Troy City Officials Wield Building Code to Shut Down Game Art Exhibit

March 12, 2008 -

City officials in Troy, New York apparently used the municipal building code to shut down a controversial video game art exhibit.

As we've been tracking on GamePolitics, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal, a faculty member at the Art Institute of Chicago, was invited to present at - and then abruptly booted from - Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute.

Following his RPI expulsion, Bilal's Virtual Jihadi exhibit was moved to the nearby Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy. On Monday night, a local Republican political figure, Robert Mirch (left), led a protest against Bilal's work outside the Sanctuary. Mirch, by the way, also happens to be the Public Works Commissioner for the city of Troy. In that capacity, he is responsible for enforcing building codes.

On Tuesday, as reported by the Albany Times-Union, the Sanctuary for Independent Media was shut down by city code enforcement officials. Sanctuary spokesman Steve Pierce told the newspaper:
 

They put us out of business. They said we had doors that were not up to code.


Pierce made additional comments to the Schenectady Daily Gazette:
 

The only thing different between the day before and [Tuesday] is we have an Iraqi artist protesting the war. The next day, the city sent code enforcement to us and we were cited.


City Councilman Bill Dunne said:
 

This isn't the first time that code enforcement has operated in a fashion like this. It certainly on the surface smacks of political retribution.


Kathy High, an RPI Arts professor, added:
 

I guess we could cycle through all of the art galleries in the city and have the city shut them all down. This will make people afraid to show the exhibit and that is very wrong.


GP: Whether you like Bilal's work or hate it, to see political officials in the United States wield the power of law to shut down controversial expression is scary stuff, indeed.

Comments

@Davian2K5

"Yes, we all see it that way, but if it went to court it would have to be proven."

They're not even trying to hide the bias.

-Last year the Sanctuary was cited for violating various codes and fire ergs after screening a film criticizing the mayor
-They were given 18 months (until this April) to fix the violations
-They've been doing construction for the last year to fix them
-They were told to not have "large" gatherings until the items were fixed
-But every time they've had a show, they've gotten city building code inspectors and fire marshals in to check that it's ok for the crowd they're expecting, including Monday morning (it was cleared for the exhibit)
-Monday afternoon, around Bob "Head Building Code Enforcer" Mirch's protest, the code dept "suddenly" received "numerous" calls complaining that the building was not up to code
-Without inspecting the building, the code dept called the Sanctuary and told them they were in violation and couldn't have a gathering

City council Democrats are apparently crying foul, and threatening to launch an investigation into Mirch's department for effectively selectively wielding the code inspections as a club.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

A quick Google search of Robert Mirch's name quickly comes up with address/phone/fax/e-mail should anyone wish to voice their objections (reasonably mind you... no I'm gonna kill you bullcrap that makes us all look bad).

Also a Metallica lyric came to mind:

Doesn't matter what you see
Or into it what you read
You can do it your own way
If it's done just how I say

Independence limited
Freedom of choice is made for you, my friend
Freedom of speech is words that they will bend
Freedom with their exception

- "Eye of the Beholder"

The ACLU better take this on. Politicians need a wakeup call that this illegal crap (yes it is illegal. Violating the constitution is the biggest illegal there is.) will not be tolerated any longer.

"not everyone on the Troy City Council can be a complete maroon."

Apparently some aren't. There are a few councilors calling for an investigation into whether Mirch abused his position... Conflict of interest et al.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

You might not be able to do much by submitting a complaint to the City of Troy website, but I'm digging through the State Ethics Commission to see if he actually violated any regulations (and to see if the commission applies to him). If the council approves of his actions, you go their heads to the next highest tier. Once you get beyond a self-righteous gent like this, the impact of negative press tends to get the attention of individuals who have to actually be elected.

@Black Manta

Nah, I don't goto Cornell, they just have one of the easier to use US Code libraries on the net. Most of the others have dodgy urls, cached results you can't link to, or have entire Chapters or Sections on one page.

@ The1jeffy

Evils of porn? I'm not seeing the connection between porn, and someone making a political statement, only to have the banner of "Protected Freedoms." Besides despite the way American's show a consirvative image, Americans really do love porn.

