It seems Steve Kurtz didn’t have enough heartache in his life when his wife died of a heart attack. So after the medics arrived to cart her body away, they informed the police that they’d seen petri dishes and other suspicious lab equipment in his home. They thought Kurtz might be a terrorist and then he really was in hot water with The Law.
If anyone’s looking for examples of the lunacy of the USA Patriot Act as it’s applied and enforced in mainstream America, you need look no farther than the case of Steve Kurtz, a conceptual artist from Buffalo, NY who’s a member of the Critical Art Ensemble and an associate professor of art at SUNY Buffalo. CAE is an artist collective devoted to “exploring the connections among art, technology, radical politics and critical theory.”
The Arts Valley (Hartford) Advocate’s Art in the Age of Terror: The perils of practicing subversive art in Buffalo tells the whole sordid tale:
“I was detained for 22 hours by the FBI,” wrote Kurtz in an e-mail to a sympathetic online writer, his only public communication since his wife´s death. “They seized my wife´s body, house, cat and car. These items were released a week later. In the house they seized computers, science equipment, chunks of my library, teaching files, ID, and all my research for a new book. The only thing I have gotten back is my wife´s birth certificate.”
The FBI quickly expanded its investigation to encompass not just Steve Kurtz, but all his artistic collaborators in CAE. To the government, it looked like it could be a vast terror conspiracy in the making:
At least 11 other people, most of them affiliated with CAE, were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury that convened on June 15. Rose Held, a curator at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington was questioned by FBI agents on the content of Gene(sis), a 2002 CAE exhibit displayed there. At Mass MoCA in North Adams, CAE´s Free Range Grain, a mobile lab that invited the public to test foods for genetic modification, has been reduced to four posters, two computers and a piece of paper that explains that the rest of the equipment is in the possession of the government.
Hazmat crew entering Steve Kurtz’s Buffalo home (credit: Don Heupel/AP)
There is another side to Steve Kurtz and Critical Art Ensemble at least in the eyes of the FBI. According to this story, CAE is not just a group of artists, but a vanguard of the subversive wing of the anti-globalization movement, people whose mission has been to help bring the international system of capitalism down.
If we examine CAE’s artisitic-political philosophy one would say that it:
offers a dark, paranoid vision. In it, freedom is mostly a delusion. Our souls are constantly invaded and shriveled by overlapping viruses of mass entertainment, management theory, neoliberal economics, genetic engineering and welfare state benevolence.
Oppression is both pervasive and intangible. Power no longer flows from states, but instead is diffused in a digital, transnational ether. Though it might locate for a moment in a government, a corporation or a person, when challenged it flits away and reconfigures elsewhere like a science-fictional supervillain. As such, old forms of resistance, like civil disobedience, are no longer effective. Blocking the entrances to a building can prevent reoccupation (the flow of personnel), but this is of little consequence so long as information-capital continues to flow.
Asked in an interview in 2000 whether there was any hope of triumph over these dark forces, the collective said no. There is only permanent cultural resistance; there is no endgame, it said. Authoritarian culture won the day on the first day. CAE knows of no way that it can be removed — it´s too deeply entrenched.
Steve Kurtz and his collaborators are scientists of cultural resistance.
But have they broken the law or given the government any reasonable grounds to suppose them to be lawbreakers or terrorists in the making?
With the possible exception of the intent to harm plants in Molecular Invasion — intent which may breach the peaceful purposes line of the Biological Weapons Statute — there´s no evidence that CAE itself has ever committed an illegal act.
In most cases it´s legal to advocate illegality, and for advocacy speech to be criminal, it has to transgress the bounds of the Supreme Court´s very protective test, something CAE is always assiduously careful not to do.
So what do we really have here? A government case built upon vast suppositions and leaps of faith logic. Steve Kurtz owns lab equipment in his own home. Big deal. He orders biological materials via the internet. So do thousands of American teenagers, scientists and other hobbyists. Nothing illegal in that. But Kurtz is different from these others in one significant way: he wishes to artistically subvert government policies regarding a whole range of scientific issues. In this, the government sees great danger. But again, criticizing or satirizing government policy hasn’t ever been a crime (though the Kurtz prosecution makes one begin to wonder).
My serious advice to the U.S. Attorney in Buffalo prosecuting this case: get a contemporary artist and a civil liberties expert to advise you on the artistic issues surrounding this case. Stop seeing it as a bioterror case and place it in its proper artistic context. Until the government does this, they risk doing our artists, our citizens and our Constitution irreparable harm. It is also imperative that the New York Congressional delegation make a huge stink over this. Do they want their own constituents’ rights trampled by overzealous agents and agencies? I hope not.
The Seattle Post Intelligencer has covered the local angle of the CAE story in FBI inquiry left Henry Art Gallery curator uneasy; Held questioned about artist Steve Kurtz.
I first heard about this story on Public Radio Weekend’s Deadly Art.
The Boston Globe covered the controversy over the Mass MOCA exhibition, Free Range Grain, in its story Genetic Art Crosses Line, Says FBI.
The New York Times too covered the story with Use of Bacteria in Art Leads to Investigation.
The Washington Post’s story is The FBI’s Art Attack: Offbeat Materials at Professor’s Home Set Off Bioterror Alarm Fund.
Bruce Jackson, one of SUNY Buffalo’s most distinguished and senior faculty members has written about the case in Alexander Cockburn’s, Counterpunch: Saying No to the Prosecutor: Why Steve Kurtz’s Colleagues Refused to Testify to the Grand Jury
For a sample of Kurtz’s edgy viewpoint, take a look at BioCom, a satirical look at the intrusive and oppressive potential of biotechnology in our personal lives.
To learn more about the government’s case against Steve Kurtz and CAE and to show support for their cause, please visit Critical Arts Ensemble Defense.