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A Matter of Authority
By Shawn Stone

For 20 years, the Critical Art Ensemble have made challenging interventionist art—now one of their members may spend 20 years in federal prison for it

Steve Kurtz, a smiling, middle-age man with straight long hair, seems as normal as can be as he describes a slide presentation in a recent appearance at Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media. He certainly doesn’t seem like an enemy of the people.

The image he’s describing is pretty innocuous, too; weird, but certainly innocent. After all, what could be less threatening than someone playing with toys? One of the other members of the arts collective Kurtz helped found, the Critical Art Ensemble, is sitting on the ground at an unidentified interstate rest stop wearing a paper Burger King hat. Surrounded by a small crowd and a couple of cops, the guy has a Hot Wheels track and cars set up, and is playing with them—accompanied, Kurtz adds, by a jarring soundtrack (from a boombox) consisting of taped sounds of car crashes.

Referring to the cops in the picture, Kurtz explains that “they’re deciding right now if they’re going to arrest him” for being a public nuisance. Why? Because adults don’t play with toys. Because, as Kurtz adds, “arrest is discretionary.”

“Anyone can be arrested at any time.”

When the Critical Art Ensemble repeated this installation at Daytona Beach, Fla., he remembers, the cops were on the scene immediately. The level of security often depends on the level of what Kurtz describes as “commodity exchange.”

Translation: Don’t try this at the mall. Or in front of an office building.

Did the police involvement faze onlookers? No: “People understood that he was about to be arrested for playing with toys.”

This particular form of intervention, he says, was in some part about “escaping the militarization of space.”

Translation: This is about what is—and is not—permitted in public spaces that are more and more monitored and policed by cops, rent-a-cops and, if it’s government property, the state police or FBI.

The reality about artists, Kurtz says, is this: “We have no real power; there’s nothing we can really do.” And yet, it took no time at all for this relatively innocuous intervention to provoke the real possibility of arrest.

Again, looking at the unassuming Kurtz, he could be a state worker, musician, postman or even what he actually is—an artist, and professor of art at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He certainly doesn’t look like a bioterrorist. But that is the way the FBI viewed him on May 12, 2004, the day after his wife died.

On May 11, 2004, Kurtz’s wife, Hope, died in her sleep at their Buffalo home. He called the paramedics to come to his house; when they arrived, they not only took note of his late wife—who, the autopsy proved, died of natural causes—but of Kurtz’s lab, and his home-raised bacteria.

The paramedics called the police. As Kurtz told the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper, “They thought I’d germed her to death.”

The following day, the FBI became involved. As the chronology on his legal defense fund Web site lays out, the FBI and agents “from the Joint Terrorism Task Force” took him into custody and told him he was being investigated for “bioterrorism.”

Next, “agents from numerous federal law enforcement agencies—including five regional branches of the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Buffalo Police, Fire Department, and state Marshall’s [sic] office—descended on Kurtz’ home in Hazmat suits.”

You may recall the Lackawanna Six, the immigrants from Yemen who visited the al Queda training camp in Afghanistan and then moved to the rust-belt Buffalo suburb Lackawanna? This was shortly after their arrest. The same assistant U.S. Attorney (“Chief Terrorism Division”) who went after the Lackawanna Six, William Hochul, went after Steve Kurtz.

The Department of Justice was—and still is—extremely focused on fighting terrorists. As it says on the DOJ Web site: “For decades, terrorists have waged war against U.S. interests. Now America is waging war against terrorists. . . . We have promoted freedom over the past two years while protecting civil liberties and protecting people here and around the world from further terrorist attacks.”

Kurtz, with his Petri dishes of scary looking bacteria, looked like a terrorist.

What, you’re probably wondering at this point, was in those Petri dishes?

Nontoxic bacteria being grown for one of the Critical Art Ensemble’s biotech actions, Free Range Grains, which was to have been part of The Interventionists exhibit at MASS MoCA last year. (The FBI’s own little intervention prevented this.) Kurtz talked about this and a more recent biotech effort, Marching Plague, in his recent Troy visit.

Free Range Grains was to take on Monsanto and genetically engineered foods. Marching Plague is about “showing the connection between ‘war tech’ and the decline of public health.”


“The militarization of our medical research.”

Come again?

It’s simpler than it sounds. In Troy, Kurtz talked in detail about the amount of money being spent by the U.S. government on bioweapons research (millions), as opposed to what he characterized as “real” health crises like tuberculosis or malaria (very little). This, he argued, is in spite of the fact that the chance of people being hurt by biological weapons is minuscule—because they’re so hard to make and to “deliver” in a weaponized form—compared with, say, the current worldwide TB epidemic.

To illustrate the futility of germ warfare—and, by implication, the stupidity of spending millions on research to prevent a bioweapons attack—the CAE re-created, in Marching Plague, an early-1950s British military experiment to see if plague “could be used as a tactical ship-to-ship weapon.”

