RPI Controversy Continues Following Cancellation of Artist's Video Game Exhibit

March 10, 2008 -

Last week GamePolitics tracked the story of Wafaa Bilal, an artist whose Virtual Jihadi exhibit at Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute was cut short following protests from some students and alumni, as well as a visit from the FBI.

In the wake of the campus flap, Inside Higher Ed reports that some RPI faculty members were outraged by school president Shirley Jackson's decision to abruptly cancel Bilal's visit. Art professor Branda Miller, from whose classroom Bilal was pulled by college officials, said: 
 

This isn’t just shutting down an exhibit. This is an assault on my classroom, an assault on academic freedom and freedom of expression.

I thought, ‘this must be what it feels like to be in Iraq.’ A moment of compassion crossed my mind. I was imagining professors attempting to teach their students in countries where academic freedom does not exist, where even their lives are at risk.

I think this is a very complex discussion.He’s an artist. He’s very intelligent, very serious, very kind. He is trying to make a point. My students play these games. Some of these games are embedded with violence and racism and the ability to dislocate your sense of self when you kill someone. [Bilal was trying] to get people to think about the games.

 


Comments

Anyone else notice that the professor is trying to justifying the game by saying that other games are more violent

"Some of these games are embedded with violence and racism and the ability to dislocate your sense of self when you kill someone"

Funny how every discussion of games ends up back to Problem One.

Part of the reason why they might have shut it down may be because of all the controversy started to affect the day-to-day functioning of the campus. If I was the pres. of the college I would have cancelled the exhibit. My stance is that the students are here to learn, anything that would disrupt their opportunity to do so won't be tolerated. Not that we should eliminate any active form of discussion, but this whole thing got way out of hand really quick. I wouldn't want this type of controversey at my school. Maybe I'm weird, but I don't want my German class filled with my teacher talking about this instead of teaching.

The problem is Art is such a subjective thing. To some people dogs playing poker is art, to others it's a cartoonish junk. It's all based on the opinion of who is veiwing it. For example, if there was a statue made of a white plantation owner whipping black field slaves it would be considered highly racist and inflamatory, even if it was to promote interest in the plight of the slaves in the Confederacy. Now, reverse the picture; have a black man whipping white men and it becomes a political expression of irony, justice, or whatever one wants to describe it as.

Art is only art if it expresses a popular opinion or doesn't break social taboos, otherwise it's considered inflamatory, vulgar, or even racist. Is this art? I can't really say, never saw it, however I can understand the reasons for the FBI perking interest in it. The creator of it based the main character off of himself as a Terrorist recruit who plans to go out and hunt down the President. It also doesn't help that this man's brother was killed by stray shrapnel in the middle of a current conflict.

The FBI are basically paid to be paranoid and diligent, and that is what they are doing. They are just following up for a "We need to be sure" check because if anything were to go wrong people will automatically go to them and say "Why didn't you stop this?", just like they did for 9/11.

As for the university, they did chicken out. Most likely they were afraid of bad press they may receive for this, and pulled the plug before the angry phone calls, letters, and prorestors showed up. Like any major organization, they prefer to cover their collective butts so people will still go to their school, fund them, ect.

Personally, while I do support the First Ammendment, I think people are going overboard with some of their accusations here.

Like I said before RPI has no obligation to give anyone a public forum, Bilal does have to right to express his opinion and the Republican club has a right to voice theirs.

To me the truly offensive thing is the implication that some seem to be making that the Republican club had no right to voice their own displeasure over this matter. Whether anyone likes it or not both sides have the right to speak, but RPI has no obligation to give either one a public forum.

That the FBI got involved does show some degree of paranoia but I agree with the above poster that they were in a no win situation. If they look into the complaint they have people calling them facists, if they don't look into it and something happens then they get blamed for what happened. Lets take the heat off them if we can, they're just doing a thankless job.

@Serrenity

Exactly right. Banning any expression (I mean the written or spoken word, or visual/auditory representations of things) is basically admitting fear of what is being said. And anyone who is afraid to be contradicted/argued against has too little faith in their own viewpoint, and is exactly the person whose thoughts need provoking. If you're afraid to even hear someone's ideas, then they have power over you, and you've intentionally closed your mind to a possibility just for the illusion of mental security (which you probably won't be able to keep for that long anyway-lying to yourself is easy, but part of you always knows when you're BS-ing).

That said, RPI is not a public forum, and if they decline to sponsor/give a venue for this guy to show his "art", there's nothing wrong with that generally speaking-although the fact that they originally intended to smacks of cowardice.

