A year and a half ago, Wafaa Bilal made himself one of Chicago's best-known artists when he shut himself in a room at Flatfile Galleries in front of a paintball gun. The gun could be controlled remotely, over the Internet, and Web surfers and gallery visitors alike could aim and fire it, blasting Bilal with yellow paint. By the end of the project, titled Domestic Tension, more than 60,000 people had shot at him from more than 130 countries, and he had been featured in media outlets from NPR to Newsweek.
He was also a wreck. Even a year after the project's end, Bilal has not recovered from the stress caused by the incessant explosions of the gun and the strain of constantly trying to avoid impact. "I am tormented by it on a daily basis; I still cannot sleep more than two to four hours a day," he told me recently. "Some time ago I said I would give all the fame for just one good night's sleep. If I knew what I know now I don't think I would have done it."
The project was so traumatic in large part because of Bilal's past. He grew up in the repressive and paranoid atmosphere of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. His father was erratic and abusive, relatives and loved ones died in Saddam's wars, and he feared for his own life many times before escaping to refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and finally to the U.S. The news that his brother had been killed by an American bomb and the subsequent despair and death of his father were what led him to conceive Domestic Tension. "The project allowed me to come closer to the family and to the confinement of it, being under attack," he said. "When we go through rough experience, it never fades away.... I never admitted I lost my brother and my father until I was in Domestic Tension."
In his new book, Shoot an Iraqi, Bilal originally intended to discuss Domestic Tension exclusively—he meant it to be a diary of his time in the room. But his coauthor, (Reader contributor) Kari Lydersen, was interested in writing about Bilal's past as well. "We kept talking about my life, and how things in the project trigger memories from Iraq, and how past experiences in Iraq have served me in Domestic Tension," Bilal said. So the two of them decided to adopt a structure that switched back and forth between Bilal's experiences in the room with the paint gun and his life in Saddam's Iraq.
Bilal had worried that the life experience would overwhelm Domestic Tension, and it's true that some of the transitions are jarring, as when the story lurches from a banal wedding party held in the gallery to Saddam's declaration of war on Iran in 1980. But the point of the book, and of the project, is at least partly to create such unsettling juxtapositions. "We exist in a comfort zone," Bilal says, "and we forget about a war taking place somewhere else."
The project did seem to lead some participants to think about violence in a new way. There were people who shot at Bilal online who afterwards confessed in the chat room to feeling guilty, and Bilal says some went so far as to join the "virtual human shield" started by a Chicago woman to protect him: they would go online and keep moving the gun to the left, making it hard for others to aim at Bilal. Not everyone was so kind: some hackers even managed to turn the paint gun into a machine pistol, firing constantly.
For Bilal, Domestic Tension was a collaborative project, and the book is a way to memorialize that. "The book belongs to everyone who participated," he said. He added, "I don't know if the book will change people's attitude to the war. But I think my goal was very simple, just to share my story with others. Because it becomes a very heavy burden for one person to carry."v
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Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the GunWafaa Bilal with Kari LydersenCity Lights, $18.95