Imagine that you could make a person suffer, and no one would ever know. Would you do so? Were you to pose that question in person, few if any would claim to exercise such a power. But wipe away any identifying factors, and give the respondent total anonymity—how will they respond?
As demonstrated by Wafaa Bilal’s 2007 piece Domestic Tension, the internet and anonymity evinces a more visceral response from its audience than a live performance, independent of the social norms and pressures that typically hinder our most primal desires. In this piece, Bilal accomplishes this by inviting the internet audience into his home. Bilal’s website explains that Domestic Tension allows viewers to “log onto the internet [and] contact or ‘shoot’ Bilal with paintball guns” while he is confined to the gallery space, subsisting on whatever food or drinks were donated. Bilal intended Domestic Tension to protest the suffering borne by Iraqis throughout their daily lives, subject to constant monitoring and at perpetual risk from violence. However, the piece also serves as a chilling social experiment. By providing the web with 24-hour access to his life and the power to make him suffer, Bilal makes evident the cruelty that anonymity can bring out in otherwise normal individuals. In fact, within twenty days over 40,000 paintballs had been fired at Bilal, and over 60,000 individuals had fired at him in total by the end. This was countered by a kinder movement of individuals who would wrest control of the gun from the cruel, even taking watches to protect a complete stranger.
This evidences the true power of the interaction between new media art and the internet. Since the internet vastly increases the potential audience of any performance at a negligible cost, messages such as Bilal’s can be easily spread. Not only were these 60,000 participants / audience members made aware of Bilal’s message, but they were also witnesses to the conditions Bilal protested. In other words, the integration of the web has created a new medium for artistic expression that reaches an exponentially larger audience than a mere play. Furthermore, Bilal’s piece itself communicates with us on a far more primal level: it is real, and it is the epitome of the age-old adage of “showing not telling.”
Domestic Tension also serves as a powerful social experiment reminiscent of Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority experiments as well as the murder of Kitty Genovese. Milgram’s experiments demonstrate our capacity to do despicable things under the right circumstances. Meanwhile, Kitty Genovese’s story illustrates the Bystander Effect, whereby the crowd diffuses responsibility since each individual feels more anonymous. These two factors combine in Bilal’s piece: afforded freedom from liability due to anonymity, thousands of people did not hesitate to shoot at Bilal. Some even wrote scripts to subject him, a total stranger, to a hail of paintballs. Given the right circumstances—the opportunity and freedom from liability—they could not control themselves.
This poses a number of troubling questions. Are we truly the civilized people we fancy ourselves, governed by higher humanistic ideals, or are baser motivations such as self-preservation and social conditioning the only things keeping us in check? If we find ourselves outraged by this cruelty, as Bilal’s internet protectors clearly felt, why are we not equally outraged about larger-scale cruelties across the world, in war zones such as Iraq or third world countries?