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Face off: Demonstrators outside the Sanctuary for Independent Media the night of Bilal’s opening.

PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

The Art of Terrorism

RPI 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 Americans.

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.”

“I 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.

“Many other people were given the same account by the guards,” Bilal said.

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.

“They said it was a bad mistake,” she was told by the administration. “Nobody ordered a lockdown. It was just a coincidence and bad timing.”

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.

“We 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 Troy space.

“The 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, Bob Mirch.

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 in protest.

“I 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.

“I 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 you.”

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.

“We 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 immediately.”

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.

“For 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.”

—Chet Hardin

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