Iraqi Artist Makes a Point with Virtual Paintballs Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal, who left his country in 1992 but still has family there, wanted to bring into sharp focus what it's like to be constantly worried about personal safety. So he moved into a gallery in Chicago and invited computer users across the country to shoot paintballs at him — through the Internet.
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Iraqi Artist Makes a Point with Virtual Paintballs

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Iraqi Artist Makes a Point with Virtual Paintballs

Iraqi Artist Makes a Point with Virtual Paintballs

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

An Iraqi-born artist has put himself into an installation in Chicago. He has moved into a gallery, invited people from around the world to visit his Web site and shoot at him with a remote controlled paintball gun if they like.

Wafaa Bilal says it's a way of reconnecting with his family living with the daily violence in Iraq. He says it's also a way of honoring his brother who was killed in Najaf two years ago.

As the artist's exhibit drew to a close, Chicago Public Radio's Sam Hudzik paid him a visit.

SAM HUDZIK: Walking into a small gallery just outside Chicago's Loop, everything seems normal, quiet, until you start hearing...

(Soundbite of paintball gunshot)

HUDZIK: ...the paintball gun. In the back of the gallery is a single studio. And since early May, it's been Wafaa Bilal's bedroom. Bilal is wearing goggles, a protective vest and earplugs. The once white room has been forcibly redecorated by 50,000 yellow paintballs.

(Soundbite of paintball gunshot)

Mr. WAFAA BILAL (Artist): The bed is just destroyed. All the books of - just the computers, very much - two computers are not working anymore because of the action. The place is completely destroyed.

HUDZIK: Bilal's Internet visitors see a streaming Web cam video of his adopted bedroom with no audio. They can turn the camera to the left or the right. And after a randomly determined waiting period expires, can fire a paintball in his general direction from about 10 feet away.

(Soundbite of paintball gunshot)

HUDZIK: Bilal's inspiration stems in part from electronic warfare. He points to soldiers in the U.S. who control weapon systems halfway around the world in Iraq. His visitors fire from cyberspace.

Mr. BILAL: Is every one of them wanted to shoot an Iraqi? No. Some of them are just so fascinated by the technology saying can I really, from China or from Seattle, can I push a button and hit somebody in Chicago? Some of them do have hate motivation.

HUDZIK: Bilal says he escapes his studio for up to four hours each day but stays inside the gallery. He'll get some sleep on a couch in the office and he showers in the gallery's basement.

Visitors online and in person are often very confused by what they see. Aaron Ott works at the gallery.

Mr. AARON OTT (Gallery Director, Flatfile Gallery): When the project first started, people didn't really know what to think of it, and so we would show them how it worked. They'd come in to the gallery and we'd show them the online interface and we'd pull the trigger.

HUDZIK: Bilal says he isn't angry at his Internet attackers. He knows he can walk out of the gallery at any time. Iraqis, he says, don't all have that option.

Jim Yood is a contemporary art critic and like Bilal, a teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mr. JIM YOOD (Adjunct Full Professor, Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago): In all honesty, the greatest visual artifact that will come out of the Iraqi war is probably the Abu Ghraib photographs. I mean, they were unbelievably shocking, yet in a strange way, compelling. And the closest thing I can think of to making an equivalent to the power of those Abu Ghraib photographs is this performance that's going on now in Chicago.

HUDZIK: It's come at a price. Bilal says he's completely broke after buying more bandwidth for his Web site and, of course, thousands of paintballs. And he says his mental health has suffered, too, but he says his sacrifices are nothing compared to those of ordinary Iraqi citizens and the American troops stationed in Iraq.

(Soundbite of paintball gunshot)

HUDZIK: Wafaa Bilal plans to end his experiment in virtual war next Monday.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Hudzik in Chicago.

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