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.”
Dear Ms. Jackson,
I recently learned of your administration’s decision to close the
exhibition of Wafaa Bilal’s Virtual Jihadi. Rensselaer’s censoring of
this work is truly shameful. At a moment when critical thinking is
under assault and Universities are one of the few places in society
where dissenting ideas can flourish and intellectual ferment can take
flight, it is tragic that another university has taken us one more
step on the road to a high tech Dark Ages.
I too am an artist and am no stranger to having my art threatened
with censorship. I first received national attention in 1989 when my
art became the center of controversy over its use of the American flag
when it was on display at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
President G.H.W. Bush declared my artwork What is the Proper Way to
Display a U.S. Flag? “disgraceful” and the entire US Senate denounced
this work when they passed legislation to “protect the flag.” My work
is now exhibited widely including in the 2006 Whitey Biennial.
I have not seen Virtual Jihadi and because of your decision few other
people will. But from everything I have read about it, it is a vitally
important work now. The US is waging an immoral, illegal and unjust
war and occupation in Iraq. It is widely unpopular throughout the
world and in this country. As part of generating support for this
war, the Bush administrations demonized Saddam Hussein. The video
“game” that Mr. Bilal reinterpreted, started its life as “Quest for
Saddam”. It was made in the US and was favorably discussed on FOX
News, CNN, MSNBC and news outlets. There are many questions that Mr.
Bilal’s work raises that people in the US, including the students at
Rensselaer, should contemplate: “Is the American perspective on
question the only perspective and is it always right?” “What does it
feel like to be demonized and targeted?” “What role do video games
play in shaping our worldview?” “What would drive someone to feel that
they have no choice but to become a suicide bomber?”, are some that
come to my mind.
If Mr. Bilal’s art were in any way encouraging people to carry out
what his avatar in Virtual Jihadi does, it would be very harmful. And
if this were promoted as a means of progressive or radical political
change it would do tremendous damage to the actual development of
political opposition to the policies it would allegedly be against.
But that is not what this artwork does. It asks the viewer to think
about the world in new ways and for many it will challenge
preconceived notions and views. Isn’t that what great art should do?
Isn’t that what a University is supposed to support?
What kind of society do you have when America can wage war against a
country (killing hundreds of thousands, making millions of refugees
and driving many to Islamic fundamentalism) and respected artists
can’t raise provocative questions about it?
The action you have taken has consequences far beyond Rensselaer.
One clear indication of this is that at the time I am writing this,
the work has moved to another venue and been suppressed there as well.
You should reverse your decision to not show Virtual Jihadi
immediately. Furthermore, Rensselaer should invite Mr. Bilal to
reinstall the work and open in the originally intended location as
soon as possible and announce these intensions without delay. Though
this move would be opposed by some of the people you intended to
placate by suppressing his work, there will be tremendous support for
you if you take this step. I hope that you will do the right thing.
Dear President Jackson,
I strongly protest RPI’s decision to censor and close Wafaa Bilal’s
The Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi show and ask that it be
re-opened. As an artist and member of the academic community at the
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I am appalled that an
institution of higher education – the ostensible embodiment of
knowledge and enlightenment – would infringe on freedoms of speech
and expression, not to mention grossly misinterpret, misrepresent, and
insult Mr. Bilal and his work. For the past two decades Mr. Bilal has
worked tirelessly to bring awareness and an end to injustice and
violence in both of his countries, the United States and Iraq. Both
RPI’s and the City of Troy’s decision to shut down the exhibition and
the “Art, Freedom, Democracy” series smacks of hypocrisy and irony,
not to mention that participant Professor Steve Kurtz in recent years
has suffered similar accusations though much worse treatment. Now more
than ever, in this time of increasing censorship and surveillance in
our country, it is of the utmost importance to protect these freedoms,
to reclaim our rights, and to support art as a powerful cultural force
and expression of freedom.
Dear President Jackson,
As a graduate student in the Arts department at RPI, I am angry, sad, and
shocked by all of this. I am horrified at such blatant censorship, in
principle alone, but my upset is heightened by the fact that all of my
encounters with Wafaa Bilal have shown him to be a kind, moving,
inspiring and humanitarian artist.
