War will become more like a video game, and vice versa, as computer-controlled weapons systems become more advanced and civilians can watch wars in progress online. So Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal is forcing people to confront the boundaries between wars and games, with one art installation that allows people to shoot paintballs at him via the Internet, and another which inserts him into an anti-George Bush video game. Click through for details and more images.
Last year, Bilal spent a month living inside Chicago's Flatfile Gallery, with a webcam observing him 24/7. And visitors to the gallery's website could control a paintball gun and shoot at Bilal or his possessions. During the month "Domestic Tension" was going on, the site got more than 80 million hits, 65,000 paintballs were fired, and the site received 2,000 comments ranging from racial slurs to encouragement.
Since the project ended, Bilal has been unable to sleep without sleeping pills, because it brought back his post-traumatic stress from years of living under threat in Iraq. Persecuted and arrested by Saddam Hussein for his work, Bilal fled Iraq and came to the United States in 1991. He's now teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. On the positive side, a group called Virtual Human Shield managed to take control over the paintball gun by visiting the site constantly for a whole week.
Now Bilal is causing controversy again, by inserting his image into an Al Qaeda-created video game called "The Night Of Bush Capturing," in which Jihadis hunt down the U.S. President and kill him. Bilal says he wants to explore themes of civilians' complicity in warfare, and the tendency of civilians to support whichever side is more powerful at the moment:
My character in the game will be like any Iraqi civilian on the ground, allying with the power which is dominant at the moment. At the beginning of the game the American soldiers are stronger than Al Qaeda, and I will ally with them, fighting Al Qaeda. But as the game progresses and Al Qaeda becomes more powerful, I will switch sides to fight on behalf of Al Qaeda. That is exactly what is happening in Iraq. The game will culminate with my revenge on the Bush administration for the destruction it has wrought on my country. I will be a suicide bomber who attacks Bush.
Not surprisingly, Bilal has been condemned as un-American by Republicans, and his show has been closed down twice, both times after just a day. He says he's not trying to be shocking for its own sake, but to get past our apathy and image overload about the war in Iraq. And video games are the perfect medium:
Because video games have become the medium of our time, so many people use this popular medium to convey a message. With video games, people are engaged beyond art, their senses are engaged.
Bilal, who's publishing a book soon with City Lights Press, has one more interactive art project going on. He's launching "Dog or Iraqi," a site where Internet visitors can vote on whether a cute dog (with an American flag bandana) or an Iraqi man will be waterboarded in Upstate New York. Right now the dog is ahead. (But a vet will be on hand to make sure the dog doesn't actually drown.)