Addressing the World from the Midwest:
An Interview with Iraqi-born Artist Wafaa Bilal
Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi-born artist and graduate student in SAIC’s Film, Video and New Media department, recently exhibited his video installation “Al Qaeda R US” at Gallery 2 from November 8 to December 4. Bilal began this project in November 2001 as a response to President Bush’s announcement of the War on Terrorism after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. This interactive video installation, which begins as soon as the viewer enters an isolated room, presents the justifications and arguments which have been used to support U.S. intervention and aggression throughout the world and contrasts it with the images of the human costs of U.S. military action.
Paige Sarlin: What were your initial thoughts and inspirations behind “Al Qaeda R US?” Did you conceive of this piece as a kind of answer to the question “Why do they hate us?” which was the media refrain after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?
Waffa Bilal: Absolutely. If you think about it, that was the first question [asked by the media], and I wanted to make some suggestions and give nine examples of why all this hatred is coming back. This piece is meant to inform the American viewer about the projects of their government and the justifications for that. It’s a visual journey that is meant to empower the viewer. The project started last November with a very simple image, that Iwo Jima image, which I wanted to morph to life. And from there I started researching the number of countries that the United States has been directly involved in since 1948. The number of countries I came up with was shocking; there were 42 in all.
PS: Why did you choose to begin in 1948?
WB: Because I wanted to give the U.S. the benefit of the doubt and start my history after WWII. The horrible crimes in Europe may or may not have justified dropping the Hiroshima bomb but it was clearly part [of the fight] for freedom. So, rather than debate that, I started in 1948 and used that as the frame to show what has happened since. [I am asking], “You thought you had fought injustice? But see who becomes the dictator — who now is acting as the dictator?” What is the United States’ role now in an unjust world? And so, the piece shows the atrocities committed by the U.S. military and the CIA against the people of nine of these countries, against the people of Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan.
PS: You don’t just show the atrocities though. You place the government’s justification for these interventions on trial as well by including statements that justified these acts of war.
WB: That made the piece stronger. I could have just shown dead bodies but without the justification for why these people are doing these things the viewer wouldn’t see the contradictions and the horrible consequences. I have been working on this project for a year and I have seen these images so many times, but I have begun to wonder what people think who are seeing them for the first time and [in] larger than life size.
PS: I heard one woman say that she felt like throwing up, and I asked, “Why, is it sad?” And she said, “No, it’s horrible. It’s not sad, it’s something else, extremely visceral.”
WB: I think a lot of us in this country have been sheltered for so long from reality — you never see this kind of footage on TV because the media wants to desensitize the viewer. CNN shows the green computer screen of the bombing of Baghdad, but never shows the bodies, never shows that there is somebody on the other side receiving that bomb. But in my piece, I created a context in which your body is subjected to an image of a body that could be very much like yours. On September 11, even though we saw the destruction, the media never showed the bodies. That would have been too powerful for people to see what war really looks like; we didn’t see any bodies. When you show bodies you show the impact of what bombs can do and that was purposeful because there would have been more questions raised. There was a horrible attack on New York for sure. But instead of questions being raised, there is simply the portrayal of an enemy and the repetition of the justifications for the war on terrorism [that] people buy because of the misinformation. It’s not a conspiracy — it’s the system. Corporations control the media so the media filters the news in the interest of the corporations. If Dick Cheney, Bush, and the oil companies want to get oil from Iraq, Iraqis are portrayed as our enemy. The entire Middle East is our enemy now.
PS: You said that some people were concerned about showing too many bodies, about the aestheticization of violence and war. What is your response to that?
WB: The whole piece is meant to talk to your body and to put you in a time or place with all these little speeches that show some of the misleading information and some of the strategy the government has used to mislead and misinform people. I wanted to let you watch what happened in each of these countries, to see these things you have never seen before. In addition, there is a physical part of it. You see the images [in] either life size or [in] larger than life size and that has a physical impact on your body, as well as a mental impact. I wanted to communicate with the body, and from what I gather from people it did communicate with the body. To me the way it was built up, if you watch one segment it might not be enough, but if you watch the entire thing you are either empowered or rewarded because you will really see a history of how the U.S. was directly involved in the destruction of these nine countries.
PS: Why did you design the piece to be experienced by a single viewer at a time?
WB: I think the individual is a single block of society. Without the individual next to an individual we cannot establish community. And I think the individual has so much power but most of the time we ignore that power, either out of fear or out of a desire [to avoid the commitment of being] responsible as an individual ... . It all starts from one person.
Throughout all the footage I only showed one soldier at a time. To me, all soldiers are the same because they are committed to some justification for every action and response, and for this justification, they are committed to kill another human being they have never seen. If all of us refuse that notion, either of nationalism or religion or whatever justification, the world would become more peaceful because there would not be individuals willing to [commit] indecent acts. At the end of the piece, the soldier [is] disgusted with everything; he buried his uniform and walked away but he did not bury the shovel, his tool of refusal.
He walk[s] to the horizon and the girl starts fading away. After he disappears, Bush announces the new war and then whoever is in the space becomes the witness to the present time, to the current war. At the end of the piece, there is no figure of a witness on either wall; at that moment you, the audience, are the witness to the project.
PS: In the last scene, when the soldier buries his uniform, why did you choose to place the soldier in that bucolic field?
WB: That field represents the Midwest to me — the isolation [specific to] the Midwest. Two years ago I did a speaking tour where I went to 20 states with a U.S. war veteran. I saw how isolated people were. I intend this piece to reflect reality to the entire United States, but I chose that setting to represent the Midwest — but we are all in the Midwest in terms of political misinformation.
PS: What do you want the viewer to come away with? Do you perceive of yourself as taking on the role of an artist or an activist?
WB: I think artists in general are educators. We are people who are willing to take the risk and it is not an easy thing to do. I am just one person but there is a greater cost if I stay silent. What I wanted to do was to empower, to say that we all have the power inside of us and these are crimes committed in our names. I am an American citizen now, so it is my responsibility to be an American now, and so the same way that I fought Saddam’s regime, now I have to fight every regime which has committed these crimes in my name.
PS: You invited a number of organizations to provide information at the opening. Can you tell me a bit about them and your reasons for wanting to include them alongside your piece?
WB: The organizations were the American Friends Service Committee, Artists Emergency Response, and Voices In the Wilderness. These organizations speak of different things. One about the people of Iraq, one about Palestine, and one about injustice in general. For me, I cannot just project the harsh footage without having some way for the viewer to act upon that, to give them something in their hands if they want to do something. It is important to inform people, but after they are informed, what are they going to do? To me, my project is a suggestion and it plants doubt about the U.S. government’s justifications and actions. The piece also suggests that everyone of us could act and inform each other, to exchange information and talk about these things. ... To raise your voice really doesn’t take a lot.
CNN shows the green computer screen of the bombing of Baghdad but never shows the bodies.