The Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal is one of my colleagues in the Photography and Imaging Department at New York University. Though his studies were originally in photography, Wafaa has an open and flexible attitude toward media, and it is not only the politically charged content but also the form of his works – which are becoming increasingly well known internationally – that will interest readers of this blog. This interview took place over lunch in Greenwich Village on September 19, 2012.
Shelley: Given the fact that your life has been so eventful, I think the best way for readers to understand your art would be for you to begin discussing your background.
Wafaa: I was born in Iraq in 1966, that’s about two years before the Ba’ath regime took over. As a child, I grew up idolizing the regime, we were kids and we were swept away, of course, but slowly as I grew up I noticed, everyone noticed, that the regime became more and more oppressive. At the age of 18, I had a strong ambition to go to art school, but for political reasons this was not allowed and I was sent to study geography at the University of Baghdad.
S. What kind of political reasons?
W. Physical education and art were considered to be highly effective fields, and the regime made sure that every candidate for these fields was carefully screened. Considering my family’s background in politics, I was rejected, so then I was sent to study geography. Even though you can see that is not at all my passion and I resisted, I had to do it, because if I failed college I would be forced into the military, placed on the front lines, and this was during the war with Iran. So of course I stayed in the program. But it wasn’t so bad, I had access to a studio at the university and I could paint on a daily basis. I used that as a platform, I put up shows, and every show I organized had problems. Some works were political in nature and they were confiscated by campus security; sometimes I was dragged to the office for interrogation. But in 1990, right after the invasion of Kuwait, I was one of the students who stood up publicly and refused to volunteer for the Kuwait war and at that moment I knew I was blacklisted and needed to run. In 1991 there was the bombing for 40 days, and I used that opportunity to escape from Baghdad. I waited on the edge of my hometown of Kufa until March, when there was the uprising, one of the first Arab Spring uprisings when people took over. But the regime unfortunately crushed the entire uprising and we were on the run. I stayed in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia for two years. After that I was able to come to the United States, to New Mexico, and that’s when I said: no more geography and geology, I will study art.
S. How did you get to New Mexico? That’s not a self-evident choice…
W. I had a friend who was a translator for the U.S. military. He left the camp before me and his sponsor was one of the American officers who lived in New Mexico. I needed an address and that was the only one I had. But it ended up being good, the university was a great school for me, with great photo teachers. Five years later I got my undergraduate degree and then I went on to Art Institute of Chicago and studied Art and Technology for my Masters Degree.
In 2007 I started one of my major projects, called Shoot an Iraqi. Shoot an Iraqi came from my personal devastation after the loss of my brother, who was killed by a drone in Iraq in our hometown. I think at that moment my work shifted. From being about human rights in general it began engaging larger, more personal issues. It became intensely focused on my deeply felt responses to the war in Iraq and, and the same time, on the idea of engaging people beyond the confines of art spaces. This is when I started linking gallery spaces with the Internet.
I received the news about my brother’s death in 2004, and for the next few years I honestly did not know how to deal with my losses, or how to communicate that through art to the public. Only when I watched an interview with an American soldier who was sitting in Colorado, directing these drone planes and dropping bombs on people in Iraq, did I realize that she was completely disconnected psychologically and physically from his targets. That’s when it hit me, that’s when I knew the combination of media I needed to communicate my ideas. I wanted to create something that gave control to the viewers, but also detached them psychologically and physically from the target. Then I thought: The target needed to be real, needed to be live, and its interaction with the viewers needed to last long enough so that people had time to connect to it. For this project, which was originally called Domestic Tension because the gallery thought that Shoot an Iraqi was too provocative, I lived for a month in a 32 x 15 foot space in the back of the gallery with a bed, a desk, a computer, a lamp, a coffee table and an exercise bike. Several Plexiglas screens separated my “bedroom” from the rest of the gallery, where a paintball gun, outfitted with a robotic mechanism that fired in response to the commands of online viewers and gallery visitors, was stationed at the threshold. People could go on site, direct the gun and shoot a paintball at me at any time for 30 days. By the end of the live event, more than 65,000 shots had been fired at me by viewers from 136 countries.
S. So where was this? Which gallery and when?
W. It was in Chicago, in the FlatFile Galleries, for 30 days from May 7-June 5, 2007.
At the beginning, I disconnected myself from the viewers: there was no sound, the picture was grainy etc. But every day I uploaded a 10-minute video clip so people could see the emotional roller coaster I was going through on a daily basis. Because of that more and more people started coming, to see the site and to interact with me. Then the media picked up the story. The public got attached to the project first and then the media came around, which is the reverse of what usually happens. But it got much bigger when the Chicago Tribune wrote an article about it on the front page, about targeted shooting. It was such an important project for me, because after that Shoot an Iraqi I started thinking about making projects that are dynamic, rather than didactic. I started involving the live body as a medium because of its immediacy, connecting people inside and outside of the gallery through the Internet and giving viewers some kind of control over the work. These ideas about dynamic encounter have a lot to do with earlier works like Happenings, by artists such as Allan Kaprow, of course. Like them, I want to make art that is open ended: nothing is pre-determined by me, but evolves with the participation of the viewers themselves. Without the participants, nothing will happen and the project will be idle.
