Even when art calls the censorship police to action, I’ve rarely found that the work itself seemed to be the underlying issue. Most of the time, it’s the same boring conversation: elitist artist shits on conservative values. In the case of Wafaa Bilal, who recently had his projected video game, Virtual Jihadi, removed from an exhibit last Thursday at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the “elitist artist” label has not been tabled, but we’re still looking at the same power struggles. Convincing a censor to listen, when their position is essentially, “your right to speak is granted, as long as long as it’s consistent with the norms of the institution” can feel like an impossible task.
Indeed it may well be since the inherent problem with censorship of any kind lies in the fact that one person refuses to participate. Such positions can be infuriating, particularly in regards to art like Bilal’s because it means to continue a conversation already occurring. To wit, the work in question comes with a hacking history three generations long beginning as a downloadable video game which asked its players to kill indistinguishable Iraqis while hunting their leader (Saddam Hussein), then mutating into the al-Qaeda version, which replaces the Iraqis with identical Americans, their leader President Bush. Bilal transformed the latter, and created a character based on himself: a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago who loses his father and brother to the war in Iraq. The player becomes an al-Qaeda recruit and hunts Bush.
Even if the game ran with a crawler underneath explaining that it proposes a questionable action in order to point out the possible consequences of our own morally depraved behavior, it’s unlikely to have phased many young republicans and bloggers like Ken Girardin. Says the co-editor of The College Republican blog, (which seems to be down: too much traffic?), “The message he’s putting forth marginalizes the seriousness of the threat of Islamic terrorism.” The FBI similarly thought this was a matter of national concern, which is why the exhibition is suspended.
Such actions make you wonder if the days when artists in this country were labeled communists but allowed to speak as means of demonstrating the moral fortitude of the country have been forgotten. It would seem we’ve lost a lot of ground since then.
Related: Newsgrist Jihadi run down