On Monday GamePolitics reported on a brewing video game controversy at Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in Troy, New York.
The dust-up centered around objections by RPI’s College Republicans organization to a planned exhibition by a visiting artist. Wafaa Bilal (left), an Iraqi who is on the faculty of the Art Institute of Chicago and whose brother was killed in the current war, was scheduled to present a hacked version of Night of Bush Capturing, an al Qaeda propaganda game at the campus.
Bilal’s exhibit, however, has been canceled by RPI administrators over terrorism concerns as well as protests by some students and alumni. As reported by the Albany Times-Union, Bilal said:
It feels like a military camp, not an educational institution.
Bilal maintains that the intent of his exhibit is to show how U.S. strategy in Iraq has helped al Qaeda recruit new members.
Alumni Christopher Lozaga was among those who objected to Bilal’s appearance:
So long as RPI sponsors these kinds of events, giving absolutely no consideration to military alumnus, friends and family of the university, I will not contribute a dime to the school.
On Wednesday Bilal was removed from an RPI classroom by administrators during a meeting with students. Said media arts professor Branda Miller:
It was very unsettling for me and my students. It would be unfortunate if Wafaa Bilal’s art exhibition remains closed. The whole point of art is to encourage dialogue.
Bilal told the Times-Union that RPI officials, on orders from school president Shirley Ann Jackson, questioned him about the game mod and whether it portrayed an attack on President Bush. He was also told that federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were planning to attend his exhibit.
While not commenting on Bilal’s case specifically, an FBI official said:
I can state that there are situations where it would be appropriate for FBI agents to attend events which are open to the public if the FBI believes that there might be information relevant to national security. FBI agents can attend these events even if an investigation is not opened. But they would only report on information which is relevant to a threat to national security.’
RPI VP William Walker told the Times-Union:
The university is considering various factors relating to the exhibition, and has suspended it pending a more complete review of its origin, content, and intent. Rensselaer fully supports academic and artistic freedom. The question under review regards the use of university resources to provide a platform for what may be a product of a terrorist organization or which suggests violence directed toward the President of the United States and his family.
RPI student body president Julia Leusner added:
If Bilal was making a point about the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war, I failed to see it, as did every other student I spoke to.
UPDATE: Newsday has picked up the story. Look for this to get some national attention. From Newsday:
"By taking [the exhibit] away, they destroyed the entire objective of it, which is conversation," Bilal said. "I think they’re buying time as a tactic here, so they don’t look bad. Let’s call it what it is, censorship."
Bilal is no stranger to controversy. Some of his work was destroyed at an exhibition at the University of New Mexico, and he’s also had government officials confiscate his work from an exhibit in Baghdad.
UPDATE 2: As expected, the RPI story has gone national. Here is Associated Press coverage in the Washington Post.