Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Virtual Jihadi

Wafaa Bilal is an Iraqi-born performance artist who moved to the US in 1992, in his mid-twenties. He was arrested in Iraq for creating art critical of Saddam Hussein and had refused to serve in the Iraqi Army during the invasion of Kuwait. He spent two years in a Saudi Arabian prison camp before relocating to the US to study at the University of New Mexico and the Art Institute of Chicago.

He is once again facing censorship, this time from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, who have “suspended” his most recent work, Virtual Jihadi, after protests mounted by the College Republican club and a local commissioner. Many of the protestors admitted that they had not seen the work, which is a hacked video game in which the artist inserts a fictional version of himself as a suicide bomber. They claim the video serves as an incitement to terrorism. RPI officials did not intervene on Bilal's behalf, despite having invited him as an artist-in-residence. Instead they claimed that the FBI had contacted the school, which the FBI denies.

“This artwork is meant to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians, to the travesties of the current war, and to expose racist generalizations and profiling,” Bilal writes on his website. “Similar games such as ‘Quest for Saddam’ or ‘America’s Army’ promote stereotypical, singular perspectives. My artwork inverts these assumptions, and ultimately demonstrates the vulnerability to recruitment by violent groups like Al Qaeda because of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.”

Somewhat ironically, it appears an even more contentious work from last year was mostly met with bemusement by the press, and no protests. For Domestic Tension at Flatfile Gallery in Chicago, Bilal spent a month confined to a room which was outfitted with a paintball gun that could be fired remotely by viewers over the Internet. According to Newsweek, he was fired at 40,000 times in the first few days.

An interview with the artist appears here.

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