“the cultural life of a city is important to its overall health…”

Dear The City Council of Troy,

I am writing to protest the closing of The Sanctuary for Independent Media
at 3361 6th Avenue on March 11. Given that this space was inspected and
cleared a day before the order was enacted to close it due to code
violations, this action appears highly suspect. That this occurred when
Wafaa Billal’s exhibition “Virtual Jihadi” was on view suggests that this
order is an act of censorship rather than safety, and an abuse of power.

The Sanctuary is an important space for art in the region, showing respected
multi-media works from all over the world. The cultural life of a city is
important to its overall health, and this space has contributed to the
region. I urge the City of Troy to support this space rather than close it,
and to work with its staff to ensure that its physical space can truly
become a safe space for “Art, Freedom, Democracy.”


Joanna Spitzner
Syracuse, NY


“…the university President’s job is to stand up for freedom of expression”

This letter was sent to the Polytechnic, Troy Record, and Times-Union but was not published :

March 7, 2008

Dear Editor,
In the last two years at R.P.I., there has been a number of art pieces that referenced the so-called War on Terror (aka the war on Islamofascism, Gulf War 2, etc…) as well as radical groups like the Earth Liberation Front, the Shining Path and even old Ted Kazinsky. But Wafaa Bilaal’s “Virtual Jihadi” was made by a Middle-eastern artist. Perhaps that is the difference for why the public is no longer allowed to see or interact with this work. The Secret Service has every right to investigate any perceived threats to the President. But once the “threat” was quickly determined to be a hacked video game, the university President’s job is to stand up for freedom of expression. The R.P.I. administration is running scared. They should send their resumes off to the American Enterprise Institute and write position papers protecting us from all evil. If they insist on abdicating their responsibility towards freedom of thought and speech in America, a university is no place for them.

Jim Finn
Graduate Student

Closure of the Sanctuary for Independent Media

To the Folks who Manage the Sancturary:

That the City of Troy should take this action tells enough about the persons spearheading this move.
Bobby Mirch, its Public Works Commissioner, who reportedly spearheaded a Sanctuary protest and apparently sees himself as arbiter of City politics and artistic and civic freedoms according to his comments, has appeared in a local media photo holding a sign stating ‘No Terrorism,’ even though no person of sufficient rationality or exposure who has read about the presentation would have associated either the artist (an American) or his work (around for some time but possibly less-vetted than would be palatable in these times) with an actual or potential act of national or local terrorism.

To then follow this up with abrupt and associated closure of a building (that had never been shut down before, and) that has served the local community (Albany, Troy, Schenectady, RPI, the schools, professors, writers, musicians, and filmmakers) with opportunity, and has in its short term has provided enlightening and informative discussions of progressive issues from human rights to environmental and food and scarcity issues; smacks of a species of poorly considered and narrow understanding of the City’s civic responsibility to its residents, and a possible vulnerability to ill-considered or self-interested political hysteria.

In terms of civic responsibility to all City residents, regardless of economic or social ‘class’, the recent past has added another example of this – the renovation of the old Stanley building to pricey apartments and expectations of ‘up-scale’ tenants – which has resulted in the fencing in (essentially closure) of the tiny public park across the street from this building.  

Residents of the City do not know of the origin of this action, but know that for several years, people sitting in on one or two park benches during the day were most often a few middle-aged minorites talking and observing passers-by, or occasional street persons; who have little public record of accosting or harming other City residents.

The only City analogy to this action is the rare private Washington Park originating from the 1800s, where non-owners of formerly upscale buildings are legally excluded from use of the park, however there is no indication this little plot ever changed from public to private, and today such a change would be seen for what it is.

Residents can however only conclude that the originators of this idea had considered people likely to use the tiny park across from the old Stanley Building a blight to their senses and potentially offensive to the (future) upscale residents (who so far have not turned up in droves, and are hardly likely to make a dent in the city’s development needs).  The leaders, as far as I know as a resident, have made no effort or public utterance explaining this action, which is a kind of pernicious civic neglect including of the right of residents and tenants to have a say in matters affecting all residents.

There is no argument that such actions and attitudes coming from somewhere inside the City’s leadership could hinder the civic growth and community’s attractiveness for future residents, who could well be people representing a broad spectrum of interests beneficial to the City’s future.

