Breaking Through the Fog of War

An Iraqi artist asks to be shot and veterans bring the war to the streets of New York


| June 21, 2007


Four years after the US invaded Iraq, a group of the war's veterans invaded the streets of New York. In a Memorial Day exercise, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) donned their gear and reenacted military scenarios commonplace in the streets of Iraq. Using their hands as rifles, they shouted commands and crept around corners. Some scoured the streets for 'Iraqi citizens,' forcing them to the ground, cuffing, and hooding them.

The performance, captured in a video posted on the Nation, was meant to penetrate the detached and filtered haze that defines how most Americans view the war. Aaron Hughes, an Iraq war veteran and participant in the street performance, explained: 'When I was over there it was a real space, and nothing was mediated. And then when I came back here everything was mediated, and the war wasn't here... Everyone's formed an opinion about what the war is and what it means, and they have no understanding what's actually going on. And that is what Iraq Veterans Against the War is trying to do today.'

A similar objective was driving Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal when he created his performance piece, 'Domestic Tension.' Inspired by the deaths of his father and brother, Bilal holed himself up in a Chicago gallery for 30 days. Visitors to his website were able to see live video of the sequestered artist and then remotely aim and fire a paintball gun at him. Bilal, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, explained the idea of the performance to In These Times: 'To the Western media it's a virtual war going on in Iraq -- we're far removed in the comfort zone. We're allowed to disengage from the consequences of war. We don't see mutilated bodies, we don't see the toll on human beings.'

Bilal hoped his performance would be an engaging, even playful, attempt at encouraging dialogue about the technical and often impersonal face of modern warfare. But after the first few days, the sympathetic comments left on the website's message board began?degrading into incendiary jargon. As Bilal told In These Times: 'I learned all these new things about myself. I learned I was a nigger, and a sand nigger. That I was gay. Part of it is demonization, then you can justify trying to shoot me.' Hackers even broke into the system and programmed the gun to shoot almost constantly. By the twentieth day, more than 40,000 shots had been fired. After a month of seclusion and a constant barrage of fire, Bilal finally ended his project on June 4.

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