Censorship of American-Iraqi artist in city of Troy, NY

This is the latest in a horribly ridiculous sequence of events that started at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institue in Troy, NY, and spread into the greater City at large.

Wafaa Bilal’s other recent art piece was blogged about at BoingBoing: http://www.boingboing.net/2007/05/11/shoot-a-real-live-ir.html

Order of events over the last week. Sorry, I need to assign dates and times to each item. If there are any factual discrepencies I will fix them as I get a better documentation of each item. As of the evening of March 12th, I feel I am arriving at a nicely documented collection of items.

I have audio clips, videos, articles, emails, and others items archived on my site. I have copied audio and video pieces for archival purposes, as well as printing out online newspaper articles in PostScript format. If you feel that I am inappropriately infringing on a tangible piece of work that you bear the copyright on, please let me know, and I will remove the item from the public archive I am offering.

Before 2008-03-05

2008-03-05

  • ~1:30PM: members of a local mailing list are notified that RPI is taking down Wafaa Bilal’s installation.
  • ~3:00PM: It becomes known that RPI would like the installation taken down soon; the exhibit is temporarily closed as the Arts deptartment tries to hash things out.
  • Time Union article: RPI suspends exhibit over terror fears

    • “It feels like a military camp, not an educational institution,” Bilal, 41, said Thursday night.
    • The origin of his work is a video game called “Quest for Saddam.” The game, where players target the ex-Iraqi leader, prompted what RPI’s Web site describes as an Al Qaeda spin-off called “The Night of Bush Capturing.”

      Bilal hacked into that game and created a work that puts “his own more nuanced spin on this epic conflict,” according to the arts department. In Bilal’s version, unveiled at RPI Wednesday, the Iraqi-born artist casts himself as a suicide bomber who gets sent on a mission to assassinate President Bush.

    • The College Republicans excoriated RPI for sponsoring the exhibit and encouraged alumni to speak against it.
    • That afternoon, RPI students in a class taught by media arts professor Branda Miller were interviewing Bilal when he was pulled out of the room by RPI officials.
  • The exhibit is shown once, and then permanently removed from RPI.
  • iEAR presents Wafaa Bilal

2008-03-07

  • newsday.com picks up the story

    • RPI Arts Department Chairwoman Kathy High said administrators told her they’re reviewing the piece because of its use of al-Qaida material and because it shows the assassination of the president. So far, she said, she hasn’t been given a timeline for that review.

2008-03-08

  • The Sanctuary for Independent Media announces that they will host the exhibit on Monday, 3/10.

    • An art installation that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute slammed shut on Thursday will open this week at The Sanctuary for Independent Media, with a reception for Iraqi-born digital media artist Wafaa Bilal at 6 PM on Monday (3/10) followed at 7 PM by a presentation about his “Virtual Jihadi” project.
  • William N. Walker, Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations, from RPI sends a release to the RPI Employee’s list doing what most would describe as damage control for the university.
    • After becoming aware of and discussing concerns expressed by some members of the Rensselaer community about a lecture and associated exhibit by digital media artist Wafaa Bilal, the university decided to allow his March 5 lecture to go forward. Most observers agreed that he presented a stimulating and thought-provoking lecture.
  • Igor Vamos, a member of the RPI faculty and Arts department, responds to William Walker.
    • Wafaa Bilal’s art show is not illegal. He has been very open about the “origin, content, and intent” of the work, as have the Arts Department who invited him to RPI. There is no need for an ‘investigation’ unless of course you are not going to listen to any of us.

      The administration shut down Bilal’s show after a student blog post (reprinted in the press) proclaimed the arts department a “safe haven for terrorists.” By shutting down the exhibit after speaking to the artist and the Arts Department the University has affirmed the original blog post, insinuating that they agree that Bilal could be a terrorist and that we–the faculty and employees of RPI–are harboring terrorists. The administration’s reaction to this art show is highly irresponsible. It endangers Bilal and undermines RPI faculty and staff.

