Chicago, Jun. 2013: Wafaa Bilal recently visited Chicago to give the opening night lecture and present Technoviking (2013) at Rapid Pulse, an international performance art festival hosted by DEFIBRILLATOR gallery in June 2013. I know Bilal from his days in Chicago as a hardworking graduate student in Art and Technology Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We caught up after his lecture at Rapid Pulse, and, appropriately enough to his work, we conducted this interview on video chat soon after.
Bilal came to international acclaim in 2007 with Domestic Tension, also known as Shoot an Iraqi, in which he turned a room in the now-defunct Flatfile Galleries (Chicago) into a domestic space. He lived there for a month while virtual visitors could log onto a website to remotely shoot a paintball gun at him, and in-person visitors would bring him food and keep him company. This project marked a turning point in his work toward direct interaction with his audience using performance, new media, and the internet. Soon after Domestic Tension, Bilal moved to New York to accept a position at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he continues to teach in the Department of Photography and Imaging. We discussed the boundary between his personal narrative and his art, the central place audience interaction and the body hold for him, dynamic encounters, and how his work is changing directions once again.
Wafaa Bilal, detail from Domestic Tension, performance, 2007; Courtesy of the artist.
Alicia Chester: A lot of the interviews that I’ve either read or heard with you are really framed by your personal narrative, by your biography. On something like NPR that makes sense, because they are about the story. But what I’m wondering (something I always wonder) is where is the line, where is the boundary between the artwork and the narrative of your life? Or is there one?
Wafaa Bilal: It’s a good question, but I don’t think it’s easy to separate the two. And the reason for that is that we are part of our context, right? So whatever place or frame of mind we exist in, it really affects our creative side. It’s always a reflection. The act of making an artwork is meditative, reflective, so that’s why it’s really hard to separate the two. You can see with many artists that art becomes a mirror reflecting their condition. So it doesn’t really bother me when people always talk about my narrative in relation to my art. If you go back and research most of the projects I have done, they are specifically related to my personal story… my own concerns and society’s concerns, mostly framed within an Iraqi-American context.
AC: I think that part is to be expected. There’s definitely precedent with other artists working that way. Someone with a very different story but [with] whom you could draw some parallels, as far as tying in her biography, is Nan Goldin.
AC: I definitely see that. But what I’m wondering is more the way people talk about the work or frame it. Because in interviews they end up talking about you rather than the work.
WB: Right. But is it possible here we are talking about what kind of art?
AC: By “what kind of art,” do you mean the medium, do you mean the intent?
WB: No, it’s the product. It’s the intent, too. Let’s take, for example, Andy Warhol. His narrative doesn’t perhaps come through as strongly as––we were talking about––Nan Goldin or my work, right? The reason for that, I think, is that his work is not a personal reflection but rather a cultural reflection. And I think there is a big difference between the two. One is an artist adopts a narrative or adopts a subject matter and acts on it. For other artists, there is no choice, right? There is a deep concern within, and a reflection. So in that matter, we cannot separate the two.
AC: So do you think of your personal narrative as a framework for looking at your artwork or as a grounding for creating the artwork? Or both?
WB: I think it’s both, right? Because, first, it is what initiates the work itself. Then, it is how you present it as well. And that’s where I think it is hard to separate the two. To separate the biography or the life of the artist from the artwork, I think it defeats its purpose in this example.
AC: In a way it’s like you’re a storyteller. Your biography––if it’s inseparable from the artwork––is kind of like a prelude to seeing the work. It’s a way to draw people in. You’re talking about engaging the audience.
WB: That’s exactly one of the points I always make in my artwork. I think you’re aware of what I call in the work “dynamic encounter.” It’s very similar to a “happening,” [so dubbed] by Allan Kaprow, but here we’re engaging not just in a physical space, but rather across boundaries to other spaces and using mobile devices and the internet to enable that engagement. 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. I want to invite the viewer to complete the narrative I start. Very similarly to the way I invest in my story, I have the viewers invest in the engagement.
AC: Well, that ties into thinking about your relationship to audience being central, especially to your new media work––making it interactive. This is a direct connection in that they can affect the outcome, but it’s also a virtual connection. So it’s both direct and removed. How do you think about this connection that’s both direct yet removed and somewhat anonymous?
WB: Well, if you think about what started this truly interactive work, it is Shoot an Iraqi [Domestic Tension, 2007]. If you think about what I’m trying to do with that work, I’m both trying to engage them and disengage them, right?
AC: I actually think of it starting with The Absinthe Drinker .
WB: Very much, but The Absinthe Drinker is reactive rather than interactive.
