Wafaa Bilal's "Virtual Jihadi" exhibit at RPI

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[edit] Background

Wafaa Bilal was an artist-in-residence at RPI whose presence had been approved through all official channels. On March 5, Mr. Bilal was in the middle of a discussion with students when three administrators arrived, told Professor Branda Miller they needed to take the artist with them at once, escorted him to another classroom, and refused to let Miller enter or to offer any explanation to her or her students. Shortly after the disruption of her class, RPI ordered the exhibit set up by the artist — a video game based in part on an Al Qaeda video game involving attempts to kill President Bush — shut down pending a review.

On Friday, February 22nd, the RPI College Republicans made a blog post criticizing the Arts Department for Wafaa Bilal's "Virtual Jihadi" exhibit. The blog post, which was later removed from the campus server but is available here, called the Arts Department a "safe haven for terrorists." The exhibit was scheduled for March 5th, the day that Mr. Bilal was questioned during Miller's class. The blog post appears to be what began this chain of events.

[edit] About the exhibit

In the widely marketed video game "Quest for Saddam," players fight stereotypical Iraqi foes and try to kill Saddam. Al Qaeda did its own take, creating an online video game using the structure of "Quest for Saddam" but adding a new "skin" to turn the game into a hunt for Bush: "The Night of Bush Capturing." Now artist Wafaa Bilal has hacked the Al Qaeda version of the game to put his own more nuanced spin on this epic conflict.

In "The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi," Bilal casts himself as a suicide-bomber in the game. After learning of the real-life death of his brother in the war, he is recruited by Al Qaeda to join the hunt for Bush. This work is meant to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war and racist generalizations and stereotypes as exhibited in games such as "Quest for Saddam," along with vulnerability to recruitment by violent groups like Al Qaeda because of the U.S.’s failed strategy in securing Iraq. The work also aims to shed light on groups that traffic in crass and hateful stereotypes of Arab culture with games like "Quest for Saddam" and other media.

"[Virtual Jihadi] is meant to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war and racist generalizations and stereotypes as exhibited in games such as Quest for Saddam; along with vulnerability to recruitment by violent groups like Al Qaeda because of the U.S.’s failed strategy in securing Iraq. The work also aims to shed light on groups that traffic in crass and hateful stereotypes of Arab culture with games like Quest for Saddam and other media."[1]

[edit] About the artist

Wafaa Bilal is a U.S. citizen who emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 after being arrested and tortured for his political art work criticizing Saddam Hussein (see his bio here). He is a visiting artist at RPI's Arts Department, and had been working with the Department for a few weeks prior to the incident.

Wafaa Bilal was named 2007 Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune, which wrote, "No artwork created in Chicago in 2007 received as much attention as Wafaa Bilal's 'Domestic Tension,' an interactive performance piece that subjected the Iraqi-born artist to a month of bombardment by paintballs from Internet viewers."

[edit] The incident

The exhibit opened at 7:00pm on Wednesday, March 5th, with Mr. Bilal's lecture beginning at 7:30pm. On March 6th, the next day, William N. Walker, RPI's Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations, issued a memo stating that the administration "has suspended [the exhibit] pending a more complete review of its origin, content, and intent." A similar email was sent to the Rensselaer community on March 8th (read the email here).

Several individuals in the Arts Department mentioned that the administration told them that they had been contacted by the FBI regarding Mr. Bilal and his exhibit. The FBI told the administration that Mr. Bilal is not a person of interest.

National media outlets, including the Washington Post, have been covering the Bilal story, which has rapidly grown into a case of international interest.

[edit] Arts Department lockout

In an interview, Mr. Bilal mentions himself and a professor being locked out of the Arts Department building over the weekend. He asked a security guard to let them in, showed the guard his ID, and asked why people were not allowed in. Wafaa recounted: the guard said that they were instructed to cancel all access in order to exclude Mr. Bilal because of "terrorist propaganda." Several other professors have attested that the Arts Department's security had indeed been changed for the weekend.

[edit] Removal of the College Republicans website

See also: Letter to the College Republicans

On Monday, March 10th, it was discovered that the College Republicans web page with the Student Union had been taken down. A letter discussing the take down was sent from Mark Smith, Dean of Students, to Ms. Bryan & and Mr. Girardin. A copy of the letter is available here.