2008-03-09

  • RPI closes the RPI Republicans RPI-Union funded/operated web site: http://republicans.union.rpi.edu/ for abuse of the RPI computer conduct code.
    • In addition to alleged violations of the Electronic Citizenship Policy (GDA #17), other Grounds for Disciplinary Action may also prove relevant, specifically, GDA #2, 6 and 9 as stated in The Rensselaer Handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities, 2006-2008 (pg. 8). As posted on the College Republicans blog, February 22, 2008, the College Republicans’ statement that “The Arts Department – A Haven for Terrorists” is slanderous, blatantly untrue, and can be construed to endanger the health, safety and welfare of members of the Rensselaer community. Because these allegations are serious, egregious, and may pose an imminent threat to Rensselaer’s educational mission, the College Republicans web site is hereby temporarily suspended on the Rensselaer Computer System, effective March 9, 2008, and remains suspended pending the outcome of a judicial inquiry.
  • Rumblings about a protest against/at the SfIM are heard.
  • Article at wgy.com
    • THE LEADER OF RENSSELAER COUNTY’S REPUBLICAN MAJORITY IS HEADING UP A PROTEST MONDAY AT 5:30 OUTSIDE THE SANCTUARY FOR INDEPENDENT MEDIA IN TROY.

      BOB MIRCH IS UPSET ABOUT AN EXHIBITION CALLED “VIRTUAL JIHADI.” IN IT, CREATOR WAFAA BILAL REVERSES A VIDEO GAME ABOUT HUNTING DOWN SADDAM HUSSEIN AND INSTEAD TARGETS PRESIDENT BUSH AS A SUICIDE BOMBER.

  • The SfIM hosts a planning meeting to discuss how to interact and deal with the protestors.

2008-03-10

  • A demonstration against the art piece is held in front of the SfIM

  • RPI officially declines to reopen the exhibit, in an email from William Walker.

    • After extensive and careful deliberation and consideration of the origin, content, and intent of the “Virtual Jihadi” video game exhibit by digital media artist Wafaa Bilal, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has decided not to reopen the exhibit on the Troy campus.
  • A TimesUnion blog article referncing Bob Mirch’s statements
    • Bob Mirch, the GOP majority leader in the Rensselaer County Legislature, is for free speech, according to his latest press release.

      But Mirch says he is not in favor of pretending to blow up the president of the United States.

  • InsideHigherEd.com runs a piece Art and the College Administrator, reflecting on the RPI/Bilal incident as well as similar incidents at other colleges.

    • Even a few days later, Branda Miller’s voice rises with anger as she recalls what happened in her course Wednesday at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. An artist-in-residence — whose presence had been approved through all official channels — was in the middle of a discussion with her students when three administrators arrived, told her they needed to take the artist with them at once, escorted him to another classroom, and refused to let Miller enter or to offer any explanation to her or her students. Shortly after the disruption of her class, RPI ordered the exhibit set up by the artist — a video game based in part on an Al Qaeda video game involving attempts to kill President Bush — shut down pending a review.
  • freerepublic.com new aggregation site discusses TimeUnion article from today. Quotes from contributers:
    • evets: Send this loser back to Iraq.
    • 1Old Pro: This guy thinks he has the right to be herd, he doesn’t.
    • ml/nj:

      Very sad.

      I graduated from RPI in 1968.

      The last time I stopped by the ‘Tute on my way from a business trip to Vermont, I wandered into the Student Union. Down near the pool tables and bowling alley, I saw lots of people going into an adjacent meeting room. It turned out to be some kind of Islamic Swine Koran reading or something. There were even some babes in hajib getups. I know other schools are also have their “MSAs” but it was particularly disgusting to me to see this going on at my alma mater. I’m sure some of this is the fault of the now president Shirley Ann Jackson. She seems to have turned the place into a bastion of political correctness. Among other evidence I cite the disgraceful invitation to the Commodities Scam Queen to speak at Graduation a couple of years ago.

    • thefactor: RPI is an engineering school. i went there on a recruiting trip to play sports when i was a senior in high school. it was so lame. the school was 90% guys, and every girl i saw was asian.
    • I find it important to point out that if you follow the links on the above site to each user’s “about” page, they do not use or disclose their real names or contact information.

2008-03-11

  • The SfIM receives a phone message stating that the building is out of code, and deemed “unfit”.

