The other night, moments after Wafaa Bilal went to bed in his Chicago pad, he had a terrifying nightmare: as he was walking down a dark set of stairs he encountered two friends who started shooting him at point blank range. “I’ve had to deal with PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] from being chased by Saddam’s soldiers” more than a decade ago, he says. “I see the beginning of it coming back now.”
You probably would, too. The Iraqi-born artist was speaking to a NEWSWEEK reporter 19 days into a grueling monthlong project that sounds, at first blush, suspiciously gimmicky: until June 4, Bilal is living his entire life inside one room at Chicago’s Flatfile Gallery, which anyone with a Web connection can log on to watch. Oh, and to shoot him. With “Domestic Tension" Bilal has turned his makeshift living quarters into a 24-hour-a-day war zone. Viewers can peep in on him anonymously at any time, and even chat with him online. On the installation’s Web site, his audience can fight for control of the camera and pan it around the room. Since the camera is affixed to a rifle-sized paintball gun—and the Web site has a button that allows viewers to fire the gun—they also have the opportunity to shoot at him, or anything else in his room. Which they have done an astonishing 40,000 times in the project’s first two and a half weeks.
“Domestic Tension” is a breathtaking work of political art, forcing even casual surfers to ask themselves: Would they shoot a man if all it took was one noiseless click of the mouse? Are there any physical repercussions to what you do online? Those who stick around longer may even begin to think about the consequences of starting a seemingly painless, videogame-style war with overwhelming force in a faraway country. The Webcam resolution on the project’s site is very grainy, but it’s clear that plenty of people have no problem with pulling the trigger. The once-white gallery walls have been pummeled with neon yellow paint pellets over and over again. And so has Bilal, who wears only ski goggles for protection—so many times, in fact, that he has lost count. “This is an encounter instead of didactic art,” he explains over the phone as the gun can be heard firing in the background. “I had no [BANG] control over how it would come out. The only hope is to engage in [BANG, BANG] in conversation.”
Which he has. Every day he posts a new entry in his video diary on YouTube, and every day commenters—be they outraged, sympathetic, thoughtful or asinine—usually find something to say. When the project was linked to on the popular communal news site Digg.com, someone hacked into the gallery’s server and fired the gun 20,000 times in 24 hours. Bilal is visibly shaken by it in his diary, repeating over and over, “it’s so disturbing.” Soupforbrains asks “You think this is disturbing? Why? You're a man in a room with a [paintball] gun, inviting people to shoot you.” Cosmicsiren replies “I don't care who you are, having paintballs shot at you every few seconds (we're talking more than 20,000 in less than 24 hours) is going to make you paranoid.” And until ers1337 quips “Can you please come out so we can get some clear shots?” it almost sounds like a conversation.
The idea for the project came to Bilal, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, while watching an interview with an American soldier firing missiles into Iraq from the safety of her Colorado base. She said her intelligence was solid and the people she was killing were bad—end of story. Bilal, whose brother was killed by stray shrapnel during a 2005 American siege on Najaf, wasn’t buying it. “I wanted to be physically and emotionally [BANG] closer to my family at home so I could see what they are going through.” His father, he says, died months later from the heartbreak of losing his son. With the exception of one brother who lives in Detroit, the rest of his family, he says, is confined to their homes. To go outside, even to shop for food, is to risk death.
This is where human nature, the good kind, creeps back into the picture. Bilal eats only what is donated to him by strangers, either people who trot into the gallery on foot or send him packages from one of the 126 countries that have logged on to watch (and, yes, shoot) him. One public-radio host sent him a pizza after their interview. A community of viewers has sprung up that takes turns shooting the gun away from Bilal so others are deprived control of the gun for a moment. When his last remaining desk lamp was destroyed, shot hundreds of times in one day by a bored Estonian, an ex-Marine named Matt dropped a new one off. Telling the story on his daily video diary, Bilal is moved to tears. It’s a moment that could put a lump in any cynic’s throat—that such a small unbidden gift can make a grown man, a man who has been beaten by Saddam’s henchmen, cry.
Indeed Bilal is emphatic that his art installation is not a pro-Saddam statement. In the 1990s he was jailed for his political artwork and forced to flee the country when he refused to enlist in the invasion against Kuwait. “I was very [BANG, BANG] much against what he had done,” he says. “That being said, I was against the war because I understand there is another [BANG] way to take Saddam out without subjecting the country to the mess we’re in now. One must understand this is not only about Iraq. [BANG] You have over 3,000 American soldiers who have died. How can you support the troops and put [BANG] them in harm’s way?” The yellow of the paintballs, he says, was a deliberate choice, meant to echo the yellow “Support Our Troops” ribbons.
And the little yellow pellets, which travel at 350 feet a second, have destroyed the gallery walls. Susan Aurinko, the gallery’s director and owner, says she will have to re-drywall the entire room. Paint has also seeped into the basement, forcing Aurinko to move artwork that has been stored there. “I live upstairs from the [BANG] gallery, so I hear it all night long,” she says. “I’m up with him, too.” Most of the shooting, curiously, occurs between midnight and 4 a.m., meaning Bilal averages two to four hours of sleep a night. And even then, he must endure the nightmares.