I do not know what could breach this divide now — between the arts
department and the college republicans, between the arts department and
the administration — but isn’t there a way that this conflict, as a
microcosm of larger ones, could be used as an opportunity for all parties
to together create a new possibility? Try out different ways of relating?
“Virtual Jihadi” has served brilliantly to provoke revealing dialogue —
is there a chance that we can do something with this? Instead of myself
remaining angry and righteous, and the administration protecting itself
from attack and the fear of controversy, couldn’t we experiment with some
kind of other alternatives?
Please consider what you can do. RPI is now in the spotlight. Whether
you are aware of it or not, people all over the world are paying
attention to you and how you respond to this. You have a powerful
opportunity to model something new.
Dear President Jackson,
I am writing this in the hopes that you will reconsider your decision to close down the art exhibit of Wafaa Bilal. When we are confronted by something we don’t understand and don’t agree with we feel challenged and as adults in a free society we have a choice to create dialog and find understanding, or to remain ignorant of understanding and hide from what challenges us. A person in your position has a duty to act in everyones best interest in situations of conflict. Your actions should be balanced, honest and lawful. Silencing an artist and gagging their message breeds only contempt on all sides. By denying access to a new or conflicting idea you’re taking away a persons right to decide how they feel, you effectively end dialog.
Art can be a passive and nonviolent way to impart personal views and create a radical exchange of ideas. It’s true that it can be brutally offensive to our personal morals, but we are free to ask ourselves what is the exact offense and often it isn’t the art itself, but our personal interpretation of the message the art conveys.
Regardless of the content people are free to express their views and display their art and you are obligated to defend that freedom.
Please take my words to heart and allow Wafaa Bilal to share his art with us once more.
Dear President Jackson,
I am writing to encourage you to reopen the art exhibition of artist in residence, Wafaa Bilal. As the Chair of the Art Department at UC Santa Cruz, I understand how complex this situation must be administratively as well as politically. However, I strongly believe that as leaders in universities and institutions of higher learning we must defend free speech and abhor censorship not only as an example to our students, who we are charged with teaching how to exercise their own forms of free speech, but also as an example to society at large. This is so, even if it makes us targets for further insult by those who disagree with our diverse points of view. Just as some students have the freedom to call an art department a “terrorist safe-haven,” (according to accounts in the Washington Post), the freedom of expression of those who voice their viewpoints through various forms of art must be protected. These ideals must be upheld in this county if we are going to continue to call ourselves a democracy. The art department at Rensselaer is an extraordinary department and as such has an excellent reputation among their peers and peer institutions nationwide and beyond. Decisions regarding who is going to exhibit in their art gallery are made by professionals who are experts in their field as is true of any other department of in your university. Given what I know about this work and this artist I am certain that we would exhibit this work in our own galleries at UC Santa Cruz. I hope that you can do the right thing here and not succumb to threats and innuendoes by a student group who hurled the ultimate post 911 insult of being associated with anything terrorist, when they obviously have no understanding of what Wafaa Bilal or the art department is attenpting to express through this work. I sincerely hope that you will allow this exhibition to reopen in an unquestionable show of your support for First Amendment rights in this county.
Elizabeth Stephens, Chair
University of California, Santa Cruz
Dear President Jackson,
I am writing to express my deep concern over the treatment of the visiting professor Wafaa Bilal and the closure of his exhibit at RPI. I think these latest events are part of a trend of restricting open discussion and democratic governance.
The so-called ‘review’ of the work was done behind closed doors and it was determined that the exhibition is not in line with the ‘overall best interests of the institution.’ I strongly disagree.
The best interests of Rensselaer should include a) a healthy and open environment of academic freedom and education that allows for engagement with ‘difficult’ questions – such as the roots of terrorism; b) a Faculty Senate that has real power to make decisions about the governance of RPI; and c) a unionized staff that is able to voice their concerns.
Instead, I see students that are hesitant to voice their views in classrooms because they are scared of suppression. I hear students on WRPI talk about how the airwaves are an inappropriate place to address ‘political’ issues. Platforms for discussion are being shut down at my school and it is contributing to a culture of fear which undermines creativity, dialog, and real education. These authoritarian measures have a terrible effect on Rensselaer’s reputation as a progressive school.
I greatly appreciate your consideration of these issues and hope that you will consider reinstating the Faculty Senate and re-opening Wafaa Bilal’s exhibition.
Department of Science and Technology Studies