University tramples free speech and artistic liberty:
some lingering questions

Yielding to pressure from right wing political groups, Shirley Anne Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has decided to make permanent the university’s the ban on “Virtual Jihadi,” an exhibition by visiting artist Wafaa Bilal. (See below for earlier developments.) A statement by William Walker, Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations, tries to explain:

“The decision was based on numerous concerns, including, in particular two characteristics of the video game in the exhibit, as affirmed by the artist: First, that the video game in the exhibit is derived from the product of a terrorist organization; and second, that the video game is targeted to and suggests the killing of the President of the United States.

Rensselaer fully supports academic and artistic freedom. We respect the rights of all members of the Rensselaer community and their guests to express their opinions and viewpoints. However, as stewards of a private university, we have the right and, indeed, the responsibility to ensure that university resources are used in ways that are in the overall best interests of the institution.”

The exhibit has been moved to the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, a community center where artistic freedom is still revered.

The episode raises several important questions.

1. Do the leaders of Rensselaer recognize the difference between fact and fiction?

The answer is clearly “No.” By the standards articulated in the present ban, if a university theater group ever decides to produce Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the actors could well be arrested for planning and enacting a criminal conspiracy.

2. Does the university recognize the principle of free spelled out in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

Again the answer seems to be “No.” R.P.I. has assumed the power to curtail speech that is protected by the nation’s founding law.

3. Does the phrase “Rensselaer fully supports academic and artistic freedom” have any significance? No. These words are hollow, without any real substance. Something is “full” in the R.P.I. administration, but it is not recognition of academic and artistic freedom.

4. How will the faculty and students respond to this outrageous decision?

Good question. At present widespread torpor on campus is a perfect complement to President Jackson’s autocratic style of so-called “governance.”

5. Given recent the events, what would be an appropriate name for the fabulously costly building -- the “Experimental Media Performing Arts Center” (EMPAC) – the university will soon open?

How about: SMPAC – Sanitized Media Performing Arts Center
Our motto: Guaranteed not to offend, or your money back!

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Sanctuary shut down by malicious Troy bureaucrats

On the morning following last night's talk by Wafaa Bilal and his dialog with the audience gathered at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, the City of Troy decided to shut the place down. The Sanctuary has been open for several years, so you'd think that issues about building codes would have been addressed in a different context. It's obvious what this abuse of power by city officials is all about.

Here's an excerpt from the Times Union:

Troy shutters site of 'Jihadi' video game
Sanctuary for Independent Media: Doors at issue

By BOB GARDINIER, Staff writer
March 11, 2008

TROY - The controversial "Virtual Jihadi" video game and art exhibit has now had two very short premieres.

Wafaa Bilal's "Virtual Jihadi" video game exhibit that features himself as a suicide bomber on a mission to assassinate President Bush opened last night at the Sanctuary for Independent Media and this morning the city shuttered the building for code violations.

"They put us out of business," Steve Pierce of the Media Alliance said. "They said we had doors that were not up to code."

Pierce said he got a call from city officials this morning telling him to close the building. . . . .

Art Police: the saga continues

Things are heating up around the censorship of artist Waffa Bilal at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (see my first postings on this story below).

There's a good YouTube interview with Bilal on the website of the Project for a New American University, along with an extensive written commentary about the matter by Brian Holmes.

Here's another link to the video:

Tonight, 3/10/08, at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, the banned exhibition will be shown, 6:00 for the reception for Professor Bilal, 7:00 for the exhibition of his work. Here's the announcement from the Sanctuary folks:

"Iraq-born video artist Wafaa Bilal will be on hand for a reception at 6 PM followed at 7 PM by a presentation about his installation "Virtual Jihadi" which will be on display at The Sanctuary for Independent Media through April 4, 2008. Admission is by
donation ($10 suggested, $5 student/low income). Another version of this installation opened on March 5, 2008 at
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but as reported by the Times Union
it was abruptly closed the following day.. . . . A local Republican
operative on the payroll of the City of Troy, Rensselaer County /and/ NY
State called for protests at the Monday, March 10 show opening at the
Sanctuary in an article in the Troy Record."

And this just in.... An unconfirmed report from one of my students indicates that the website of the College Republicans has been taken down by RPI. Irony of ironies. Will they scream "CENSORSHIP!!!!"?

You can't make this stuff up!

(For better or worse, the constitutionally protected web bile issued by the College Republicans has been preserved for posterity, but I won't bother reprinting it here.)

I'm looking forward to tonight's art program. Let's hope that people on all sides remain cool, respectful and non-violent, despite their disagreements.

- Langdon

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." ....

* * * * *

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." ....

* * * *
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?