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Shoot An Iraqi!

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Joined: 20 Jun 2006
Posts: 865
Location: Chicago, IL, USA
Shoot An Iraqi!  Reply with quote  

It's fun, and educational! Well, if you can get past the server problems. Mad

A point-and-shoot exhibit
Display's creator lives under the gun controlled by Web viewers

By Mark Caro
Tribune entertainment reporter

May 10, 2007

The artist can't see the shooter, just the gun, which -- BLAM! -- keeps getting fired in his direction.

"Ow!" he exclaims as he gets nicked on the elbow. "You make a mistake, and you get hit."

The mistake in this case was letting his elbow peek out, exposed, from his protective vest. At least once he has wondered whether the larger mistake was putting himself in harm's way in the first place.

"The first shot and the first hit I got, I said, 'Why am I doing this?'

But Iraqi-born Wafaa Bilal has specific political, emotional and artistic reasons for the painfully interactive anti-war installation he has set up in a West Loop gallery at 217 N. Carpenter St. Confining himself from Friday through June 15 in a room at Flatfile Galleries, the 40-year-old Chicago resident has rigged a paintball gun to a Web camera, a computer and a motor, so anyone who clicks on the exhibit's Web site can aim and fire at him just about 24 hours a day.

The installation is titled "Domestic Tension," though Bilal says he originally wanted to call it "Shoot an Iraqi."

"Susan [Aurinko, the gallery director,] said, 'No way,'
" Bilal recalls.

Nevertheless, that's just what people are doing. As of lunchtime Wednesday, Bilal says, about 1,850 rounds have been fired in the room, mostly at him, though sometimes his table lamp, computer and desk chair get attention as well.

"It's interesting as a viewer: Do you shoot it? Do you not shoot it?" said Barbara Koenen, a local artist who does administration work for the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. "There's a part of you that wants to try it to see what happens, and then there's another part of you, or at least of me, that wants to aim the gun away."

Unexploded, the paintballs resemble yellow gumdrops decorated with stars. Splattered against one of Bilal's plexiglass shields, they're more like egg yolks propelled from angry chickens.

The white floor around his bed has turned custardy, with little bits of shell scattered about. His white bedsheets boast unseemly yellow blotches as well. Bilal and his technical helpers have programmed the gun to pan to the left and right, but not up and down, so when he sleeps -- or at least attempts to -- he can't get hit unless he sits up. The paintballs whiz over his body and slam into the wall at the same height every time, drawing a long, drippy yellow line.

The balls' yellow uniformity is, no surprise, intentional.

"It's the 'Support the Troops' color," Balil says.

Bilal -- a man of slight build, buzz-cut hair and beard and liquid green eyes -- says he opposed U.S. military action in Iraq even before 2005, when he says his younger brother was killed there by an American soldier. Two months later, his despondent father died as well.

Bilal says he couldn't travel to Iraq for either funeral because he had fled the country in 1991, during the Gulf War. A Shiite Muslim who wears a black-and-white kaffiyeh on camera, he says Saddam Hussein's regime arrested him several times for his artwork before he wrote his permanent exit ticket by refusing to serve in the Iraqi army when it occupied Kuwait.

He wound up in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp before getting asylum in the United States, where he finished his undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico and his master's at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He says he still suffers from nightmares and post-traumatic stress syndrome from fleeing Saddam's army and witnessing atrocities in the camp.

Now a School of the Art Institute teacher as well as an artist known for politically charged interactive video installations, Bilal had his light-bulb moment for the new exhibit when he was watching the news.

"They had an interview with a soldier, and the soldier was sitting in Colorado firing missiles in Iraq," he recalls.

Struck by the idea of people "in the comfort zone" being able to inflict pain elsewhere, Bilal called Aurinko in February to get "Domestic Tension" mounted quickly. He hooked up his Webcam but didn't allow online participants to hear any sounds because "I want it to be far removed. I want it to be video game-like. That's how we see this war, as a video game. We don't see the mutilated bodies or the toll on the ground."

The exhibit's Web site, accessible through the gallery ( or Bilal's home page (, shows a live picture of the artist's room, directional arrows for moving the gun and a gun icon for firing it.

From inside the room, there's tension every time more than one online viewer becomes engaged in a tug of war over which way the gun will point. "Every time they aim at me, other people take it the other way," Bilal says with some satisfaction as the gun jerks back and forth.

Still, he can't help but notice that when he's within camera range -- and especially when any part of his body is visible outside of a shield -- the paintballs start flying. "Some of them are very obsessed, like in hunting mode," he says of the shooters. "They will just sit until I make a mistake."

Sometimes Bilal stands against the wall donning a paintball-proof vest so viewers can enjoy some target practice. He's hoping to set up video chats soon so he can interact verbally with visitors as well.

Meanwhile, he finds himself mimicking the experience of family members still back in Iraq. "Most of them are confined in their own living places," he says. "They say, 'The only time I leave is to get food.'

Alan Labb, a teacher and now colleague of Bilal's at the School of the Art Institute, says his former student is mixing contemporary interactivity with the kind of "performative art" and endurance test popularized in past decades.

"To do it for a day or an hour is just a symbolic act," Labb said. "This is 24/7. There is no safety space when the noise and bullets are constant."

Aaron Ott, the gallery's associate director, already is worried.

"His sleep is close to nothing at this point, and it's only four or five days in for a monthlong [stay]," he said. "He's clearly drained."

"It's been tougher than I thought," Bilal says, noting that the shooting activity invariably heats up between midnight and 3 a.m. "I'm sleeping about two to three hours a day." He concedes that on occasion he will retreat to a couch in another gallery room, for a few minutes to a maximum of two hours, just to get some rest.

Envisioning another month of being a target, he says: "I don't know the consequences of this. You put your guard up. You don't let it down."

Of course, the more publicity "Domestic Tension" gets, the more shooters will be clicking online.

"Desperate times require desperate measures" -- BLAM! -- "and if this is what it takes to engage people, it's a small price compared to what the Iraqis are going through."

We are born in an age when only the dull are treated seriously,
and I live in horror of not being misunderstood.
-Oscar Wilde

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