Shoot an Iraqi
Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun
Wafaa Bilal’s childhood in Iraq was defined by the horrific rule of Saddam Hussein, two wars, a bloody uprising, and time spent interned in chaotic refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Bilal eventually made it to the U.S. to become a professor and a successful artist, but when his brother was killed at a U.S. checkpoint in 2005, he decided to use his art to confront those in the comfort zone with the realities of life in a conflict zone. Thus the creation and staging of “Domestic Tension,” an unsettling interactive performancepiece: for one month, Bilal lived alone in a prison cell-sized room in the line of fire of a remote-controlled paintball gun and a camera that connected him to internet viewers around the world. Visitors to the gallery and a virtual audience that grew by the thousands could shoot at him 24 hours a day. The project received overwhelming worldwide attention, garnering the praise of the Chicago Tribune, which called it “one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time,” and Newsweek’s assessment “breathtaking.” It spawned provocative online debates and ultimately, Bilal was awarded the Chicago Tribune’s Artist of the Year Award.
Structured in two parallel narratives, the story of Bilal’s life journey and of his “Domestic Tension” experience, this first-person account is supplemented with comments on the history and current political situation in Iraq and the context of “Domestic Tension” within the art world, including interviews with art scholars such as Dean of the School of Art at Columbia University, Carol Becker, who also contributes the introduction. Shoot an Iraqi is equally pertinent reading for those who seek insight into the current conflict in Iraq, and for those fascinated by interactive art technologies and the ever-expanding world of online gaming.
Review by Publishers Weekly
Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun Wafaa Bilal with Kari Lydersen. City Lights, (200p) ISBN 978-0-87286-491-7
Weaving together accounts of Iraq and America, art and violence, performance and reality, past and present, this gripping account all but shakes the reader by the lapels. Iraqi-born artist Bilal records the month he spent confined in his 2007 interactive performance piece entitled Domestic Tension, living under constant fire from a chat room–controlled paintball gun 24 hours a day, his every move dogged and determined by the hostility—or benevolence—of his thousands of online viewers. The nerve-rattling conditions were intended to reflect both decades of suffering endured by millions of Iraqis and Bilal’s own life and the costs of surviving Saddam’s regime, Gulf War bombardment, Sunni-Shia violence, a brutal Saudi refugee camp and, finally, the difficulties and joys of the American immigrant experience. The author emerges as an Iraqi everyman, and his provocative book brilliantly juxtaposes images and time frames to convey the toll of war on Americans and Iraqis: “We may think we are surviving,” Bilal writes, “but as I… twist and turn through sleepless nights, flailing between worlds of comfort and conflict, hope and despair, I wonder.”