I hate to tell people this but "Protected Freedoms" means that the freedoms we love are being stripped little by little in order to "protect the masses." This censorship is just using that banner to settle a personal vendetta.

Something else just occurred to me; I think this helps to settle the argument over whether video games are art. This whole thing kind of reminds me of the controversy that surrounded the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit years ago. Then as now, it was protested - under the grounds of course as to whether it was considered obscene or not.

Still, the controversy over this exhibit has a similar ring to it. So I wonder, (Greek definition of art as quoted by JT notwithstanding) if part of the modern critieria of determining wehther something is art is its potential to offend in this way, then I think video games could definitely be considered art now.

Land of the free indeed. Welcome to the new Iran/China.

Scary just about covers it.

What concerns me most is why these officials are so scared of letting people hear the story from any perspective but their own?

1984?

What's next, a frivolous lawsuit against the next art gallery that tries to host this? Manufactured complaints to the police?

These people should be ashamed.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

@ GoodRobotUs

With the Iraq war being as controversial as it is, any protest against it gets a sort of magnification it might not otherwise. Combine probably (unfortunately) a bit of racial profiling with a protest against the war, by a man from the country the war is in, and politicians begin to panic and try to keep people from seeing it. That, and it sounds like they have a strong Republican base there, who are sort of invested in having to support the war because of party lines.

That's part of why you see the term "un-American" thrown around, imo. It's an attempt to get people to buy in against their better judgement for fear of not being seen as patriotic. The funny thing is, to me, there is nothing more patriotic to America than standing up for what you believe in and flipping the bird to authority when they try to stop you.

Unfortunately, the law, which should be used as a shield, is all too frequently used as a club.

http://www.dailygazette.com/news/2008/mar/12/0312_exhibit/

[Sanctuary spokesman] Pierce said city code enforcement and fire marshals visited the Sanctuary building at 3361 6th Ave. Monday, before the exhibit opened, and allowed the show to proceed. “They went through the building and let us have the event,” he said....

The city [previously] cited the Sanctuary, Pierce said, after it showed a film critical of [Mayor] Tutunjian’s policies on urban development last year.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

This is complete bullshit, but Iran/China and 1984 it's not.

If the building code hasn't been enforced for a length of time and is suddenly an issue when a piece of expression that a member of city government has a problem with appears then it's selective enforcement and could be considered as a government official abusing his privileges in order to infringe on an individuals right to free expression. I say they sue the bigot Robert Mirch, the city and whoever else facilitated this blatant abuse of authority.

Actions like that are the last resort of the weak minded.

You have to be feaking kiding me. The freaking nerve of this bigotted jerk. I normally don't get this freaking outraged, but this cuts it.

THIS IS CENSURESHIP! There is no question about it. When a critic of speech uses his political position to censure speech he does not agree with, he has opened himself up to lawsuits and firings.

I hope that SIM and Bilal take this guy to court.

You have to be freaking kiding me.

@Tom

1984 it may not be, but read the article I posted. Code inspectors cleared the building the day of the exhibit, and only after the exhibit opened did they suddenly reverse position and insist that codes were being violated.

If I was those code inspectors and fire marshals, I'd be pretty cheezed the mayor's office stepped on my toes over a political stunt.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

@EZK

Supposedly the Sanctuary is appealing for help from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Albany chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. No word yet on if there's anything they can do.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

I may not agree with the mans stance, but he had a right to say what he will. Doesn't mean I have to agree, doesn't mean I have to like it, but he still has the right to say it.

Thats all I got to say about that.

@ Tom

I don't think most people would say that it's 1984, but I think that people are more than a little wary of the gov't starting to move in that direction. While I agree with you on what it's not, it seems like every now and then you see a move that seems to push the boundary a little more in that direction - the Patriot Act, to me, is one such move. This, I would say, comes down more to people swinging the "Show what I want or don't show anything" club. It's got a hint of moving in 1984ish directions, but I can think of several abuses off the top of my head that are much more 1984ish than this.

