No doubt members of the Critical Art Ensemble had no desire to prove their point by personal example when they wrote in a 2002 manifesto on transgenics, “In the era of pancapitalism, only the corporations have the right to manage and control the food supply. If anyone else intervenes, it’s terrorism.”
But since May 2004, CAE founding member Steven Kurtz has been at the center of an aggressive investigation launched under bioterrorism laws because of just such an intervention. Kurtz ran afoul of authorities after he called 911 when his wife died of a heart attack. Paramedics noticed test tubes, petri dishes and other lab equipment in his home and called the FBI.
Kurtz, an art professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, was working on projects criticizing genetically modified food, the militarization of healthcare and the history of American biowarfare. Despite Kurtz’s well-documented and renowned career as a bioartist, the FBI confiscated his computers and art materials, along with his car and his cat. He was indicted last June on four counts of fraud, along with Robert Ferrell, former head of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health. Ferrell helped Kurtz acquire the $256 worth of bacteria used in his project–a routine practice among scientists.
Facing prison sentences of as much as twenty years, the two are alleged to have breached a “material transfer agreement” (MTA) for misleading the company supplying the bacteria. According to prosecutors, the company believed the bacteria would be used in a classroom, not in an art project. Moreover, Kurtz wasn’t a “registered customer” of the bacteria supplier. By all accounts, this is the first time the federal government has stepped in and characterized an alleged MTA violation as a criminal offense. A ruling on Kurtz’s recently filed motion to dismiss the case is expected shortly.
Kurtz’s case is not only one of those quirky clampdowns on artistic expression that keep making news around the country; it’s a revealing example of wasteful federal overreach in the “war on terror.” Like many of the 200 indictments falsely touted as terrorism convictions by President Bush as he shilled for renewal and expansion of the Patriot Act last month–a Washington Post investigation showed that all but thirty-nine of those snared were charged with visa violations and other minor infractions, pursued after terrorism hunts went nowhere–Kurtz landed in the jaws of the Joint Task Force on Terrorism by chance. And now, like a dog with a bone clenched in its teeth, the Feds won’t let him go.
But unlike the stories of immigrants rounded up on specious suspicions of terrorism, or scientists overzealously hounded on technicalities in their handling of hazardous biological agents (as the ACLU decries in a new report called “Science Under Siege: The Bush Administration’s Assault on Academic Freedom and Scientific Inquiry”), Kurtz’s Kafkaesque tale is also a story of the genuinely radical power of CAE’s anti-aesthetic, boundary-smashing, interventionist art–and of federal efforts to silence it.