The destruction that followed America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq brought more than the deaths of half a million innocent Iraqis. The chaos and ruin that followed, we now know, made possible th rise of the demon we calls ISIS and the barbaric horror that is the Islamic State. But there was, to, a more silent devastation: the burning of libraries and the decimation of cultural heritage – in short, the ravaging of the grandeur of Iraq’s past and, worse, of the promise for its future. Destroy books, after all, and you extinguish knowledge, and with it, the possibility for future generations to learn – and to build.
Among the greatest losses in that moment was the ravaging of the 70,000-volume library at the University of Baghdad’s School of Fine Arts, where some of the country’s pre-eminent artists were trained, including Hanaa Malallah, Adel Abidin, Layla al-Attar — and Wafaa Bilal, who “informally” took classes there.
In his latest project, Bilal aims to change the flow of that destruction: through his art, he is rebuilding, book by book, the library that has been so crucial to Iraq’s history – and that can help create its better future.
Bilal’s oeuvre has long been recognized for its enormous reach. A combination of performance and politics, his best-known works include “Shoot an Iraqi,” (2008), in which he spent a month in a small cell with both a camera and a paint gun trained directly at him. Anyone from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection could cause the gun to fire directly at the artist – a man exposed 24 hours a day to the vision, judgment and physical attacks by people he could not see, and from whom he had neither protection nor escape.
For his current project, titled “168:01.” Bilal has constructed a 12-meter long, white bookcase in a room at the Art Gallery of Windsor in Ontario. Visitors to the exhibition (and anyone else who so desires) can replace the blank books with those from a “wish list.” The donated books will be shipped to the University of Baghdad library at the end of the exhibition in April. In addition, Bilal created a Kickstarter campaign with the aim of raising $9,000. As of this writing, the fund has received over $58,000 from nearly 1200 backers.
(Indeed, so great was the response that, for those who were not able to “kick in” in before the deadline or would still like to donate a book, Bilal has created a second site here.)
The exhibition title, “168:01” – or 168 hours and one second – refers to an earlier destruction of the libraries of Baghdad. As described in the exhibition press release:
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, at the end of which the books were drained of knowledge. The first minute after grief becomes 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.
Recently, Bilal took the time to answer several questions about the project via e-mail. I confess I am humbled by his generosity in providing such in-depth replies – and even more so, by “168:01” itself. I’d encourage anyone who can to join in rebuilding the Fine Arts library, and creative promise that is so crucial to a humane and free Iraq.
Abigail R. Esman : How long has the idea for this endeavor been in the making, and what inspired it?
Wafaa Bilal: The idea for 168:01 began in 2010 when the curator, Srimoyee Mitra, first approached me about doing a project with The Art Gallery of Windsor. At the time, I was working on The Ashes Series and considering how to extrapolate on one of the images I encountered during my research, which depicted the ruins of a burned library. It turned out that Srimoyee was also interested in exploring the topic of libraries, and we began discussing a project involving an installation.
The idea quickly shifted from an installation to a durational performance involving two individuals whose hands are covered in graphite—one performer knocks a book off the shelf and another replaces it. But as I spoke to friends and colleagues about the performance, I decided that the project required something more. Performance has the ability to generate a strong impact on viewers, but its sphere of influence ends once the viewer leaves the space. I wanted the project to effect tangible results, beyond the gallery.
So 168:01 evolved into its present-day iteration as a participatory platform, in which its audience becomes the driving force of a dynamic and open-ended encounter. Each viewer becomes a potential participant who can choose to donate educational texts to the library, replacing a blank book that acts as a placeholder and a symbol of the void left behind by cultural destruction. Through artist friends in Iraq, I was able to connect with an institution that would benefit the most from this exchange—the faculty and students at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad. After speaking with them and witnessing the extent of their isolation from contemporary art discourse, I knew how much the books would mean to them. More than study materials, the books would become windows onto the world, shattering their isolation and helping push their re-initiation into the global art community.
ARE: Did this start off as an art project initially, or was it first something you wanted to work on as a political effort? Or both?
WB: 168:01 is purely an art project. I don’t think of it as political at all. In fact, it is probably the least political project I have ever done. I am not interested in sparking any political dialogue that could eventually harm the College of Fine Arts. This is simply an effort by individuals coming together to rectify (set history on a corrective path)
ARE: How and why did the Art Gallery of Windsor get involved?
WB: I was in Canada for the Images Festival giving a talk when Srimoyee approached me about doing a project at The Art Gallery of Windsor. After she invited me to come and see the space in person, we began exchanging ideas about libraries and books. The Mongolian invasion and destruction of the House of Wisdom, or Bayt al-Hikma, during the Islamic Golden Age became an immediate point of reference, and the project steadily evolved from there.
ARE: According to news reports at the time, there were plenty of reasons why the attacks on the library and other cultural institutions should have been anticipated — and efforts could have been made to stop them. Slate at the time called the destruction of the library “irreparable” and reported that it included “thousands of illuminated and handwritten Qurans, now in ashes.” What exactly, then, do you hope to replace at the library given the monumental size and significance of this loss?
