Art in the Age of Terror

The movie of The United States v. Steven Kurtz would be film noir. It would begin with an aerial shot of Buffalo photographed in the cool, dystopian, post-industrial blues of that city, and descend past the empty streets and abandoned buildings into the heart of downtown, through the windows of a home in the Allentown neighborhood, the Greenwich Village of Buffalo, where artists, professors and graduate students mingle with the poor and indigent. The camera would rest on a couple in their forties, Steve and Hope Kurtz, lying in bed.

Kurtz would awaken to discover that his wife, Hope Kurtz, wasnt breathing. He would call 9-1-1. The ambulance would rush to the scene but paramedics would be unable to resuscitate her. The camera would track her body to the hospital, where a white-coated doctor, surrounded by pristine nurses and shadowed in the background by men in brown suits, would pronounce her dead, the cause to be determined later. We would follow the men in brown suits – agents of the FBIs Joint Terrorism Task Force – back to the house, where they would consult, out of earshot, with the mustachioed officers of the Buffalo police department.

A voiceover would begin: On the morning of May 11, 2004, Steve Kurtz, a man of peace, an artist and a professor, woke up to find his wife dead. When the police arrived, they found in his home the tools of an unusual trade: laboratory equipment, samples of bacteria, books on biological warfare and bio-terrorism. Steve Kurtz was an artist, you see, but not an artist like you and I know, not a Vincent van Gogh before a blank canvas, a palette of oils cradled in his arm. He was a private dick in artists clothing, a man who haunted the borders of the system, looking for truths in its cracks and trying to expose them to the sunlight. And for that he would pay a price.

Steve Kurtz was indicted yesterday, June 30th, and charged with wire and mail fraud. The Pitt professor who sent him the bacteria the FBI found was also charged. He has not yet had his trial but his life has already been blasted into disarray. "I was detained for 22 hours by the FBI," Kurtz wrote 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."

In particular, the FBI seems interested in his work as a member of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), an artist collective that explores the intersection of art, technology, politics and the law.

At least 11 other people, most of them affiliated with CAE, were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury that convened on June 15. A curator at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington was questioned by FBI agents on the content of a CAE project that was exhibited there in 2002. At Mass MoCA in North Adams, CAEs 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.

The subpoenas refer to the Biological Weapons Statute, a law whose scope has broadened over the years as the country becomes ever more concerned with the threat of terrorism. Most recently, in 2001, the USA Patriot Act expanded it to prohibit the possession of any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system of a type or in a quantity that, under the circumstances, is not reasonably justified by a prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purposes.

Kurtz is a professor in good standing at the University of Buffalo, and his work has been vetted and celebrated for over a decade by the gatekeepers of official culture. In the case of the installation at the Henry Art Gallery, which exposed visitors to a harmless strain of E.coli bacteria spliced with human DNA, he was even given the go-ahead by the universitys Department of Environmental Health and Safety.

CAEs most provocative adventure in biology, Molecular Invasion, was also an installation at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C., one of nations great museums. (In it, CAE attempted to use a chemical compound to make RoundUp Ready plants susceptible to RoundUp, the highly toxic pesticide they were genetically engineered to resist.)

Its bewildering to most of us, and baffling, says Humberto Ramirez, an artist who has known Kurtz for almost 20 years. The work is not mysterious to anyone who knows anything about contemporary art. He has an immense reputation. Legendary is not an exaggeration for Steve and the Critical Art Ensemble.

There is, however, another story about Steve Kurtz and Critical Art Ensemble. In this story, which seems to have made the FBI curious, 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 devise methods to help bring the international system of capitalism down.

To understand The United States v. Kurtz one must begin, really, with a flashback. Back to 1986, in Florida, when Steve Kurtz and Steve Barnes, graduate art students at FSU, collaborated on a few video projects. To acknowledge the many friends who helped, they signed them Critical Art Ensemble, leaving their names off.

By the following year, CAE expanded to six members and began to develop an anarchist theory of cultural production. Over the next few years their theories found expression in a series of practices that have since come to be called Tactical Media.

In general terms, Tactical Media (TM) is the use of various media, mostly electronic and scientific, to engage the public in a dialogue for achieving a variety of specific noncommercial goals and pushing all kinds of potentially subversive political issues. In earthier terms, it's theatrical, mischievous, in-your-face political art.

In the early years of CAE this meant, for instance, publishing plagiarized books of poetry and disingenuously selling them to libraries as unique art books, or collaborating with HIV activists to criticize the government's passivity in fighting the epidemic.

