Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen, Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life, and Resistance Under the Gun (City Lights, 2008)
Last spring, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal moved into a cordoned area set up in the back of a Chicago art gallery, where he would remain for one month. The makeshift cell contained a computer, desk, bed, lamp, coffee table, and stationary bike (which, like most stationary bikes, went untouched). Facing him was a paintball gun with an attached webcam. With the help of friends, an interactive system was designed in which users could log on to the Internet, aim the gun, and fire. For the month, Bilal was an around-the-clock target, offering himself up to anyone wanting to "shoot an Iraqi."
After news of the project — the name of which was changed to the less controversial "Domestic Tension" — spread virally, its web server was constantly on the brink of being overloaded. While thousands shot at Bilal, others spent hours in the site's chatroom. Comments like "too bad we can't waterboard him" or "motherfucking Iraqi, die!" sat alongside more positive missives such as "I hope the situation gets better in Iraq" and "I really hope all Americans aren't racist mofos." A bizarre electronic tug of war ensued. Aggressors hacked into the site and wrote a code to make the gun's trigger automatic, while a group of people called the "Virtual Human Shield" coordinated efforts to keep the gun pointed away from Bilal. What was a conceptually simple project — shoot at an Iraqi over the Internet — became a complicated mess of conflicting emotions, as Bilal had envisioned: some viewers were racist, some supportive, some curious, some just bored and lonely ("Are there any girls here?" one chatroom participant wanted to know).
Although the project took a heavy mental toll on Bilal, whose post-traumatic stress disorder from years of living in war-torn Iraq and dangerous refugee camps wasn't helped by the constant firing of the gun, he was happily overwhelmed by the response. At the beginning of his new book, Shoot an Iraqi, Bilal notes that he "wanted to reach well beyond the normal art world." Which he did: over the course of the month, the website received 80 million hits, and 65,000 individuals from 136 different countries fired at him. While it can be difficult to discern the impact on participants — did logging on and remotely firing a paintball gun bring a deeper understanding of war? — at the very least it enabled people to see an Iraqi whose daily life was constantly being influenced by the actions of comfortable people, sometimes thousands of miles away. Just as importantly, in a time when public dialogue about the war often does little more than scratch the surface (is the surge "working"?), Bilal's "game" asks more fundamental questions (who is the enemy?) while reminding us of the unfathomable pain that hides behind those terse headlines — e.g. "Iraq Strike Kills 15 Civilians" — we can shrug off over breakfast. Having lost many friends and family to armed conflict, Bilal knows that war is not a game. But short of dragging people to the combat zone, maybe a game is the best way to make this case...
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