WB: 168:01’s main objective is not to dwell upon the past but to move forward into the future. It signals a time to acknowledge our losses but more importantly, to move beyond grief in order to see what we can do for our future. The title derives from the Mongol’s destruction of the House of Wisdom in the 13th century. Legend describes how the invaders threw the House of Wisdom’s library into the river, where the books bled ink for seven days—or, 168 hours. But 168:01 is not about grief. It is about new beginnings and the moment after grief when resurrection first becomes possible. And this process of rebirth can only be achieved by embracing new forms. We can never replace what the library has lost, but we can build a new library that will empower thousands of future artists in Iraq.
ARE: On the one hand, this could have been organized entirely as a political project. What made you want to turn it into an art installation at the same time? Do you plan to donate the installation, or parts of it, to Iraqi institutions?
WB: 168:01 is neither a political project nor an installation. It is a participatory platform whose open-ended nature proliferates a multitude of narratives that take on their own vector and velocity towards unknowable ends. I see the project as an encounter—one that takes place physically at The Art Gallery of Windsor, and virtually through a number of online platforms. As the artist, I initiate these platforms of participation but it is the audience who participates that writes the rest of the narrative, expanding the project beyond its initial scope. So far, we’ve had volunteers offering to establish an open-source digital catalogue that will index all the books we receive. Creative institutions have stepped in to donate their book collections. All of the books received through 168:01 will be shipped to the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad at the end of the exhibition.
ARE: Do you view the Kickstarter aspect of 168:01 as part of a larger performance that encompasses the entire effort? If so, can you elaborate?
WB: Yes, of course. 168:01 is an ambitious project that requires a lot of participants in order to succeed. Kickstarter is the first stage, which initiates the participatory platform before the opening of the exhibition. It allows us to reach a wider network of people beyond the art world via social media, as well as raise the funds necessary to push the project into the following stages. Next we will unveil our Amazon wishlist, which will be an additional platform on which people can choose to participate. Lastly, with the opening of the exhibition at The Art Gallery of Windsor, viewers can physically bring books from their personal libraries cross-referenced with the wishlist.
ARE: One of the first Iraqi artists whose work I ever saw — and fell immediately in love with — was Hana Mal’ Allah; and the work was about the burning of the library in Baghdad. It absolutely knocked me off my feet. Has she been involved in this with you, or have other Iraqi artists?
WB: I love that project. It is a poignant and unapologetic depiction of Iraq’s heavy cultural losses, impacting the viewer physically and emotionally. As an installation, it illustrates a moment frozen in time. I reached out to Dr. Hanaa recently and she has been incredibly supportive, helping to spread news of the project in Iraq. Other Iraqi artists have also reached out to express their support—many of them were students at the College of Fine Arts and are now living in the United States, Canada and elsewhere around the world. We have received books from their libraries as well.
ARE: Given the current situation in Iraq, what gives you the confidence that any replacement books and reconstruction efforts will be safe and protected from further destruction? (Or don’t you have such confidence?)
WB: We can’t guarantee that our efforts will be safe from destruction. It’s like facing quicksand. Do you dare to cross? Or do you say no? Only those who dare to cross get to the other side, and I want to see the other side. We can’t let our fears paralyze us from achieving our goals. Regardless of whether the books remain safe, we will deliver them anyway. They embody hope for a brighter future.
ARE: Outside of Kickstarter, how can people help?
WB: The next phase of the project will begin soon with the unveiling of the Amazon wish list, which was generated directly by students and faculty at the College of Fine Arts. Books from the wish list can be donated directly on Amazon, shipped independently to the gallery’s address, or brought to the gallery in person. We are actively looking for any individuals or potential partners who can help in our efforts to ship the books to Baghdad.
We also have a team of volunteers working on building an integrated library system to track and catalogue our inventory, using the open source software, Koha. These volunteers have requested a Mac mini with Linux installed in order to operate the system. At the completion of the exhibition, the system will travel with the books to the College of Fine Arts so that students may use it to search for availability.
Alongside the physical books, we are exploring the possibility of providing e-books to the students in Baghdad. I have been receiving requests from the students on whether it is possible to obtain digital copies. If anyone has suggestions on obtaining open-source e-books, or if anyone has access to digital platforms or copyrighted material that they would like to donate, then their assistance would be very welcome.
Finally, we are also interested in remodeling the College of Fine Arts Library interior. After the fire, the building sustained some damage and they lost many shelves along with the books. They may not have enough shelves to store all that they receive. If anyone is interested in donating their time to redesign the interior or sponsor the reconstruction, we would love to hear from them.
Photo credit all photos:
Wafaa Bilal, 168:01, participatory installation, 2016. Copyright Wafaa Bilal. Courtesy Art Gallery of Windsor. Photo credit: Nadja Pelkey.
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