S. After the performance, I know that you published a book about your experience. Why did you decide to do that?
W. When Shoot an Iraqi was over, I ended up with massive amounts of documentary materials –videotapes, daily journals etc. — and I decided I wanted these records to be archived so that everyone could have access to them. I wanted the project to continue beyond the 30 days. One of the writers, Kari Lydersen, who at the time reported on the project for the Washington Post, did an excellent job. I was so amazed by how she dealt with it that I approached her later, asking her to co-write the book with me. We had a few offers from publishers, but chose City Lights because we knew the quality of their work; the book continues even now to be well received by many people, including academics. We structured it by describing how I survived the 30 days without breaking down – but also by showing what things, which events, inspired the project in the first place. So there was a parallel structure: after a day in the gallery, the focus of the book would shift to Iraq. Going back and forth between art and life gave the reader a sense of what happened in the gallery space and also an open window onto Iraqi life, how my family lived and the devastation we suffered losing both my father and my brother within two months.
S. I know that all of these things continue to be major parts of your work: expanding media, interfaces with the public, and your engagement with political issues of the day. How do you see the development of your art as moving on a parallel track with the development with your media?
W. That’s a really good question. I always see the project as determining the medium, and not the other way around. Right now, new media work best for what I want to say — because most of time I’m dealing with global issues so it doesn’t make sense to stay local in my art. As I said before, I’m building not objects but events, encounters – and encounters are very dynamic. I need a physical space, a gallery space, as a platform, but after that the medium becomes the story: the encounter between the platform I set up and the viewers of the event, wherever they are. Digital connectivity is not just a tool, it becomes the medium itself.
S. Would you like to update this interview by discussing some of your recent work, like the event you created in Tehran at the end of 2011? This project is a very good example of the interactivity you’ve been describing, and the interface of film and performance too.
W. One of most recent projects was entitled A Call (which translates into Farsi as Neda the name of the young Iranian woman killed on the street during the recent protests against the election in that country). I was invited by the Aaran Art Gallery gallery in Tehran to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Iraq/Iran War. I didn’t know how this was going to happen, so I started talking to people, looking at the space…. One thing that triggered the entire project was the empty swimming pool sitting at the back of the gallery, which used to be a home….
S. Had you seen the gallery?
W. No, one of my students from Iran alerted me about the empty swimming pool. It hadn’t been used for 30 years, so it had become allegorical. Since we were talking about the losses of this war, which continued for over 8 years, I wanted to divide these losses into the ones who were lost and ones who were left behind. The pool, of course, is underground. So I separated the performers into two groups: the ones standing in the swimming pool and ones above, the ones that left and ones that are left behind. I used all local performers, 80 performers dressed in black and white. They descended from the second floor of the space, moving through the viewers to arrive at the swimming pool. Some stood in the pool, some were placed around it, and then they all stood and stared at the audience for 30 minutes. Standing motionless, looking at the viewers surrounding them, at a certain point they began to symbolize the status quo in Iran at that time. So the piece moved beyond being a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the war.
One complication to all of this: I didn’t get a visa to go to Iran. We tried everything, but nothing worked. So I directed the entire piece through Skype from my living room in New York, with the gallerist Nazlia Noebgshari in Tehran holding a laptop, walking around and showing me where everyone was walking and standing! On the day of the performance there were so many people who couldn’t go — even the curators (Ava Ansari and Molly Kleiman from The Back Room) weren’t able to be there — that we decided to do a live stream of the performance from Iran to the White Box Gallery in Manhattan. At that moment, everybody was connected: Iranians who were not able to witness this event could come to the gallery to see it performed, while the people in Tehran could look at us in New York commemorating this event. So the distance was erased through technology.
S. How did the Iranian government react to this event?
W. I don’t think the gallery had many problems. No, as far as I know the only complaints were that the event involved too many people. The piece was very vague, so there was nothing to complain about, and that was deliberate. Political art does not have to be so direct; sometimes, it is much more powerful if it suggests multiple interpretations rather meanings assigned by the artist. That’s the good thing about creating an encounter: you trigger something and let it unfold, and you don’t control the outcome. The gallerist said that everyone involved felt a lot of responsibility to do the best they could since I could not be there. The performance had two runs, and there was so much demand that the gallery decided to do a third show one week later.
© Shelley Rice / Wafaa Bilal 2012
Wafaa Bilal’s work will be screened during ARTE Video Night 2012 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris on Saturday, October 20 from 7:30 p.m., with the participation of Véronique Cayla, president of ARTE and Jean de Loisy, president of the Palais de Tokyo.