During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost its entire library collection—some 70,000 books—when it was burned by looters. Today, 13 years later, faculty and students are still affected by this loss.
The devastation of this and other libraries in 2003 recalls the destruction of another library: the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, a Baghdad institution that, at the height of the Islamic Golden Age, contained the largest collection of books in the world. During the Mongol Siege of Baghdad in 1258, so many books from the city’s libraries were thrown into the Tigris that, legend says, they formed a bridge for the invading army to cross. The river ran black with ink for seven days: 168 hours.
With his new artwork 168:01 Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal is facilitating one step toward healing the more recent of these ruptures. The title harkens back to that 13th century tragedy, but it also signals the first second following destruction, the moment when rebuilding can begin. The project will be the centrepiece of his eponymous solo exhibition opening at The Art Gallery of Windsor in Ontario at the end of this month—and you can be a part of the artwork, and a part of repairing what was destroyed.
Wafaa Bilal, The Ashes Series: Al-Mutanabbi Street, 2003–2013
“168:01 started as a performance piece with no tangible result,” says Bilal, “but now it has shifted into a dynamic encounter where viewers can participate and actually change the outcome of the project.” The inspiration for 168:01 came when the artist encountered a photo of a destroyed Baghdad library while working on another project that will be included in the Ontario exhibition, The Ashes Series (2003–2013). He initially considered recreating the photograph as an installation, but over the past three years the idea evolved into the more participatory and instrumental project it is today.
In its preliminary form, 168:01 will comprise a 40-foot-long bookcase containing 1,000 blank, white books. In an interactive performance, over the course of exhibition these blank books will be replaced with ones from a wish list compiled by the arts faculty at the University of Baghdad. While some of these books will be sourced by donors directly from a forthcoming online registry, the first opportunity for supporters to contribute is in a Kickstarter campaign, which launched this month.
Bilal is known for work that directly engages—and often implicates—its viewers, particularly though use of new technology and the internet. In Domestic Tension (2007), also known as Shoot an Iraqi, for example, he lived in a webcam-monitored gallery space. Virtual viewers could chat with him or shoot paintballs at him remotely. Bilal calls this type of work a “dynamic encounter,” and in a 2013 interview, he spoke of reaching beyond the physical space,“across boundaries to other spaces...using mobile devices and the internet to enable that engagement.” He went on: “What happens when the viewers become part of the artwork? They become storytellers as well, right? I see my job as an initiator of that process.”
For Bilal, Kickstarter donors are “absolutely part of 168:01”—but they aren’t the only part:
A dynamic encounter by definition means there is no end state. You establish a platform, digital or physical, and see what happens. 168:01 is such a platform because the object remains unchanged unless participants act to change it. Right now, we have 1,000 blank books on a shelf. I can set up the platform and spread the word, but it’s really up to the audience what happens next. The change only comes when people donate, and it activates us to replace a book with an educational text.
One Kickstarter reward is the inscription of the donor’s name on the bookplate of an educational text donated to the College of Fine Arts. Other rewards include the blank, limited edition artist books from the 168:01 installation, numbered and signed by the artist.
Sadly, the loss of the College of Fine Arts Library is only a small part of the destruction of cultural heritage that has occurred in Baghdad and across the region over the past 13 years. So why did Bilal choose to focus on libraries? Friends in Baghdad had described the dismal condition of the library to him, and he thought this project could help. “Generally, I think the library platform is very poetic,” he says.
It seems like every wave of violence—past and present—involves the destruction of knowledge, and 168:01 is a symbolic act of rebuilding. The decision to focus on recreating a library was also partially out of practicality. Many museums and other cultural sites have been lost over the years, but it isn’t possible to replace what has been destroyed in these places.
With 21 days to go, the Kickstarter campaign has already surpassed its $9,000 goal. But that doesn’t mean potential donors should move on. Additional funds will find a welcome home in the project, as the artist projects it could cost as much as $20,000 to fulfil the library’s entire wish list. Says Bilal:
We want to go bigger than 1,000 books, and more money would help us with shipping costs to Baghdad (which haven’t been worked out yet, and are probably substantial) and so many other facets of this project. After the campaign is over, viewers will still have access to the wish list compiled by the faculty at the University of Baghdad. We are hoping they will take it upon themselves to send books for the exhibition directly. Honestly, the more the merrier as far as books go.
The 168:01 Kickstarter campaign will run through February 3. The project will continue to unfold over the next three months when a registry of the Library’s wish list titles becomes open to the public, allowing them to purchase/ship the books directly to the museum where they will replace the set of blank books in an ongoing performance.
(Image at top: Wafaa Bilal, 168:01, 2016, Video still, Animation by Judith Shimer. All images: Courtesy of the artist)