Whoever said they cancelled it to avoid negative media portrayal (can't remember who)-I wish I could argue with that, but you're right, and I don't really blame them for it. While their purpose is to educate, loss of funding impedes their ability to do that, so I guess I'd like to be able to criticize them, but feel it would be unjust.

Freedom of speech doesn't enter into it, they just declined to condone this guy's expression, totally their right. That's like me asking someone not to preach to a crowd on my lawn. He can do it, but not right there.

@lumi

You're completely free to have that opinion and I'm ok with that. The only thing I have a problem with people who seem to be advocating that RPI has an obligation to showcase anyone's ideas or art in a public forum because that's just not the case.

You have a right to speak and a right to create art, no matter how inane it might be, but no one is required to give you a forum to showcase it.

@Jabrwock
"So they’re cool with art, as long as it’s not so controvertial that the FBI takes a passing interest. Then they freak out and cancel things out of panic."

Don't be silly, the FBI takes a passing interest in any and all anti war and anti bush art...and yet there are plenty of those going on dispite that...

The college panicked when its donors, sponsors and paying customers(students) started talking(screaming) about refunds......
The college is a business, it is there to make money!!!! When its money flow is under threat it responds...
There is no freedom of speech issue here, just corporate mentality winning over bleading hearts nothing more nothing less...
It isn't perfect but I was under the impression that this is the American way... and it will be unless you want government owned and operated schools that is.... pretty sure that would be worse...

hmmm

intralestering... I don't know where I stand on this one...

didn't he admit it was an Al Quida recruiting tool?

The game he modified was, William. That game was a modification of another game too... The Hunt for Saddam I think.

He did mention that it was a reflection of what happened to his brother or something, but I don't recall mention of an Al Queda recruitment tool, besides it wouldn't make a great advertisement would it?

Al Queda Jihadi school- because they blow up so quickly!

I have to agree, not sure where to stand on this one.

In the original article it says: Bilal casts himself as a suicide-bomber in the game (left). After learning of the real-life death of his brother in the war, he is recruited by Al Qaeda to join the hunt for Bush.

I guess I'd have to play it to make any judgement. He may just be making an anti-war statement or it very well maybe a recruiting tool.

Interesting logic...he is exposing "racism" in games by using a recruiting tool from an organisation that is racist and evil to its core. Can anyone suggest a few instances of racism in games? Or is this just another case of Professor talking out of his proverbial with no specific knowledge.

@Andrew,

I believe his version of the game was a mod of an Iraqi 'propaganda' game which in turn was a mod of an american 'propaganda' game 'Hunt for Saddam'.
Not sure therefore which racist and evil organisation you're refering too.
The artist trying to open debate about a difficult subject? the Iraqi's - are they still evil now Saddams gone ? the americans for creating the original game? or the group that shut down 'free speech'?

Plus I believe he isn't exposing racism IN games, he's using games as a tool to expose racism and closed minded thinking regarding the current situation in Iraq and claims ( false or true ) that the invasion's continuence is pushing vulnerable young people in Iraq over to the terrorist mindset.

If i misunderstood your post I apologise.

Bob

Not taking any side in particular but it's a smart move on the school's part to drop it. If the exhibit were considered a recruiting tool for terrorists it could be a federal crime under the Smith Act or fall under the definition of treason in the Constitution.

I'm all for free speech but there is a line you can't cross and this is kind of stepping into very nebulous and sensitive territory especially considering the times.

@Walker

I'm not American so I'm not too certain about this.. But doesn't that mean that the terrorists have won.. Since fear and terror is a high enough of a level such that any discussion about terror/racism/war has to be kept to the sidelines?

"I’m all for free speech but there is a line you can’t cross and this is kind of stepping into very nebulous and sensitive territory especially considering the times."

Don't you people get it? The entire point of 9/11 and terrorism of that kind is to get us to compromise our values and change our way off life. If they put us off balance and make us weaker overall, then that encourages them to continue. Every time we shut down a art exhibit just because we don't like it, every time we break up a protest that isn't violent, every time we trot out one religion to be opposed to another, every time we break our fucking Constitution our of fear or because it is "distasteful" we lose respect in the world, become less powerful, and make what terrorist against this country that much happier.

How the hell do people not get this? Utilize your freedom of speech and never stifle another's, celebrate your freedom of religion but never think your more entitled because of the one you pick. Protest if you don't like something: send letters, organize, whatever. Just don't go against the values that have (more or less) been there from the start because you are scared or find something distasteful.

Walker- Sorry to pick on you, you were just the last comment in a string of comments with this tone.

