May 10 Steven Kurtz went to bed a married art
professor. On May 11 he woke up a widower. By
the afternoon he was under federal investigation
began as a personal tragedy for Mr Kurtz has turned
into what many believe is, at best, an overreaction
prompted by 9/11 paranoia and, at worst, a politically
motivated attempt to silence a radical artist.
of Mr Kurtz's colleagues and artistic collaborators
have been subpoenaed and a date for a federal
grand jury hearing set for Tuesday. Both artist
and his art are set to go on trial for their alleged
links with terrorism.
ordeal started when Mr Kurtz, who teaches at the
University at Buffalo, New York state, called
the emergency services when he woke up to find
Hope, his wife of 25 years, had stopped breathing.
paramedic who came to his house saw laboratory
equipment used in Mr Kurtz's art work. Within
hours agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force
were combing his house and had seized his books,
personal papers, computer as well as his work
which have still not been returned.
it transpired, had died of a heart failure which
no one suggests had anything to do with Mr Kurtz
or his work. But as her body lay in the house
Mr Kurtz, 46, was whisked off to be questioned
for two days while his home was cordoned off and
searched. "It's a complete fishing expedition,"
says Mr Kurtz's lawyer, Paul Cambria. "There's
no question that it's a paranoid overreaction
that would never have happened before 9/11. I
only hope that it is not simply aimed at trying
to silence his message or the methods he's using
to convey his message." The FBI refuses to comment.
Kurtz, who is not speaking to the press, is part
of the Critical Art Ensemble, "dedicated to exploring
the intersections between art, technology, radical
politics and critical theory".
art often involves blending biology with agricultural
issues. In 2002 his exhibit Molecular Invasion,
a statement against genetically modified crops,
created a display of small soy, corn and canola
plants growing under large incubating lamps. Other
exhibits allowed visitors to watch bacteria grow
in petri dishes. "He's trying to change the world
through his work and his discourse," says Adele
Henderson, the head of the art department at the
University at Buffalo.
New York-based writer and artist Greg Sholette
says: "His art itself is going to be on trial.
The Critical Art Ensemble has a strong tradition
of critiquing capitalism and pushing the edges
through its art but always within constitutional
the police came to Mr Kurtz's house they found
equipment used for extracting and amplifying DNA,
as well as three types of bacteria - prompting
is obviously not someone who is attempting to
make a weapon," says Mr Cambria. "He explained
that he uses the equipment for his art."
subpoenas say the FBI is seeking charges under
section 175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism
Act of 1989, which has been expanded by the Patriot
Act. It prohibits the possession of "any biological
agent, toxin, or delivery system" without the
justification of "prophylactic, protective, bona
fide research, or other peaceful purpose". Mr
Cambria argues that Mr Kurtz's work "obviously"
comes under the last two categories. "I know everything
we did was legal," said Beatriz da Costa, a member
of the CAE who says FBI agents followed her to
an art show in Massachusetts to serve her a subpoena.
"I can only think they are trying to intimidate
us and maybe make us an example."
da Costa, a professor at the University of California,
says everything found in the house has been exhibited
in public before.
close to Mr Kurtz or the case believe the case
has spun out of control and has potentially huge
ramifications. "I feel harassed and hassled,"
Ms Da Costa says. "But mostly I feel sorry for
Steve Kurtz because he lost his wife, and his
life has been a nightmare ever since. And he didn't
even have time to grieve."
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
from The Guardian:
Posted: June 17, 2004