    • “I work for the City of Troy code enforcement. This is regarding 3361 6th Ave. Ugh, I was told to call you and speak to you about the front double doors that have not been replaced, and the existing 30 inch door, and the existing 29 inch door, that all need to be replaced to widths of 32 inches. Uhmm, the front doors are double … double doors, and must swing out, and they need panic hardware — all doors need panic hardware on ‘em.

      “Uhmm, we’re not going to be able to assemble anything down there, nobody’s going to be able to uhhh have any kind of assembly down there, for anything, until these … these uhh violations have been corrected; so, sometime today, this morning, I am going to ugh, put a placard on the front door stating that the place has been posted “unfit” and no … there should be no uhhm assemble there at all, for any reason, until these doors have been taken care of.”

  • Troy shutters site of ‘Jihadi’ video game.

    • Doors at issue
    • “They put us out of business,” Steve Pierce of the Media Alliance
      said. “They said we had doors that were not up to code.”
    • Just last night city Public Works Commissioner Bob Mirch and others
      held a protest outside the Sixth Avenue site condemning the exhibit.
  • gamepolitics.com runs an article about Bob Mirch leading a protest against the SfIM
  • InsideHigherEd.com runs another article: ‘Virtual Jihadi’ Leaves RPI; Controversy Doesn’t
  • I filed Freedom of Information requests at City Hall, requesting (paraphrasing what I recall writing down on the request):
    1. Any and all initial/original documentation related to code violations/enforcement for 3361 6th Ave / the Sanctuary for Independent Media.
    2. Any and all official extensions SfIM was given related to violations noted above.
    3. Any and all paperwork/documentation related to the events of closing/threatened closing regarding the happening of 3/10/08 and 3/11/08.
    4. A tabular list of all city violations posted within the last year: 3/11/07 – 3/11/08, including: ID, Property Address, Property Owner, Date Posted, Type of Posting.

    #4 might seem mysterious of mean, but I clearly explained the motivation behind it to the Deputy Mayor — I’m looking for trends that prove or disprove that code enforcement handles their jobs fairly, and efficiently. While it sounds like a lot of work, if the City of Troy has their records computerized, this is an extremely easy SQL statement to write.

2008-03-12

  • gamepolitics.com catches quickly on to the fact that a City official might be improperly wielding his bestowed authorities: Troy City Officials Wield Building Code to Shut Down Game Art Exhibit
  • The Schenectady Daily Gazette runs a story Sanctuary displaying ‘Virtual Jihadi’ closed

    • Sanctuary spokesman Steve Pierce said he received a call from a city code enforcement official Tuesday morning. He taped the call.

      On it, an unidentified official said the city will not allow anyone to “assembly” inside the building until code violations are fixed. The official said the Sanctuary must replace 29-inch-wide doors inside the 108-year-old building with 32-inch-wide doors and install panic bars.

      Deputy Mayor Jeff Buell said the city did not close the building. In a statement, he said, “We have allowed them 30 additional days to resolve these problems. All we have asked it that they do not have public gatherings until these issues are resolved, for the safety of all involved.”

  • The TimesUnion stays on the story with Troy closes ‘Virtual Jihadi’ venue
    • After a demonstration — organized by Public Works Commissioner Robert Mirch, who oversees city code enforcement — was held earlier in the day, city spokesman Jeff Buell said several complaints came in Monday afternoon that the sanctuary lacked proper zoning variances.

      “When they received those zoning variances, they were told they have to make improvements to the building in order to meet the code and New York state fire standards. They were sent a letter to comply approximately 14 months ago and they have failed to comply,” he said.

  • Wired picks up the story: Officials Shutter Gallery Displaying Virtual Jihadi Exhibit
    • At that point Troy’s Sanctuary For Independent Media invited Bilal to display the piece at their gallery, bravely risking the wrath of those who find the art distasteful (or hoping to profit from the controversy, depending on your point of view).

      That’s when Mirch seems to have stepped in.

      Regardless of the content or value of the art on display, the possibility that government employees are using their responsibilities as public servants to further their personal or political beliefs is simply disgusting.

