“My job as an artist was not to impose my idea on the people of the United States but to open a platform to connect (the ideas of the conflict zone versus the comfort zone, ascetic pleasure versus pain, and the virtual versus the physical), to open a discussion,” said Wafaa Bilal, the guest artist invited to speak in 150 North Gate on the evening of April 7.
Currently a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Bilal fled Iraq in 1991 and has since pursued a career in performance art. Ranging from self-torture to water-boarding to surgically installing a camera in the back of his head, Bilal harnesses the power of art to address current political issues.
In 2007, Bilal performed a piece titled “Domestic Tension.” Over the course of 31 days, the artist lived inside a gallery and allowed online viewers to shoot him with a paintball gun installed in his living space. Inspired by an interview in which a female American soldier described her sense of ease when releasing drones, “Domestic Tension” forced viewers to consider the effects of removing the perpetrator from the physical space of the victim. Deeply personal, the piece not only raised awareness of Iraqi people who could not escape the virtual war they faced on a daily basis but also allowed the artist to connect his life to his family in Iraq while commemorating the death of his brother, who was killed in 2004 by an American missile.
The dialogue Bilal inspires around controversial issues elicits a variety of passionate responses. The 2008 work “Virtual Jihadi” caused an especially large uprising. In this piece, Bilal inserted an avatar suicide-bomber version of himself into Al Qaeda’s video game, “The Night of Bush Capturing,” a spin-off of the widely marketed video game, “Quest for Saddam.” Instead of fighting Iraqi forces and trying to kill Saddam, Al Qaeda’s gamers hunt for former president George W. Bush.
The work, though meant to bring attention to the racist generalizations and stereotypes displayed in popular culture, led to a slew of personal attacks on Bilal, who was called names such as a “terrorist in sheep’s clothing.” The CIA, FBI and local police were present at the piece’s opening. After the show was suspended from the gallery where it was originally intended to be shown, Detroit’s Sanctuary for Independent Media offered to display the piece. In a disgusting display of censorship, after only a day the city of Detroit shut down the show because the doors of the gallery were 29 inches wide instead of 30 inches wide.
Bilal recognizes his responsibility as an artist, an Iraqi and an American citizen. Through his work, he opens a platform for dialogue when it is needed most, during difficult times of war. Those upset by the work should consider focusing their anger on the issues the work reflects rather than the courageous man holding a mirror to society.