off: Demonstrators outside the Sanctuary for Independent
Media the night of Bilal’s opening.
PHOTO: Alicia Solsman
Art of Terrorism
visiting artist Wafaa Bilal ignited a controversy that has
spread far beyond the college’s campus
With his hacked video game, The Night of Bush Capturing:
A Virtual Jihadi, Wafaa Bilal wanted to create a space
for dialog about the weighty subjects attendant to America’s
war in Iraq. “My goal was to create a platform for discussion,”
the soft-spoken Iraqi-born artist said. Bilal created this
space at the invitation of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
and now due to the administration’s last-minute cancellation
of the exhibit (thanks in large part to the outcry of the
RPI College Republicans), the conversation has broadened to
include intolerance, fear-mongering, and censorship.
The game is a reimagining of the Islamic Media Group’s The
Night of Bush Capturing, itself a simple modification of the
first-person shooter Quest for Saddam. In the original, the
goal of the game was to kill the former dictator of Iraq,
fragging as many Iraqis as necessary. In the IMG version,
the game’s goal became the killing of President George W.
Bush, waylaying the expendable population now reskinned as
In Bilal’s version, a suicide bomber—the avatar bears his
own image—can be recruited by the player and sent on a mission
that ends with President Bush’s murder. The idea came to Bilal
after his own brother and father were murdered in Iraq. Grieving
his loss, it became understandable to him how easy it must
be for the enemies of the U.S. occupation to find recruits,
and he wanted to find a way to express this violent reality.
His work was briefly exhibited at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
The game was projected on a large screen so that one viewer
at a time could play—until administrators shut down the show,
stating that the school needed time to review the show’s “origin,
content and intent.”
On March 5, Bilal was removed from an RPI class where he was
lecturing by three administrators and “interrogated” for nearly
30 minutes. His exhibit was put on suspension and the gallery
locked to the general public. On Sunday, he found that West
Hall, the arts building on campus, had been locked down and
an outside security firm had been hired specifically because
of “that artist.”
asked a security guard,’ he didn’t know who he was talking
to,” Bilal said. “I asked, ‘What artist?’ And he said, ‘The
artist . . . that is doing terrorist propaganda.’ ”
The guard told Bilal that if he saw the artist, the guards
were supposed to call campus security.
other people were given the same account by the guards,” Bilal
Kathy High, the RPI arts department chair, has passed all
the names of students and faculty who were locked out of West
Hall to the president’s office.
said it was a bad mistake,” she was told by the administration.
“Nobody ordered a lockdown. It was just a coincidence and
Bad timing or not, the show eventually was canceled. This,
High said, was a terrible choice, one that is sure to provoke
an outcry from the arts community and the students, once they
return from spring break.
There is no process in place at RPI through which the arts
department must vet its choices of visiting artists and exhibits
through the administration. Now, that could change, High worries.
did talk about that with the cabinet and the president,” she
said. “They feel they were sideswiped by this, but the information
about the show was online. I told the administration that
I think that this could effect not only the arts department
but the whole institute. I am afraid that this is really a
precedent. It is not just freedom of speech issues, but it
is also questioning a piece of fiction. I do think that if
this happens, what will happen next?”
With the exhibit canceled at RPI, the Sanctuary for Independent
Media invited the artist to exhibit his work at its North
reason we [at the Sancturary] asked Wafaa to come here is
because we know that he is an artist and not a terrorist,”
said spokesman Steve Pierce. “I know that Wafaa is a very
thoughtful man, and I know that his artwork is very thought-provoking.
So I was surprised to hear that the institute was not in favor
of having more dialogue and more ideas. It is a horrific indictment
of an educational institution.”
Inviting Bilal, however, also invited the controversy surrounding
his work. As RPI washed its institutional hands of the matter,
going so far to squash the backlash as to take down the on-campus
Web site of College Republicans, the site that initiated much
of the furor with its blog post titled, “The RPI Arts Department:
A Terrorist Safehaven,” the Sanctuary prepared itself for
a protest outside its doors, organized by one of Rensselaer
County’s most visible and controversial political actors,
Mirch, the commissioner of Troy’s Public Works department,
Rensselaer County Legislature’s majority leader, and constituent
liaison for state Sen. Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), was joined
by Troy Republican councilmen Mark Wojcik and Mark McGrath
have no interest in seeing a video that portrays the assassination
of our president,” said Mirch, explaining why he hadn’t actually
seen the art he was protesting. “I am all for freedom of speech.
I just disagree with the content. I don’t think it is art.
To me it is not art. It’s an Al Qaeda video that he changed.
Now is Al Qaeda terrorist? The fact that it is a game or video
assassinating the president—it’s terrorism.”
The general sense of the crowd was that any talk of killing
the president is terrorism.
think inviting someone like this is anti-American,” said Wojcik,
whose son has done multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I have a big problem with Muslims in this country.”
When asked for clarification, he continued, “They never speak
out against their own when they promote things like this.
They are too silent.”
According to a source who asked to remain anonymous, Mirch,
who has a reputation of using code enforcement for political
retaliation, told a fellow demonstrator to not worry, that
code would be visiting sanctuary in the morning. Mirch emphatically
denied this. “That’s ridiculous. Jesus Christ. I can’t compete
with lies,” he said. “You wanna poke me in the eye, let’s
do it with facts on a truthful basis.”
The next morning, however, Pierce received a phone call from
the Troy code department beginning, “I work for the City of
Troy code enforcement. I was told to call you and speak to
Pierce was informed that, without significant repairs to the
sanctuary’s exterior and some interior doors, at a cost of
more than $14,000, it would have to be closed immediately.
Now, the city has changed its demands, telling him that he
has until April 10 to make the repairs. Pierce has no idea
what will happen if he can’t meet that deadline.
haven’t gotten anything in writing from the city,” Pierce
said. “The story has been continually changing. Forty-eight
hours ago, everything was fine; 24 hours ago, we had to close
Pierce has contacted the Center for Constitutional Rights
and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Members of the Troy City Council have suggested an investigation
into the legitimacy of the code department’s actions, and
whether it was an act of political retaliation.
years, there have been stories about this administration abusing
code enforcement, to suppress people’s First Amendment rights,”
Pierce said. “They should investigate on behalf of all the
citizens of Troy.”
As for the protest, Bilal said: “It is very unfortunate to
link my art to terrorism. Where are we going to go after this?
It is a sad reality. We have become so afraid of anybody who
is bringing a different point of view. We can deny it, we
can close our eyes, but this war is not going to go away.
This is coming from complete ignorance and disengagement.”