AC: Sure, okay.
WB: Sometimes the word “interactive” is not being used in the right way, because with The Absinthe Drinker, it’s not open-ended. Rather, it reacts to a code the artist had built. But with Shoot an Iraqi, it was interactive. I distinguished it by calling it a “dynamic encounter,” which means a truly interactive work. I am trying to engage the audience by inviting them on this [virtual] platform and having them engage and disengage at the same time. I was trying to have people be aware, talk about the idea of remote war, of the physical and psychological detachment of modern warfare. The virtual platform is not limited by distance, which is what allowed, for example, soldiers to disengage from the reality [of warfare]. With Shoot an Iraqi, it was intentionally to engage and disengage and to give people the opportunity to act on their impulses, because there were no consequences for their actions.
AC: I like that you made this delineation between the reactive and the interactive, because that makes a lot of sense in that your audience was affecting the outcome in Domestic Tension, or Shoot an Iraqi, because it was interactive. Whereas the reactive video [The Absinthe Drinker] seems interactive because it’s reacting to people, but it actually has a predetermined outcome. It has a set number of predetermined outcomes.
WB: Very true. And I think that [is true] of a lot of video games as well, with the exception of some of them. A lot of them are reactive rather than interactive. I think that’s why interactive work got such a bad name, because people throw around that term loosely. That’s the big distinction between reactive work and dynamic work.
AC: A good metaphor maybe is a choose-your-own-adventure novel versus writing the novel. Have you read one of those?
WB: Yeah. That is a reactive work. Think about how the code [of reactive work] is built––it’s very similar to choose-your-own-adventure and video games as well. A lot of video games are built the same way.
AC: There’s a finite number of outcomes. Even though all this work you’ve been doing in recent years, basically since Domestic Tension, is based in very complicated and high-end technologies, in the end, they’re actually based in the body. Can you talk about the place that the body, or your body, has in the work?
WB: Let’s simplify that. With hip hop music, you need a hook. Let’s assume you need a hook and a trigger. The hook is sometimes this absurd premise of the project, whether you can shoot a guy, or whether you’re talking about a guy who put a camera in his head, right?
Wafaa Bilal, 3rdi, 2010-2011; Courtesy of the Artist.
WB: So, these are the hooks. Then, you talk about the trigger. And I hope I’m getting the terminology right. The trigger becomes the body. And why is that? We just talked about the physical and psychological distance of the virtual platform. So if your audience is disengaged, either by design or by…
AC: What do you mean by “design”?
WB: It’s institutional design––any institution that tries to disengage the public. That’s what I mean by “design.” Or by choice. We exist in this zone, which is the comfort zone. We choose not to engage in a political dialogue about some political issues that are far removed from us. That is by choice. Then how do you engage the public? Which matters so much, because engaging the public could change the outcome for so many others. Then the body becomes here a trigger mechanism for engagement. On a conceptual level, intellectual level, we could justify our inaction. I want to bypass these boundaries we build, and I want to connect to the body itself. Then you have a visceral reaction of the body toward the performer. That’s where a performance becomes a medium that is unmediated when in its original, physical form. We are not talking about [virtual] platform here. We are talking about the body as a trigger mechanism and performance as an unmediated medium. And what it does, if it’s done right and if the end state is not determined, it activates the body. The body has its own mind. You could see how the body of the viewer has that visceral reaction and then how the conflict of that reaction starts within the person having a dialogue about what’s going on. Eventually, the hope here is that it feeds into an engagement.
AC: In your talk at Rapid Pulse, what I picked up on that I have heard you say before is that the purpose of art is to inform and agitate.
WB: It’s to inform, agitate, it’s true. And maybe meditate as well. So you could have these three things. Meditation, I think, many of us understand. Meditation is a reflection. To agitate, yes, if you are talking about political issues. But we have to make a distinction here between art that uses agitation as a device and art that uses agitation as an endgame.
AC: So agitation is a means to an end.
WB: Agitation is a means to trigger engagement. One of the easiest things to do in artwork is to agitate. That’s very simple to do.
AC: To be provocative.
WB: Exactly. That’s really simple. What’s after that? You’ve got to engage people. If you don’t have enough support or depth for each project, you fail to engage people, and what it comes to is a mere agitation and nothing else.
AC: So in the end, it doesn’t actually do anything other than make people uncomfortable. Because when you talk about the comfort zone––wanting to get people out of their comfort zone into the conflict zone––a work that would agitate but not to any other end would get them out of the comfort zone but not into the conflict zone?