The opinion needed here is that of a lawyer (besides JT) who knows what kind of proof would be needed to show that maybe there is motivation other than just actual building code. Yes, we all see it that way, but if it went to court it would have to be proven. If there's a history of it, they might be able to show a recurring pattern, but if the building did actually fail their codes, then technically they're within rights.

I agree with you that it's total BS, but using technicalities is something few politicians are above.

I haven't seen the exhibit in question. So, I can't say how good/bad it is. However, I believe strongly in Freedom of Speech. They had no right to manufacture a reason to shut the exhibit down. This is censorship. Plain and simple. I hope the people of New York see this for what it is.

What is up with New York these days?

I wonder if the government's overplaying its hand on this one. Before, this was just a controversial art exhibit, and it's not like this country is any stranger to controversial art. But now that they're using the law in questionable ways in order to silence a critic, they may be asking for some harsh retribution that they can't deflect - at best a broadside from the ACLU, and at worst a lawsuit based on selective persecution. The city's also threatening to turn this into a national spectacle as they fight over the line between free speech and treason. The city might have been better served by letting the exhibit pass quietly instead of giving it a lot of free publicity.

Unbelievable. I hope this story continues to get media attention, and that Bilal keeps fighting to get a venue. Let's hope this morally bankrupt fool Robert Mirch finds himself unceremoniously locked out of his former office before too long.

Whether we agree with what he has to say or not he has every right to express himself, I mean it's not like he was forcing people to come and see what he had to say, looks like we are approaching a whole new "Red Scare".

Also it is completely unfair that Mirch can just throw his power around like that, it reminds me of a child who didn't get his way, he was like "Stop doing what you are doing, oh you won't well guess what your door violates building codes!"

@Tom

All that was found wrong was with the doors. The doors could have been worked on and fixed without shutting the whole building down(and now I doubt they can even get the money to do that) but no, the ENTIRE building was shut down despite that there was nothing structurally wrong with it.

I won't call conspiracy either, but it seems ridiculous to shut down the entire exhibit for one problem that didn't even threaten any lives.

@ Jabrwock

I haven't really had a chance to read through any of the links, or really pick apart GP's post in depth, so I didn't catch any of that - I'm kinda sporadically posting at work and trying to hide GP, I'm bein' all sneaky-ninja-like!

But thanks for posting that - I'd give that, to my non-legal mind, a pretty clear example of abusing the system and evidence of bias if that's the way they've gone about things. And I wasn't saying I disagreed with the decision to sue - far from it, actually. Just outlining what I could see as some of the possible hurdles to jump on that path.

I definitely agree this was driven by a petty, close-minded bigot who was abusing the system - just from my limited capability to peruse the links from work, I didn't know how systematic and clear-cut it could've been.

And I think calling it a club gives it too much finesse. Try a bomb.

Nuts to it... I don't know if this is allowed but it's easily found in Google. Remember… play nice ;)

Majority Leader
Robert Mirch
(Conservative)
1600 Seventh Avenue
Troy, New York 12180
Phone (518) 270-2880
Fax (518) 270-2983
E-mail - rmirch@rensco.com

http://www.google.ca/search?hl=en&q=Robert+Mirch%E2%80%99&meta=

@ JB

I was considering that. I wouldn't do it from work though.

I love his web page:

People throughout Troy know that Bobby Mirch is the man to call when you have an issue or problem. He has been a great friend and ally in the Legislature


I think I will fix that:

People throughout Troy know that Bobby Mirch is the man to call when you have an issue or problem with free speech. He has been a great friend and ally in the Legislature during attempts to silence opposing view points..

Here are some more fixes to his web page:

We have worked hard in the City of Troy to protect neighborhoods and improve the image of the city we love. Everyday, we are in contact with the people of the city, hearing their concerns and resolving those issues


Fixed to:

We have worked hard in the City of Troy to protect neighborhoods from un-American speech and improve the image of the city we love by supressing negetive speech. Everyday, we are in contact with the people of the city, hearing their concerns and resolving those issues by silencing critics.


