Dear President Jackson,
We are writing to support the Art Department’s decision to present the Wafaa Bilal’s ‘Virtual Jihadi’ exhibition, in order to spark debate about the Iraq War and the stereotyping of Iraqis in video games. What is the role of art, let alone education, if it is not to encourage public discussion about pressing issues of our time? By shutting down the exhibition, the administration of the RPI has deprived their students of a valuable space to consider, question and discuss these issues. We are also concerned that the censoring of this exhibition sets a dangerous example, and that artists and students will be much more hesitant about creating work about controversial issues in the future.
We are also expressing our shock that the RPI administration bowed so easily to student members of the Republican Party and the Republican alumni. The Republican Union website at RPI has in fact been shut down due to breaches of the computer conduct code, and as such, is hardly a credible source on which to base the decision to censor the exhibition. Furthermore, the statement on the RPI website includes language describing concerns that ‘the work may be based on a product of Al Qaeda’, even after the administration was explicitly told by the FBI that Bilal was not a ‘person of interest’. Such actions do not reflect well on RPI’s commitment to academic and artistic freedom, and can only serve to damage the Institute’s reputation.
Paul Jaskot, Secretary
Kirsten Forkert, Co-President
Karen Kurczynski, Co-President
Barbara McCloskey, Treasurer
Angela Miller, Co-President
Radical Art Caucus, College Art Association
Artists and critics frequently encounter conceptually and visually challenging work that demands intellectual unpacking and deconstruction. As an artist and patriot, I feel it is my duty to interpret Bilal’s work and continue to facilitate discussion concerning the past and future actions of our great Nation.
The strong emotional response which Bilal’s work elicits is reminiscent of the feelings many American’s faced after the 9/11 attacks, but we must not forget that what occurred was a clever displacement of these feelings unto a country which was not responsible for the atrocities. As there is still no evidence of WMDs, and no connection between the activities of secular Saddam Hussein and Islamic fundamentalism, one can only sympathize with the horror Bilal must have experience knowing that this war was senseless and unjustifiable: that in essence his family was murdered. Bilal has created a simulation so that we can experience the emotional response of the Other, the implicit statement is that the artwork is analogous to our invasion of Iraq, which has complicated our efforts to create peace and given the terrorists more reason to fight.
I have learned that in America it is unpatriotic to disagree, but we must remember that there is such a thing as loyal opposition, that a simulation is not equivilent to reality, that an experience in the context of an art gallery is intended as a mental provocation, to continue dialogue about the effects the war, Bilal has a right to bring up these questions.
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,