x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Target practice

When Wafaa Bilal offered the chance to shoot an Iraqi, he didn't expect 60,000 people to pull the trigger.

Bilal in <i>Domestic Tension</i>: the project's website logged 80 million hits - and trigger-happy visitors fired off 60,000 rounds of paint.
Bilal in Domestic Tension: the project's website logged 80 million hits - and trigger-happy visitors fired off 60,000 rounds of paint.

"It's amazing how many people are shooting," an antic Wafaa Bilal says into a webcam as the staccato thwack of a paintball gun ricochets like meagre thunder through the white cube he calls home.

"This is probably the heaviest shooting we've witnessed, and although it's Memorial Day, you can't just blame it on the United States," he continues. "France, Denmark, Ireland, UK, Canada, so it's not one place - almost global shooting." Bilal is folded in an awkward crouch, ski goggles obscuring his face, from patchy moustache to widow's peak, to protect his eyes from the yellow paintballs whizzing overhead. He can't afford to focus on the camera - his ballistic antagonist has cornered the market of his attention. His locution is clipped, his lips pursed, barely elastic enough to emit words.

"I'll update you later on the slaughter," he mutters, and the video cuts out. Now Bilal is standing beside the gun as its chrome proboscis wobbles like a caffeinated compass needle over his left shoulder, probing the room for quarry it can no longer see. "I'm filling the pod [with 200 rounds] every 10 minutes," he says in disbelief. "May as well just stand here and keep filling." Bilal's desperation to keep the gun loaded is confounding, as though there's some inexplicable symbiosis between tormentor and tormented. "People online giving me so much hope," he whispers tearfully. "Somebody said, 'Imagine an entire nation living like this,'" and with that he breaks down, steely-eyed and shaky, his gaze fixed even as his sobs rock him in place. "My intent is to raise awareness of my family in Iraq," he announces, his resolve replenished by memory, "and I'm going to continue doing it until next Monday."

This powerful amalgam of hope and despair, spite and pathos, which Bilal initially called Shoot an Iraqi, unfolded last spring in Chicago's FlatFile Gallery. (It was later renamed Domestic Tension to allay the concerns of Susan Aurinko, the gallery's owner.) For 30 days, Bilal lived in a 4.6 by 9.8 metre performance space, while people around the world watched - and targeted him - through a webcam attached to a remote-controlled paintball gun, capable of firing over a shot per second at the Iraqi in question.

Domestic Tension, motivated by equal parts outrage and personal tragedy, drew on numerous antecedents - 1970s performance art like Chris Burden's Shoot (in which the artist was shot in the arm with a rifle), Stanley Milgram's infamous experiments testing people's willingness to inflict pain and popular first-person shooter video games - but the results were nonetheless astounding. When Domestic Tension went online May 4, 2007, Bilal didn't know if anyone would take notice. Then the gun fired a thousand times in the first 24 hours.

Bilal's odyssey began nearly two decades ago, in flight from the chaos and ruin that followed Operation Desert Storm. Since then he's survived refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, learnt English and attended college while labouring as a cabinet maker in New Mexico, become a US citizen, distinguished himself in graduate school and subsequently joined the staff at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. Last month he accepted a position at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "My story comes from the risks I have taken," he says. "I love this country; it has given me so much. There's something really special and good about this culture when a kid from Kufa can become a professor at NYU or a successful artist. Yet there are defining moments when you have to speak out."

If we accept André Malraux's claim that "art is a revolt against fate", then we've learnt a great deal about Bilal already. "His life is response," says Carol Becker, the dean of Columbia University's School of the Arts, who worked with Bilal at the Art Institute. "It is apparent in the work. This is how he chooses to respond to the very complicated situation he finds himself in." Bilal grew up in Kufa, a Shia stronghold on the banks of the Euphrates. In the 1980s, one of Bilal's cousins was executed for allegedly belonging to the Shia Dawa party; his body was returned to the family with a bill for 72 dinars - the cost of the bullets that killed him. Because of this disloyalty, Bilal wasn't allowed to study art. "The regime," he says, "understood the power of art." But he continued to paint, and after he had produced work depicting Baghdad's poor - and hung a blank canvas, shrouded by chains, in one show - he was called in for questioning, and forced to cease criticising the regime.

