Iraqi American video artist Wafaa Bilal’s recent exhibition at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, Virtual Jihadi, was closed by the University’s administration a day after its initial opening on March 5, 2008. The offending work is a video in which Bilal depicts himself as an Iraqi civilian radicalized by his brother’s death and driven to join an Al-Qaeda in Iraq cell as a suicide bomber. It positions the artist’s character in an interactive video game called The Night of Bush Capturing, an Islamist reworking of Hunt for Saddam, an American "first-person shooter" in which a protagonist U.S. soldier makes his way through a virtual world populated by stereotypical Iraqi men in a "hunt" to kill former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. RPI cited concerns that Bilal’s work may make 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." Here’s is RPI’s official press statement:

“During the unveiling of the artist’s video game exhibition “Virtual Jihadi,” important questions were raised about whether the work may be based on a product of Al Qaeda, and whether it is consistent with the norms and policies of the Institute. The university has considered various factors relating to the exhibition, and has suspended it pending a more complete review of its origin, content, and intent.”

It appears RPI administrators are caving in to vocal protestors as well as to fear of potential FBI scrutiny. When RPI invited Wafaa Bilal to present his work, they were aware of his academic and artistic credentials – he is a recognized artist whose work addresses one of the most topical contemporary issues: terrorism. This quite clearly appears to be the content and intent of “Virtual Jihadi.” Even if the game is based on an Al Qaeda re-working of a previous game, the game is art, speech, and expression of a point of view – no matter how disagreeable some find this point of view to be.

In recent years, every time an artist does work attempting to deal with terrorism in a way that may be critical of the current US administration, they are bound to run into controversy. Yet, unless the work provides detailed (and real) instructions as to how to attack the president and also urges its viewer to do so, it presents no direct threat and remains a perhaps disturbing, but physically harmless fantasy. And a video game fantasy about terrorism is NOT a terrorist act any more than one’s fantasy about feeding the hungry is an act of charity.

It seems the only response to terrorism we are allowed today is fear, and never a genuine conversation about its causes, psychology, and human costs on both sides. It would be a shame if an educational institution known for its cutting-edge arts program becomes complicit in the perpetuation of this fear and deprives its students and faculty from experiencing the work.

NCAC and College Art Association joint letter to RPI President Shirley Jackson.

You can contact RPI President Shirley Jackson by phone: 518-276-6211, fax: 518-276-8702 or e-mail: [email protected]

Bilal’s video, Virtual Jihadi, will be on view at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy through 4 April 2008. http://www.thesanctuaryforindependentmedia.org

Wafaa Bilal’s website: http://www.crudeoils.us/wafaa/

Update: Troy shutters art space exhibiting "Virtual Jihadi"

Wafaa Bilal’s "Virtual Jihadi" video game and art exhibit opened last night at The Sanctuary for Independent Media and this morning the city shuttered the building for code violations, reportedly less than 24 hours after an inspection by code enforcement and fire officials cleared the building for use.

The exhibit features the artist himself as a suicide bomber on a mission to assassinate President Bush. It opened last Wednesday at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but the administration there ordered the Art Department to dismantle the visiting artist’s exhibition by the end of the day. "Virtual Jihadi" was moved off-campus to The Sanctuary by concerned RPI art professors to ensure it would be seen locally despite the university’s decision to shut it down.

City Public Works Commissioner Bob Mirch and others held a protest outside the Sixth Avenue site condemning the exhibit.

Rensselaer administrators violated academic freedom when they shuttered an exhibition because of its content and viewpoint. They did not, however, violate the letter of the First Amendment as RPI is a private institution. City officials, on the contrary, are government actors, who are constitutionally prohibited from closing an exhibit because they do not like the ideas expressed in the artwork. It appears likely that a code violation was used as a pretext to close down the controversial show. If that is, indeed, the case, and the true reason to close The Sanctuary is the content of the work shown in it, we might be facing one of the worst kinds of First Amendment violations – an attempt to silence political speech.

Statement by the artist:

My underlying premise for this piece is that hate is being taught – it’s not a natural emotion. And video games are one of the technologies being used to foster and teach hate. I am especially concerned by the ones created by the US military, which are intended to brainwash and influence young minds to become violent. Though Al Qaeda’s game where Bush is hunted down and killed generated much international outrage, the U.S. Army’s own free on-line game is equal to the Night of Bush Capturing in its propaganda motives. Since I belong to both nations fighting in this current war, and since I am an American, I have the ability and right to question my own government’s use of these video games to teach violence and hatred.

Along with shedding light on the power of video games and their manipulative uses by both Al Qaeda and the U.S. military, I want to show how civilians in war zones find themselves switching allegiances as a means of self-preservation as the balance of power shifts. Their cities are turned into battlegrounds, and survival is often a matter of obeying the power that exists at any given time regardless of any ideology.

This dynamic is apparent in various conflicts around the world, and even in any American inner-city where the gang members have more control than police; and civilians recognize this and refuse to cooperate with the police even if they don’t intrinsically support the gang members. In Afghanistan, Afghani civilians switch sides depending on who is in power. In Iraq people are constantly switching sides. Most Iraqis who support the insurgency do so not because of ideology, but because of their need for security.

The fighting forces in the Iraq war and most wars do not represent the people of either of the warring nations. It’s the fundamentalists – Islamic and evangelical -who fuel this violence, and force civilians to ally with them in order to survive.

So my character in the game will be like any Iraqi civilian on the ground, allying with the power which is dominant at the moment. At the beginning of the game the American soldiers are stronger than Al Qaeda, and I will ally with them, fighting Al Qaeda. But as the game progresses and Al Qaeda becomes more powerful, I will switch sides to fight on behalf of Al Qaeda. That is exactly what is happening in Iraq. The game will culminate with my revenge on the Bush administration for the destruction it has wrought on my country. I will be a suicide bomber who attacks Bush.

Find links and more information here: