Kurtz case, activist art in limbo

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The legal battle with the Department of Justice that artist Steve Kurtz is embroiled in has implications not only for artists but, by extension, for anyone engaged in outside-the-box public discourse that challenges established convention.

David Duprey, Associated Press
A trial date hasn't been set for art professor Steve Kurtz, shown at his arraignment on July 8, 2004.
Click photo for larger image.

Previous coverage:

Artists pull together for one of their own (04/09/05)

Pitt professor indicted on fraud charge (06/30/04)

Forum: The paranoid persecution of Steve Kurtz (06/27/04)

Ex-CMU art prof entangled with Feds (06/20/04)


Kurtz is a founding member of the widely acclaimed art collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE, established in 1987), which exhibits internationally and was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. The group examines the impact of science and technology on consumer culture through works that are activist, performative and conceptual.

An associate professor of art at State University of New York, Buffalo, who formerly taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Kurtz lectured at The Andy Warhol Museum Saturday on "Second Wave Eugenics and Critical Art Practice," in conjunction with the exhibition "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race."

With him was Lucia Sommer, a CAE member and defense committee coordinator, who later answered questions about his case, which is moving sluggishly through a series of pre-trial motions.

In May 2004, Kurtz's wife died in their Buffalo home. Police who responded to his 911 call noticed scientific materials, including petri dishes, in the house and notified the FBI, who confiscated Kurtz's computer, books and components of CAE projects under the Patriot Act.

Analysis showed that his wife died of natural causes, and that the microorganisms impounded were harmless and readily available from biological supply houses. Lacking bioterrorism evidence, the FBI charged Kurtz with mail fraud and wire fraud -- based on his alleged receipt of the bacteria from University of Pittsburgh scientist Robert Ferrell -- and each of them faces a possible 20-year sentence.

The CAE sees the case as having the precedent-setting possibility to blur the division between civil and criminal law, should the Department of Justice win.

Sommer says that it "seems almost certain" that the case will go to trial, though a date has not yet been set and lawyers estimate it could be one-and-a-half to two years away. A motion to dismiss it is among about a dozen the defense has filed during the pre-trial process.

Contesting the terms laid down by the prosecutor has slowed the case momentum, and Sommer is concerned that public interest, which she believes will be particularly important during the trial, be maintained. To that end, the CAE Defense Fund, which was established after Kurtz's arrest, has initiated a separate education fund for use at trial time.

In the year following his arrest, Sommer says, Kurtz attended 32 fund-raisers held on his behalf on several continents, to pay his $7,000 to $10,000 a month legal fees. An auction of artworks donated by prominent global artists at the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, alone raised $167,700.

The new fund will be used to encourage an international presence in Buffalo during the trial, Sommer says, including persons to conduct consciousness-raising activities as well as expert witnesses from the disciplines of art, science and technology to attest to the worth of CAE work.

"Political trials like this are won as much in the court of public opinion as in the court of law," Sommer says.

Some who've weighed in on the arrest feel that it's the result of a cultural disjunct; that the government doesn't realize that it's commonplace, and that there is historic precedent, for artists to employ contemporary technology and scientific discoveries, not to mention social issues, in their expression. Others more cynically conclude that the government knew exactly what the collective had been up to.

If it didn't, it does now.

Among the things taken from Kurtz's house were components of the CAE work "Free Range Grain," which was to have been part of the exhibition "The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere" that opened later in the month at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams. The work, which had been shown earlier in Europe, addresses genetic modification of food.

Also confiscated were elements of the CAE's most recent project "Marching Plague," described on the CAE Defense Fund Web site (caedefensefund.org.) as "dedicated to demystifying the issues surrounding germ warfare." Although none of his research materials has been returned, Kurtz managed to rewrite and publish "Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health." It was the companion film to this work that premiered at last year's Whitney Biennial.

The Warhol exhibition Kurtz's lecture supplemented originated at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and addresses the role eugenics played in the Nazi racist ideology that led to the murder of 6 million Jews. His lecture was co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, Center for Bioethics & Health Law, Department of the History of Art & Architecture and The Graduate Program for Cultural Studies.

Kurtz illustrated his Warhol talk with other CAE projects, including "Flesh Machine" of 1996-97, which incorporated an actual gene donor profile form to make a point about how ingrained and myopic social values are, and how they can be manipulated.

CAE, in short, provokes the kinds of questions that an informed citizenry must consider to control its destiny. One could imagine how that may interfere with the information flow delivered by a consumer marketplace fattened by complacency.

Asked if anyone else is doing the work of the CAE regarding genetic applications, Sommer answers no, certainly not on such a comprehensive scale. When weighing what to make of this "Kafkaesque," as Kurtz has dubbed it, series of events, that's a significant point to consider.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas may be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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