He attended Baghdad University, which allowed him to postpone his military service. But around the time of the invasion of Kuwait, after brushing off pressure from Baath party faculty to volunteer one too many times, he realised he was a marked man. He confined himself at home, sneaking out only at night to paint at a friend's house. When the Shia uprising that followed the war began, Baath party members in Kufa were lit on fire and shot for past transgressions against the Shia majority, and Saddam's forces soon began to pummel the town mercilessly. Bilal left his family and set out for Iran, fearing he would be conscripted or killed as a deserter. He fell in, then out of favour with some Sunni fellow travellers, and switched course for Kuwait.

After a miserable 45-day stay in a Kuwaiti camp, he and his brother Alaa were reunited and shipped to Rafha refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, where they enjoyed a few days of peace before the Americans left and brutality took over. "Sexual abuse in the camps was rampant," Bilal says, with 33,000 refugees cramped in unsanitary conditions in the blazing heat. "You could never feel safe," he recalls, "every night there were tents set on fire and people disappearing."

With the help of a friend who served as an officer's translator, Bilal and his brother were able to get an audience with US embassy staff. The brothers had been warned that they wouldn't take anyone with tattoos, so Alaa took a hot spoon to his arm to remove his. They were granted political refugee status and departed for JFK on September 11 1992. Bilal had hardly put the ravages of the first Gulf War behind him when, in March 2003, his attention was seized by the fresh horrors his adopted home was inflicting on his ancestral one. His roots in Iraq both sustained and distressed him; the astounding distance he's covered to follow his dreams often felt like a mere series of anxious transits for one so freighted with survivor's guilt over the fate of those who stayed behind.

In April 2004, Bilal's 21-year-old brother Haji, was killed in Kufa by a missile fired from an unmanned Predator drone. "Muqtada's people were taking over the city and a lot of my brother's friends joined the Mahdi Army," says Bilal as we sit in Sultan's Kitchen, his falafel sandwich cooling with each question, the senselessness of the story depressing the musical tempo of his speech. "I told him, 'Stay away from these people,' but apparently they generated so much pressure on him, they convinced him to go out and fight.

"They have a checkpoint at the Kufa bridge," he continues tremulously, "and these guys know when a drone comes, it's either going to fire or it's going to take pictures, so they ran. Haji wanted to prove he's not afraid. He stood there. Then a missile strikes and shrapnel runs straight to his heart and kills him on the spot." Bilal's father - a carpenter, philanderer and habitual abuser who once placed Bilal's brother Safaa in a wooden box and began drilling holes in it randomly - couldn't handle the pain, stopped eating, and died two months later.

Not long thereafter, Bilal read a news story about the US military personnel who control the Predator drones, firing missiles into Iraq and Afghanistan from cubicles in Las Vegas and Colorado, interacting with their prey on the other side of the world through a computer monitor. And Domestic Tension was born.

Using the same basic technology that controls unmanned drones - an EZIO board crucial in robotics - Bilal and his colleagues built a paintball gun that could be aimed and fired remotely from any computer in the world. "The same technology you use to send a missile to destroy a village," he says, "was used here to create art. That's dual-use!" All that was left for Bilal was to endure 30 days in the crosshairs, a bravado performance that dramatised the stress of living and maintaining sanity under bombardment at the same time as it revealed the extent to which technology has sanitised violence.

"I've seen a lot of activism in art," says Bilal, "and instead of engaging, it's alienating. Since we live in the comfort zone, we're alienated by the direct message. We reject anything that's going to challenge us, so you have to balance aesthetic pleasure with the aesthetic pain." "Technology," he confesses over lunch, "has allowed any man to become the Trojan Horse." He was referring, of course, to the portable nature of mass murder in the modern age, to suicide bombers or the lethal combination of box cutters and aeroplanes. But there is no better metaphor for his work: what else could you call this culture trap, in which the audience is lured by a video game into participating in a demonstration of its own complicity?

Domestic Tension's website was more than a place to take potshots. Participants were encouraged to chat (producing 2000 pages of running commentary) and view Bilal's daily video diaries, which recorded his vacillations between boldness and disintegration. To watch them on YouTube is to reprise his torturous ordeal, abridged, from the first salvos of paint to his eventual freedom and tears on the steps of the gallery. It's all part of Bilal's intention to say "You can take it with you," to challenge the notion that art resides solely in sterile rooms with guards and seismographs, to liberate it from the finite, static nature of the object and make the experience more ephemeral, protean, mobile.

