16 March 2008

Artist Harassed & Censored in Troy NY

This post sketches the vicissitudes of a video installation - "Virtual Jihadi"created by Wafaa Bilal. An Iraqi born U.S. citizen, Bilal was one of a series of Artists in Residence scheduled this spring at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York. On March 5th the University shut down his exhibition and has allegedly locked him out of the Art Department.

The video installation is a spin on a spin on a spin. There is a video game called "Quest for Saddam," which allegedly Al-Queda spun into "The Night of Bush Capturing" and that Bilal spun into "Virtual Jihadi." The names of the initial video games are self-explanatory. Bilal, who has lost relatives in the current American invasion of Iraq, explained that he inserted himself into the virtual hunt for Bush. His aim is to highlight the way Iraqis might respond to the vulnerability and risk and loss they've experienced due to the Bush Fiasco. The RPI administration (apparently egged on by right-wingers on campus and in the community) seems to think that "Virtual Jihadi" amounts to terrorist propaganda. Hence their inexcusable censorship. See stories here and here and here.

In any case, the exhibition was subsequently moved to a new venue The Sanctuary for Independent Media, also in Troy, where it was met with protests. The Sanctuary, just coincidentally, now has been shut down for code violations (having to do with the width of doors). According to the local newspaper The Albany Times-Union [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] this harassment is being orchestrated by one Richard Mirch - a Republican county legislator and all around right-winger who is (surprise!) in charge of code enforcement in Troy. According to The Times-Union Mirch sees nothing wrong with holding not one, not two, but three government posts. What is a right winger to do but eat at the public trough? In this instance, it seems, he is intent on assuming the role of arbiter of acceptable public speech.

The RPI administration has acted in a reprehensible manner here. No excuses. And the local Republicans are doing the same with respect to The Sanctuary. Not content to argue back, to criticize, to call Bilal's work into question, these institutions are shutting him up, or trying to do so. At the same time they are harassing cultural outlets in the city in authoritarian ways.

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Anonymous Scott Hughes said...

The video game doesn't sound nice, but I support free-speech. Right-wingers do not seem to support free-speech. In addition to this, consider their views on flag-burning.

16 March, 2008 04:25  
Blogger Khan said...


Waffa seems to have always managed to engender excessive reaction to his installations. I was working at the University of New Mexico when he was a (grad?) student there. His thesis show dealt with the betrayal of the Shia community in Iraq by the US at the close of the first Gulf War.

I thought the installation was not only well conceived, but well executed, a rather vast sculptural program with a clear larger message punctuated by question-raising proverbial alleyways.

Not everyone agreed, it seems. A doctoral candidate (never proven, but he told someone of his intentions) in the Art History department took it upon himself to seriously trash the entire thing.

Waffa's art has always been ruthlessly button-pushing. I've always said "Good for him." I don't think that we're supposed to say that stuff out loud, though. Well, apparently not. When political art pushes beyond respectable hand-holding peacenik boo, you'd better be ready for the backlash. Especially if you're a foreign born Arab male. (Go Waffa!)

16 March, 2008 22:57  

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