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
Dear Dr. Jackson,
I’m writing to express my distress and outrage at Rensselaer’s shutting down of Wafaa Bilal’s exhibition earlier this month. The decision represents a betrayal of the university’s role in a democratic society to promote spirited discussion of difficult issues and to protect controversial speech and ideas. Pulling an academic guest out of the classroom and subjecting him to a half hour of questioning like a common criminal is particularly unconscionable. Bowing to pressure from the most conservative, even reactionary members of the campus community represents a failure of leadership of the highest order.
I understand that Rensselaer has been trying to position itself as a comprehensive university and evolve beyond its reputation as an engineering school with historic ties to the military. The decision to shut down Bilal’s exhibition puts to lie RPI’s commitment to a comprehensive, liberal education and will haunt the university for years to come.
Department of Cinema and Photography
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Dear President Jackson,
I’m writing in protest of RPI’s decision to suspend the work of respected artist and Professor Wafaa Bilal. This decision shocked and saddened me, as it represents an inexcusable violation of our Constitutionally-guaranteed right to freedom of speech and expression—something which RPI as an institution of higher education should defend, not hinder.
It is particularly surprising and sad that, even after the FBI explained that Professor Bilal was “not a person of interest,” RPI administrators still bowed to the pressure of the College Republicans and Republican alumni. In doing so, you allowed demagoguery and intimidation to win the day instead of reason and our democratic institutions.
RPI should have embraced the decisions and good judgment of the art department, which is seeking to spark dialog about important issues. It should have stood its ground against the outrageous allegations and anti-democratic intimidation of the College Republicans, and insisted that an art exhibit in no way implies that RPI as an institution supports the opinions of all presenters.
Please restore the good name of RPI, and freedom of speech and inquiry, by re-opening Professor Bilal’s exhibition.
Dear President Jackson,
I am writing to urge you to reconsider your recent decision to suspend the
exhibition “Virtual Jihadi” by artist Wafaa Bilal. I encourage you to reopen
this exhibition immediately, and to engage in an open discussion with the
many concerned people in your community about the important issues this
exhibition has raised.
Our institutions of higher education must be committed to the open exchange
of ideas. Certainly Mr. Bilal’s artistic work asks difficult questions, but
these questions are valuable to reflect upon and debate, not to censor.
As I am sure you are aware, Mr. Bilal is a highly respected artist, known
for his work that allows us to think about situations that Iraqi citizens
must live within, as well as our relationships to the ongoing conflict in
Iraq. This particular work also raises questions about the nature of many
role-playing and “shooter” video games, which many students play without
thinking of its representations. Within these contexts, “Virtual Jihadi”
must be considered as a platform for discussion and interpretation.
RPI’s Art Department is very highly regarded because it is known for
encouraging and creating intelligent work that contributes to society. It is
disturbing that creative freedom is being undermined for fulfilling its
Surely, you are under intense pressure as this incident increasingly gains
attention. Please show that you respect the intelligence of your faculty,
your students, and the various communities that look to RPI to be a place of
learning, creativity, and thought. Open Wafaa Bilal’s exhibition and allow
people to engage and debate.
College of Visual and Performing Arts
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.