Art Police Shut Down Exhibit at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Invade Classroom

Stories in the Washington Post, Newsday and Times Union describe the sad tale of a university responding to political pressure to close an exhibit by controversial artist Wafaa Bilal. Here are excerpts from the Post:

"In the video game that Wafaa Bilal created, his avatar is steely-eyed and hooded, with an automatic rifle at his side, an ammunition belt around his waist, a fuse in his hand and the mien of a knightly suicide-bomber. He is the "Virtual Jihadi." ...

"His work was briefly exhibited Thursday night at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. The game was projected on a giant screen so that one viewer at a time could play -- until administrators shut down the show Friday morning. The institute needed time to review the show's "origin, content and intent," said William N. Walker, a vice president." ....

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The fracas included an unfortunate incident, one that casts a shadow over acdemic fredom at Rensselaer. From the Times Union:

"The controversy intensified Wednesday, when Bilal was scheduled to give a lecture and unveil his exhibit.

That afternoon, RPI students in a class taught by media arts professor Branda Miller were interviewing Bilal when he was pulled out of the room by RPI officials.

"It was very unsettling for me and my students," Miller said. "It would be unfortunate if Wafaa Bilal's art exhibition remains closed. The whole point of art is to encourage dialogue." ....

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The origin of the controversy arose from protests by the College Republicans on the campus, a group interested in works of art, at least the ones they think require censorship.

Fortunately, Bilal's exhibit will be shown off campus at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, a wonderful place where artists, writers and everyday folks gather to exhibit their works and exchange ideas, realizing the promise of the First Amendment freedoms, a project evidently too risky for the university to abide.

Another dimension of the story is that RPI is about to open a enormously costly "Experimental Media Performing Arts Center." The Bilal incident raises serious questions about how "experimental" the Center's offerings will be and who decides.


A colleague in the Arts Department passed along the news that this morning, March 8, faculty in the Arts Department found themselves locked out of the building where they work because security was under orders (according to the posted guards) to prevent Wafaa from getting into the building!

Meanwhile a message from the RPI administration offered these chilling words of reassurance:

March 8, 2008

To the Rensselaer Community:

You may have seen coverage in the news media of actions taken by the
university regarding a visiting artist on campus. This is to provide
more information on this situation.

After becoming aware of and discussing concerns expressed by some
members of the Rensselaer community about a lecture and associated
exhibit by digital media artist Wafaa Bilal, the university decided to
allow his March 5 lecture to go forward. Most observers agreed that he
presented a stimulating and thought-provoking lecture.

We are pleased to have Mr. Bilal among us to contribute to the
intellectual and artistic life of the Institute, and we look forward
to his continued presence in our classrooms and studios as a visiting

During the unveiling of the artist's video game exhibition, "Virtual
Jihadi," important concerns surfaced that the work may be based on a
product of Al Qaeda, and questions were raised regarding its legality
and its consistency with the norms and policies of the Institute. The
university is considering various factors relating to the exhibition,
and has suspended it pending a more complete review of its origin,
content, and intent.

Rensselaer fully supports academic and artistic freedom. The question
under review regards the use of university resources to provide a
platform for what may be a product of a terrorist organization or
which suggests violence directed toward the President of the United
States and his family.

William N. Walker
Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations

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What could be more "thought-provoking" than censoring an art exhibit and blocking access to a university building?