"It's not necessary for the object to exist after the work is done," says Bilal. "What stays vivid in the mind is always the experience, so I'm directing myself more and more into building these encounters." Over the course of his month under fire, Bilal's transformation is marked, a poignant and painful narrative of decline. The jocund Bilal who wryly observes on day two that "somebody brought a box of Cheez-Its to feed me; that was nice" can be seen hours later strewn on his bed whispering in a withered voice that he wishes "people just enjoy life and stop the senseless killing".

As news outlets and websites directed trigger-happy traffic to the gun, Bilal's misery deepened even as he welcomed the attention. Early on someone at Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote a script to fire the gun automatically, ventilating the plexiglas shields he'd erected to protect himself. By day 10 the traffic has crashed the server, and the gun goes offline for a brief respite; Bilal confesses his emotional collapse to his video diary. "The project is bringing up a lot of issues I haven't dealt with. The loss of my father, the loss of my brother. When the project ceased to work, I got even more depressed because the gun is my company in this space, and when it's silent, all of a sudden I cease to think about my safety, so my guards are down and so much emotion come to the surface," he says, barely stifling tears.

Inside Domestic Tension's virtual space, art came to imitate life, as doves and hawks, misanthropes and humanists waged war, weaving tragedy and comedy to yield typically mixed results. Each time Bilal disables the auto-fire scripts, sadists begin to co-ordinate their fire to achieve identical results. An ad hoc group calling themselves the Virtual Human Shield attempts to wrest control of the gun, pointing the barrel away from Bilal, towards the far left wall.

The latently violent visited the site in droves, but many ardent gamers seem to have fired away gleefully only to be struck with unexpected contrition upon the realisation that their virtual actions fired real ammunition at an Iraqi artist in a room in Chicago. Drawn in by Bilal's canny appropriation of the gaming interface, they operated under their habitual assumptions then had them unwittingly challenged, perhaps even changed, as a result. There's no telling how many attitudes Bilal the trickster changed with his sly trap, but from the reams of chat room posts, the effect seems convincing. "So it's causing u harm," one young British woman wrote, "there must be a better way. Shooting seemed really fun at the time, we all feel really bad now."

Ultimately, a feral and bleary-eyed Bilal prevails, and despite the trauma he guts it out for an extra day, just to rile the naysayers who claimed he'd never make it. All told, 60,000 shots were fired from an astounding coalition of 128 nations. The website logged 80 million hits. "It's been very hard," he tells the diary. "It united people, it divided people, but that's what art is supposed to do."

"I can't believe I'm standing here right now. The gun was right here and my bed was right there," he says as we stand in the gallery, pointing towards the far wall, which bears marks of the impromptu surgery required after it served as a repository for the animus of thousands. Bilal, for his part, seems healed. The splayed, tumescent visage has returned to its usual tautness. He's slight, unassuming, yet blessed with an air of self-possession, cartoonishly long eyelashes and toenails protruding from leather sandals like jaundiced razors. He's totally at ease here, even as he recounts the first time that the gun, then he, broke down. "All of a sudden it hit me so hard - I really lost my father and by brother forever. For a long time I was in denial about their death. When we are in the conflict zone we erect these barriers to protect ourselves, and then when the threat disappears, that's when all this comes out."

Just then a gallery employee stuck his head in to tell Bilal about a series of angry phone calls and vituperative visitors. Apparently, the basement was the locus of outrage, and when I enquired what was down there Bilal smiled with a childlike glee. "That's my Virtual Jihadi," he said conspiratorially, "you wanna go see?" In 2001, Jesse Petrilla, an 18-year-old computer prodigy and right-wing ideologue from California, developed a crudely crafted first-person shooter called the Quest For al Qa'eda. A wandering gun seeks out Osama bin Laden in the "heart of al Qa'eda territory", killing his turban-wearing "cronies" by the dozen along the way. "I was looking for something to make Americans feel a little bit better," Petrilla said in an interview with an online gaming site, "to work out the anger left over" from September 11.