As the group matured, the artists began to conceive of themselves as playing the role of slightly mad scientists in the movement. Their job was to conceptualize, consider and then test out practices that might be used by other activists to produce disturbances or to create molecular interventions and semiotic shocks that contribute to the negation of the rising intensity of authoritarian culture. In less grandiose terms, the art was designed to raise questions about practices, like digital surveillance of identities or genetic modification of foods, that have public consequences but mostly go on beneath public awareness.

The question at a TM event, CAE writes, is not what is to be done (that is an important question, but it should be posed in another context), but how do we produce and under what conditions? How do we produce software, gizmos, robots, wetware, graphics, theater, video, radio, etc.? How do we hack, pick locks, graffiti, build barricades, etc.? The TM event could in part be thought of as a series of small workshops.

The experimentation has taken many forms, with gallery exhibition perhaps the least significant of them. CAE publishes websites, stages happenings, conducts research, teaches classes and publishes books which can be downloaded, easily and for free, on their website, www.critical-art.net.

Some examples from the early and mid-90s include The Therapeutic State, a narrative website that criticizes the inadequacies and the excesses of of the American health care system; Useless Technology, a satirical insert that was slipped inside Sunday newspapers in vending boxes throughout the country; and The International Campaign for Free Alcohol and Tobacco, an action in which cigarettes and booze were given out freely in a public plaza.

CAE's books, all five of which were edited by Hope Kurtz, are theoretical, historical and practical manuals for what the group calls resistance, which is an activity that comes in somewhere short of revolution but somewhere beyond conventional protest. Often it flirts with the laws, looking for pockets of possibility where an actor can insert himself and by various means – hacking, genetic reverse-engineering, remote-controlled vandalism, the use of mutant flies as harmless but paranoia-inducing weapons – slip inertia into networks of authority.

In The Electronic Disturbance, for instance, CAE writes of a new kind of theater that would merge traditional, physical performance with virtual performance done upon a virtual self (i.e. ones credit history, police records, test scores, etc.). They give a hypothetical example of a pre-op transgender hacker who sits upon a stage, in front of an audience, and hacks into the police database to change her gender from female to male.

Throughout its work in many media, CAE 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.

Anarchist, anti-globalization critiques are standard fare for those who live in the leftward but still mainstream provinces of the Academy and the contemporary art world. What distinguish Steve Kurtz and CAE, and what probably has kept the FBI interested this long, are two things: Their specificity and their non-specificity.

CAE is usually very specific in its proposed responses, and many of these responses, if they were acted upon rather than just described, would be illegal.

In Fuzzy Biological Strategy, the manifesto of the Molecular Invasion project, the group is explicit about this. The fuzzy saboteur, it says, has to stand on that ambiguous line between the legal and the illegal (both criminally and civilly). We do not want to make it easy for capitalist spectacle to label resisters as saboteurs, or worse, as eco-terrorists.

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.

At the same time, the group is equally careful to imply that, outside the public eye, it wouldn't mind helping out with the sabotage. Similarly, the group is coy about its reasons for choosing between means of resistance. It advocates nonviolent tactics, but goes out of its way to justify nonviolence only on pragmatic grounds. In one passage, for instance, tactical arson is dismissed mostly because it plays right into the hands of the authorities. Violent revolution is dismissed for its impracticality, not its immorality.

For most of its existence, CAE has been playing a game, dancing back and forth between two representations of itself. The first is of a group of artists who use rhetoric that sounds revolutionary but is, in fact, just the language of the contemporary art world, no more dangerous than sports fans talking about how one team is going to destroy another.

The other possibility is that Steve Kurtz and CAE are, in fact, militants in our midst. Theyre true resisters, if not quite revolutionaries, who use their personae as harmless artists as cover to engage in subversive activity.

Tragically, but also ironically, the death of Hope Kurtz has brought the FBI and the resources of the federal government in to resolve the question. Right now, agents are almost certainly reading CAE books, interviewing colleagues, going over phone records, analyzing bank accounts. They are playing the role that CAE has long described for them.

The probable truth is the most mundane, that Steve Kurtz is a fascinating artist with radical but ineffectual politics who has never knowingly broken the law. The Justice Department is overzealous, both for legitimate reasons – the public has an interest in preventing terrorism – and for illegitimate reasons: The John Ashcroft Justice Department is drunk on power.

Although he has been indicted, it's possible Kurtz will serve no jail time. If so, he will return to his life as a free man deep in lawyerly debt, secure in his position at the university, scared to go forward with his art, a hero/martyr of the art world, and bereft from the loss of his wife.

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