WB: Well, you can never get them into the conflict zone unless you drive them in a truck… But really, to get them out of their comfort zone means to get them thinking, what is this comfort? How does this comfort zone, in a way, contribute to the conflict itself? This is not a selfish choice, but it’s a very tasking approach to making artwork, because it requires so much of the artist, him or herself, to try to engage people.
AC: All of your framework makes complete sense to me with how you’re trying to engage the audience, why you’re using the body, of agitating to get people out of their comfort zone and start thinking about issues, but something I go back to as well is the relationship with the body. It’s centered on your body.
AC: And you’re willing to cause an incredible amount of discomfort to yourself…
WB: Very true.
AC: …to cause this visceral reaction. So, in some ways, you can try to draw parallels to 1970s performance art by people like Chris Burden, but in other ways, to me, it feels quite different. In some ways your work feels more personal to you than Chris Burden’s work, at least from my perspective, was to him.
WB: We can go back to the objective of using the body as a trigger mechanism for engagement. When I think about this, two examples come to my mind. One, Domestic Tension, and the other, Virtual Jihadi . In one, the gun is pointed at me. In the other one, I am pointing the gun at others. So, one raised a lot of empathic engagement, and the other raised a lot of noise.
WB: Yeah, because I was pointing the gun at other people. I wanted to engage them about issues that mattered to me. I don’t see why I need to put other people in harm’s way. How would that serve the purpose of every one of these projects? That is why, I think, with my performances, I do use my body. That doesn’t mean in a future project I won’t use other people’s bodies, but so far, this is where I stand: these projects matter to me, they are personal, they are durational, I occupy the central stage, and that’s why they’ve been effective in the sense of using my own body.
AC: I definitely see all of that, but some of your art, because I know you as a friend, is hard for me to watch. It’s hard for me to see. Because I think anybody can have that response of empathy just on the visceral level that you’re talking about, but I think for people who know you, sometimes it’s hard to see you cause yourself so much pain, even if it is for a purpose, even if it is fulfilling something. So, for me, I come back to wondering––and I’m going to be guilty here of bringing in your biographical narrative, when I said other people should look at the artwork more––is there an element of guilt in your work? Is there something personal about it beyond what you’re saying? Is there another layer, a deeper layer, for you that entails some sort of guilt?
WB: I think what we mentioned earlier––there’s no separation between the artist and the artwork when it comes to personal conflict and the political one. There is really no point in denying the work is coming from a guilty conscience. I think a lot is about guilt––definitely guilt of leaving home, guilt of losing family members, and not being there. And I think that’s where guilt, perhaps, comes from. Do I do it in a conscious way? I don’t think so. Neither was I aware of it until it was pointed out to me.
AC: A lot of what we’ve been talking about is your new media work, your work from Domestic Tension forward. But you’ve been presenting some very different things lately, one of which is The Ashes Series [2003–2013] that you exhibited at Brown University, that you’ve been working on for about ten years. Could you speak about the differences or even the similarities between your photographic work and your interactive work? I’m also wondering if The Ashes Series marks a return to working like you did with The Human Condition  or if you see it differently?
Wafaa Bilal, The Ashes Series: Chair, archival inkjet photograph, 40 x 50 in, 2003-2013; Courtesy of the artist.
WB: Really good question. The Ashes Series was created in parallel with all the projects since 2007. I started The Ashes Series in 2003 by collecting images from the internet: press images by embedded photographers mostly coming out of Iraq of destroyed places, of homes, of institutions, of government palaces, and so on. I didn’t know what to do with these images. I didn’t know how to make sense of them. These images made me react, made me mad, made me nostalgic to go back, but at the same time, I started noticing how these images, perhaps at some point, do not register as violent images at all. What I started doing that year, in 2003, as a way of connecting to back home, I started physically building them. This is where the meditative act comes in, unlike all the other work that is performative, uses technology… I’m not saying that using a film camera is not technology. It’s a different technology.
AC: It’s an older technology.
WB: Exactly. So for ten years, it was the place I ran away from these projects and hid, in this meditative act: building it, spraying it with ashes, photographing it, meditating on it, getting the right shot, processing it, then later doing the post-processing. It just happened that 2013––exactly ten years from the start of the project––the project ended by producing ten images: ten images, ten years. Each photograph was separated by ten feet [when installed], so there are many “tens” in it. But it is a very different project [from the interactive work], and it is similar to The Human Condition. It was ongoing, meditative. But I think the objective [of The Human Condition] was one of a larger subject matter––the human condition in general––but then we go to the specificity of making work that has a visceral reaction, to me, when I am receiving the image, when I am recoding it again, and sending it out [in The Ashes Series].