When the war on terror took a desultory turn into Iraq, Petrilla spun off his own sequel, Quest for Saddam. Before long, some savvy al Qa'eda cadres downloaded the game, altered the skins of the soldiers slaughtered in its arid landscape from brown to white, inserted eerie jihadi music, and swapped the American president for the Iraqi dictator, rebranding it The Night of Bush Capturing. "There was an outrage in the US" when the al Qa'eda game was released, Bilal says. "The state department called it a recruiting tool, terrorist propaganda. But somehow it was OK to do the first-person shooter where you kill Iraqis?"

"I knew I wanted to do something with it," says Bilal. "And after Domestic Tension and the loss of my brother," he continues, "this game became a perfect vehicle to think about Iraqis on the ground, how they become susceptible to recruitment." Bilal manipulated the game's code, inserting himself as the protagonist: an Iraqi professor who loses a brother to the American occupation and turns himself into a walking bomb. Once again, Bilal took an artefact of violence and intolerance and gave it a second life as a parable of radicalisation, a creation myth demystifying the manner in which a suffering populace, devoid of hope, becomes weaponised.

When Bilal was invited to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York as a visiting artist, he proposed four projects, among them a demonstration of Virtual Jihadi. The art department gave its approval, and in early March he packed his bags for Troy, an industrial city of 50,000 people a few hours north of New York City. But his stay on campus got off to a rocky start when College Republicans learnt of Virtual Jihadi and began to attack Bilal as a "terrorist" and the art department as a "terrorist's safe haven."

"The young Republican club started agitating more and more," says Bilal, by now more bemused than angry, "and they started soliciting military alumni, urging them to send letters" to the university's president. An administrator pulled Bilal out of one class to tell him that the CIA and FBI had visited Troy to see what was up - though they concluded that Bilal "wasn't a person of interest." But the intelligence community's disinterest didn't stop the school from cancelling the show and hiring a private security firm to keep Bilal from entering university buildings. His fellowship was cut short, but the bile on campus became so severe that RPI decided Bilal, not the school, needed protecting, and, in a bizarre twist, Bilal was forced to navigate Troy with security escorts for the remainder of his visit.

A professor in the art department arranged for Bilal to show Virtual Jihadi at a private art space nearby called the Sanctuary for Independent Media, but Bilal's troubles in Troy were far from over. Bob Mirch, a prominent local Republican (and Troy's commissioner of public works) moved quickly to shut down the venue, issuing a spurious fire code violation. Throngs of furious protesters massed on the pavement to vent their rage at Bilal, carrying signs that read "Freedom isn't Free," pictures of stealth bombers dropping their payloads over Iraq that said "Take that Virtual Jihadi," and others depicting an elephant (the symbol of the Republican Party) voiding its bowels on a crudely drawn map of Iraq.

"I never feared for my life as much as I did in Troy," Bilal told me as we cruised around Chicago in the musky Chevy S-10 pickup where we spent most of my visit. "The only time I've felt like that was in Iraq - and in the camp in Saudi Arabia." A few days after the SFIM was closed, Bilal was invited onto a local talk radio programme to face Mirch. "I have reacted to your so-called art," Mirch conceded at one point. "I don't like your video, and in my mind and in my heart I believe it's terrorism. That can be nothing but terrorism, it's so far, in my view, from art, it's just, it's terrorism."

Mirch's actions earned him the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit on Bilal's behalf against Mirch and the city of Troy for abuse of power. The case is still pending, with a hearing scheduled for September 25.

As we rehash his trying days in Troy, Bilal is as dejected as I've seen him; it seems incongruous for an artist for whom provocation seems to come naturally. If he thrived on controversy alone (which part of me had come to suspect), then he'd be glorying in the details, but it was just the opposite; as though this connoisseur of tyrannies believed he'd left them behind long ago, only to find he'd been walking in place.

"I wouldn't say he's naive," says Carol Becker, "but idealistic. He believes that people should be taken at their word, so if the country believes in freedom of expression, then one should be able to talk about these things." And yet controversy is nothing new for Bilal. His thesis adviser at New Mexico, Patrick Nagatani ("I was the man who had to answer for all his antics," he says) recalled a similar scene from Bilal's college days. "I had Wafaa put up a disclaimer," Nagatani says, "because some of his images depicting American violence in the Middle East were quite vivid. But we had a right-wing art historian run in and tear down pictures - we had this whole controversy." "It was a mess," Nagatani continues, but "it ended up pretty well for Wafaa, because he got publicity in the local paper and I think he thrives on that." Bilal's genius at engagement sometimes succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, but it has its perils. "It's important," Nagatani says, "because if his work goes unnoticed, that's saying people don't give a damn. If he gets threats or his show's closed down then his point is usually well taken."