  • The story makes it all the way to a blogger from finland: In Soviet Troy, the Government sanctions art (but seems to be from NY)
    • Quoting a caller-in from the Al Roney radio show: (link from post now down): I’ve been told that Muslims – all Muslims – are liars. That’s from a Christian Arab who grew up in the Middle-east. And secondly, that all mosques should be closed. You’re not doing very good, man. You’re creating hatred for your kind. You guys have been warring for thousands of years. You ain’t gonna win this one. You ain’t gonna soft shoe your way into this country. You’re goin’ down. You and your like are goin’ down.
    • gamepolitics.com retraction — some of the quotes may have been from callers, and not Mirch.
    • I am getting the radio show transcribed, and will be able to verify the quote, or disprove it, as well as give a time index it played at, in the show.
  • Letter from an (Almost) Alumnus – a blog entry at a somewhat anonymous blog demanding that RPI (and Troy) offer apologies, for reasons of both reason and morality.

2008-03-13

  • A firsthand account of the exhibit at SfIM (from gamepolitics.com).
    • Bilal said he created the game in order to “hold up a mirror” to an American society which believes that such a game is perfectly fine when it is an American killing Iraqis, but which finds itself outside of its comfort zone when it’s the other way around.
  • ACLU May Sue Troy, NY in Game Controversy…
  • Why does this man hate America? — a blog entry from another site.
  • The local alt paper, The Metroland, reports
    • On March 5, Bilal was removed from an RPI class where he was lecturing by three administrators and “interrogated” for nearly 30 minutes. His exhibit was put on suspension and the gallery locked to the general public. On Sunday, he found that West Hall, the arts building on campus, had been locked down and an outside security firm had been hired specifically because of “that artist.”

      “I asked a security guard,’ he didn’t know who he was talking to,” Bilal said. “I asked, ‘What artist?’ And he said, ‘The artist . . . that is doing terrorist propaganda.’ ”

      The guard told Bilal that if he saw the artist, the guards were supposed to call campus security.

  • I change the title of this article to reflect my desire to keep this blog post as neutral and fact-dense as possible. While I have opinions on this matter, I will keep them in other, seperate articles. The permalink for this article still reflects the original title; that is not something I feel technically comfortable in change at the moment.
  • Based on a quote from the TimesUnion article Troy closes ‘Virtual Jihadi’ venue:
    • “After a demonstration — organized by Public Works Commissioner
      Robert Mirch, who oversees city code enforcement — was held earlier
      in the day, city spokesman Jeff Buell said several complaints came in
      Monday afternoon that the sanctuary lacked proper zoning variances.”

    I decided to send an email to the Mayor’s Office requesting some information. If I don’t hear back by Tuesday, I will file another set of Freedom of Information requests.

    • Exactly how many complaints came in?
    • By what medium did they come in: face-to-face, phone, e-mail, postal
      correspondence, other?
    • At what times did the complaints come in?
    • Did any of the complaintants identify themselves?
    • Do any of the complaintants hold public office? If so, who are they?
    • If they are private citizens, but did not request to be anonymous, can
      you tell me who they were?
    • Just what were the complaints? (I find it difficult to imagine a
      layman could eye-ball a two-inch door variance from code, especially on
      TV or from photographs.)

    The above questions might seem inherently accussational, but frankly, as this issue progresses, what I really want to know is were there any actual complaints from the public at all?

2008-03-14

  • TimesUnion – Shut exhibit raises questions about the role of provocative art on campus
  • The Upstate Artists Guild (UAG) sends out a strong statement to Bob Mirch, Mayor Tutunjian and the City of Troy government
    • First, we consider this attack to be a direct violation of Mr. Bilal’s First
      Amendment rights. Second, we condemn Mr. Mirch’s scare tactics and believe
      that he has made specious use of City office in order to execute a personal
      witch-hunt against the artist. That Mr. Mirch’s personal interests are completely
      unconnected to the closure of the Sanctuary by his own subordinates the very
      next day after he organized his protest strains all reasonable credulity. Further,
      that this untoward tactic should result not only in the censorship of the work of
      several artists, but the closure of the Sanctuary for Independent Media is doubly
      regrettable and an inexcusable affront to the greater arts community. We call for
      public apology from Mr. Mirch and the reversal of Code Enforcement’s closure.
  • PostStar – Exhibit offensive, but powerful
    • The whole thing is highly offensive and horrible. I hate video games that involve shooting and killing people and have never played one. I would not play Mr. Bilal’s.

