A Spanish philosopher, a French graphic novelist, and an Iraqi performance artist meet in a bar…
Any number of amusing scenarios could have emerged from the illuminating panel, “Quiet Revolutions in Storytelling” at the PEN World Voices Festival. Three seemingly unrelated creators engaged in a lively discussion about revolution and technology. Not only was there a lack of slapstick antics that could make for jokes, there was a loose concurrence of opinion and broader confluence of bristling ideas. Sameer Padania of the human rights organization Witness.org moderated.
But I speak vaguely. Wafaa Bilal is an Iraqi artist and professor who is perhaps best known for his project ‘Shoot an Iraqi.’ Bilal lost a brother in Iraq to an air-to-surface missile that he suspects was controlled virtually in a U.S. control room. Such missiles are routinely fired on computer monitors, and not from gunships. To cope with his loss, he created a project that allowed on-line users to log-on and shoot at him with a paint ball gun 24 hours a day for 30 days. A user could tap a few keys on the keyboard to line him up and then pull the trigger. He bought two boxes of paint balls and ran out in two hours. 80 million hits and 65,000 paint balls later, Bilal spoke about the lessons from his experience.
It was not originally an art project. “I did not enter that space as an artist,” Bilal said. “I entered that space as a devastated human being who just lost his brother, and soon after lost his father.”
What Bilal admired about technology, particularly the internet and digital video, was its ability to connect him to different people. The internet subverted mainstream media and put him into contact with others. Not all of these people drew positive lessons from the ‘virtual’ nature of shooting the gun. When word of his project hit digg.com, he endured a non-stop barrage of trigger-happy users. These users were counterbalanced by a coalition of 39 people who conspired for a week to aim the gun to the left by pressing the CTRL button repeatedly. People both attempted to destroy (virtually) and sustain him (really).
Neutrality of technology
Bilal’s somewhat optimistic appraisal of new media technologies was balanced by the more cautious approach of Josep-Maria Terricabras. Terricabras noted that new technologies are not themselves harbingers of revolution. Revolution is rather indefinite, ambivalent, and ambiguous. The proliferation of media on the internet also brings problems of authenticity. The traditional filtering mechanisms of ‘old’ media are not as strong as they once were. Both official state information and media with unknown origins must be taken with a grain of salt. Relativism, too, is dangerous. Not all ideas are as deserving of our attention as others.
If Terricabras’ message comes across as stilted, that is the fault of my writing and not his. He was a fiery speaker, and an ardent wielder of the Socratic method, engaging Bilal in particular on the revolutionary results of his ‘Shoot an Iraqi’ experiment. To Terricabras, revolutions will occur when “a large segment of a country or population or continent experiences irreversible changes in ways of thinking, relating to each other, and working.”
Of the three panelists, I enjoyed listening to Emmanuel Guibert the most. Bilal’s ‘Shoot an Iraqi’ project was so extraordinary and difficult as to be elevated to the level of a spectacle. What he did, no common man could do. Terricabras spoke in sweeping gestures, all considered, but in the distant manner of philosophical argument. It was Guibert who made a compelling case for the value of an individual story.
Guibert recently published a graphic novel about his friend, a French photographer named Didier. Didier had first aspired to become a doctor but realized that his ambition was to take photos. He lived a difficult life of photography, publishing a few photos out of every several thousand that he snapped. Guibert perceived untold stories in Didier’s photo contact sheets of a trip to Afghanistan, and decided to collaborate with his friend. In the publishing industry, “the writers are supposed to think,” Guibert explained, “and the photographers are supposed to see.”
But someone like Didier was thinking and telling stories all the time. The travesty was merely that these stories had not yet been shared. So for Guibert, the medium of the graphic novel permitted him to tell the story of his friend’s life. He mingled ink drawings with photos in order to fill in gaps in the visual story. In doing so, he told the story of Afghanistan and his friend.
Technology and Human Rights
Does new media help or hurt human rights? It clearly has effected change in the individual lives of the panelists. Bilal’s paintball project helped him accept the pain of his brother’s loss. Some 80 million users connected to him, although 65,000 clicked the button to shoot at him. Guibert celebrated the fascinating life of his photojournalist friend. Great things are possible, but I agree with Terricabras that discernment, too, should play a role.