Q&A: Wafaa Bilal connects art, literature, history and generosity in an interactive installation

Wafaa Bilal, 168:01, 2016–present, Site-specific installation, Dimensions variable, Image courtesy of the artist, Photograph by John Dean © Wafaa Bilal

Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal is among eleven international artists represented in Bodies of Knowledge, an exhibition that features a broad range of cultural expression in many mediums, from dance, film, music, and photography to books, which are central to Bilal’s installation 168:01.

Comprised of a series of white shelves filled with hundreds of blank books, 168:01 as an art installation also doubles as a system of exchange that connects NOMA visitors directly to war-torn Iraq. Aimed at restoring the destroyed inventory of the University of Baghdad library following the American invasion of 2003, visitors are encouraged to exchange one of the blank books for a published title for sale in the Museum Shop—which will gradually add color to the white shelves. As book donations accrue, the bookshelf becomes saturated with knowledge and filled with color as the white library is slowly replaced with books from a faculty wish list, which will be shipped to Iraq following the exhibition. In exchange for their contribution, donors receive the blank tomes, which serve as a reminder that access to knowledge is not equal across the world.

Curatorial Fellow Allison Young spoke with Bilal in advance of his visits to NOMA, which will include a talk at noon and a  gallery activation from 1 to 3 pm on Wednesday, July 17,and a lecture during Friday Nights at NOMA on July 19 at 6:30 pm.

Tell me about the legend that inspired the title of 168:01, and how does the story behind the title relate to the more recent history surrounding the destruction of libraries in Iraq?

Iraq has a long history of such cultural destruction. During the Islamic Golden Age in the 13th century, an invading Mongol army set fire to all the libraries of Baghdad, including the famed House of Wisdom, or Bayt al-Hikma. Legend describes the invaders throwing the Bayt al- Hikma’s entire library into the Tigris River to create a bridge of books for their army to cross. The pages bled ink into the river for seven days—168 hours—at the end of which the books were drained of knowledge. The first minute after grief is the starting point from which 168:01 takes its name—signaling the struggle to move forward and the beginning of a cross-cultural encounter between individuals contributing to a globally distributed effort to rebuild anew.

More recently, during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost its entire library due to looters who set fire to the collection. More than 70,000 books were destroyed. Sixteen years later and the students at the college continue to only have a few remnants of books from which to study. How many books has the project generated to date? With the help of the global community, we have delivered over 2,000 books to the University of Baghdad. Currently, in New York, we have an additional 2000 books awaiting to be shipped. We also have 250 books from the Aga Khan Museum exhibition in Toronto and 250 from FACT Liverpool. Through this global engagement, we have managed to rebuild one room in the large library. There is still a long way to go, but my hope is to continue to restage the sculpture in galleries and museums, and acquire and shelve the 70,000 books that were lost in the repository during the invasion of Baghdad.

How do you conceive of the relationship between the social project of restocking the library at the College of Fine Arts and the identity of 168:01 as an art work—a sculptural piece that is installed and contextualized within the space of an art museum or gallery?

Historically, and to the present day, museums function in multiple ways: they house archives of humanity’s history and culture, while providing a social platform for political and social projects. 168:01 could exist solely as a virtual project because it utilizes the internet and digital platforms such as crowdsourcing. However, the installation at the museum offers a sculptural element that elicits an emotional response and an immediate connection to the subject. The work’s conceptual framework is coupled with a tangible sculptural object that implicates the visitor. As the participant interacts with the sculpture, by way of removing a book that is void of knowledge and replacing it with a tome saturated with knowledge, one’s position shifts from passive spectator to active agent of social change.

What is the significance, to you, of the work’s interactive component? Beyond soliciting donations of new books, you ensure that each participant is able to take home a relic of this project in the form of an editioned white book. What do you hope this object will come to mean for each participant, or how do you imagine it resonating in its afterlife outside of the gallery?

One of the most significant aspects of this project is the tangible outcome of every interaction. Because we are past the point of conflict, this project addresses the post-conflict condition, which depends on the united efforts of the global community. My intention with the book is to bridge and bring together diverse communities to participate in social change. The book is symbolic of the individual’s contribution to discursive, intellectual, and cultural exchange and I hope it reminds individuals of their contribution to the collection at the University of Baghdad library.

Can you describe your previous experiences in New Orleans? How do you hope this project will impact or relate to our communities here in Louisiana?

I went to New Orleans to photograph the aftermath of Katrina and I saw a devastated city that brought to mind the devastation of post-war societies. I immediately felt the loss of culture, human beings, and land. I began reflecting on the similarities between Katrina and other manmade disasters. Further, the calamity in New Orleans bore a resemblance to Baghdad in the 13th century, as the Mongolian invasion washed away culture and knowledge by throwing the books in the river. This was my first step to establish cultural and artistic bridges between these places. I felt a heightened sense of urgency and this commonality became necessary to explore. New Orleans was rising from the water, and yet they could aid a city in Iraq rising from the ashes.

Has 168:01 evolved over the course of each iteration in different spaces or for different audiences? What is the future that you envision for this piece?

Most recently, I launched a new work as an extension of the project 168:01 called Conflict Exchange (CX) at the first National Veterans Art Museum Triennial. CX is a series of social platforms in the form of stores that explore the equity and relationships of post-conflict communities. I collaborated with veteran artists Alicia Dietz and Drew Cameron and showcased their works on these social platforms. Inside of the CX store, visitors encounter products made from donated military fatigues by Combat Paper—a veteran artisan collective led by Cameron. Throughout the exhibition period, Combat Paper will manufacture these products in the CX store where patrons will have chance to interact with artisans from the collective. The interior of the first CX store is designed by Dietz, an artist and craftsman whose work questions the boundary between soldiers and civilians. Visitors are encouraged to utilize the space designed by Dietz for encounters, interactions, and communication. Attendees are invited to purchase the conflict byproducts from the store and all the proceeds contribute to the rebuilding of the College of Fine Arts Library at the University of Baghdad.