Wafaa Bilal is one of those artists who seems to know exactly what he wants to do with a medium using only its essential properties. Rather than excavating the web for artifacts, trying to define a web ‘culture’ or evoking a web aesthetic, his project is bare, raw, real and unrestricted by the attitude of internet definition (or redefinition) often exhibited by many other internet artists. He is sure-footed and believes in his purpose more than its results, and the qualities resulting of his attitude in his work are inspiring. Wafaa’s entire story, his battle to be an artist in a time and place defined by violence, division and suppression, is almost a microcosm of, yes, domestic tension, which would explain his propensity to want to express microcosms in his work. The art itself, mostly an experiment in relationships between Wafaa and the online viewers, represents a multitude of technological problems: the way technology can obscure reality, can retain anonymity, often leading to verbal abuse, and can even be physically harmful.
I was touched by Wafaa’s story and his attempt to use the piece to reconnect with his family in Iraq. Wafaa is a classic iconoclast. His ideas and desires completely coincide with his upbringing: minimal but full of tension, survivalist, spartan and real. His emotions are the result, not the material. Many artists use process to translate their emotions to a page or a painting, Wafaa uses his art to drive his emotions out, almost as a form of therapy. The story of his life, especially moments like throwing the paint on the mural and all the descriptions of “sneaking out” to paint all express this mentality. He is a selfish artist, the opening of debate through his art is only a side effect to his personal satisfaction, however the responses through the web are a subplot that is much more relevant to this class.
The internet is occasionally more interesting, or at the very least more brutal, when masses of people are involved. The mask of anonymity can bring out true ugliness, and the routes to which people who stumble upon sites like Wafaa’s are a source of constant questioning. Digg.com, the breaking of Domestic Tension to which is a turning point in the book, seems to be one of many ‘portals’ on the net that have constant democratic outpouring. One of the essential issues of these sites is that it is a mixture of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, somewhat lowering the bar to making popular stories to things that have a certain sensationalism. Digg is a news site that aggregates according to popularity, and popularity in such a candid forum can often be misread. People that get their news from Digg.com generally aren’t going there to read good journalism, they’re looking to entertain themselves. Therefore Wafaa’s art piece, like many things on the net, are subject to masses of hackers (an entire culture to its own), trolls and griefers, of which Wafaa seemed to have very little knowledge, resulting in furthering his emotional breakdown.
I think that, while these open forums have the potential for abuse, they are an essential property to the net, and like Wafaa, I’ve often experienced exasperation on forums where I’m just trying to get help. However, also similar to Wafaa, the initial shock of these interactions fades and the actual content these people have to post or say, their opinions and emotions, however coded or obscured by their attitude, is a real vocabulary of our generation, and certainly has potential to create beauty along with its ugliness.