Monday, January 18, 2010

PRESS RELEASE: Panel at Helen Day in Stowe

Art, Audience, Free Speech and Democracy panel at Helen Day Art Center

Friday, January 22nd 5:30 pm Helen Day Art Center

While a visiting artist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Wafaa Bilal's exhibit including the video game "The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi" was shut down immediately after the exhibit opened and Bilal was barred from the art building by the school's administration. Days later the city of Troy, NY forced the closure of The Sanctuary for Independent Media, who had agreed to show Bilal's piece after it was censored at RPI. The Sanctuary for Independent Media - had been in agreement with the City's code office about the pace and scope of their renovations - until they chose to exhibit Bilal's artwork at which point Bob Mirch, Public Works Commissioner shut down the exhibition for code violations. Mr. Mirch who was also the GOP majority leader in the Rensselaer County Legislature then joined a group of protestors outside the Sanctuary for Independent Media suggesting the piece was a form of terrorism.

The New York ACLU is currently suing the city of Troy for violating the first amendment rights of the Sanctuary for Independent Media and Wafaa Bilal. The video game that he appropriated for his artwork is part of the exhibit "Wafaa Bilal: Agent Intellect" which opens Thursday at Helen Day Art Center in Stowe. Curator Odin Cathcart chose to include it along with other work by Bilal "The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi speaks to our increasing disengagement from our sanctioning of violence outside of our own nation and the shared and contrasting experiences of that violence in the 21st century. In context with Bilal's other work at the Helen Day, the video game piece furthers Bilal's themes of the human condition." Bilal said he created the game in order to "hold up a mirror" to an American society which believes that such a game is perfectly fine when it is an American killing Iraqi's (referring to the original basis for Al-Qaeda hacked video game; "Quest for Saddam" created in 2004 by Jesse Petrilla) but finds itself outside the 'comfort zone' when the circumstances are reversed.

"We asked Wafaa to come to Stowe in September to present his work to the board of trustees. We knew this was a potentially controversial show and that we needed their support. The conversation about his artwork, this video game and the role of the artist in society has been going strong ever since." said Nathan Suter, Executive Director. "I personally find his perspective fascinating. Wafaa came to the US in 1992 as a refugee from Saddam Hussein's regime. he is now a US citizen and a professor at NYU. Still, he identifies with both America and Iraq. This makes his artwork incredibly powerful in the midst of our conflict in Iraq."

"Part of the vision of the Art Center is to bring contemporary artwork to Central Vermont, where our audience might otherwise never have an opportunity to view it. It is our role to show artists who we think are relevant and to do the work of explaining and contextualizing their work for our audience. We create public programs around issues and themes that are present in the work." Suter says.

The first of these is this Friday, January 22nd at 5:30pm when the Center hosts a panel discussion on "Art, Audience, Free Speech and Democracy". There will be a brief film screening followed by a discussion with four panelists: The artist, Wafaa Bilal; the editor of the Stowe Reporter and free speech expert, Tom Kearney; a staff attorney from the Vermont ACLU, Dan Barrett; and Art Center Director, Nathan Suter.