New Media artist Wafaa Bilal critiques the divide between public and political life
The United States has cultivated a casual indifference to how often we make war. Marita Sturken observes that “the way a nation remembers a war is directly related to the way that nation further propagates war.” Since the Persian Gulf War what Jean Baudrillard called “the First Postmodern War” Americans remember war as a video game. Consequently, we as a nation show little reluctance to unleash our military might. Iraqi new media artist Wafaa Bilal is one of those millions of people for whom America’s unfettered war-making has had tragic consequences. Bilal recognizes that the suffering unleashed by war is sanitized through the antiseptic, video game images that simulate war for Americans. Living between two worlds“ one of comfort versus one of conflict” Bilal’s new-media interventions and performance art installations try to pierce this simulation, to make the nature of warfare visible to a viewer. In his artistic practice, Bilal has been shot at 60,000 times with a paintball gun, received 25,000 tattoos, and been waterboarded. For his latest project, “The Third I,” he has become a cyborg. Bilal’s goals are ambitious: trying to remediate America’s understanding of our relationship to the world. In trying to achieve this goal, Bilal has placed himself at the forefront of both articulating what a new-media artist can be and at the extreme end of the spectrum of what a performance artist will do in his practice.
Upon a first introduction to his work, most striking are the visceral and durational aspects of Bilal’s happenings. Bilal’s body usually has punishment or transformation inflicted upon it for a prolonged period of time. For his most infamous project, “Shoot an Iraqi” (also called “Domestic Tension”), Bilal sequestered himself in a room for a month with a remotely-controlled paintball gun for company. “…And Counting” involved Bilal being tattooed 25,000 times in one 24-hour sitting. For “The Third I,” Bilal currently has a webcam attached to a to his skull by a subcutaneous titanium plate, a project that will last a year. The corporal element to his work is in service of the ideological goal. Because we inhabit a comfort zone far from the trauma of the conflict zone, we Americans have become desensitized to the violence of war. We are disconnected, disengaged while many others do the suffering,” Bilal explains.
To bridge the divide between these two zones, Bilal uses his body to affect the viewer by engaging them on an unconscious, visceral level. Bilal says, “We’re talking not about intellectual language, or a conceptual or aesthetic language, we’re talking about a reaction. What that does to you “the viewer” is to meet you on a different level – rather than the mental one, it engages you on a corporal level. You are with it or against it, and that triggers a dialogue. Bilal’s work has its incredibly visceral, performative aspect so that his body can be the site for posing ideological questions to the viewer. As important as the unconscious reaction the viewer experiences is the dialogue that comes afterwards.
The nature of new media enables viewers to be connected in such a way that a dialogue can form around Bilal’s work. Bilal describes his work as stemming from “a deep desire to engage with [his] fellow citizens in this country,” and this engagement is crucial for remediating the spectacle of warfare. Guy Debord posits that “the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” Americans have traditionally received our images of warfare from centralized distribution sources. Sexy, CNN-style “smart bomb” footage places a viewer in the point-of-view of military ordinance. Embedded reporters deliver their news from the perspective of a part of the combat unit that protects them. Always faithful to the sensibilities of its corporate owners, the media has an unspoken embargo on depictions of the dead and wounded. These are the images that mediate our social relation as citizens of the world’s most robust war-fighting state.
Media theorist Noah Wardrip-Fruin argues that media reports delivered by non-interactive means compose the simulation that undergirds our country’s warmaking. Wardruip-Fruin points specifically to the media depictions of the war in Iraq: “œIn these cases, there seems no call to resist, to transgress the simulation. It’s as if it’s simply time to sit back and enjoy.” The antiseptic video game images of warfare delivered to Americans by one-way conduits of information like our government and media are seriously challenged by the promise of digital connectivity. In addition to enabling discussion, they allow digital imagery to undermine the simulation. The torture at Abu Ghraib was exposed through the Internet and digital imagery, and it marked the turning point in public support of the Iraq War. “The phenomenon of digital connectivity is raising the barrier between the comfort/conflict zones, and I think that’s what’s been needed for a very long time,” Bilal explains.” It’d be totally impossible to do a project such as “Shoot an Iraqi” and mobilize people without access to the internet and mobile devices.”
