Wafaa Bilal, 2013
|Born||June 10, 1966
|Nationality||Iraqi American[verification needed]|
|Field||Video art, Electronic Art, New Media Art|
|Training||University of New Mexico 1999 BFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago 2003 MFA|
|Works||Domestic Tension, The 3rd I|
Wafaa Bilal (Arabic: وفاء بلال [wæfæ bɪlˤɑːlˤ]; born June 10, 1966) is an Iraqi American artist, a former professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and currently an assistant professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is best known for his work Domestic Tension, a performance piece in which he lived in a gallery for a month and was shot by paintballs remotely by internet users watching from a webcam.
Bilal's family is from Najaf, Iraq. He dreamed of becoming an artist but was prohibited from studying art in a university in Iraq, because of the alleged disloyalty of a member of his family; he studied geography instead. He continued to work on art and was arrested as a dissident for his art critical of Saddam Hussein. He refused to volunteer to participate in the invasion of Kuwait, and began organizing opposition groups. He fled Iraq in 1991 and lived in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia for two years, teaching art to children.
In 1992 he came to the United States to study art at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, from which he graduated with a BFA in 1999. He later moved to Chicago, where he earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003, and became an adjunct assistant professor the following year. In addition to his art he has given lectures about Saddam Hussein's regime and was interviewed by the History Channel. Wafaa's brother was killed by a U.S. missile strike at a checkpoint in 2004, something which deepened his condemnation of the Iraqi War. He has traveled the world and spread word of the situation of the Iraqi people, and the significance of peaceful conflict resolution.
In May 2007 he began a 30-day-long project called Domestic Tension which involved him living in a gallery in Chicago, eating and drinking what was donated to him. Viewers of the piece on the internet were able to view or take shots at Bilal with a remote controlled paintball gun at any time of the day or night. Yellow paintballs were chosen because it is the color of the Support our troops ribbon.
Bilal first got the idea for Domestic Tension when his 21-year-old brother was killed by shrapnel in Najaf, and soon after his father died. The idea solidified after reading a news article about a U.S. soldier in Colorado who remotely fired missiles in Iraq. He originally considered calling the piece "Shoot an Iraqi," but decided that would be too incendiary. Still a book was released under the title "Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun". The book is a combination of an autobiography and his path towards approaching and completing the project.
The number of paintball shots greatly escalated after the work was reported on Digg.com. By the twentieth day, he had been shot at over 40,000 times, and hackers had programmed the gun to fire automatically. By the end, more than 60,000 people from 130 countries shot at him. Bilal lived in the room from May 4 until June 4; afterwards the room remained on display, uncleaned, until June 16.
Wafaa Bilal created a computer based art piece titled Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi which is a modified version of the game Quest for Bush, itself a "hacked" version of the popular commercial video game Quest for Saddam. While in the real game players target the ex-Iraqi leader, in Wafaa's modified version the artist casts himself as a suicide bomber who gets sent on a mission to assassinate President George W. Bush. On his website, Bilal says,
"This artwork is meant to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians, to the travesties of the current war, and to expose racist generalizations and profiling. Similar games such as “Quest for Saddam” or “America’s Army” promote stereotypical, singular perspectives. My artwork inverts these assumptions, and ultimately demonstrates the vulnerability to recruitment by violent groups like Al Qaeda because of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In these difficult times, when we are at war with another nation, it is our duty as artists and citizens to improvise strategies of engagement for dialogue. This platform is a piece of fiction that uses the video game format to create alternative narratives and perspectives. Because we inhabit a comfort zone far from the trauma of conflict zone, we Americans have become desensitized to the violence of war. We are disconnected, disengaged while many others do the suffering. The game holds up a mirror that reveals our own propensities for violence, racism and propaganda. We can close our eyes, our ears and deny that it exists, but the issue won’t go away."
Wafaa Bilal was invited by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in late February 2008 to present a lecture on this latest work. On March 6, the day after Wafaa's lecture, the RPI administration said they would not allow the exhibit to be supported on campus, and has since declined to reopen it. The decision came after the College Republicans called the Arts department "a safe haven for terrorists" on their blog. The statement has since been retracted. The Institute has been subsequently criticized by advocates of free speech and artistic freedom.
