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.
In 1993, Adam Honigman was working at the World Trade Center when a truck packed with explosives exploded in its basement. On September 11, he watched the towers collapse from his office in Greenwich Village. "One job more or less," he writes, and "it could have been me there this time." Now, hed like the City to memorialize its dead by not rebuilding the towers. He writes of the joke about how the Twin Towers were built of the boxes the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building came in, and he pleads that we not "dishonor the dead, missing and this city with ugly, rectangular crates."
His comments can be found, along with hundreds and potentially thousands of other, on www.downtownnyc.org, a website launched on May 20 to host discussion among the public on the redevelopment not just of ground zero and the surrounding areas that were physically damaged, but of all of Lower Manhattan from Houston St. down. Now that the last of the rubble - a thirty foot steel column - has been removed from ground zero, the redevelopment game is officially on; the website is an effort to assure that the public becomes a player.
To address the expanse of Lower Manhattan, the sites bulletin boards are grouped into fifteen topics. Each of these topics is devoted either to a specific place, like the World Trade Center, or to an issue, like the future of Arts & Culture in Lower Manhattan. Within each there are further categories, and as the website evolves there will be further still, but the structure and design of the site remain simple. You click on one of the topics, choose from one of the sub-topics on that page, and then, as the bright red link says, "Read Comments and Add Your Own."
Appropriately, for a site dedicated to incarnating the will of the public, the ownership of www.downtownnyc.org is unclear. Its main sponsor, the source of its legitimacy, is the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown Manhattan, the largest of the many non-profit coalitions and alliances that have formed in the last eight months to influence the course of the redevelopment. The producer and manager of the site is the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a New York-based non-profit urban planning firm.
Ownership aside, the purpose of the website is clear, and it is driven by a simple philosophy, that the people who live and work in a place - the stakeholders, in urban design vernacular - are best equipped to manage its development and future. It is these stakeholders, according to PPSs recent book How to Turn a Place Around, who "know from experience which areas are dangerous and why, which spaces are comfortable, where the traffic moves too fast, and where their children can safely walk or bike or play." And it is the hope of the project that their website can become a place where the public goes to articulate its expertise.
Public participation has been an avowed goal of the parties involved in the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, but the publics response has proven more passionate than anyone anticipated. When the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), the state/city group chartered to coordinate the rebuilding, held the first of its public hearings on May 23, the crowd was hostile. "We don't feel the Lower East Side is represented in the process," said Margaret Hughes. "The LMDC talks about being open but so many decisions have already been made." And there were further complaints: Chinatown was being ignored; the issue of affordable housing hadnt been adequately addressed; no one seemed interested in rebuilding the towers. "It's absolutely inconceivable to me," said Louis Epstein, "that they would rebuild without rebuilding the towers. It's like deserting your dead in the battlefield." *
"The LMDC needs us," said Harriet Festing, head of Marketing for PPS. "They dont know any more than we do, than the public does, about how this thing should go, and I think they realize that. I was at the meeting, and I felt badly for them. They dont really have a mechanism for incorporating public opinion, and theres no way they can process, in a meeting like that, a thousand people with a thousand different opinions. "
One of the services the website can provide, argues Festing, is a structured, continuous source of opinion from the public. Though the site has only about one hundred and fifty registered users at the moment, they are shooting for twenty thousand by the end of the year, and Festing believes if they can attract that many people then those in charge - the LMDC, the Port Authority, the Governor, the mayor, the developers - will have to take notice, and will want to take advantage.
So far, most of discussion on the website has been about the future of ground zero. Eileen Shay, who lost her younger brother Robert on September 11, writes of taking an out-of-town friend to see the towers on September 7, four days before the attacks. "He looked up in amazement at the Twin Towers," she writes, "and I looked up with him and simply stated that New York is the greatest city in the world." Eileen is pragmatic on the issue of rebuilding: "We should definitely put office buildings on the site," she writes, but "not as high because I believe we would have a hard time finding people to occupy the area."
The challenge for the project, assuming they are able to solicit comments from thousands of Shays and Honigmans, is how to sell the information, how to package it. When I asked Festing what PPS would do with twenty thousand people with twenty thousand different opinions, she acknowledged that she didnt know. "Well do an analysis, a report, but I cant tell you what exactly it might look like." Nor do the people at PPS know what the site would even look like with that many comments. "Maybe well do it like Amazon does," said Julie Caniglia, the web producer, "with a few comments on the main page and a link to the rest. I dont know yet."
Some of their uncertainty is a consequence of the speed with which the redevelopment is progressing, a speed theyve had to match in the construction of the website. The rest of the uncertainty, however, is an expected product of their philosophy, that the public should create the narratives that define what a public space - in this case a virtual public space - becomes. The site, therefore, is designed precisely to encourage the formation of these narratives, with maps; suggestions collected from workshops; links to other urban design websites; slide shows with images of what other cities have done with similar types of places. "We have already divided the space up into topics and issues," says Festing, "and within the comments we may begin to see patterns emerge. We may even see people connecting there and then organizing on their own. A body of individuals can cohere, can coalesce into a group that might actually get something done."
Everyone whom I spoke to at PPS was up front about the fact that their motives in developing the site are not disinterested; they too are trying to sell something. Though they are not being paid for their work on www.downtownnyc.org, what they learn from this project will help them pitch the service to their paying clients, and the press they get - this article, for instance - wont hurt either. But nobody in New York is disinterested; it wouldnt be the city it is if its people were. What gives the website its credibility is precisely that the interests of PPS and the Civic Alliance and the public coincide. Information if what they all have to sell; its all that they have to sell.
If the LMDC and the Port Authority have political capital, and the survivors of those killed have moral capital, and the private developers have capital, the public has what one might call stakeholder capital. And though the degree of public participation in the redevelopment will not be determined by the success of one website, it will be determined by the extent to which someone or something can find a way to channel the citys millions of voices into a collective voice. The expertise is there; the question is whether the women and men with the money can be made to listen.
Sally Ionidies used to take the A/C train to the Chambers St. stop. From there she would cross over West St. - "awful to cross," she says - and head to Hudson River Park, often picking up a jug of apple cider at a farmers market along the way. The last time she went, the entrance to the park was closed, and she wants to know why there were no signs indicating when or if it would re-open. Jesse Marsh says of Fulton St., which runs into the former World Trace Center plot, that it should become a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. "Allow Street Fair vendors," he writes, and "charge $20 per day or $100/week." Eric Wallach wonders "about the abandoned theatre that sits unused and falling apart less than a quarter-mile south of Houston Street on the East River?" He would like to see it restored and asks, into the digital ether, to no one in particular, to everyone: "Can I help?"
Dan Oppenheimer is a freelance writer living in New York City.