Rather than shutting down a public, voluntary venue because of one event or a few people unlikely to have seen or grasped what the artist or his work is about, the City might do much better to show its residents that while it will not tolerate artistic or political expression that causes or incites public harm, its actions will not be such that they can be interpreted as short-sighted, intolerant, or insensitive.


Troy, NY

Concerning the Closure of the Sanctuary for Independent Media

Dear Mayor Tutunjian,

As an artist yourself, you must understand the importance of both freedom of expression and the role that artists play in the culture of any place.  I am sure, then, that you are horrified as I by the recent turn of events regarding The Sanctuary for Independent Media.

Troy’s much-ballyhooed revitalization is inextricably linked to the vitality of the arts community here, a community that is currently feeling a considerable lack of respect from the City’s administration.

I look forward to hearing your public condemnation of Mr. Mirch’s behavior as soon as possible.  Your constituents are awaiting your response, Mr. Mayor, and at times like these we need a leader who will stand up for what’s right.

Penny Lane

Concerning Wafaa Bilal

Dear President Jackson,

As a recent alum of RPI, I must say that I am horrified (thus far) by
the university’s handling of the Bilal case. I am writing to share my
hope and expectation that the Institute might move forward in a more
just and open manner – a manner more befitting a world-class
institution of higher education.  I will keep this brief as I am sure
you are receiving lots of other emails related to this matter.

Firstly, I am expecting that RPI is planning to issue some kind of
official response to the irresponsible blog post that started all of
this.  This young blogger libeled Mr. Bilal by  falsely called him a
terrorist.   This is not how we treat visiting scholars.

Secondly, I am expecting that the Institute will re-open the exhibit
and initiate a community-wide dialogue about the art work and the
events surrounding it on campus.   The student body deserves an
opportunity to reflect on what has just happened on their campus.

Thank you for reading this, and best wishes for you and the Institute
as you move forward,
Penny Lane.

Official Upstate Artists Guild (UAG) Response to the City of Troy

UAG Response <– click for PDF with spiffy UAG letterhead

March 14, 2008
Upstate Artists Guild

247 Lark Street
Albany NY 12210


Bob Mirch, Mayor Tutunjian and the City of Troy government,

The Upstate Artists Guild finds the actions of the City of Troy against the Sanctuary for Independent Media appalling and deliberately perverse. To hide behind spuriously inflated building code violations to temporarily disrupt a show and to attempt to permanently dislodge a local arts organization is an insult to your citizens, your many artists, and most of all to you, the government of the City of Troy. The recent explosion of the arts scene within the Capital Region and surrounding areas shows how strong and vital the area’s artists have become. The retrograde actions of the City run counter to a movement that up until now the City has supported and embraced. We remain dumbfounded as to how the City of Troy could allow Bob Mirch and his cronies to shut down an exhibit based on personal distaste stemming from misinformation and ignorance.

First, we consider this attack to be a direct violation of Mr. Bilal’s First Amendment rights. Second, we condemn Mr. Mirch’s scare tactics and believe that he has made specious use of City office in order to execute a personal witch-hunt against the artist. That Mr. Mirch’s personal interests are completely unconnected to the closure of the Sanctuary by his own subordinates the very next day after he organized his protest strains all reasonable credulity. Further, that this untoward tactic should result not only in the censorship of the work of several artists, but the closure of the Sanctuary for Independent Media is doubly regrettable and an inexcusable affront to the greater arts community. We call for public apology from Mr. Mirch and the reversal of Code Enforcement’s closure.

The UAG pledges to support Mr. Bilal and the Sanctuary for Independent Media and will continue to work to that effect until the issue has been resolved, the artists and venue have been absolved, and a public apology has been made. As the birthplace of Uncle Sam, a bastion of abolition, the forge for the War Between the States and one of the chief flash-points of the American Labor Movement, Troy has played a long and illustrious role in the preservation of our freedoms. Therefore, we are confident that upon reflection, the City will do the right thing and take a stand for Mr. Bilal’s right to Free Speech, and by extension, the rights of all.


The Upstate Artists Guild Board of Directors

From Zeal Harris, LA

I appreciate his work and believe he has an important voice and perspective that Americans should investigate.

-Zeal in Los Angeles