I was surprised to learn that Rensselaer Polytechnic had closed the art exhibition of Wafaa Bilal.
As an artist and an American, I would urge you to consider the free speech issues that are raised by the action. It is crucial that Americans, and especially students, be exposed to perspectives that challenge us to think through the consequences of our government policies on controversial topics. This is important for both democracy and education.
Please make your campus an example of academic freedom and democratic principal rather than a harbinger of America’s slide into fear and repression.
Dear President Jackson,
My name is Michael Rakowitz. I am an artist and an Associate Professor
in the Department of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern
University. I am writing to you in support of Wafaa Bilal, who is a
friend of mine and an esteemed colleague who has produced many
fascinating works of art that deal with the Iraq War through his own
I urge you to overturn your decision to suspend the presentation of
Wafaa’s Virtual Jihadi project, an artwork that RPI bravely supported.
While not everyone may agree with the artist’s politics or the work
itself, it is imperative that the work be seen, from the very basic
reasons concerning free speech, to the discomfort that the work
creates in the viewer. Clearly, Wafaa’s work does not purport to make
its audience feel good. The subject matter alone—war—should create
uneasiness. But the work also teaches us a number of other
uncomfortable facts: introduced to Wafaa’s avatar, we learn that his
brother and father were killed in the war; we learn that fighters are
recruited, by the US Army and by Al Qaeda, using online video games;
we also learn how easily populations become radicalized, whether
through casualties incurred, or through the presentation of
information, as is the case with certain members of RPI’s community.
We all know that federal agents had already informed campus officials
that Wafaa was not a person of interest. There is no wrongdoing on the
part of the artist or of the artwork itself. It is raising a
complicated issue that draws passionate responses on all sides. This
country, and especially its learning institutions, need to accommodate
the resulting discourse and debate. It is what this country was built
upon. It is these liberties and human rights that Wafaa risked his
life to attain, here in this country. Please do not betray his belief.
Please do not betray our belief, that we can make our national
situation better by providing platforms for discourse, capable of
embracing all opinions and views. If it is these freedoms that we are
indeed fighting for, then now, more than ever, we need to see them in
President Jackson, please be brave and do the right thing and reopen
Wafaa Bilal’s work at RPI with an admission that the school was wrong
to close it in the first place.
With best regards,
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,
As an undergraduate student at Rensselaer, I am outraged and disappointed
over the closure of Wafaa Bilal’s art exhibit. In the Rensselaer Plan,
you state the goal of achieving prominence as a “top-tier world-class
technological research university, with global reach and global impact.”
The recent action of your administration, instead of working towards this
goal, has only brought RPI notoriety. Worldwide media coverage in the
past week has associated Rensselaer’s name with censorship, suppression
of freedom of speech, close-mindedness, and even cowardice.
In the e-mail sent to the Rensselaer community enumerating reasons for
the exhibit’s closure, Vice President Walker cited concerns that the
video game was “derived from the product of a terrorist organization” and
that it is “targeted to and suggests the killing of the President of the
United States.” You must understand that Mr. Bilal’s video game was a
second level derivation based on an American video game simulating the
killing of Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, you must understand that Mr.
Bilal’s intent in no way is to support or advocate killing President
Bush, but rather to raise awareness of vulnerability, stereotypes, and
generalizations related to the current war in Iraq. If RPI aims to be a
world-class university, we should follow world-class universities’ leads
by having a constant discourse about global events. While closing Mr.
Bilal’s exhibit has certainly sparked a community discussion, it would
have been preferable to have a discourse about Bilal’s art in the
presence of his open exhibit.
In RPI’s handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities, academic
freedom is stated to be essential to a university community, and freedom
of speech as essential to academic freedom. Your unjustified restriction
on the freedom of speech of Mr. Bilal, who was an invited member of the
community, has violated academic freedom at Rensselaer.
Fortunately, the decision you made to close the exhibit can be reversed.
It is never wrong for a person to change a decision when one realizes
past errors, and I urge your administration to reinstall Mr. Bilal’s
exhibit at RPI immediately. Continuing to restrict free speech at
Rensselaer will not only be a disservice to the intellectual environment,
students, and faculty, but it will also send the message that as
President, you are not serious about advancing RPI’s reputation as an
Emily K. Schultz
Economics/Science, Technology & Society ‘09