If it sounds like a dopey idea, be assured that, on this point, the CAE confirmed the original results. They went way, way up north to the Isle of Lewis (off the Scottish coast) where the test was first performed. They built a floating platform on which was placed a large cage full of 30 guinea pigs, watched over by an animal-protection representative seeing to the safety of the rodents.

>>From a ship one mile away, they launched a harmless “bacterial broth” from the rear of the boat using a “pressurized atomizer.”

Alas, as the Brits found out more than 50 years ago, it didn’t work. As it says on the CAE Web site: “Our results were as disappointing as the original experiment.” Traces of the bacteria were found on only one guinea pig, “proving once again that germ weaponry is not only a stupid idea, it is also impractical.” (Note: “No guinea pigs [were] hurt or unnerved during the experiment.”)

OK, some of you are probably asking yourselves, “This is art?”

The short answer? Yes.

As a matter of fact, just last week (March 5), Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times that the “most interesting option” for a contemporary art world dragged down by “bland paintings, self-regarding videos, artful tchotchkes and shoppable M.F.A. artists-to-watch” is the work of “miniature subcultures known as collectives.”

One of the groups Cotter references is the Critical Art Ensemble. Referring to Kurtz’s legal problems, he wrote: “It would be easy to think that the government officials prosecuting Mr. Kurtz are simply too obtuse to see the ‘art’ in Critical Art Ensemble’s work. Yet it is just as likely that they see an art of potentially subversive information and don’t like it.”

“I really do completely admire what they’ve been able to do as a collective,” says Kathy High, professor and chair of the Department of Art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “I didn’t realize that they’ve been together for 20 years. To think about how they work as a collective. . . . it’s really to be admired.”

Asked for more particulars, she says that “for me, there are a couple of things they do. They form a bridge not just between academics” but for the general public, in that they “work with technologies that are otherwise inaccessible.”

“The demystification process they go through in their performances,” High adds, “really speaks to allowing students and academics from different fields to begin to ask questions about what’s going on in the areas they’re investigating.”

There is also, she explains, the matter of the CAE’s now-widespread influence: “I keep hearing their philosophy and kind of approach to things repeated over and over.”

“When people talk these days,” she notes, “I hear a lot of their [Critical Art Ensemble] writing reiterated by other young artists.”

After a week of going over Steve Kurtz’s home, the alphabet soup of government investigatory bodies packed up and left, leaving behind a gruesome smorgasbord of biological filter wrappers, empty soda bottles and more than a dozen pizza boxes. (Indicating that, when it comes to good health practices, these law enforcement officers were found wanting.) The state DOH determined the house “held no public safety threat.” The DOJ still tried to get a grand jury to indict Kurtz “under Section 175 of the U.S. Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989,” which had been amended (re: enlarged) by certain provisions of the USA Patriot Act.

While that didn’t happen, the grand jury did indict Kurtz and Robert Ferrell, the former head of the genetics department at the University of Pittsburgh, on counts of mail and wire fraud. The reason? Ferrell procured the bacteria from a commercial supplier ostensibly for himself, but was really buying it on behalf of Kurtz. As things stand right now, Kurtz’s lawyer’s most recent motion to dismiss the charges failed. It is likely that the case will go to trial next year; if convicted, Steve Kurtz faces up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary. (Ferrell, who is reportedly very ill, is not expected to stand trial.)

This is one reason why Kurtz was in Troy—part of the funds raised that night (Monday, Feb. 11) will go toward his legal defense fund. Certainly the art world has rallied around him. Last year, D.J. Spooky did a multimedia benefit concert in Buffalo; a benefit art auction held at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery (50 artists donated works) raised more than $167,000. Kurtz is currently traveling around giving lectures and raising money.

In what he calls this post 9/11 “prefascist” moment, Kurtz certainly has no illusions about his prospects. “If I have to go to jail,” he told the audience in Troy, “so be it.”

“Never,” he added, “be intimidated.”

As part of his lecture, Kurtz connected the dots between the increasingly political nature of CAE’s projects and the level of government interest in what they’ve been doing. And it’s making their work more difficult. When deciding what projects will be possible, “it’s really difficult to do risk assessment.” It’s easy to know when to pick up the Hot Wheels track and go home; it’s not so easy to know if the nontoxic, unthreatening biological agent you’re working with will bring down the wrath of Homeland Security. In this climate, Kurtz deadpanned, the government has proved to have a “greater tendency to overreaction.”

It’s a convincing argument.

“I personally find Steve’s own questioning, and the way he looks at things, has a kind of fluency,” Kathy High says. “He’s so articulate.”

“That whole continuum of thinking about disciplinary actions against their work, for the past 20 years, it really made a very clear case,” High says, adding, “You can’t argue with it.”

She concludes: “He’s a good one, that Steve.”

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