AC: Right. But the difference that also strikes me in The Human Condition, you were still often at the center of those images. An image of you is often present in most of those, whereas you took yourself out of The Ashes Series.
Wafaa Bilal, The Human Condition Series: Sipapu, archival digital C-print, 40 x 50 in, 2000; Courtesy of the artist.
WB: Exactly, because I didn’t want to put myself as a subject in there. But also, you’ll notice, I took all humans out of them. The only thing that symbolically represents a human is the twenty-one grams of human ashes.
AC: Each photograph had twenty-one grams?
WB: No, the ashes were all mixed with twenty-one grams of human ashes. So, it’s a very symbolic act. But, also, in the images I took out any presence of the human because they are printed large, and I want people to exist in them and have the images pose questions rather than answer them. One of the critics called this work the middle space between the conflict zone and the comfort zone. The studio is where these images exist, and at the end, as a viewer, you are unsure what you are looking at, even though the image may be familiar to you.
AC: Or it’s the afterimage of the conflict zone.
WB: That’s a good way to describe it, too. [The images are] still in our conscience, but also, it is meant to slow you down and make you think of the source of these images.
AC: Are you going to reveal where you got human ashes?
WB: Black market.
AC: Black market?
WB: If you have money in the States, you can buy whatever you want, right? Isn’t that the promise of capitalism?
AC: Yeah. I think you can buy plenty on the black market in other countries, too.
Wafaa Bilal, Technoviking, site specific inflatable sculpture, 2013; Courtesy of the artist.
AC: Could you talk a little bit about Technoviking at Rapid Pulse?
WB: Technoviking  was inspired by an invitation I received from the AND Festival––Abandon Normal Devices––at Cornerhouse in Manchester [UK]. It was around the Olympics [in London, 2012]. They wanted to do something with the idea of fame. I was thinking about these viral videos. There’s, yes, fame, but the fame fades quickly. So I was examining what happens to the memes when they reach their peak and then they disappear and how the devices, the apparatuses, we carry with us that photograph us started changing our behavior. Our behavior changes based on our connectivity. With Technoviking, you have a head based on one of the viral videos that became very famous in 2007. It reached millions of hits and since then disappeared. These days, we feel like we are abandoned if we don’t get a text or a “like” or an email or whatever––if people are not connected to us, if the device is not connected to us. So what I did with this work, I built this giant inflatable, and it only inflates if you tweet it. If you send “#technoviking,” it inflates for basically twenty seconds. If you don’t tweet it, it goes as flat as our egos. The idea behind it is social engagement. It’s political, but it’s different politics. The shift of the work you can see started in 3rdi [2010–2011], and I think it probably will continue in terms of what social or political issue I adopt in the near future––not necessarily directly about Iraqi issues, but mostly directed to my existence here in the States and the issues I care about.
AC: There’s a shift also in The Hierarchy of Being [2013–2014]. Even though that project was done back in the Middle East [in Sharjah, UAE].
WB: Very true. When we talk about the politics of the region, most of us [Middle-Easterners] try to engage and defend the culture. With The Hierarchy of Being, I very much wanted to create something poetic but also highlight the contribution of that culture to the rest of humanity––we have Ibn Haytham, we have Ibn Al-Jazari, who contributed so much to humanity. One of them contributed to the way that we see, and the other contributed to the transformation of kinetic motion. So, you can see, that’s another public sculpture, a reactive one, an immersive environment as well. Allegorically, it is a giant camera obscura with windows that open and close. You go in there and see the camera obscura and the image, of course, is turned upside down. When the windows open, it washes out that image. So it’s different. I’m not saying this is a political artwork but rather is meditative, acknowledges the contribution of the culture itself.
AC: If I remember correctly, you once said that you would stop making political work when the conflict in Iraq ends. Was this kind of an offhand comment at the time, or something…
WB: But the war hasn’t ended.
AC: When the conflict ends.
WB: I do have that on my consciousness, and I think what I’ve done in the past took a lot out of me. I do want to engage in work that is not tasking and not political in its nature but rather meditative and reflective and has more aesthetic than pain.
AC: What would be your dream, if you could make anything?
WB: Honestly, I’m trying to engage people. That’s every artist’s objective: to engage the public in a dialogue. I wanted to return to painting. I wanted to return to object making. And I think I’m making steps directly toward these goals. You can see it shifted from engaging in very visceral [ways] to very meditative [ways]––carving a space for myself, which I really think is important to the health of our being.
ArtSlant would like to thank Wafaa Bilal for his assistance in making this interview possible.