The Extreme Performance Art of Wafaa Bilal: Domestic Tension, 3rdi, and More

By Claire Wilson

November 27, 2023

Not many artists are as well known for such extreme and thought-provoking works as those of Wafaa Bilal. Bilal was born in Iraq and grew up in the turbulence of the reign of Saddam Hussein. In 2004, his brother, Haji, was killed by an American missile attack. Although he was able to move to the U.S. when he was 26, these experiences stayed with him and became a major influence in his art.

In his 2010 work, and Counting, Bilal’s back was tattooed with 5,000 red dots for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq, and 100,000 invisible dots to represent the deaths of Iraqis in the war. The invisible dots were only visible under UV light. This process took 24 hours of non-stop tattooing. During the performance, visitors watched the tattoo process and were invited to read off the names of the dead. The aim of the live performance was to show that while many Americans mourn the deaths of American soldiers, the deaths of Iraqis largely go unnoticed. “Iraqi death is not visible, it's not being acknowledged, and the number is so high we cannot even comprehend,” said Bilal in an interview on Democracy Now! He explained that part of the importance of the piece is that it is not an object or a memorial that can easily be forgotten. “It’s supposed to represent the people who died. I wanted to create that platform for people to come together.” said Bilal in an interview about the project. This mission to raise awareness and bring people together was a huge success, and through contributions from the audience, Bilal raised one dollar for every dot, to be donated to scholarships for Iraqi children. 

Bilal's back under UV light. (Photo credit: Brad Farwell)

(Photo credit: Brad Farwell)

In addition to the camera, Bilal also carried a gps device with him at all times during the project. (Photo credit: Wafaa Bilal Studio)

In late 2010, Bilal began a new, more controversial project. He had a camera implanted on the back of his skull, which took a photo every minute and posted it on his website, along with his exact coordinates. The aim of the project was to capture the mundane of everyday life, a luxury Bilal did not have on his journey to the United States, during which, he says, he was so caught up in the chaos of the journey that many of the places and people he saw failed to register. “Now, in hindsight, I wish I could have recorded these images so that I could look back on them, to have them serve as a reminder and record of all the places I was forced to leave behind and may never see again.” Bilal writes on his website. The project was planned to last three months, but by the end of the first month, Bilal was in constant pain and his body had started to reject the implants. Even so, it was a highly successful project and the subject of many interviews and news stories. In 2011 Ania Szremski of F Newsmagazine wrote, “The jolting disharmony that exists between the quiet banality of the photos, and the startling sensationalism of the method by which they were produced, points to a whole host of tensions and contradictions in this former SAIC faculty member’s project, ‘The 3rd I.’” However, juxtaposition is not isolated to Bilal’s 3rdi project. Much of the driving force behind Bilal’s work comes from his experience as both an American and an Iraqi, especially when the two countries were at war. He says, “I am part of this society, and I am part of the society I left, Iraq, and these countries are at war. I never was able to detach myself from that subject matter and that continued to this day.” These conflicting feelings can be seen in his most well-known and dramatic work, Domestic Tension.

The photos from the 3rdi project were displayed at the Doris McCarthy Gallery at the University of Toronto

When Bilal was working as an adjunct at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007, he began a project entitled Domestic Tension. For thirty days, he lived in an art gallery made to look like a living space with a bed, lamp, table, and computer. At the front of the room there was a robotic paintball gun which was controlled by users on his website, who could aim the gun and shoot him at any time. Each day, he recorded a short video blog about how the project was going and posted it to Youtube. The project was structured in this way to parallel the remote acts of violence that occur in modern warfare, particularly those of the war in Iraq. Domestic Tension came at a time when Bilal was mourning the death of his brother, and the project helped him process this loss and bring awareness to the violence of the war. After just a few days, the gallery stunk of fish oil, an ingredient in the paintballs, and became covered in yellow paint, making it hard for Bilal to walk without slipping. He was unable to sleep without medication due to the constant firing of the paintball gun, and his mental health worsened significantly as PTSD symptoms from his childhood in war-torn Iraq began to surface. “Domestic Tension was intended to be a provocative commentary on the nature of modern technological warfare,” said Bilal. “[I wanted to] democratize the process of viewing and interacting with my work. But I didn’t know how brutal the anonymous internet culture could be.” Users from over 130 countries shot the paintball gun more than 65,000 times, causing Bilal to max out his credit cards buying paintballs. In August of 2013, he published Shoot an Iraqi, a book about Domestic Tension and the way in which it relates the violence he encountered as a child living under the rule of Saddam Hussein, and his experiences living in America. 

Wafaa Bilal is now an arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he teaches photography and performance. He continues to create works of art which cause the viewer to think about the connections between technology, communication, and culture, and most importantly, allow the viewer to participate. “Technology has enabled me to communicate, to inspire, to inform,” Bilal says. “That is what really is important for me.” 

Domestic Tension (Photo credit: Wafaa Bilal Studio)

To see more by Wafaa Bilal, visit