Citing code violations, the city of Troy on Tuesday closed a building displaying the controversial art exhibit “Virtual Jihadi” one day after it opened.
The exhibit by Wafaa Bilal of Chicago features himself as a suicide bomber sent on a mission to kill President Bush; the format is a video game. The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy volunteered to show his work after Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute rejected it because of concerns about its content.
Sanctuary spokesman Steve Pierce said he received a call from a city code enforcement official Tuesday morning. He taped the call.
On it, an unidentified official said the city will not allow anyone to “assembly” inside the building until code violations are fixed. The official said the Sanctuary must replace 29-inch-wide doors inside the 108-year-old building with 32-inch-wide doors and install panic bars.
“I was told to call you and speak to you about [replacing the doors]. We are not going to be able assembly anything down there, no one will be able to assembly down there until these violations have been corrected. I will be placing a placard saying the place is unfit,” the official said on the taped message.
Deputy Mayor Jeff Buell said the city did not close the building. In a statement, he said, “We have allowed them 30 additional days to resolve these problems. All we have asked it that they do not have public gatherings until these issues are resolved, for the safety of all involved.”
Pierce said the city’s timing is more than coincidental. “Troy has a reputation of shutting up people [Mayor Harry Tutunjian] does not agree with.”
Pierce said the Sanctuary plans to show Bilal’s work as soon as it can, either in the current building or at another location. “We talked about moving it to another location. Our preference is not to have the city silence us at our location,” he said.
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 event attracted about 100 people, half in favor of the display and half opposed to it, Pierce said. Leading the protest was Bob Mirch. Mirch is head of the city’s Department of Public Works, and works for state Sen. Joseph Bruno as a constituent liaison. He is Republican majority leader on the Rensselaer County Legislature.
“The only thing different between the day before and [Tuesday] is we have an Iraqi artist protesting the war,” Pierce said.
Pierce said the city was well aware the Sanctuary was working toward correcting the violations, which should cost about $15,000. The violations go back 13 months, he said. The city cited the Sanctuary, Pierce said, after it showed a film critical of Tutunjian’s policies on urban development last year.
“The next day, the city sent code enforcement to us and we were cited,” Pierce said. “We corrected the issues that were easy to fix and of primary concern to public safety.”
The other issues require major work, such as blasting the building’s foundation to widen doors, Pierce said. “We couldn’t do it right away if we wanted. We are a not-for-profit in an old building, in an old neighborhood,” he said. “We got a loan to do the work. We have been working on this for a year.”
Until Tuesday, the Sanctuary had sponsored events almost weekly, attracting between 25 and 100 per event, Pierce said. He said he has contacted the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Albany chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union for assistance. No one was available for comment from these organizations Tuesday night.
Bilal’s work is the centerpiece of a monthlong celebration of art, freedom and democracy at the Sanctuary. Other works include culture jammers The Yes Men, filmmaker Pam Yates and the Critical Art Ensemble’s Professor Steve Kurtz.