“Hey everybody! It’s Day 9. Still in bed. It’s very hard to wake up and the gun is just above you, and it continues shooting. It’s a really weird feeling because now, it starts to bother me, although I try to be strong […] But I’m hoping to continue and I’m hoping to keep the conversation going. It’s-”

BANG

“-early in the morning, it’s just a little bit slower.”

FLORIDA – In 2007, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal set up camp in the FLATFILE Gallery in Chicago for 30 days as part of his endurance performance work, Domestic Tension. Along with a bed and a desk, he shared the room with a high-tension paintball gun aimed right at his side of the room. The gun was set up with a camera, and both were connected to a website accessible to anyone anywhere and anytime. Visitors to the website could not only observe Bilal, but they also had the power to horizontally steer the gun, aim it, and shoot at the artist. An online chatroom opened an avenue for communication between the artist and the viewer, and a handheld video camera allowed the former to document the work in a series of vlog-style videos

For Bilal, “most inspiration comes from life.” His motivation was to spark a conversation within the American public about the devastation US imperialism has brought upon his native Iraq. The artist explains how the performance was also meant to make him feel “physically and mentally” closer to his family back in Iraq, who do not have the privilege of stepping out of a simulation as he does. Nonetheless, he maintains that the “piece is all about conversation, it’s all about an encounter, it’s never didactic, but it’s an open narrative.” In a later interview with the Chicago Tribune, he cites as foundational to the performance “the death of my brother by drone plane, the death of my father two months later as a consequence, and the experience of watching on TV a soldier directing a drone plane from Colorado and dropping missiles into Iraq.”

    During said TV news segment, the drone operator in Colorado denied feeling any guilt about taking the lives of Iraqis. Her remiss is reminiscent of 1996 US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s notorious response when questioned about the death of half a million Iraqi children due to over a decade of US-sanctioned embargoes: “We think the price is worth it.” It was while observing this that Americans’ emotional removal from and apathy towards the imperialist tendencies of their country hit Bilal, prompting him to develop  Shoot an Iraqi, the original title of Domestic Tension, in an effort to close the gap between what he called Americans’ comfort zone and the “conflict zone” he came from. Indeed, so trenchant is this racially charged affective distance that hundreds of viewers from all around the world would participate in razing the artist’s temporary abode.

At FLATFILE, Bilal sets up what seems to be a necropolitical simulation, borrowing from Achille Mbembe’s seminal essay, Necropolitics. The philosopher coins the term to deal with the limitations of Michel Foucault’s idea of biopower, which relates to the political strategies the modern nation-state uses to subjugate populations by targeting the biological and anatomical features of the human body. Indeed, Bilal’s body is highly regulated by the controllers of the paintball gun. Although only a few hundred of the 65,000 paintballs fired throughout the project actually hit him (thanks to some movable plexiglass shields), the performance nevertheless took a significant toll on his mental and physical health. What started as a “very heavy feeling” in his chest gave way to “a lot of health problems: skin rash, heavy breathing, […] nightmares,” and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, exacerbated by increasingly less sleep and a lack of physical exercise. For the full month, the artist’s body adapted to being in a state of hypervigilance, stress, and paranoia. Even on the few occasions that allowed him to let his guard down, whenever the gun temporarily malfunctioned, “so much emotion [would come] to the surface” and overwhelm him. “The reality is blurred now,” he declares in an eerily silent moment.  

However, following Mbembe’s reasoning, the lens of biopower does not account for various contemporary forms of “subjugation of life to the power of death” (Mbembe 39) which the paintball gun replicates on a smaller scale, such as the “orchestrated and systematic sabotage of the enemy’s [Bilal’s] societal and urban [domestic] infrastructure.” (Mbembe 29) Noting the mutually constitutive nature of Bilal’s body and his environment, it is crucial to acknowledge the destruction wrought upon his living space. After just a few days, it resembled a “war-zone” and a “disaster area” with shrapnel from the paintballs scattered everywhere, the plexiglass barriers broken, a growing number of holes in the drywall, and splatters of paint on all surfaces. As soon as the second day, the floor was so slippery that the artist “could barely walk,” and a tree he hoped people would spare, ended up “almost drowned with yellow.” Meanwhile, a lamp that was part of the original setup sustained such irreparable damage that it had to be replaced due to its now-dangling bulb posing a fire hazard. Since “the lamp represented just the only thing that stayed alive besides me in the space,” Bilal mourns, “it was very sad to see the second one get destroyed within two days.”

