Artists in Isolation: Wafaa Bilal’s “Domestic Tension”

Wafaa Bilal, "Domestic Tension," 2007. Courtesy the artist.

In 2007 Wafaa Bilal locked himself inside a Chicago gallery. He lived there alone for a month, using a webcam to broadcast around the clock. Visitors to his website could chat with the artist, or shoot at him using a remote-controlled paintball gun. Today this kind of mediated violence might readily invoke drone strikes, but at the time the premise made perfect sense to a generation raised on the gamified visuals of the 1991 Gulf War, as well as the first-person-shooter view of so many video games that followed. How do you shoot Iraqis? With the help of technology, through a screen, from afar.

In 2020 I sit in my Brooklyn studio apartment, watching Bilal get pelted with yellow paint. His surroundings are bare: a bed, a standing lamp, a desk with a computer, the robotic apparatus that shoots at him with no warning. He carries a transparent Plexiglas shield to try to protect himself; later, he adds goggles. Over time the room becomes covered in fluorescent yellow paint. His moods rise and fall over the month, but he is generally chipper. Day 24 is Memorial Day, which commemorates Americans who have died in military service, and Bilal sees the highest levels of shooting yet. For a considerable time after Domestic Tension ended, he suffered a return of PTSD and couldn’t sleep without medication.

Over 65,000 shots were fired over the course of the performance, from 132 countries, hitting Bilal several hundred times. As the month wore on, different camps emerged who tried to remove the element of randomness. Hackers programmed the gun to fire constantly. Others – many of whom felt chastened and even guilty for shooting Bilal after spending time chatting with him – banded together to form what they called a Virtual Human Shield. They aimed to give Bilal some respite by always aiming the gun to the left.

A first-person recounting of this experience made its way into his 2008 book Shoot an Iraqi, entwined with the artist’s own personal narrative and supplemented with historical context and interviews with academics. Bilal grew up in Iraq under the Ba’athist regime, lived through the protracted Iran-Iraq War and the first Gulf War, and spent time in Kuwaiti and Saudi refugee camps before moving to the US. Even after becoming a professor and an artist, the conflict continued to follow him around; in 2005 his brother was killed at a US checkpoint. Domestic Tension distills these experiences of life in a conflict zone: arrested movement, sleepless nights interrupted by unexpected violence, and a pervasive sense of trepidation.

At the time, Bilal wanted to draw attention to the contemporaneous Iraqi experience of being confined to your house, living in constant fear of bombardment. Accordingly his “set” takes up only a small “prison cell-sized” portion of the large gallery space. Viewed against the backdrop of the present crisis overlaid upon so many pre-existing structural conditions, it’s hard not to think of all those incarcerated in American prisons and ICE detention camps, sitting ducks for Covid-19. But there’s a kind of buffering solidarity at play: the artist acts not only as a symbolic intermediary, a foreign-enough Iraqi punching bag for patriotic types taking a break from their backyard Memorial Day cookout, but puts himself in the line of fire to be a physical one, too. I remember another durational performance, …and Counting (2010), in which Bilal tattooed his back 105,000 times over 24 hours to commemorate Iraq War deaths: 5,000 red dots for Americans, and 100,000 white dots for Iraqis, visible only under blacklight, each pinprick of pain, each dot a register of a single life.

Wafaa Bilal, “Domestic Tension,” 2007. Courtesy the artist.

The complete list of video diaries from the performance is available on the artist’s website.

1 Comment

  • Terry Sefton says:

    This is disturbing. A well known American experiment that is often used as an example of unethical research was the 1961 Stanley Milgram electric shock project in which student volunteers were deceived into giving shocks to people (actors) in increasing amounts to the point of potentially fatal dosage, while thinking they were taking part in beneficial cognitive therapy. Who are the people “shooting” at Bilal? One assumes they have found their way onto a Chicago art gallery site – so likely not random yahoos. But the “hook”, that the act of shooting would be part of an art performance, may as with Milgram, inoculate the shooter from a feeling of moral responsibility.

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