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,
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
Dear President Shirley Ann Jackson,
This is an e-mail regarding the closing of “Virtual Jihad” show by Wafaa Bilal.
I am asking you to reconsider your decision.
Your institution is a private one so, in a sense, free speech argument does not apply in this case. I am also quite sure that military/governmental funding for a variety of projects at RPI has influenced in some way your decision. I think the most compelling reason to open the show is to stay true to the reputation of your institution.
RPI is one of the leaders (along with CMU, UCLA, and other institutions of analogous caliber) in the hybrid field of electronic arts. One of the responsibilities of the members of this field is to comment on contemporary culture through the use of contemporary technology. Mr. Bilal’s views and methodology is rather controversial but he is fulfilling this responsibility.
As a members of artistic community I have to point out that you are sending a rather mixed message by creation of EMPAC on one hand and cancellation of Wafaa Bilal’s show on the other.
So, WHY NOT CHANGE THE WORLD? 🙂
thank you for your time,
Dmitry (Dima) Strakovsky
Assistant Professor of Intermedia
University of Kentucky
This letter was sent to the Polytechnic, Troy Record, and Times-Union but was not published :
March 7, 2008
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.