[edit] RPI declines to reopen exhibit

In an email sent to RPI employees, and which the Director of the Union asked that club officers send to their constituents, the administration declined to reopen Wafaa's exhibit. While again stating that "Rensselaer fully supports academic and artistic freedom," the administration opted for censorship on the grounds that 1) the exhibit is derived from the product of a terrorist organization, and 2) it suggests the killing of the President of the United States. The first point sidesteps the complex nature of the origin of the video game in question, as it was created by an American as anti-Saddam Hussein propaganda and only superficially modified by Al-Qaeda. Wafaa Bilal and many members of the Department of the Arts and the Rensselaer community strongly disagree with the second statement.

[edit] Continuing the exhibit

The banned "Virtual Jihadi" exhibit was moved from RPI to The Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 Sixth Avenue in Troy. A press conference was held Monday, March 10, at 4:30 pm about the controversial “Virtual Jihadi” exhibition, featuring short statements by representatives of the RPI Arts Department, The Sanctuary, and Wafaa Bilal. A reception was held at 6 pm and Mr. Bilal spoke about his work at 7 pm. Area Republicans, led by Robert Mirch, held a protest outside The Sanctuary beginning at 5:30 pm.[2] On the other side were local citizens showing their support for Mr. Bilal and protesting how RPI handled this situation.

The very next morning, Public Works Commissioner Bob Mirch (leader of the protest) ordered The Sanctuary to close down operations because of code violations. "They put us out of business," Steve Pierce of the Media Alliance said in an article in the Times Union. "They said we had doors that were not up to code." According to the Sanctuary website this action occurred less than 24 hours after an inspection by code enforcement and fire officials cleared the building for use.

[edit] Rough timeline of events

Main article: Wafaa Bilal censorship timeline

The following is derived from this youtube video

The following is a rough timeline. Please fill it in, and add appropriate external links to source material.
  • March 5th: Iraqi-born artist, Wafaa Bilal presents his work, Virtual Jihadi, despite complaints from Campus Republicans
  • March 6th: RPI indefinitely suspends Mr. Bilal's show, and subsequently closes it down.
  • March 7th: The Sanctuary for Independent Media invites Wafaa to reinstall his exhibition and to host a re-opening event.
  • March 8th: Bob Mirch calls for a protest against the Sanctuary on the day of the opening. He 'appears' on the radio for 3 hours (on city time?) calling for protest. Troy Record runs a headline about Mirch's protest.
  • March 10th (AM): Code enforcement and fire department officials make a visit to the Sanctuary to assure that they are in compliance.
    • After this visit - on the day of Wafaa Bilal's controversial exhibition, the Sanctuary did NOT receiveany calls from the City. Everything seemed to be in order.
  • March 10th (PM): Mirch's protesters arrive and picket the Sanctuary. Sanctuary supporters respond with a straightforward message: This Art is Not Terrorism.
    • The opening of the art show and talk went off very well, despite the protest organized by the Commissioner of the Department of Public Works (the dept. which oversees code enforcement!)
  • March 11th: The Sanctuary received a phone message from Code enforcement saying there could be no assembly at the Sanctuary. (online at: http://mediasanctuary.org)

[edit] Community responses

Professors Branda Miller and Nancy Campbell were interviewed for an Inside Higher Ed article. The article situates RPI's ban of Bilal's work in the context of other institutions where similar events have occurred, including Middlebury College in Vermont.

Professor Igor Vamos speaks out against this case of censorship in a response letter to William Walker.[3]

[edit] Contact list

Main article: Virtual Jihadi exhibit contact list

In both the Times Union article and the Washington Post article, the students interviewed supported the administration's move to censor Bilal's work. We believe another side of the story must be told: that some of us students will not condone censorship, even if we disagree with the art in question. If you feel this way and wouldn't mind voicing your opinion about it, leave your name and contact information and we'll try to get the press to cover the other side of the story.

[edit] Flyers & handouts

A concerned student has created "This Art is Not Terrorism" handouts that are available for download.

[edit] External links

[edit] Video Clips Online

[edit] Blogs

[edit] News stories

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