RPI Suspends ‘Virtual Jihadi’

Exhibit Portraying Artist As Bomber Targeting Bush Sparks Uproar

Originally published March 7, 2008 at www.timesunion.com


TROY — RPI has suspended a visiting artist’s exhibition because of concerns it suggests violence against President Bush and may be based on the work of terrorists, a top administrator said Thursday.

The move capped a chain of events — including claims the FBI was eyeing the artist — that began last month when the College Republicans blasted the arts department as “a terrorist safe haven.” The work that provoked that attack is Wafaa Bilal’s “Virtual Jihadi.” It’s the latest piece by a Chicago-based video artist who is testing the limits of academic freedom in a time of war at a Troy school that receives millions in Pentagon research funding.

“It feels like a military camp, not an educational institution,” Bilal, 41, said Thursday night. The origin of his work is a video game called “Quest for Saddam.” The game, where players target the ex-Iraqi leader, prompted what RPI’s Web site describes as an al-Qaida spin-off called “The Night of Bush Capturing.”

Bilal hacked into that game and created a work that puts “his own more nuanced spin on this epic conflict,” according to the arts department. In Bilal’s version, unveiled at RPI Wednesday, the Iraqi-born artist casts himself as a suicide bomber who gets sent on a mission to assassinate President Bush.

You can kill the President in his game, Bilal said.

Bilal said his brother was killed in the conflict. His exhibit’s stated intention is to highlight vulnerability to recruitment by groups like al-Qaida “because of the U.S.’s failed strategy in securing Iraq.” It also criticizes “racist generalizations and stereotypes as exhibited in games such as `Quest for Saddam.”‘

The College Republicans excoriated RPI for sponsoring the exhibit and encouraged alumni to speak against it. At least one graduate, Christopher Lozaga, voiced his disturbance in an e-mail to RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson.

“So long as RPI sponsors these kinds of events, giving absolutely no consideration to military alumnus, friends and family of the university, I will not contribute a dime to the school,” Lozaga wrote.

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 artist claimed that RPI officials, at Jackson’s behest, questioned him about the game. He said they also told him that federal agencies, including the FBI, planned to attend his event.

RPI spokesman Jason Gorss would not comment on that claim, and Bilal said he was not questioned by law enforcement officials. Paul Holstein, chief counsel for the FBI’s Albany division, could not say whether any agents attended Bilal’s lecture.

“I can state that there are situations where it would be appropriate for FBI agents to attend events which are open to the public if the FBI believes that there might be information relevant to national security,” he said.

He added, “FBI agents can attend these events even if an investigation is not opened. But they would only report on information which is relevant to a threat to national security.”

Bilal’s lecture was widely con sidered “stimulating and thought-provoking,” RPI Vice President for Strategic Communications William Walker said in a statement e-mailed to the Times Union Thursday evening. But questions surfaced about the exhibit’s “legality” and “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,” he said. “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.”

Gorss, the RPI spokesman, said no one would be available to comment beyond the statement.

RPI student body president Julia Leusner argued that it was hypocritical of Bilal to depict the stereotype he was condemning.

“If Bilal was making a point about the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war, I failed to see it, as did every other student I spoke to,” Leusner said.

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