Living history

'Shoot an Iraqi' tells of Iraq's dissolution from a beacon of education to a locust-eaten state.

shoot iraqi book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
shoot iraqi book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun By Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen City Lights 240 pages; $16.95 In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag revised her thoughts on the power of war photography to make us feel war. "Look, the photographs say, this is what it's like." Still, after spending time in war zones herself, Sontag concluded: "We don't get it. We truly can't imagine what it was like." In 2007 Wafaa Bilal was painfully aware of this chasm - indeed, he straddled it. As war ripped his country apart, the Iraqi performance artist was teaching classes at the University of Chicago. On Friday nights he attended art openings, sipped wine. His guilt was overwhelming. But one day it turned to anguish: An unmanned US predator drone had killed his militant brother. Racked by grief, profoundly disturbed by the complacency of those around him, Bilal launched "Domestic Tension," a Web-based performance piece about war and violence and the spectacle of it. For 30 days, he lived inside a Plexiglas room and allowed Web browsers to shoot at him with a robotically trained paint pellet gun, which they could control from their keyboards thousands of miles away. Shoot an Iraqi, which Bilal wrote with Washington Post journalist Kari Lydersen, weaves together three stories about this experience, giving the exhibit yet another dimension that stands on its own. First, there is a journal of the exhibit. Once the gun was fired, it never stopped firing. In the small room, its sound equaled that of a .45 caliber rifle. Hackers broke in and reprogrammed it into a machine gun. Visitors taunted him on a chat board. Over the course of one month, 65,000 paint pellets were shot from more than 100 countries, generating 40 million Web hits. One cannot help wondering if Bilal was punishing himself for having lived while his brother died, a terrible question mark that only grows as he describes his childhood under the sway of an erratic, abusive father, whose own spirit was crushed by the toll of living under Saddam Hussein. Finally, Shoot an Iraqi tells of Iraq's dissolution from a beacon of education in the Middle East to a locust-eaten state, mugged by a dictator and then punished from abroad for his offenses. Neither Bilal's exhibit nor this absorbing book about it can expiate Iraq's condition. Rather, they brilliantly demonstrate the lengths to which one man went to live history, and the disturbing - and occasionally hopeful - things he learned when he invited the entire world to do it with him.