By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
CHICAGO -- Wafaa Bilal pokes his head out from behind a plexiglass screen to squeegee off dripping yellow paint and -- splat! -- a paintball hits inches from his face.
"They wait for me to let my guard down, like predators," said Bilal, an Iraqi artist who has holed himself up in a Chicago gallery for a month with a paintball gun that people can shoot at him over the Internet, at http://www.crudeoils.us, 24 hours a day.
Since May 4, more than 40,000 shots have been fired by people around the world who visit his Web site. The site shows a live image of Bilal from a camera mounted on the gas-powered paintball gun at the edge of his living space. Using arrow icons on the Web site, users can aim the gun and fire a yellow paintball. Often more than one user will fight for control of the gun, with one trying to point it at Bilal while another pulls it away. A scrolling text tells Bilal what city or country each shot comes from.
Bilal, 40, fled Saddam Hussein's regime in 1991 after refusing to do military service. He now teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. His 23-year-old brother was killed by shrapnel to the heart outside the family's Najaf home in 2005; his father was killed several months later. Bilal conceived of the exhibit, called "Domestic Tension," at Chicago's FlatFile Galleries as a nondidactic way to convey the constant stress and destruction that the war wreaks on Iraqis, and the detached, sanitized way the U.S. public and often soldiers themselves experience war.
"I wanted to do something that on the surface is very playful but draws you in with multiple levels of meaning," he said. "The confinement aspect is what my family is dealing with every day. They only go out of their home to run to the market." Bilal plans to stay in the line of fire until early June.
He chats online with people as they are shooting at him. Some send hostile messages, such as "Die terrorist." But most are sympathetic to his antiwar message, or just intrigued by the challenge. One user from Estonia was determined to extinguish his lone lamp.
"It's very allegorical that someone would put out that one symbol of light, of hope," Bilal said.
Later, the shooter apologized and said he just loves paintball.
The next day, a former Marine named Matt Schmid stopped by the gallery with a new lamp.
"When you're a Marine in combat, you don't think about that person, if they have a family -- it's you or them, and you just shoot," said Schmid, 26. "This gives you a different perspective of what it's like to be in a war."