Dog or Iraqi
Wafaa was asked to participate in a net art piece called Dog or Iraqi while an artist in residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He let his audience decide which one – a dog named “Buddy,” or an Iraqi, himself – will be waterboarded at an “undisclosed location” in upstate New York. He was the one who got water-boarded.
The 3rd I
Bilal's The 3rd I project was exhibited in the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar on December 30, 2010. Bilal had a titanium plate implanted in the back of his head, to which a camera was attached. For one year, which began December 15, 2010, an image was captured once per minute and streamed live to www.3rdi.me and the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. The website also showed his location via GPS. Bilal said that he wanted to capture the mundane while not knowingly taking the pictures. In an attempt to assuage privacy concerns, Bilal's university required him to cover the camera while on campus. On February 4, 2011, Bilal had the camera removed due to constant pain.
He considers himself a political artist, dealing with war and oppression, and the Iraqi experience. He considers his main influence his experience growing up under the repression and violence of Baathist Iraq. He has also been inspired by his experiences of injustice and suffering in the United States. He has produced photographs and video installations that explore these emotions and conditions in hyperreality.
For example, his work Raze 213 had viewers smell a piece of meat decaying in acid; it was shut down by the New Mexico health authorities. It was a reference to a torture technique used by Saddam Hussein of dripping nitric acid randomly on prisoners. In August 2007 in San Francisco he recreated rooms of destroyed houses from Iraq, covered in ash, some from human remains.
- Sorrow of Baghdad (1999)
- Absinth Drinker
- Raze 213 (1999)
- Mona Lisa (2002)
- A Bar at the Folies Begère (2003)
- Baiti "My Home" (2003)
- One Chair (2005)
- Midwest Olympia (2005)
- Human Condition (2005)
- Domestic Tension (2007)
- Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun (2008) ISBN 978-0-87286-491-7.
- Virtual Jihadi (2008)
- …and Counting (2010)
- 3rdi (2010-11)
- Technoviking (2013)
- The Ashes Series (2003-2013)
- "Domestic Tension Frequently Asked Questions". Wafaa Bilal official site. Archived from the original on 2007-06-20. Retrieved 2007-06-22.
- "Shot More Than 40,000 Times, an Iraqi Artist Spreads a Message with a Paintball Gun". Alternet. Retrieved 2007-06-22.
- Wafaa Bilal. "CV". Retrieved 2007-06-21.
- "New York University – About NYU – Search". New York University. Retrieved 2008-09-06.
- Artner, Alan G. (2008-06-29). "Wafaa Bilal". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2008-09-06.
- "Shoot the Iraqi!". Newsweek. Retrieved 2007-06-22.[dead link]
- "Media alert". Wafaa Bilal official site. Archived from the original on 2007-06-20. Retrieved 2007-06-21.
- "RPI Students for Free Culture wiki". Archived from the original on 2008-04-05. Retrieved 2008-03-12.
- "Wafaa Bilal’s Response to President Jackson Regarding the Closure of his Exhibit". Archived from the original on 2008-03-19. Retrieved 2008-03-17.
- iEAR Event notice
- "Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Declines to Reopen Exhibit". Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Retrieved 2008-03-13.
- Fufaro, Danielle (2008-03-14). "Shut exhibit raises questions about the role of provocative art on campus". Times Union. Retrieved 2008-03-01.[dead link]
- "Dog or Iraqi?". Retrieved 2008-03-13.
- In the Name of Art, Wafaa Balil is a Walking Tripod
- Health Problems Force Professor to Pull Camera From Back of Head
- Wafaa Bilal. "Statement". Retrieved 2007-06-22.[dead link]
- Official website
- Shoot an Iraqi article in The National
- "Bilal and the media" article in F Newsmagazine
- Interview with Bilal from Network Performance Daily
- Interview with Bilal from F Newsmagazine
- Wafaa Bilal's page at YouTube, including daily dispatches from Domestic Tension
- Iraqi Artist Makes a Point with Virtual Paintballs by NPR All Things Considered
- 105,000 Tattoos: Iraqi Artist Turns His Own Body into a Canvas to Commemorate Dead Iraqis & Americans
- CNN coverage of "3rd I"