      But you can see the point he is making by reversing the roles of the original game. And you can see the point he is making by showing how traumatized Iraqis like himself are ripe for recruitment by Al Qaeda.

      And you can see how he is challenging people’s views about violence, real and virtual, by inviting them to play.

    In my humble opinion, a piece with a clear opinion, well reasoned, and simple

  • It is brought to my attention that the original RPI Republicans blog post — the act that really started this whole mess — has been changed to “The RPI Arts Department Crosses a Line”. I think it’s incredibly important for people to be able to express their opinions, so I’m glad to see that the RPI Republicans haven’t removed that article, but have changed the title to reflect what they believe to be true, in a way that expresses belief and not slanderous falsehoods.

2008-03-15

  • A TimesUnion editorial submission: Safety? Or censorship?
    • Then what’s Mr. Mirch going to say about an exhibit that troubles him and troubles some others as well? For all the hats Mr. Mirch has, none designate him as the city censor or arbiter of public morals.

2008-03-16

  • A demonstration to protest the actions of the City, and it’s fear mongering tactics is called for by the new group “Capital Region Committee for Free Expression”. Their itemized list of issues is:
    1. Stop Abuse of Code Enforcement Power
    2. Reopen the Sanctuary for Independent Media
    3. End Racist Fear-mongering
    4. No Censorship of Art and Dissent

    The demonstration is to be held in Monument Square in Troy, near City Hall at 5:30PM on March 18th, 2008.

2008-03-17

  • TimesUnion – Arts center secures alternate venue
    • “We do not dispute the need to respect city laws and ordinances. Prior to this incident, the city knew we were operating in good faith to comply with the building codes and we had made and were continuing to make ample improvements to this 108-year-old structure. There wasn’t any conflict,” said Sanctuary spokesman Steve Pierce.

      “Mr. Mirch has been allowed to abuse his official position to enforce his own political views — to use alleged code violations as a pretext to stifle political dissent. … His behavior has violated the civil rights of Mr. Bilal to express himself through his art …”

2008-03-18

  • The YesMen to appear at the “sanctuary for the Sanctuary”, Christ Church United Methodist in Troy, NY for the second piece in the series “Art, Freedom, Democracy”
  • TimesUnion – Rights group plans protest
    • A new group, the Capital Region Committee for Free Expression, plans to picket City Hall today to protest city officials’ shuttering of a media arts center last week.
    • Opponents, including city Public Works Commissioner Bob Mirch, have said the exhibit is sympathetic to terrorism.
  • TroyRecord – Game creator cries foul
    • “Quest for Saddam” is a first-person shooter in which the player takes on the role of a U.S. soldier fighting Iraqis to hunt down dictator Saddam Hussein. It was the basis for Chicago artist Wafaa Bilal’s creation, “Virtual Jihadi,” which caused a firestorm of controversy when it arrived for an exhibition at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute two weeks ago.
    • “It’s satire. It’s completely harmless humor,” Petrilla [ed: the original game's creator] said of his original game. “It’s nothing worse than what you would find on “Saturday Night Live.”

      “It’s poking fun at the dictator with satire and humor,” he added. “It was something to alleviate an otherwise stressful situation and gave people an outlet to let off some steam.”

    • The exposure Petrilla’s creation received after the supposed al Qaida version surfaced prompted Bilal to in turn take the new version and change it into an art project, he said. Bilal stressed that he does not support terrorism and that his work was based on Petrilla’s game and the altered al Qaida version, which he did not create, to speak out against violence.

      Bilal’s artwork irked Petrilla not only because of the content but because he said someone took his work and passed it off as his own.

    • Steve Pierce, spokesman for the Sanctuary for Independent Media, said Bilal gives credit to Petrilla for creating the original and that fair-use laws allow someone to use another’s work to make an artistic statement or a critique, similar to quoting another author’s writing in a book review.

      “You’re allowed to appropriate other people’s work for artistic purposes and to comment on it,” said Pierce, who added that Bilal did not create the work for profit and that it can only be viewed at an exhibition.

    • Mirch labeled Bilal’s work as plagiarism and insisted that the closure of the Sanctuary was entirely in the interest of public safety.