Back in the pickup as The Loop filled up with the fading day's canted light, I wondered to myself whether Bilal was more of a guerrilla marketer than an artist? I tried to ask him in the nicest manner possible: is controversy an essential element in his art? "I think it's part of it," he responded matter-of-factly, "just because it brings attention to the work. But it's never the objective. The objective is the larger picture: engagement. When I sketch these ideas I know how much it's going to agitate others, and sometimes I plan to be part of it and sometimes it's not necessary. The work will stand on its own."

Domestic Tension, he continued, "has no controversy, but it does have the hook that's going to lure people to engage. I think being controversial is just really easy, pushing buttons is so easy, but it works sometimes." Bilal's latest project was even more garish, but mercifully brief. Entitled Dog or Iraqi, it consisted of a simple online referendum to determine whether Bilal or a two-year-old pug would be waterboarded. The site offered little information beyond the poll, but after four thousand votes were tallied Bilal emerged victorious and subjected himself to what his website describes as "the popular interrogation technique". (He lasted seven seconds, and spent the next few months coughing with a strange lump in his throat.)

What connects Bilal's various "encounters" may be less his nose for controversy than his insistence on making the projects blank enough that the participants must bring their own meaning to the work. Far from the didacticism that characterises so much political art, Bilal's projects are open narratives, ambiguous morality plays in which the viewer cannot but take part. Bilal's games bait the viewer with deceptively alluring conceits: firing a gun, playing a game, casting a vote. But as the participant prepares to act on their basest motives, a trap is slipped and little by little they realise the game's rigged so that they can't help but confront their conscience. For someone who's been persecuted by autocrats, suffered beatings and constant terror in refugee camps, and can barely sleep at night for all the harm that's been visited on his person, what is amazing about Bilal is his willingness to put himself out in the open, dangling, suffering the malice of his fellow humans, hoping they'll see the error of their ways and relent. It belies an impossibly robust belief in human goodness, perhaps the last type of witnessing we'd expect out of someone who's seen so much ugliness.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures," Bilal confides, "but it's one thing to make noise, another to make sense. And that's what I want to do, to make sense of what I've done."

Evening was descending on Chicago. The skyscrapers would soon stop dragging their shadows across the sidewalks, consigning the city to a dull gloaming punctuated by prematurely lit street lamps. My last stop with Bilal was an apartment gallery where two of his photographs were on display. "Let me call Eddie and Yevgeniya, let them know we're coming," he whispered as the phone rang, "they're a great couple, a Palestinian and a Jew." We made our way up the stagnant smelling stairs of an unremarkable building. When we walked in it became apparent that all the furniture from the entire apartment had been stowed in the bedroom in order to make a permanent gallery space.

After we'd checked out all the work, the conversation turned to the abrupt closure of a show of female Israeli and Palestinian artists at Chicago's Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, after its backers had apparently complained about the artwork. "It happened to me in California with Iraqi House," Bilal said. "They agreed that I would build an Iraqi house and then on the anniversary of the Iraq war I would blow it up. But they never allowed me to blow it up! They're like 'No way, you're going to alienate our board and we'll lose funding.' And it's the same with this Jewish-Palestinian show. I was really upset about it. How pathetic they shut it down. It's a voice! A peaceful voice!"

Bilal was beside himself, agitated, and for a man who has every right to express a little anger, he rarely does (when bullets riddled their Humboldt Park apartment, Bilal told his roommate, "At least they're not missiles!") so we three natives became a little ill at ease and shifted back and forth in our shoes, folded and unfolded our hands, as the room shrank in awkward silence. "I'm just mad I'm gonna miss Sigalit Landau," Yevgenia said, breaking the silence.

"Oh, was she in the show?" Bilal asked, with something like reverence or envy in his voice, the corners of his mouth curling up just slightly beneath his patchy beard, "she hula hoops barbed wire." David Gargill's work has appeared in Harper's, GQ, and several other publications.