Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Remote Killing

Did you see this? I honestly think it's one of the most important pieces of performance art in the past 20 years, Wafaa Bilal's Domestic Tension (originally titled, Shoot an Iraqi). The full work is, at the same time, beautiful, banal, deeply tragic, and a brilliant commentary on war and the complicity of those for whom distance creates a sense of false reality and moral neutrality. Make sure you read Bilal's full story (via 3 Quarks).

...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...

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...

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”....

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