Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shoot an Iraqi

From John McFarland on Shelfawareness December 1, 2008 - about a book that describes how easy it is to desensitize humans to shoot other humans.

Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance under the Gun by Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen (City Lights Books, $18.95, trade paperback original, 9780872864917/087286491X, December 2008)

Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen tell two intricately intertwined stories in this provocative and illuminating book. One is a vivid documentation of a month-long interactive art installation (through diary entries and photographs); the other is a memoir of life under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Bilal, an art professor and Iraqi refugee living in Chicago, designed "Domestic Tension," a gallery installation that required him not only to be present without interruption for a month but also to be the target of paintballs fired by visitors to the Internet site he had set up. A real-time web cam allowed visitors to see the installation, choose to fire or not fire by remote control and monitor the damage done by themselves and others.

Bilal hoped that his project would comment on the nature of modern technological warfare and show what living in a war zone, always under attack, looks like. He noted that the technology used for his installation is the same as the technology that allows military personnel stationed at computers to drop a bomb on a target that is thousands of miles away.

In its month's life, the website received 80 million visitors, and more than 60,000 shots were fired at Bilal. Photographs illustrate the transformation of a pristine white gallery space into one submerged in yellow goo from fired paintballs. As Bilal observed, "It's an entirely man-made disaster. That's what war is."

Bilal also learned how cruel and malicious people can be in the anonymous world of the Internet. One hacker converted the single-shot paintball gun into a machine gun. The chat room set up to facilitate dialogue logged comments so hateful and off-the-wall that Bilal's experience became more intense than expected. "I seem to be filling quite a range of roles for different people," he wrote while dodging shots. "Symbol of the anti-war movement; lightning rod for hatred and racism; subject of intellectual discussion."

Counterpoint to details about the installation are Bilal's memories of his childhood, student days in Iraq and his escape from the reign of terror that Saddam Hussein visited on his country. His first-hand witness testimony is eye-opening and disturbing. Imagine family members recruited to spy on other family members and reporting back to the secret police. Imagine an unfounded accusation being sufficient to justify executing a person on the spot. "The motherland of my nostalgic memories doesn't exist any longer," Bilal lamented in this strikingly personal record of how a people who once loved humor so much now seem unable to laugh.--John McFarland

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