationary bike (which, like most stationary bikes, went untouched). Facing him was a paintball gun with an attached webcam. With the help of friends, an interactive system was designed in which users could log on to the Internet, aim the gun, and fire. For the month, Bilal was an around-the-clock target, offering himself up to anyone wanting to "shoot an Iraqi."
After news of the project -- the name of which was changed to the less controversial "Domestic Tension" -- spread virally, its web server was constantly on the brink of being overloaded. While thousands shot at Bilal, others spent hours in the site's chatroom. Comments like "too bad we can't waterboard him" or "motherfucking Iraqi, die!" sat alongside more positive missives such as "I hope the situation gets better in Iraq" and "I really hope all Americans aren't racist mofos." A bizarre electronic tug of war ensued. Aggressors hacked into the site and wrote a code to make the gun's trigger automatic, while a group of people called the "Virtual Human Shield" coordinated efforts to keep the gun pointed away from Bilal. What was a conceptually simple project -- shoot at an Iraqi over the Internet -- became a complicated mess of conflicting emotions, as Bilal had envisioned: some viewers were racist, some supportive, some curious, some just bored and lonely ("Are there any girls here?" one chatroom participant wanted to know).
Although the project took a heavy mental toll on Bilal, whose post-traumatic stress disorder from years of living in war-torn Iraq and dangerous refugee camps wasn't helped by the constant firing of the gun, he was happily overwhelmed by the response. At the beginning of his new book, Shoot an Iraqi, Bilal notes that he "wanted to reach well beyond the normal art world." Which he did: over the course of the month, the website received 80 million hits, and 65,000 individuals from 136 different countries fired at him. While it can be difficult to discern the impact on participants -- did logging on and remotely firing a paintball gun bring a deeper understanding of war? -- at the very least it enabled people to see an Iraqi whose daily life was constantly being influenced by the actions of comfortable people, sometimes thousands of miles away. Just as importantly, in a time when public dialogue about the war often does little more than scratch the surface (is the surge "working"?), Bilal's "game" asks more fundamental questions (who is the enemy?) while reminding us of the unfathomable pain that hides behind those terse headlines -- e.g. "Iraq Strike Kills 15 Civilians" -- we can shrug off over breakfast. Having lost many friends and family to armed conflict, Bilal knows that war is not a game. But short of dragging people to the combat zone, maybe a game is the best way to make this case.
What is most remarkable about Shoot an Iraqi isn't, however, the chronicle of the project that brought him worldwide attention, but the back story. Weaved amid a narrative of the 31-day experiment is a memoir of his life in Iraq and eventual flight to Kuwait and then Saudi Arabia, followed by his attempt to make a new life in the United States.
A striving immigrant who pushed boundaries wherever he went, Bilal's professional life in Chicago was going well even as the U.S. intensified its war in his home country. He taught art, made art, and had grown used to the comforts of American life, complete with memberships to health clubs and wine and cheese receptions. Then, in 2004, he learned that his brother, Haji, had been killed by an unmanned U.S. drone. The news sent him into a downward spiral of emotions, which ranged from anger to guilt, but above all with a growing exasperation at how removed most Americans were from the carnage that they were funding.
Bilal's feelings crystallized in 2007 while he was watching a TV interview with an American soldier, whose task was to drop bombs on Iraqi targets from a computer console in Colorado. When asked whether she was concerned about making a mistake, the soldier quickly answered that she trusted her commanders. No soul searching required.
"My brother had been killed by explosives dropped from an American helicopter that flew in after an unmanned U.S. drone had scoped out the area," Bilal writes. "It struck me that Haji's death had been orchestrated by someone just like this young woman, pressing buttons from thousands of miles away, sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a computer, completely oblivious to the terror and destruction they were causing to a family -- a whole society -- halfway across the world."
"Domestic Tension" was his attempt to "address this chasm between the comfort and conflict zones," a chasm which his own life had bridged. Growing up in the ancient city of Kufa, his father was abusive and mentally ill, and his grandmother died for want of medical supplies during the U.S.-led embargo. As he grew older, his artwork provoked controversy. His realist paintings of poor people caused him to be shut down by Saddam's regime, and on the brink of the first Gulf War, a professor asked him in front of a class to volunteer to fight. Instead, he refused, and immediately left the University of Baghdad, realizing that his days were numbered.
Biding his time back in Kufa, he spent his time painting while U.S. bombs destroyed the city's infrastructure. One of his favorite spots to paint was the Kufa Bridge; luckily, on the day it was bombed -- killing members of a wedding party -- he was home. "I raced toward the bridge with my heart pounding, joining a screaming, wailing crowd converging on the site of the explosion. … Staggering through the destruction in a state of collective shock, we gathered up the bits of flesh and torn clothing and threw them in the river."
After the war, he eventually arrived at a Kuwaiti refugee camp, and less than two months later was transported to another camp in Saudi Arabia, where he would stay for a year. The camps offered no safety: various factions fought over provisions and control with the age-old weapons of murder and rape. Bilal did his best to keep out of the way, spending his time painting on canvas that he cut from the tents and stretched onto stray pieces of plywood. He also became engrossed in constructing an adobe hut with water and dirt, which became a makeshift art studio for residents. This sort of secular initiative didn't sit well with the Shia fundamentalists, who labeled Bilal, a Shia himself, a communist. A remarkably strong-willed, even stubborn person, he was forced to paint a portrait of a Shia religious leader in order to avoid a violent attack: "The religious leaders came back for the portrait and snapped it out of my hands while the paint was still wet, then one of them held it above his head and paraded around the camp with his followers chanting 'Allahu Akbar.' It was a moment of humility for me … being forced to prostitute my artistic talents for them left an aftertaste of defeat in my mouth."
It is remarkable that in a memoir about growing up in Iraq under Saddam, this is one of the only times that Bilal is forced to act a lie, and it provides a key to understanding the uncompromising nature of his work as an artist. Now in the relative safety on the U.S., he is not about to moderate his views, and any controversy that comes his way can't compare to being face-to-face with armed religious fanatics. If his artwork makes some Americans uncomfortable, all the better: comfortable people don't ask questions.
It is a testament to Bilal's book, which is co-written by freelance writer Kari Lydersen, that it offers much to a reader that has very little interest or knowledge in online gaming, robotics, or even performance art. I've never played an online game, and I'm one of the people that Bilal identifies as being unlikely to step foot inside a shooting gallery. Still, one gets swept away with his descriptions of everyday life in Iraq, which are succinct and moving, and impressed by his relentless productivity under the most arduous circumstances. His inability to mute his opinions -- whether he's vandalizing a portrait of Saddam in Kufa, provoking complacent citizens in the United States, or even protesting the poor pay he receives at a jewelry factory shortly after resettling in the U.S. -- continues to make his life more stressful than it need be. But it is this combative nature and critical capacity that is most needed precisely when the tide of public opinion is flowing strongly in one direction.
One such moment occurred during the Shia uprising in Iraq following the first Gulf War -- which was later violently squashed by Saddam. Many Iraqis were swept up in the violence, and though Bilal understands the anger of long-oppressed Shias, he refused to take part. Here Bilal describes a friend, Qasim: "He had his keffiyah wrapped around his head and his AK-47 slung over his back -- he looked like a mujahid. I was amazed how quickly he had transformed from an intellectual artist to a religious warrior. He looked at my work and asked me why I spent so much time painting in such dire circumstances. This isn't a time for art, he said, this is a time of war. I said it is never a time for war, but it is always a time for art."
And sometimes games.