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Wafaa Bilal: The Virtual vs. The Real

3rdi, 2010-2011, credit Wafaa Bilal Studio
3rdi, 2010-2011, credit Wafaa Bilal Studio

Wafaa Bilal is an Iraqi born artist living in New York. Bilal’s works are presented in a multitude of materials and platforms. He has become best known for his interactive video installations. Much of his work addresses issues of the virtual versus the real, and  aims to convert the passive experience of viewing art to an active participation.

Bilal’s works are from his experience living and escaping Iraq through the war. As a child, Bilal dreamed of becoming an artist, but was forbidden by his family to pursue. He studied geography, and as the first Gulf War approached he refused to volunteer. He further went on to organize groups that opposed the regime of Saddam Hussein. After being arrested, he fled in 1991 to Saudi Arabia, where he lived in a refugee camp for two years; he occupied his time teaching art classes to children. Bilal eventually came to the United States where he studied art and received his masters’ degree from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Wafaa Bilal: 3rd, 2007, credit: Wafaa Bilal Studio

Bilal’s most well-known work from 2007 is titled Domestic Tension.  He set up an enclosed room, in which he lived for a month confined in the gallery. Outfitted only with essentials, a bed and living space with a kitchen, while a webcam streamed 24/7 broadcasting to a website. Viewers could log on anywhere and view him; they could decide to interact with him either through chatting, or an online activated paintball gun in the room with Bilal. Viewers, if they choose, to shoot Bilal turns the act of viewing into a very violent and real one. Bilal is directly commenting on the drone strikes which have been heavily used in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now a growing lists of countries and expanded conflicts in the Middle East. There is an entry point for online users in the gaming community that can view this experience as a disconnected one. Having the anonymity from somewhere else on the globe you can just press a button that causes harm which can’t be traced back to you. But here, Bilal reacts in real time. Hiding from the gun most of his time with nothing but one plexi shield he would use to sleep behind.

Domestic Tension: 2007, credit: Wafaa Bilal Studio

Domestic Tension: 2007, credit: Wafaa Bilal Studio

Bilal’s piece is designed to raise awareness about the daily life Iraqis face every day confined to their homes. Bilal means to engage in a dialogue by harboring the true violence into a playful, interactive platform that viewers are comfortable with like video games.

Domestic Tension 2007, credit Wafaa Bilal Studio

The message of conveying these anonymous actions of violence is very important and sadly, close to Bilal’s own experience. In 2004, his own brother was killed in Iraq by a U.S. Missile strike at a checkpoint.

This work has always stood out to me as a beautiful marriage of internet-based art with tangible real world applications. As we live in an ever increasing immaterial world, we can easily forget the tangible objects and experiences that are repercussions of it. Domestic Tension fused an immaterial platform with real world applications in an easily interactive way, while still highlighting greater political themes and issues in the world.

Detail of surgical implant of 3rdi, 2010-2011, credit Wafaa Bilal Studio

Another of Bilal’s well known projects is 3rdi. A webcam was surgically implanted onto the back of Bilal’s head. It would capture a still image every minute and send it to an online platform where it could be viewed and archived. Again, coming from a very close place to Bilal’s life experience he writes here, “During my journey from Iraq to Saudi Arabia, on to Kuwait and then the U.S., I left many people and places behind. The images I have of this journey are inevitably ephemeral, held as they are in my own memory. Many times while I was in transit and chaos the images failed to fully register, I did not have the time to absorb them. Now, in hindsight, I wish I could have recorded these images so that I could look back on them, to have them serve as a reminder and record of all the places I was forced to leave behind and may never see again.”

Bilal explains his art practice as a storyteller, of political dramas concerned with issues of the public and the private. With this piece he has an audience locked in to interpret, layer, add and re-interpret his life story. As mundane as it may be to unfold, new themes can arise from a work like this. NSA and similar surveillance programs, taking a glimpse into our lives at any moment, or the expression “watch your back” has greater resonation when applied to Bilal’s own life story.

Screenshot of one archived day on