“Shoot an Iraqi” offered participants a platform to do precisely what the name implied. Bilal’s project arose in the aftermath of his brother Haji’s death by a remotely-piloted rocket in their hometown of Kufa, Iraq. “Prior to the death of my brother,” Bilal says, “I spoke from an artist’s point of view, who cares about humanitarian issues. But then with the death of my brother and the tragedies that followed it, the work became very personal.” “Shoot an Iraqi” marked the beginning of the deeply performative component of Bilal’s practice. “With the death of my brother and the tragedies that followed it,” he says, “the work became very personal. I wasn’t out there making statements, rather I was out there dealing with my own losses, and that’s also where the body comes in.”
“Shoot an Iraqi” would confront viewers with Bilal’s body and force an ethical choice. Presented with the kind of racialized, othered body that the American narrative had long demonized, would a participant make a personal decision to bring harm to an Iraqi? Bilal explains the hard choice as confronting the viewer with a very hard choice of whether to shoot or not, which allowed them to be aware of this remote killing. Every time Bilal was shot or spared, every mouse-click was a user making an ethical decision, participating in the creation of the narrative.
“‘Shoot an Iraqi’ was an open platform,” Bilal says, “which means the viewer him or herself could act to write a narrative, and by being part of the narrative and an active inventor, you have to carry that narrative with you.” The project attracted visitors through a viral marketing campaign and its inherently controversial mission. Users could control the gun either from a computer in the exhibit hall or online, by visiting the website wafaabilal.com. The aesthetics of wafaabilal.com allowed the participant great leeway in their own interpretation of the project: There were as few indicators as possible about whether participation was to be enjoyable, or even if the project was real or not. While Bilal’s body offered the site where this narrative was enacted, the website wafaabilal.com was the site where the narrative was written. The interactivity enabled by the online forum opened up space in which people from any country on earth, and from anywhere on the political spectrum, could engage in a dialogue about the exercise of state violence and our own culpability within those systems.
Wafaabilal.com utilized the visuals of contemporary combat in its presentation. Visitors found a very sparse website, with a background of muted, gunmetal grey, little text and no sound. Bilal chose the grainy, low-resolution imagery of the gun-mounted camera to create “a heightened sense of detachment – something more akin to the experience of a soldier dropping remote bombs than the usual experience of a high resolution video game.” Bilal’s remediation of the images of remotely fought warfare mirrors the actual software and mechanics that enabled the project to exist. Ironically enough, “Shoot an Iraqi” was made possible by cannibalizing technology that had been developed for the Department of defense to conduct remote warfare. The most heartening aspect of technology is the way it can be used for counter-imperial ends. WikiLeaks, for instance, is dependent on encryption technology developed for Defense and corporations. The internet itself saw its genesis in the governmentâ€™s ARPANET. “When it comes to technology, I have a very high respect because I think if we reverse it we can allow people to really be aware of the very machine we talk about.”
The technology and imagery of remote-warfare, the kind of combat that claimed the life of Haji Bilal, pose a serious threat to understanding war’s realities. In 2010, A U.N. human rights official condemned America’s drone warfare specifically for creating a “Playstation mentality” towards combat–an indictment of the new realities of our military. America’s wars are increasingly fought like video games by removing humans from the battlefield or mediating their physical presence through technology. “When it comes to video games, the military has denied for a very long time that our soldiers have become ‘virtual warriors,'” Bilal explains, “but it now goes beyond ideas of training into implementing an apparatus that allows a participant to be disconnected. I was reading a recent article about how the gunner has been moved from the top of the tank to the inside, where combat is now mediated through an LCD screen. And the military now says, “our best gunners are video game players.” Video game conflict is ahistorical and consequence-free. Its pleasure stems from the fact that a player can enact violence in a universe without any real suffering or complex, problematic history. The images of video game warfare shroud the viewer in a cloak of moral nihilism.
