WAFAA BILALThe Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi, 2008, image still from video game. Courtesy the artist and Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer, New York.

Political Video Installation by Iraqi Artist Censored

USA Iraq

Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi (2008), the latest installation work by Chicago-based Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal, opened as part of a residency at the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, on March 6, but it was closed by university administrators the following day after mounting pressure from students and former alumni—namely the College Republicans, who claimed that the Institute’s art department was “a terrorist safe haven” and that the artist was a threat to national security. Bilal, a professor of art and technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is known for politically provocative works that highlight the current situation in Iraq. In his 2007 work, Domestic Tension the artist locked himself in a gallery space for a month and invited viewers to shoot paint pellets at him via webcast. The experience is outlined in his forthcoming publication Shoot an Iraqi.

Virtual Jihadi is an interactive installation based on popular American video games, including the downloadable Quest for Saddam, which encourages players to kill Iraqis in their hunt for the late Iraqi president. Hacking into an al-Qaeda version of Quest for Saddam called Night of Bush Capturing, which replaces the Iraqi characters with Americans and allows players to hunt and kill President George W Bush, Bilal cast a virtual representation of himself as the game’s protagonist, injecting autobiographical material as part of the storyline, such as the deaths of his brother and father during the recent American invasion of Iraq. In an attempt to communicate to viewers “the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians, to the travesties of the current war, and to expose racist generalizations and profiling,” Bilal’s central character takes on the role of a suicide bomber who has been recruited by al-Qaeda to hunt Bush.

In a statement released shortly after the exhibition’s suspension, William N Walker, a representative for RPI, stated that the exhibition had been closed “pending a more complete review of its origin, content, and intent.” The institution pointed to “important concerns” that had surfaced during an opening lecture and demonstration of Virtual Jihadi, which questioned the “legality” and appropriateness of the piece with “the norms and policies of the Institute.” Members of RPI’s art department cited an investigation by the FBI as influencing the university’s decision to shut down the exhibition. Other Bilal supporters emphasized RPI’s acceptance of substantial Pentagon research funding. The exhibition re-opened, despite growing protests, at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, a local venue dedicated to media art, on March 10, but was again shut down the following day by the City of Troy for supposed building code violations. Virtual Jihadi will reopen this summer at FlatFile Galleries in Chicago.