My motto is ‘Their problem is my problem’, and we work to get those problems dealt with quickly and effectively


Fixed to:

My motto is ‘My problem is they don't agree with me', and we work to get those problems dealt with quickly and effectively

@JB: In general I think it's okay, and people have posted contact information of controversial figures before. The exception is JT, who will cry that Dennis is inciting harassment if he allows such posts to stay up.

Here is another one:

For the past four years under Mayor Harry Tutunjian, the Action Team has removed blighted buildings, cleaned, plowed and paved streets and alleys, removed trash from vacant lots and given the Collar City a new sense of pride.


fixed to:

For the past four years under Mayor Harry Tutunjian, the Action Team has removed blighted buildings, cleaned, plowed and paved streets and alleys, removed trash from vacant lots, shut down controversial art exhibits and given the Collar City a new sense of pride.

OK now I am fine with the RPI booting the exhibit from their campus because that's their choice, the city has no right to down a private business that was willing to show the exhibit.

I do wonder if the building's doors really were not up to the code's standards.

Now THAT is just completely out of line.

I wonder if the Republican offices up in there are up to code? I think we should find out. We wouldn't want the fine bigots^H^H^Y^H^H^H^Hrepublicans be unsafe in their offices, you know.

Good frickin' gravy. Mirch could have let this go - he chased the exhibit off-campus and forced it into an art space out in a moderately seedy neighborhood where very few people will ever see it. That would have been enough - he could have claimed victory to his supporters, RPI would have weathered the storm of criticism, Bilal would have been able to continue making art, and everyone's lives would have gone on.

But no - this jackass had to take things one step further and step over a Constitutional line. And yes, it does have to do with Constitutionality. Read:

"I guess we could cycle through all of the art galleries in the city and have the city shut them all down," High said. "This will make people afraid to show the exhibit and that is very wrong."

Chilling Effect: "A chilling effect is a term in United States law that describes a situation where speech or conduct is suppressed or limited by fear of penalization at the hands of an individual or group. For example, the threat of a costly and lengthy lawsuit might prompt self-censorship and have a chilling effect on free speech."

Fear of being targeted by the zoning commission, having your art space unable to hold gatherings until you (somehow) dredge up money to fix minor zoning code violations, all because you showed a piece of art that a person in government found objectionable? Yup, that sounds like a chilling effect, and that's a violation of the First Amendment.

Mirch deserves the legal retribution which is coming his way, via the ACLU. He could have let this go, and he chose not to.

@Pixelantes Anonymous
Why stop there, do Republican and Democrat, they both do this kind of stuff when it suits them. (though I think it would be funnier to do a public place like city hall)

@walker

"I do wonder if the building’s doors really were not up to the code’s standards."

The Sanctuary admits they are not. They were cited for having 29" doors (code is 32") a year ago (the building itself is 108 years old). But they were given until mid-April of this year to fix it (among other things they were cited for), and could stay open as long as they didn't have any "large" crowds in the building. The issue is that building inspectors and fire marshals were called out to "clear" the building for the exhibit, and they did, until Mirch's department suddenly reversed policy and decided after the exhibit opened that it wasn't cleared after all.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

@Walker, hhehe, city hall would definitely be great.

In this case, however, it's been the republicans, specifically one Robert Mirch, who controls the city code enforcement, who's been doing this.

I wonder if HIS office is up to code.

The "collar city"? That sounds so fitting right now.

No pun intended.

It must be nice to be in a position where you can use technicalities to shut down speech you disagree with.

The doors? Seriously? He was able to shut them down over doors? OMFG! How does having doors that are 2-3 inches too narrow drastically endanger anyone now when it was not important enough to shut them down anytime in the last 14 months since they received the notice that the doors were too narrow?

If the weather is suitable (not bad enough to damage the electronics involved), they should move the exhibit outside, then the building becomes irrelevant.

It's not a conspiracy by any means. It's just one guy who happens to be in a position that allows him to abuse his power to hurt someone he has a political disagreement with.

