Virtual Spectacle: A Conversation with Wafaa Bilal

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Wafaa Bilal, Domestic Tension (still), 2007

For the past ten months, Iraqi-born New York–based artist Wafaa Bilal has been documenting everything that happens behind him. A camera has been fastened to the back of his head that automatically takes a photograph every minute. The project, 3rd I, is an attempt to capture the mundane, to create an archive of the everyday we leave behind, and put it all online. Two months before 3rd I culminates and becomes an inanimate archive and a few days after Bilal changed the mounted camera he has been using for the project in favor of a new one, designed to match a plaster cast of his skull, we met to talk about it and some earlier works, and talk about ideas concerning the archive, online and offline space, and slowness.

When considering the extreme nature of some of Bilal's works, like Domestic Tension, where the artist lived in a gallery for the duration of the performance, allowing online viewers to direct a paintball gun at him, or Virtual Jihadi, where Bilal casts himself as a suicide bomber in an Al-Qaeda version of a videogame called "Quest for Saddam," it may induce viewers to discuss these in terms of spectacle. In fact, the spectacle here is part of the performance and should not be confused with the point of the performance. In conversation, Bilal—an artist who thinks about his work complexly and discusses it eloquently—talks about his recent work 3rd I, as well as past works, in terms of his dialogue with the history of art, with the public, and with his personal engagement with politics and history.


 

You talk about 3rd I in the context of ideas of "slowness." This term is becoming increasingly commonplace, especially among people who work with new media. But your idea of slowness includes an intense, long-term commitment too, that is political, physical, and emotional. Now that the project is nearing its one-year finishing line, do you talk about slowness differently?

You're right. In the last few years, a lot of people are trying to slow down technology, I think this nostalgic notion of technology or interactivity is disappearing. I don't know if it's a fatigue or if the medium exhausted itself because there was such a great promise for interactivity and I think artists found their limitation with it making it increasingly complicated. In terms of slowing things down, we are so overwhelmed with these images that we lost any still moment in personal space, so a lot of us are wishing, I don't know if it's possible, to slow things down and shield that personal space.. 

 

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