October 2, 13
Wafaa Bilal is an Iraqi-born artist living and working in the United States. His interactive artwork focus on his life as an Iraqi who successfully escaped his home country during the first Gulf War and what it means for him to live in the “comfort zone” of the United States (Bilal, 2013). Wafaa’s work has become a reflective analysis of international politics, the Iraq War and the death of his brother who was struck and killed by an American air-to-ground missile in 2004 (city lights books, 2008). He has received international notoriety for his ability to engulf his viewers in interactive experiences that leave them questioning the line between virtual space and the real world.
Some of the interactive works that gained Wafaa international attention included: 3rdi (2010-11), …and Counting (2010), and most importantly, Domestic Tension (2007). 3rdi was a piece in which Wafaa had a video camera surgically attached to the back of his head. As he went about his life, the camera would capture one image every minute. The piece spoke to Wafaa’s journey from the Middle East to the United States and what he had left behind. During the 24-hour performance of …and Counting, Waffa sacrificed his own body to the punishment of a tattoo gun (Bilal, 2013). In an effort to draw attention to the Iraqi War and sympathize with the families of victims. Wafaa’s back now features a borderless map of Iraq, 5000 red dots representing American casualties, and 100,000 dots representing Iraqi casualties that are only visible when presented under a black light (Bilal, 2013). However, before these works had been created, Wafaa was recognized for the politically rooted, and highly interactive piece titled Domestic Tension.
In order to create Domestic Tension, Wafaa occupied a gallery space for 31 days. One end of the gallery featured a bed, an office desk, and a computer. This was Wafaa’s living environment. The other end of the gallery featured a paintball gun wired to a remote trigger and a web cam. Viewers were able to access the paintball gun or webcam 24 hours a day and fire shots at the artist. Viewers could also interact with the artist in an internet chat room during the day or visit the installation and observe from a safe distance behind the gun. Wafaa’s intension behind the piece was to engage viewers who would normally not converse about politics, into a seemingly playful dialogue about the home confinement of Iraqi citizens (Bilal, 2013). Drawing attention to the fact that Iraqi citizens often become reclusive because of the violence that has plagued their countries history. While the piece created a fascinating metaphor about the lives of Iraqi people and succeeded in engaging an astounding number of viewers happy to pull the trigger, Domestic Tension also created an interesting conversation about interactive artwork.
In George Legrady’s article “Intersecting the Virtual and the Real: Space in Interactive Media Installations”, interactive or digital based artwork is considered to be an “immaterial” process. That is, it can exist anywhere and potentially requires less installation cost, time, or transport. While this may be true for work that exists on a CD-ROM or computer program, it is not the case for Domestic Tension. This piece required the gallery to accommodate the living corridors for the artist along with the paintball gun, web cam, and electronic mechanisms that connect the viewer’s home computer to the gallery space. Most importantly, the piece requires the presence of the artist. These “sculptural” elements become the materiality that increases cost, limits the duration of the show, and prevent the piece from existing in more than one gallery space at a time. To visit the physical location of the show, the viewer would have to commute to the gallery. If they are unable to make this commute than they will miss out on a significant part of the art experience. Of course, if you can’t make the commute, the viewer can still communicate with the artist in the chat room or through the web cam mounted to the gun. However, while controlling the camera on the Internet, the viewers are not able to see the gun or fully grasp the restraint of Wafaa’s living arrangement.
Legrady also mentions the capability of digital media and online artwork to be accessed at any given time or space through the web environment (Legrady, 1998). Again this is not true for Domestic Tension. Before users can access the online element of the artwork, the gallery must first be set up and ready for Wafaa to live in. Once the stage is set, the audience is limited to 31 days of interaction with the piece before it is removed from the gallery and online. Within this time frame the work is in a constant state of change. As Oliver Grau’s article “Aesthetic Distance and the Concept of the Work in Processual or Virtual Art” describes, these images become very personal to the viewer. The Virtual images are seen only once by the viewer before they disappear forever (Grau, 2000). This makes every moment spent with the piece that much more delicate. Grau also mentions that the infinite amount of images that are typically present in digital or computer based art fall short of the “sensual presence of a material work of art.” Domestic Tension creates an online platform for a broad audience to experience interactions with the artworks materiality while creating an emotional connection to the author’s conceptual goals.
Wafaa Bilal set out to create a work of art that would transform the spectator into an active participant within the piece. The viewer not only has the option of viewing the piece in person but also interacting online. The presence of the author, and the viewers control over the gun create an exciting moral standoff between a virtual world and real life.
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Bilal, Wafaa. http://wafaabilal.com. 2013
Grau, Oliver. “Aesthetic Distance and the Concept of the Work in Processual or Virtual Art”. 2000. [CP]
Legrady, George. “Intersecting the Virtual and the Real: Space in Interactive Media Installations”. 1998. [CP]
“Wafaa Bilal Discusses Shoot an Iraqi”, 2008. You Tube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcyquvDEe0o
“Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension”. 2007. You Tube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_L6BC9O0rY&list=PLFB1EC25E02B1CF21