"How the hell do people not get this?"

It's working rather well, isn't it...

I have to say one more thing.

My dad's take on freedom of speech- "Yes, freedom of speech gives someone the right to call you an asshole, but it also gives you the right to tell them to fuck off."

There are a couple of things I'd like to say about this.

The first is that the writer of the opinion piece comes off as more than a little self righteous about what happened. The college has no obligation to showcase something they don't feel comfortable with and forcing them to do so would have been a violation of their rights.

I wonder if the author would have had the same level of outrage if it had been something like America's Army that had been vetoed.

Now I'm not sure if the FBI needed to be called in but it seems to me that if you openly say that the game is based on an Al'Quaida recruiting tool then you really shouldn't be surprised if someone comes calling with questions for you about it.

Bravo James! Couldn't have said it any better myself.

The majority of people in this once great country have become sheeple without even knowing.

I really wish more people would wake the fuck up and open their eyes to see that their freedoms are slowly being stripped from us.

hear hear to Burke.

As a Brit I hated that that Hanza (sp) guy with the hook hand was here in UK preaching against us and our values, BUT he had a full right to do so, until he started preaching Violence and death threats, which crosses the line.
but it took us years to deal with him, because he had that right.

As stated, now you've got your patriot act and your protect america act and all those other acts that actually take away your rights in the quest 'to protect you', your universities shutting down discussions it disagrees with politically - I think america is on its own rocky path to censorship and dictatorship. Funny that so many americans are cheering the journey, with their chant of 'protect us, protect us'.

Love James Dads' quote too.

"I’m all for free speech but there is a line you can’t cross and this is kind of stepping into very nebulous and sensitive territory especially considering the times."

Go look up the number of a terrorist organization, call them up, and let them know they won then. Because that's what's happening.

as well as a visit from the FBI

Can you kiddies say 'Police State'.
Next thing you'll be telling me is that you believe whackos like Alex Jones!

Damn glad thing for everyone he's not right - we all know the Government is out for our "best interests", huh? :)

Of course, if they really wanted to protect us - the FBI would start by arresting people on Capital Hill..

Still no controversy, the university has every right to do what it did.

If the Government canceled his appearance it would be a different story...but they didn't...

FBI agents go to all anti-war art exhibitions and follow the art makers for a while to check for links to terrorists...
It isn't anything new, this has been standard proceeder for some time now...
That may be wrong, but that is unrelated to this story...

Bob, three things for you. 1) Unless you've lived here in this country, shut up, you're on the outside looking in, not the inside looking out here. 2) Most Americans despise the Patriot act exactly because it violates our rights as citizens of this country. What you don't realize is that because Bush's party controlled most of Congress when the Patriot act came up for renewal it was of course passed. The next time it comes up for renewal now? It's most likely gonna be kicked out on its ass. And finally, point 3) Most of us are pissed at what Bush has done with all of these security acts. We're not "Cheering" "Protect us Protect us!"

You know what, if the school doesn't want event at there school they don't have to. Teacher's all so cant speak for what morals the school will teach. I don't know enough about this story but i'm sure there is some really anti-america / and all so anti-bush stuff in there. Just because he as the right to make it doesn't mean it has to be in our schools. I see no real value of this exhibit in our schools.

@Reckless

"You know what, if the school doesn’t want event at there school they don’t have to."

The thing is, the school seems to have been fine with it up until the point when they found out it involved a mod of "A night of bush hunting". Then they panicked.

So they're cool with art, as long as it's not so controvertial that the FBI takes a passing interest. Then they freak out and cancel things out of panic.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

I hate censorship in any form.

If some individual or organization is blatantly idiotic, say for example the KKK, let them have their freedom of speech so people can make informed decisions about how right or wrong (or stupid) they are.

I don't know what the artist's message or intent was, but silencing him doesn't give anyone the chance to evaluate it and make their own choices about how to interpret it. Censorship is always a slipperly slope that can have dangerous consequences to liberty.

@ Reckless

I love how you say you have no idea what the exhibit is, then you go on and speculate what it is and use your speculation to come to the conclusion that this guy should not be allowed to show off his work.

I love hypocrites and idiots. They are so much fun.

@ N1nj4Br34dm4n

How is this not learning? If a teacher is talking about this in a German class, then the teacher is not doing his/her job and it is not the fault of the exhibition. Part of being a student in a university setting is accumulating knowledge in various fields, including art. The entire atmosphere is built around that, and art exhibitions are part of it. I am not arguing that the university doesn't have the right to pull the exhibition, but I do believe that doing so is detrimental to the learning environment more so than any controversy that may arise for it. Controversy creates conversation and debate, and through that learning and understanding. By canceling this exhibition, the school is effectively saying that an opinion or idea that pisses people off is less valuable than one that doesn't.

