Originally posted on May 1, 2009 on PEN American Center's blog
Wafaa Bilal's words landed like a sunny day thunderclap-wholly unexpected. A visual and oral recollection of his one-month, interactive performance piece "Domestic Tension" (a.k.a. Shoot an Iraqi) floored a surprised but attentive audience at the Instituto Cervantes. I am sure nobody anticipated such a moving exposition, not even the panel. Asked to comment on Bilal's presentation by moderator Sameer Padania, fellow panelist Josep-Maria Terricabras, citing a case of speechlessness, politely declined. My own eyes were damp. I watched as audience members wiped tears from their cheeks with their shirt sleeves and the backs of their hands. Indeed, as I write this post, two hours later (waiting for Defiance to begin at Joe's Pub), I am still shaken by Bilal's presentation. His presentation was electric and profoundly stirring. Bilal, an Iraqi living in the U.S., was moved to perform "Domestic Tension" after his brother was killed in Iraq by an American unmanned Predator drone (his father died two months later). The result: Bilal lived in a fishbowl of a studio for 30 days. A global audience could visit or log on 24 hours a day to his website and monitor his every movement. The kicker: visitors also had control of a paintball gun and could take pot shots at him willy-nilly. The idea was to take Americans-accustomed to watching the Iraq invasion on CNN from the safety of their couches-out of their comfort zones and into a conflict zone. Control of the gun gave participants agency; it implicated the shooter in a simultaneous act of real and virtual violence. Bilal's performance juxtaposed comfort and conflict, aesthetic pleasure versus aesthetic pain, virtual platforms against physical platforms, and threw in the language of his body for good measure. A memorable and imaginative feat! Thirty days later and utterly exhausted Bilal had been shot at 65,000 times by individuals from 136 countries (one of the last shots on Day 30 came from the Green Zone in Baghdad). Not to say it was a totally violent experiment: for one spell a group of 39 individuals logged onto the website in order to collectively control the paintball gun and point it away from Bilal; they likened their act to a "virtual human shield." Bilal's reminiscences of his terror, exhaustion, confusion, acceptance, and madness over the experience stunned the audience. Once again he was able to take a group of people out of their comfort zone (PEN festival) and into a conflict zone (Bilal's memories). Bilal has published a book on the experiment, Shoot an Iraqi (City Lights, 2008). I bought it, I will devour it. I suggest you do the same.
How to transition from such a compelling demonstration? Terricabras, a Spanish/Catalonian philosopher, shook off his verbal paralyzation and with verve picked the audience up off the floor with a provocative musing on the un/potentials of the Internet in fostering democracy and revolution. His was a thought provoking discourse on technology and democracy, and I look forward to reading more of his work. And what is revolution? To paraphrase: revolution occurs when mass populations experience irreversible changes in societal orders. Technological globalization may enhance such a phenomenon, but it doesn't necessitate it Terricabras says. And democracy? Let us remember three (not necessarily concordant) things about this governing idea:
1) in a democracy everyone has the right to express their opinion just as they have the right to vote;
2) an opinion taken into account (just as all votes are counted) does not mean it is as good, free, carefully conceived, and as valuable as another;
3) if we accept majority decisions we do so precisely because they are the majority, not because we think they are always the best; the majority is not necessarily right. We have peacefully decided that the majority will have the power to decide until it is taken away from them.
The Internet, then, is a "magnificent space for individual freedom" but there is no guarantee of the qualifications of the initiator of web-based material. Thus, the Internet will only be effective and powerful "when the level of responsibility and critical awareness is high among all users-or the majority of them." Like a book only guarantees reading and not a conveyance of knowledge, the Internet only guarantees a public square discussion, not necessarily a vehicle of revolutionary thought or action. Think about that stuff for a while (there was more!)... And so we moved from a heady philosophical discussion on the above to a more "reality" or "practical" based exchange with Frenchman Emmanuel Guibert, co-author of the forthcoming The Photographer. In this graphic volume Guibert et al mix real photos with hand-drawn depictions of a singular Doctors Without Borders mission in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s. Unlike the digital or video elements concerning interaction with the Other in Bilal's and Terricabras' presentations, Guibert's representations are static and two dimensional. Infer what you want, it is implied, but these images can be powerful when put in a proper context. What then is the role of the photographer when it comes to telling stories? "Writers are supposed to think and photographers are only supposed to see. It's silly of course," Guibert says, "to think this way. Most photographers are very interesting persons to socialize with because they are full of stories, unknown stories." But if photographers only succeed in publishing six pictures of a trip where thousands of photographs were taken it can be disheartening for the photographer, and misleading for the reader. How do we remedy this experiential gap? I'll end this note with the following from Terricabras: "We want to eliminate, to suppress pain and suffering in the world. That's a revolutionary task for justice! Of course we don't impose solutions to others, but we propose solutions."