      “The issue with the sanctuary is public safety,” said Mirch. “It’s no more, no less. It has nothing to do with plagiarism. It has everything to do with making sure the public is safe, even if it’s the public that likes to view plagiarism and terrorism.”

      Mirch said he has not planned anything in response to tonight’s protest against code enforcement’s closure of the Sanctuary.

  • Looks like the RPI Republicans Union sponsored web site is back up.
    • I’m glad the editted their headliens to be more clearly opinions and ones that are actually debatable/defensible.
    • Technophiles should note that their blog is now an iframe to blogspot
      <iframe src="http://rpicollegerepublicans.blogspot.com/"
      I am not sure if this is a way to subvert RPI computer code — e.g. Well, it’s not on RPI’s server, or not. I hope not.
    • The GOP Pledge:
    • We believe that good government is based on the individual and that each person’s ability, dignity, freedom and responsibility must be honored and recognized.
    • We believe in equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity for all, regardless of race, creed, age, sex or national origin. I believe that persons with disabilities should be afforded equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity as well.
    • If anyone sees violations of the above quotes — in class at RPI — the RPI Republicans club would love to know about it, as you can report bias against the groups they claim to protect above.
  • WNYT.com Protestors cry censorship over art venue shutdown
    • “The citizens of Troy have had enough. They want a more free Troy. They see their civil liberties dwindling,” said Professor Branda Miller of Media Art at RPI.
  • TroyRecord reports Free speech rally at Troy City Hall
    • Passing motorists honked as protesters shouted chants of “free art, free speech, we don’t want your thought police.” Demonstrators held signs reading “stop abuse of code enforcement power.” Other signs read, “fire boss Mirch” and “don’t succumb to Mirch’s power,” referring to city Public Works Commissioner Bob Mirch, who runs the code enforcement department and led a protest last week against the Sanctuary’s hosting the exhibit. Mirch, an elected Conservative, is the leader of the Rensselaer County Legislature Republican majority.
  • Photos from the protest

2008-03-19

2008-03-20

  • A metroland article covering the protest
    • Many in the crowd join Pierce in finding the timing entirely suspect. Mirch has a reputation in the city of Troy for using the code department to exact revenge against political adversaries, and the current violation of the Sanctuary seems to follow that pattern.

      Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian finds that idea absurd.

      “Bob Mirch,” Tutunjian claimed, “had nothing to do with the shutting down of the Sanctuary for Independent Media.” He said that this was not about the art itself, but the building.

2008-03-22

  • A video recording of the main speakers from the protest, as well as shots from marching with signs

2008-03-23

Bob Mirch has been accused of abusing his — err, one of his three — offices previous to this fiasco. Here’s some links and background on Mirch:

More resources on this issue:

4 Responses to “Censorship of American-Iraqi artist in city of Troy, NY”

  1. Matthew ('02) Says:

    Well, I for one will certainly never donate to those fascists at dear old RPI.

  2. armando Says:

    At this point, my edits, reworking, and clarification of this article is complete. I will only update now to add new items to the article, or to correct factual errors.

  3. Penny Lane Says:

    Great work Armando! This is a wonderful resource.

    Two quick things:

    1) I have the entire WGY show in mp3 format. I’ve put together 28 minutes of “highlights” at lennypane.blip.tv. It’s rough; I just wanted to let people hear it for themselves and didn’t want to put anyone through the actual 3 hours it takes to listen to the whole show! I can verify that that “all Muslims are liars” is an actual quote from one of the first callers (not Mirch).

    2) The closing of The Sanctuary ever-so-ironically threatened to end the “Art, Freedom, Democracy” series, which focuses on which focuses on government intimidation and censorship under the guise of counter-terrorism. But luckily, Christ Church at 5th & State has take us in for the rest of the series! See http://www.mediaanctuary.org for more.

  4. armando Says:

    Penny, thanks for the update on the Radio Show. I’m going to clean up that section.

    I’m also waiting on a quote to get the radio show transcribed. I’m hoping that it won’t cost too much — however, I think it’s really important, as while some of the more irritating quotes are from callers-in, I want to see when the guests agreed or disagreed with the callers.

    I’m definitely going to be going to the rest of the Art, Freedom, Democracy series now

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