The act of creating a memorial is based upon opposing values. A memorial creates history by situating an event in time and space, and rejects moral nihilism by articulating a stand on suffering. In 2010, Bilal used the medium of tattoo to turn his own body into a memorial for the installation “…And Counting.” For 24 hours, Bilal had Iraq mapped on his back, receiving 5,000 dots in red ink for American casualties and 100,000 in invisible ink for Iraqi dead, visible only under a blacklight. Visitors to the gallery were invited to read the names of the dead while Bilal underwent the needle. “…And Counting” engages the viewer on the unconscious level through the visceral physicality and duration of it, but also makes a conscious political point about civilian suffering. The invisible ink reflects our country’s callous indifference to the suffering of civilians like Haji; in response to a question about Iraqi civilians deaths, a Pentagon spokesman coldly replied, “We don’t do body counts.” Bilal stopped after 25,000 tattoos due to the condition of his skin, and under normal light, his back reads Arabic city names with red dots clustered around. Under infrared, however, his back lights up like the night sky.
Bilal’s current project, “The Third I,” is at first almost atypical in its seeming political passivity. It has all the highly performative, visceral aspects of Bilal’s previous work, centering on the webcam Bilal had installed to the back of his head in Dec. 2010. Though “Third I” is more passive than some of his previous happenings, it triggered a political and ideological dialogue immediately upon its inception. NYU, where Bilal is a professor, insisted that he block the camera while on campus over fears about privacy. The webcam unit broadcasts his location by GPS 24 hours a day, and takes a picture every minute, which is uploaded to the website 3rdi.me. Rather than being passive or apolitical, “Third I” immediately asked questions about privacy in an age of digital surveillance and private versus public space.
“Third I” prompts political questions and intervenes in cultural attitudes about race, privacy and surveillance. Though Bilal concedes that “with “Third I,” I am questioning my own life by exposing it,” for a Middle Eastern male, questions about self are inherently political. To inhabit a body so politicized is to be in a perpetual state of assumed surveillance. “Having the camera on my head, rather than hidden, is the mirror reflecting that social condition – a question I pose to people. It’s to establish a dialogue about surveillance, and the disappearing private life.”
Discussions surrounding “Third I” are replete with complaints about the intrusion Bilal’s webcam makes into the privacy of passersby. For Bilal, this is precisely the sort of discussion his work is intended to foment. “The project tends to edge people out of their comfort zones,” Bilal says, “and that’s the trigger or platform for establishing a dialogue.” In an age where digital images are infinitely replicable and interconnectivity enables instant dissemination of these images, the question of what we conceive as private space couldn’t be more important.
“I don’t think any of us have given the government the right to listen to our conversations, to tap our phones,” Bilal muses, “and when a condition is ignored it becomes the norm.” The electronic eye that “Third I” introduces to public space is a provocation – intervening in the cultural attitude of indifference that allows our privacy to be abrogated. Though Bilal is the one who is truly exposed, “Third I” reveals the condition of our surveillance, and forces the viewer to consider questions of what spaces are private and which are public.
The dialogue “Third I” establishes about privacy is particularly important in the context of the ongoing expansion of the American surveillance state. Since the passage of the Patriot Act, our country’s national security and surveillance apparatus has grown to an unprecedented size and exercises nearly unfettered power. When Americans receive glimpses of the true power and scope of the surveillance state, it’s clear that systemic abuses, unaccountability, privatization, and the disintegration of institutional safeguards are the status quo. For the most part these revelations generate little debate or public interest over surveillance and civil liberties, and government surveillance continues its quiet expansion. The challenge “Third I” poses to its viewers is to stop ignoring this condition.
The impetus for technological innovation has always been rooted in mankind’s instinct to make war. Just as instinct drives the human species to use technology for war, there is the mirror instinct that our technologies for war be used for peace. The digital age holds the promise of our own 21st century swords being beaten into ploughshares. Bilal is heartened by this phenomenon – removing technology from its military use and using it for a humane art that challenges imperialism. The technology that disconnects soldiers from the battlefield can connect citizens to the people on whom their nation makes war. The simulation that separates us from our postmodern wars, that insulates us from the horrible crimes done in our name, is threatened by modern digital connectivity. “We could become a channel, each one of us, of distribution. That’s how you can undo barriers – by disseminating information to each other,” Bilal enthuses. “That’s the challenge being posed to empires, and I think the technology has to be given a great deal of respect because of how it empowers individuals.”