@N1nj4Br34dm4n

"My stance is that the students are here to learn, anything that would disrupt their opportunity to do so won’t be tolerated."

Then your first act as president should not have been to cancel the exhibit, but to dissolve the Campus Republican's Club...

Because they're the ones who kicked up all the fuss. Until then it was just another art exhibit...
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

The Times Union reports that the art exhibit will have a new home:

"The Sanctuary for Independent Media on Monday will display an exhibition dropped by RPI over concerns it might be based on the work of terrorists. ... The Sanctuary for Independent Media will hold an opening reception featuring Wafaa Bilal from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday at 3361 6th Ave. in Troy."

I live in Albany, so I might go see it just to find out what the fuss is all about. After all, a lot of the controversy here seems to be based on the fact that people don't really know what the content of the game is, just what they've heard about it.

I have to say, I think this is appalling--but more so that people are supporting this decision. We sit here right now in a veritable battle to keep freedom of speech in video games, and some people want to give it up willingly because it makes someone uncomfortable.

As for education, my opinion is that education should be uncomfortable--it should not be an entirely pleasant experience because that means that you haven't been challenged in any way. This exhibit would have done just that...

Why is it even an issue if it was a recruiting tool? Why does it matter? Reading Hitler's recruiting material is no different--the principal is the same. Just because its uncomfortable doesn't mean that it doesnt NEED (yes, need) to expressed and said ...

More than that, the simple that fact that silenced it shows how little anyone places faith in the american people. That, assuming the worst (ie that It was a recruiting tool) that something like an art exhibit could turn us all into jihadic terrorists? Essentially, the silencing of the exhibit is exactly that -- based in the fundamental belief that will we will believe whatever media is closest and more accessible without applying reason to anything we see ...

Makes you wonder where they got that idea to begin with ....

Interesting to note, the artist is claiming the RPI admins knew full well what he was planning when they approved the exhibit.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-iraqi-artistmar10,0,4868113.story

It's really beginning to look like they just buckled when the Republican club turned the heat up, and when the FBI took an interest... based on a complaint phone call. Two guesses as to who called them...

Oh, and for those wondering what happened to the artist's brother:

Bilal's brother was killed in Iraq by shrapnel from a missile fired by an American drone, Bilal said.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

Just to be clear on my earlier statement.

I was listing the reasons why the school was getting rid of it. No school wants to have this kind of publicity associated with it and if the exhibit was in some way violating the law they would be party to it if they didn't remove it.

@James
I agree with you when it comes to personal freedoms but a freedom only goes as far as it infringes on another's. If this exhibit was a recruiting tool or advocated the destruction of the United States he did not have any right putting it on display, if it wasn't then it should have been left alone.

@ Baine

Ignoring the 'shut up' comment as just an annoyed bite back, I understand your points, and apologise for any shallow generalisations. Oh, and I generally dont count anyone sensible enough to be here as included anyway.

However, you have to realise that looking in, we from around the world see that a 'majority' of your countrymen voted for Bush twice which beggers belief considering the world sees the man as the equivilent of the powermad village idiot.
Too many people watch Fox and listen to JT without understanding the stories or the histories and think that terrorists and gun totting gamers are all around. Hysteria is the problem ( this interesting article discusses it ; about drowning in disclosure http://www2.csoonline.com/exclusives/column.html?CID=33571
Its a Western Problem, but the US seems to be where I read about most of the horror stories of where freedom of speech is taken away to protect you.
Remember that these people are the politicians of tomorrow.
Know your enemy, and hope it isn't your own government.

@ Jabrwock

Thanks for the update.

I think that RPI is run by a bunch of sissies. If they had any guts they would have left it and got funding from other sources if people wanted to pull the funding over one art exhibit.

Tch. Ridiculous. I understand the need for some censors here and there, but THIS? It's a true thought provoking piece. Whether you like it or hate it, you'll talk about it. You'll THINK about it. In the end, I believe that was the real point.

Some tangential things still trouble me over this.

1. People "suspect it may have been based on a terrorist recruiting tool". Suspect? He admitted it; no one is disputing that.

So what? It's a tool, and like any tool, it needs to be used properly to perform a job. As someone else mentioned, there's nothing wrong with reading Hitler's Nazi propaganda (omg a valid reference to Hitler in an interweb debate, stop the presses!). As a matter of fact, that's probably the best reference material any teacher could have to try and teach students about how the Holocaust and Hitler's rise to power were made possible.

