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Terror Hysteria Gone Absurdist | The Nation

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Terror Hysteria Gone Absurdist

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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."

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Alisa Solomon
Alisa Solomon, a drama critic and professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, is the author of Re-...

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In his defense, the embattled monologist stressed the differences between theater and journalism. Did he have a point?

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.

The 9/11 commission famously concluded that intelligence agents missed the hijackers' plot because of a "failure of the imagination." Despite seeing the specter of terrorism everywhere in Kurtz's home--one FBI agent made much of the Arabic writing that was part of one of half a dozen images on a card advertising a museum exhibit--the authorities in this case are also suffering from an imagination deficit: They do not know how to read CAE's projects as art, nor art as critical discourse. As the agent noted in an affidavit supporting the prosecutor's request for a search warrant last May, Kurtz explained that he had laboratory equipment at home "to detect the presence of bacteria in food" but later made "a contradictory statement" when he said that the equipment was used to "grow bacteria for art." The agent could not fathom that Kurtz's artwork might involve food-testing and bacteria cultivation, and thus it was easy for him to think that Kurtz had expressed a "contradiction" that suggested deception.

In many respects, CAE intends to blur categories. The iconoclastic collective, formed in 1986, describes itself as "dedicated to exploring the intersections of art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory." For close to a decade, the group has been addressing such issues as human reproduction technologies, eugenics and genetically modified organisms in exhibits, performances and a sophisticated body of manifestoes and theory (see www.critical-art.net). In one performance/installation, for example, called "Flesh Machine," CAE screened audience members' DNA and invited them to calculate the potential value of their bodies in the genetic market economy. In "Cult of the New Eve," they represented the redemptive promise and utopian rhetoric of biotechnology as the stirring faith of an apocalyptic cult. "Contestational Biology" publicly staged experiments attempting to reverse-engineer genetically modified plants.

As Kurtz explained in a lecture about CAE's work at the City University of New York in March, such projects ask why science claims "materials, processes and knowledge bases that we as citizens, as amateurs, can't use, though they are actually legal to use. Why do they function only for corporate and military culture?" CAE shows how the public can seize the means of production even in this most rarefied of realms to demystify, retard and possibly overturn biotech practices that endanger people and the environment.

A chapter of Molecular Invasion called "Fuzzy Biological Sabotage" suggests how. Distinctly counseling against arson, violence, the use of toxins and other unlawful tactics, the authors call for "genetic hacking and reverse engineering." The fuzzy saboteur, they state, "has to stand on that ambiguous line between the legal and the illegal" in "areas that have not yet been fully regulated."

Ambiguity is a quality seldom appreciated by federal prosecutors. Working with benign bacteria in his own home, Kurtz was positioned well on the legal side of the line. But CAE is challenging the corporate, military and government monopoly on biotech information. In the name of counterterrorism, the feds are trying to keep such information out of the hands of dissidents and citizens in general--precisely where CAE aims to place it. Seizing the tragic occasion of his wife's death, they are persecuting Steve Kurtz to warn off anyone who dares to contest the joint enterprise of science, profit, Pentagon and state.

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