Shoot an Iraqi

Douglas Edric Stanley


As you may or may not have noticed, I was teaching last month at the Chicago Art Institute. I met some pretty amazing people while there, but the person who really stood out for me was the very charming Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal (cf. who was preparing an interesting online performance entitled Domestic Tension: all throughout the month he has been living at the Flatfile Galleries where — via a locally housed server — you can chat with him, watch a live video feed of his life in the gallery, and shoot at him with a collective remote controlled gun.

Now, if you somehow think this is either lame (your call) or disturbing (whatever), you should at least know that while Wafaa is enacting this mostly symbolic performance in (relative) comfort as an art student in the United States, the rest of his family is very much enduring the real deal back home — and with very real casualties. So while it is symbolic for us in one way, it is symbolic in an entirely different way for him.

It is also interesting to frame this performance within the larger context of the displacement of the American discourse on casualties and friendly fire in Iraq: there is no longer the whimpy media smoke-and-mirrors proxy-debate that skirted shamelessly around the issue of cadavers within the video frame. The original debate (constructed pro and con by the pentagon) on how to honor lost american solders, has now transformed into a count not only of full cadavers and dead football players, but of all the missing body parts that will never be coming back. And on the backs of those incomplete bodies, we are finally feeling the weight of the enormous the narrative of the Iraqi body count, and particularly the breadth of this body count, i.e. it’s no longer about numbers, it’s about demographics.

Although I tend to yawn at on-line performances, especially heavy-handed ones, somehow I fell for this one. I suppose it’s the ambiguity of the whole thing (and the good nature of Wafaa) that warms me to it. Of course this work references some far more hardcore pieces of Chris Burden such as when he locked himself in a locker for several days, shot at planes, or had a collegue shoot him in the arm. Wafaa is also making some very broad strokes towards other famous works in the construction of an American mythology, for example Beuys’ I like America and America Likes Me.

But when it comes down to it, I have actually only seen the Burden performances via short crappy videos which grow their semiotic gravitas precisely out of of the crapiness of the video qua deficient document. Much of the 60’s and 70’s performance art has been tainted by this documentation process. I’m thinking precisely of the spic-and-span Los Angeles exhibit last year at the Pompidou Center where the contrast was particularly annoying. Coming back to Wafaa’s current plight under the gun makes me wonder to what degree the crappy webcam refreshing every n seconds helps to construct the mythology of the performance.

I had promised to Wafaa that I would post something about this performance, but I couldn’t get a decent enough connection until now to check it out myself. Watch the following video from Day 8 to get a sense of their troubles keeping the gun online: