Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Alienation in the Information Age: Wafaa Bilal's Domestic Tension

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Alienation in the Information Age: Wafaa Bilal's Domestic Tension

Article excerpt

In Cyber-Marx (1999), Nick Dyer-Witheford interrogates the effects of the new technologies of late capitalism on the labouring subject. His attitude mirrors Marx's view of technological development as the objectification, abstraction, estrangement and alienation of the worker from her labour, herself and her social environment as catastrophe and progress all at once. Noting the proliferation of new media, online communities and information technologies in the late twentieth century, Dyer-Witheford writes:

I analyse how the information age, far from transcending the historic conflict between capital and its labouring subjects, constitutes the latest battleground in their encounter; how the new high technologies - computers, telecommunications, and genetic engineering - are shaped and deployed as instruments of an unprecedented, world wide order of general commodification; and how, paradoxically, arising out of this process appear forces which could produce a different future based on the common sharing of wealth - a twenty-first-century communism.1

I want to take Dyer-Witheford's metaphor of information technology as the 'battleground' between capital and labouring subjects to consider how acts of war and their deployment of new technologies are represented and critiqued in contemporary anti-war performance. This article focuses on the work of Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal and his 2007 live art installation piece Domestic Tension. I argue that Domestic Tension stages a contradiction in the use of new technologies in warfare, which both exacerbate existing forms of contemporary alienation under capitalism and offer the potential for new alliances and communities by which to momentarily overcome or circumvent such alienation.

For Marx, alienation under capitalism manifests for both the capitalist and the worker in psychological and lived bodily effects within what seems to be a clearly demarcated historical, material 'reality'.2 The importance of materiality in the constitution of human 'reality' in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has been unsettled since Jean Baudrillard described the media-saturated visual cultures in which we live as 'hyperreal' - a copy of a copy without an identifiable original3 - and Donna Haraway described human bodies as increasingly 'cyborg'.4 Thus, Marx's idea of alienation needs to be updated for the digital age of spectacle that makes increasingly less distinction between material and virtual realities. Yet, it needs equally to be acknowledged that the effects of alienation on human psychology and bodily survival that Marx describes remain comparable over the centuries. In thinking through the problem of alienation under techno-capitalism, I will later draw upon Judith Butler's work that rethinks ideas of proximity and distance in relation to twenty-first-century global circuits and the ways in which these force us to rethink our ethical obligations towards the other.

In Domestic Tension, Bilal set up a small room within Flatfile Galleries in Chicago. He lived in the space 24 hours a day, seven days a week for one month, only leaving the room to use the toilet and occasionally shower. The room contained a bed, a table, a lamp, a plexiglass shield, an exercise bike, a computer and a robotically controlled paintball gun with a webcam mounted on top. The webcam fed footage of the space in real time to Bilal's website and online chat room at http://www.wafaabilal.com. Bilal worked with skilled computer technicians to design the gun so that it could be aimed and triggered remotely via participants logged into his online chat room. The work was experienced two ways. Viewers could walk around the space in Flatfile Galleries and watch Bilal dodge paintballs. Alternately, people could watch the live feed images of the gallery space on the website. Once logged into the site, spectators could participate in the work by manoeuvring and/or firing the gun in the gallery and/or communicating with the artist and other participants in the artwork through online instant messaging - a format typical of massive multiplayer online gaming. …

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