Know thy enemy? Anyone? Beuller?

2. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000. Just throwing that out there.

3. I still don't see any evidence that more than a token handful of (vocal) idiots threatened to pull funding over this. Did someone really evaluate this situation and figure the bad press from keeping the exhibit would outweigh the bad press from dumping it?

@ E. Zachary Knight

"I think that RPI is run by a bunch of sissies. If they had any guts they would have left it and got funding from other sources if people wanted to pull the funding over one art exhibit."

That is a tad hard. In no way do I think they made the right decision, but they made the logical one. The college works to earn money, which they usually invest in teachers, equipments, and campus improvements which in turn improve things for others. They have publicists that know how this will play out in mass media. One news channel will run the headline "College Campus Hosts Exhibit By Terrorists" before a break. MOst people will hear what college it is and then watched the heavily fact manipulated version of the story, regardless of who runs it of the big three 24 hour news networks, and forever associate the school with supporting terrorism. Not worth the pain in the ass it would be. Logical not right.

Right would be to issue a well thought out press release stating why they think this exhibit is important and what they think it means. Then invite the critics to come down and actually see it and then decide if it was what they thought it was or if they don't feel like taking that step to exorcise their right to protest peacefully since the country thrives on the peaceful give and take on ideas.

I love it when the people on the outside look in criticize a country, then the people on the inside tell them to fuck off. Then when the roles are reversed the same shit happens.

I swear if you tell people to fuck off because they dont live in America, then you better shut the fuck up when criticizing other countries.

This game seems to based upon the old quote by Homer

"It is entirely seemly for a young man killed in battle, to lie mangled by the bronze spear, in his death, all things appear fair"

I'll have more to say about this one say, but for I just leave you with this:

http://www.bethsoft.com/games/games_roguewarrior.html

And perhaps a question:

This game, rogue warrior, tells how the US basically outsmarts and outshoots the North Koreans. Why doesn't anyone object to this?

@Walker

"I agree with you when it comes to personal freedoms but a freedom only goes as far as it infringes on another’s. If this exhibit was a recruiting tool or advocated the destruction of the United States he did not have any right putting it on display, if it wasn’t then it should have been left alone."

Yes, he did have that right even if it meets that criteria. A computer playing a game can no more infringe your rights than a pencil being used to write a story, no matter what contents it contains. In the end, it is the individual who joins a terrorist organization and commits acts of violence. Ban even the most horrible ideas from being expressed, then we can ban ones we find mildly unpleasant.

@James

"Don’t you people get it? The entire point of 9/11 and terrorism of that kind is to get us to compromise our values and change our way off life."

Incorrect. This is no more the 'point' of terrorism then shooting point is the 'point' of invading a country. Terrorism is a weapon, but it's a weapon to use towards actual goals. The leadership really doesn't, in the end, care how we feel or our society operates or our 'way of life' as long as they get the things they are asking for.... The various organizations like alkida have very specific things they want out of the US and the US has not budged on a single one of them.

@James

He may have the right to speak but the college has the right to shut down an exhibit on their property that they feel is disruptive and the republican club also has every right to make their displeasure at this display known. People spoke out and the college decided to pull the plug on it.

There's no great conspiracy here, its just how the system works. Just because you have the right to say a thing doesn't mean that people are forced to give you a forum to do so.

@ jkdjr25:

"To me the truly offensive thing is the implication that some seem to be making that the Republican club had no right to voice their own displeasure over this matter. Whether anyone likes it or not both sides have the right to speak, but RPI has no obligation to give either one a public forum."

I don't deny that the CRs have a right to voice their opinion about the exhibit being shown. I just think it makes them a pack of colossal pricks for having that opinion.

And of course I'm disappointed in the institute for caving to it. I'll be making my opinion known the next time they request a donation from me.

Well if i was Bilal, I would say it was a good pay day. I got invited to speak at school, got my plane tickets, food and bed payed for and I didnt have to work. Also thanks to the controversy I am now a better know artist. Ahh sounds like a dream job to me.

@ jkdjr25:

No doubt, but it's pretty sleazy to agree to have him, knowing the contents of his exhibit, and THEN cave to the bleating honks of the CRs.

@Burke

Yeah, I can really agree that most terrorists want to also put a restraining effect on our freedoms that way.

President: "I want to protect you from terrorism!"
Me: "And I want you to protect me from the drawbacks that come from that protection!"
 
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