In the wake of 9/11, the line between diligence and paranoia has grown fuzzier than ever, as this story demonstrates:
- Steve Kurtz, a Buffalo art professor, discovered on the morning of May 11 that his wife of 20 years, Hope Kurtz, had stopped breathing. He called 911. Police and emergency personnel responded, and what they saw in the Kurtz home has triggered a full-blown probe — into the vials and bacterial cultures and strange contraptions and laboratory equipment.
The FBI is investigating. A federal grand jury has been impaneled. Witnesses have been subpoenaed, including da Costa.
Kurtz and his late wife were founders of the Critical Art Ensemble, an internationally renowned collective of “tactical media” protest and performance artists. Steve Kurtz, 48, has focused on the problems of the emergence of biotechnology, such as genetically modified food. He and the art ensemble, which also includes da Costa, have authored several books including “Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media” and “Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas,” both published by Autonomedia/Semiotext(e).
The day of his wife’s death, Kurtz told the authorities who he is and what he does.
“He explained to them that he uses [the equipment] in connection with his art, and the next thing you know they call the FBI and a full hazmat team is deposited there from Quantico — that’s what they told me,” says Paul Cambria, the lawyer who is representing Kurtz. “And they all showed up in their suits and they’re hosing each other down and closing the street off, and all the news cameras were there and the head of the [Buffalo] FBI is granting interviews. It was a complete circus.”
Cambria, the bicoastal Buffalo and Los Angeles lawyer best known for representing pornographer Larry Flynt, calls the Kurtz episode a “colossal overreaction.”
FBI agents put Kurtz in a hotel, where they continued to question him. Cambria says Kurtz felt like a detainee over the two days he was at the hotel. Paul Moskal, spokesman for the Buffalo office of the FBI, says the bureau put Kurtz in a hotel because his home had been declared off limits. The probe, Moskal says, was a by-the-books affair from the very beginning.
“Post-9/11 protocol is such that first-responders have all been given training about unusual things and unusual situations,” Moskal says.
And obviously, says Lt. Jake Ulewski, spokesman for the Buffalo police, what the cops eyeballed raised some alarms. “He’s making cultures? That’s a little off the wall.”
Erie County health officials declared the Kurtz home a potential health risk and sealed it for two days while a state lab examined the bacterial cultures found inside. Officials won’t divulge what precisely was examined, but it turned out not to be a danger to public health. And the house was reopened for use.
Still, federal authorities think something in that house might have been illegal, Cambria surmises. But Cambria denies there was anything illegal in the house. William Hochul Jr., chief of the anti-terrorism unit for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Western District of New York, would not comment on the investigation.
Kurtz, on Cambria’s advice, isn’t speaking to the press either.
….In November 2002, in an installation called “Molecular Invasion,” Kurtz grew genetically modified seeds in small pots beneath growth lamps at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, then engineered them in reverse with herbicide, meaning he killed them.
“We thought it was very important to have Critical Art Ensemble here because we try to have our visiting artist’s program present work that takes our curriculum to the next step,” says Denise Mullen, vice dean of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, whose Hemicycle Gallery hosted Kurtz’s molecular exhibit.
Beyond the cutting edge of art, she says, “we want work that is really bleeding edge.”
In Buffalo, in the aftermath of the bioterror probe that has found no terror, activist artists have scooped up the refuse from the Kurtz front yard and taken it away, perhaps, says da Costa, to create an art installation. [Washington Post]
The more art looks like real life, the more exposed it is to the rules of real life. This story sounds crazy, but it isn’t really in these terror-shocked times, and the art certainly incorporates tools from real life.
The Critical Art Ensemble defense fund site has more info:
- According to the subpoenas, the FBI is seeking charges under Section 175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which has been expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act. As expanded, this law prohibits the possession of “any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system” without the justification of “prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose.” (See the 1989 law and its USA PATRIOT Act expansion.)
Even under the expanded powers of the USA PATRIOT Act, it is difficult to understand how anyone could view CAE’s art as anything other than a”peaceful purpose.” The equipment seized by the FBI consisted mainly of CAE’s most recent project, a mobile DNA extraction laboratory to test store-bought food for possible contamination by genetically modified grains and organisms; such equipment can be found in any university’s basic biology lab and even in many high schools (see “Lab Tour” at for more details).
The grand jury in the case is scheduled to convene June 15 in Buffalo, New York. Here, the jury will decide whether or not to indict Steve Kurtz on the charges brought by the FBI. A protest is being planned at 9 a.m. on June 15 outside the courthouse at 138 Delaware Ave. in Buffalo.
Unless there really is something going on here, I can’t imagine the grand jury will indict.
As the Katherine O’Hara character said in Beetlejuice, “my art is dangerous.”