Wafaa Bilal, Domestic Tension, screenshot from “the paintball project day 11” on YouTube

In spite of the turmoil they were knowingly causing Bilal, viewers persisted in shooting the gun. “Is this a game to you?!” I found myself asking the screen as I watched footage of the performance. The answer is yes, it is. On the viewer’s own computer, Bilal teases out “a new cultural sensibility,” one which emerges in the colony as in the drone operating room, one “in which killing the enemy of the state is an extension of play. More intimate, lurid, and leisurely forms of cruelty appear.” (Mbembe 19) Domestic Tension exposes to viewers just how easily the technology of the drones can blur the boundaries between murder and gameplay -and not just murder; deep, harmful, lasting trauma. By putting viewers behind the trigger, Bilal implicates all of them in this harm: both those actively pulling it and those passively complicit in watching it. That said, Bilal does more than break the fourth wall in Domestic Tension with his jovial “Hey everybody!” and “I’ll talk to you soon, bye” that sandwich each video. In fact, the performance renders the very idea of a fourth wall irrelevant by dismantling conventional spectatorship roles and bestowing upon anyone who knows about the project a level of accountability in everything that happens. As one visitor elucidated, “it’s an important statement that we have choices in this game just as we do in life.”

That visitor, a stranger, had decided to show up to the gallery with socks and some food for the artist. Numerous others did the same, offering muffins, a new lamp, spare bulbs, and other gifts. It was these instances of generosity and aid that “really warmed my heart and filled me with hope” — an expression Bilal would tearfully use multiple times throughout the project. What is more, the sock-donor was actually a member of the “Virtual Human Shield:” a collective of online viewers that were committed to continuously pressing the left button in order to steer the gun away from Bilal and counteract the commands of others who were trying to shoot him and his belongings. The kindness and empathy the artist saw his project evoking in people, as well as the conversations they were having, pushed him to persevere through the project despite the heavy toll inflicted by those who just “wanna see this guy get shot.” 

    Indeed, as the numbers attest, many people wanted to see this particular Iraqi get shot. And yet it is precisely the failure of numbers and statistics to account for the emotions, experiences, memories, and human lives of those ‘disappeared’ and invisibilized by US global security regimes that works to produce this apathy. As Ronak K. Kapadia illuminates in Up in the Air and on the Skin: Drone Warfare and the Queer Calculus of Pain, the American imperial apparatus strives to appropriate not only the world’s material resources and territories, but “the global image and data worlds.” (Kapadia 366) Since “perspectival vision is in fact constitutive of the logic of surveillance and the materiality of war,” (Kapadia 365) the American military complex employs technologies such as drones to amplify its own ability to see and control what the rest of the world sees. To see is to know is to dominate. Drones fulfill this end through their panoptic powers of surveillance as well as through techniques like dropping aluminium confetti on anti-aircraft observers on the ground. Bilal’s paintball gun mimics these strategies of visual colonization by allowing it a 24/7 feed and shooting paint at the artist’s domestic space, turning it completely yellow and thus, controlling what the artist sees.  

    Kapadia argues that Bilal turns away from these calculated visual economies by resorting to “alternative ways of understanding drone weaponry and the effects of this violent practice on the gendered, racialized, and sexualized bodies that are its targets.” (Kapadia 361) Specifically, the artist approaches the issue of desensitization by appealing to the senses. His work prioritizes tactility, and even though we are only able to visually witness the bodily pain subjected to Bilal, it nonetheless allows us to draw an “affective relation to past histories” (Kapadia 368) and connect to the artist and the people who live in similar conditions, as the project chatroom confirmed viewers were able to do. Therefore, although our “political imaginations have been impoverished by the prevailing logics of state security in discourses of terrorism, militarism, and war,” (Kapadia 373) Bilal opens up new channels for empathy, by invoking our abilities to empathize with physical pain. 

Despite the fact that Bilal succeeds in undoing the de-empathizing capabilities of drone technologies by activating senses beyond sight, Kapadia stresses that this does not mean the visual is totally lost to American imperialist powers. On the contrary, the writer encourages us to be attuned to “the ambiguities and particularities of the visual experience produced by diasporic and racialized subjects responding to these conditions as they reveal alternative clues for knowing and mapping the world.” (Kapadia 366) Such particularities are especially potent when they hijack the drone’s ability to divorce its operator from feeling and compassion. Drone technologies operate through a simple equation: physical distance produces emotional distance. It is a truth so accepted by military personnel that a father like Jerry Smith, whose son was killed in the field after a drone operator mistook him for being part of the Taliban, excuses the death by referring to the way people look like “blobs” through drones. An even more disturbing comparison is a military colloquialism for murder by drone: “bug splat.” 

If being so far makes people look like insects to drone operators, making killing them easier, a fairly simple solution is to make people seem bigger. This was the strategy taken by an artist collective in Pakistan around 2014, in a project titled #NotABugSplat. Between 2004 and 2014, more than 3,000 people were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, many of them civilians and hundreds of them children. Travelling to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the site of a drone strike the previous November, the collective spread an enormous, satellite-detectable photograph of a child whose family had perished due to drone attacks in that empty field. With the picture highly visible to the drones flying overhead, ready to deploy missiles, the artists hoped it would appeal to the operators’ humanity and empathy, deferring destruction, and that it would spark dialogue among policymakers. Instead of pulling the trigger on bugs or blobs, the operator would be pulling it on a very visible child. #NotABugSplat immediately confronts the drone and its operator, quite literally on the field, challenging their monopoly on violence, vision, and knowledge.