@GoodRobotUs
Because if you make the "enemy" seem like human beings just like us, then you run the risk of the public being against the war due to the slaughter of civilians and not just because of the wasted tax dollars, and deaths/injury of American troops. Then support for the war would drop even more.

Someone should remind him of this: Title 18, U.S.C., Section 242.

Forget the ACLU. Ring the FBI and have him arrested.

This guy Mirch bothers me more than JT does. Unlike JT, who will have been completely neutralized come April (hopefully), this guy actually wields some influence.

And I have to wonder, since he's apparently flush from success with this, if he might get it in his head to become a "crusader" as well. Who's to say he won't go after something else he doesn't like? After going after an independent artist, don't you think he might set his sights on bigger targets?

@ Jabrwock, kurisu7885

I'm not defending Troy city officials. This is clearly censorship because city officials used their authority to stifle free, legitimate expression. My point was that selective enforcement like this is an abuse of power and the city officials can be taken to task for it. You need to enforce laws for everyone or no one, you can't pick who and under what circumstances.

@ Davian2K5

I'm just bothered by people who constantly claim that any miscarriage of justice here in the States is paramount to the way things are in Iran/China because it does a disservice to the horrible conditions that many people live under in those regimes. When people who present viewpoints that oppose the government start disappearing you can claim that it's like being in Iran or China. When some low-rent local politician gets his panties in a twist over some kid's art exhibit and abuses what meager authority he wields to shut it down that's just some lone jackass showing his true colors.

1984 is the go-to comparison when any government figure does anything dubious and it's overuse decreases the value of the idea. I agree with you that the Patriot Act and, to a greater degree, the bullshit wiretapping law that Bush has a hard-on for are real examples of a 1984 Big Brother mentality creeping into our society. Again, though, some moron in Troy who's getting into a frothy rage over an idea is not an example of "1984."

@ Illspirit

Cornell FTW! :D

I guess you must go there. I have a friend I'm very fond of who goes there as well. I'm wondering if you may have run into her.

See, on the other news items, I had posted this wasn't a free speech issue and that he was free to show his exhibit elsewhere... however, they have just crossed the line. This went from "school decides what their campus can and can't be used for" to "corrupt official uses his office to close down an exhibit he doesn't like on a technicality."

On a related note, I was reading some other articles on this matter and one person called the exhibit "un-American." Now, I want you to think about that for a moment. It is a word that MEANS 'not American," but rather then have the litteral definition, it is used and defined to people as something bad. Obviously 'American' = good and 'un-American' = bad. Guess what, he ISN'T AN AMERICAN. You know, other people in the world have an opinion on this was as much as we do. Are we the only ones that are allowed to express our opinions? Are people only free to express themselves as long as they are in agreement with the government?

In the end, the person who abused his power to shut down an exhibit he had a personal conflict with should be repremanded and the building should be given a period of time to fix it's code violations so that it won't interfere with the exhibit.

@Tom

"My point was that selective enforcement like this is an abuse of power and the city officials can be taken to task for it. You need to enforce laws for everyone or no one, you can’t pick who and under what circumstances."

I understand, my point was that they were going even further than just selectively enforcing the rules. The Sanctuary had already called the Building Code department, and the fire marshals, and both had cleared the exhibit prior to it opening, even with the known code citation from last year (which was in the process of being remedied).

So Mirch was being doubly nasty. First to the Sanctuary, for showing a history of selectively enforcing code only when it suits him politically. And secondly, for basically insinuating that his own staff is a bunch of incompetent retards who can't be trusted to do a proper building code inspection. If I was on his staff I'd be pretty cheezed right now.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

@mogbert

"the building should be given a period of time to fix it’s code violations so that it won’t interfere with the exhibit."

It was, when it was first cited. It had until this coming April to fix the issue of the doors (apparently minor demolitions are involved...), as long as exhibits above a certain crowd size got cleared with the fire marshal and building inspectors first. Which they did, until Mirch abused his position.

The taped conversation with the building inspector who shut them down apparently ignored that agreement, and stated that nobody was allowed in.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

I was born in Russia, than I came to America(the land of the free) or so I thought until now...
 
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