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November 26, 2007

Reflections on a Violent Art Project


Chicago Artist Wafaa Bilal spent 31 days, from May to June, of this year locked in a room being shot at by strangers. The strangers were virtual, operating a paintball gun, and Bilal had no idea who they were or why they were shooting. He called his exhibit "Domestic Tension." Bilal is an Iraqi who fled Saddam's regime in 1991. His father and younger brother were killed in the current Iraq war. We talked to him during his stay in the exhibit, and then we caught up with him a month after he was free. We asked Bilal what he learned since being a marked target, and what life is like now.

Produced by Suzie Lechtenberg

Wafaa Bilal: It's really tough. Since the project ended, I haven't had much of sleep. Even if I get a few hours of sleep a night that would be accompanied with many nightmares. And sometimes I would get up and start looking for the gun or I'm confused why I am in my bedroom and not in the project room.

Bill Radke: You say that you have had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before. You went through a lot in Iraq and in Saudi Arabia. Your brother was killed in Najaf. How are you reflecting back on the violence you went through before this paintball experiment?

Well, I was dealing with Post Traumatic for many many years. So the new experience, unfortunately, bringing everything back. One thing I wanted to come out of this project is to bring me closer to my family and bring me closer to home. It did and it became very painful experience. But overall I think this experience left me feeling closer to home and I think it illustrate a point to viewers: this is what the Iraqis are going through on everyday.

How do you know how well you got that point across to your viewers, your participants, your shooters?

I have a person from Ohio who one day sat on the computer and continued shooting and took about 2,000 shots. And there is no way I could stop him so I simply told him "Hey, I am having my dinner and the paintballs they are falling in my soup." And he said "Ouch, I'm really sorry." And he become one of the biggest fan in the project.

This guy who was stalking and assaulting you, that's what made him stop?


What do you think was going on there?

Well, in most of the world, politician do very good job in demonizing others. And in that process we lack understanding of each other and we shut any way of communication to each other. And it's amazing, I find in this project, words have much more effect and they hurt more as well.

So after being shot at tens of thousands of time and had some people try to protect you, what do you come away with, Wafaa?

It really enforces my belief in humanity.

So you're focusing on the man who wanted to stop dumping paintballs in your soup.

Absolutely. But overall I don't ever remember crying this hard. And I accept it for the first time. I lost my brother and I lost my father and I would never see them again.

What was it that got you to that place? Do you remember what was happening in the room?

It was a simple thing. I had a mechanical problem with the gun and all of a sudden, silent. And it make me think, the Iraqis have been under assault for so many years, what is going to happen to them when the gun is silent. This is a story of a person, but there is a story of a nation to come. And it's going to take a long time to heal. And that is the same thing apply to the American soldiers in Iraq. The gun is loud now there. But I am very afraid, in fact I'm terrified, what is going to happen when they come back.

Check out Wafaa Bilal's show (including a video blog) at this site: http://www.crudeoils.us/wafaa/html/domesticTension.html