#NoteABugSplat Satellite Image, courtesy of the collective’s website.

However, far from all-seeing eyes in the sky, myopia is part of the evil of drones. In 2002, some metal scrap collectors were murdered by a Predator drone near the Zhawar Kili region of Afghanistan, because one of them resembled Osama Bin Laden. In 2009, at least fifteen innocent Afghan civilians were killed by a Predator whose operators mistook them for the Taliban. In 2014, four Palestinain boys playing on a beach in Gaza were killed by Israeli drone strike. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Obama’s adoption of the US drone program in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen led to the deaths of between 384 and 807 civilians during his two terms. There are countless other examples, past and current, in which the inaccuracy of drones has killed innocents -or has been used as an excuse to do so. While these incidents may very well be blamed on racial profiling, cases of so-called friendly fire deaths such as Smith’s, mentioned above, complicate this reading. Instead, a more instructive approach might be examining the ways drones and other military technologies are used to uphold pre-existing systems of racialized violence, rather than racializing subjects themselves. 

Domestic Tension microscopically simulates the way “weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead. ” (Mbembe 40) Before it was put down in 2018, the Predator’s evolution culminated in its exceptional power to, put simply, move, see, and destroy. The artist replicates these very abilities in his own “drone” occupying his living space. As such, Bilal’s “conflict zone” here correlates with Mbembe’s “death world.” Moreover, Mbembe holds that the “ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die,” (Mbembe 11) and is hence contingent upon “the strength to violate the prohibition against killing.” (Mbembe 16) Drone technologies, including Bilal’s paintball gun, grant the operator such strength to surmount the propensity against killing by creating tremendous physical, visual, and affective distances between the one pulling the trigger and the one who will face its consequences. Drones hence facilitate a sort of sovereignty characterized by mass death. 

Further, although Bilal’s room is too small to illustrate the “dynamics of territorial fragmentation” (Mbembe 27) charactestic of necropolitical terror formations, it is still divided by what Eyal Weizman calls a “politics of verticality,” (Mbembe 28) as Bilal is forced to crouch when moving through the room, denied access to the horizon of destruction in the gun’s wake. Thus, everywhere in the room and with every movement, “the symbolics of the top (who is on top) is reiterated” (Mbembe 29) -the gun, the camera, everyone behind its lens. What is more, even the provisional boundaries Weizman describes in colonies find re-enactment in the movable plexiglass barriers Bilal has, which both facilitate and limit his mobility. 

Wafaa Bilal, Domestic Tension, screenshot from “the paintball project day 11” on YouTube

Furthermore, that Bilal shares his living space with his drone is more than a metaphor for the intrusivity of these technologies and the very visceral, intimate impacts they have on people in Iraq. The idea of a dronepolis, a “dronified” police state in America, is a fast-approaching reality, as Ian Shaw underscores in The Urbanization of drone warfare: policing surplus populations in the dronepolis. In the dronepolis, Bilal’s “comfort” and “conflict” zones implode in sync with the “dronification of state violence” as drones increasingly infiltrate urban and domestic spaces, rather than just foreign territories, in an effort to police what Shaw terms the “surplus population,” one which is deemed “structurally unnecessary” by capitalist society. Considering this new “intimate and invasive form of state power” alongside Mbembe’s necropolitics, the drone functions to maintain a capitalistic form of sovereignty, a right to kill based on value: the right to decide whose lives are invaluable, threatening, counterproductive, excess -surplus. Combined with the drone’s intrinsic mechanisms of desensitization and devaluation of human life, the implications are dystopian at best. 

    In fact, the American dronepolis has indeed been actualized. This has been abundantly clear for the last couple of months, as Black Lives Matter protests across the country are met with ruthless, state-sanctioned violence facilitated through surveillance technologies such as drones and facial recognition software. According to Sanoja Bhaumik, the commercialization of drones in recent years has only served the American imperial project’s domination over the visual since it obfuscates the intentions behind the drone’s presence in cities. As boundaries between aerial event photography and state surveillance grow increasingly blurred, the drone can hide in plain site. Drone photographers capturing these protests for media outlets end up also doing the work of the fascist state, simultaneously profiting off of Black suffering while perpetuating it.   

Projects like Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension and #NotABugSplat counter the impersonal lethality of drone technologies by either hijacking their imperialist power over the visual or bypassing them, taking other sensorial routes entirely. These works thereby undermine the drone operator’s sovereignty – their right to decide whose life is valuable and whose is disposable -by appealing to their senses and emotions, personalizing the hyper-industrialized and mechanized modern act of murder and spectre of state violence. And yet, one cannot help but wonder, is it enough?