In May of 2004, Steve Kurtz’s life was turned upsidedown. Kurtz, a founding member of an award-winning collective Critical Art Ensemble, was a tenured professor of art at SUNY Buffalo. His work and that of the Collective was of a kinetic conceptual sort, much of it aimed at informing audiences about the lack of regulation and potential risks of genetically modified food. Shortly before his show was set to open at Mass MoCA, a museum in North Adams, Massachusetts, Kurtz’s wife of 20 years died in her sleep of natural causes. When emergency medical technicials responded to his 911 call, they saw in his home petri dishes–part of scheduled installation–filled with harmless bacterial cultures. They called the FBI.
At that point, the nation was still reeling from the 2001 anthrax scares that had shut down everything from Congress to the Supreme Court to the New York Post. Kurtz was detained on suspicion of bio-terrorism.
What makes Kurtz’s predicament film-worthy is that within a week, tests showed that there were no harmful biological agents in his house and that his wife had died of heart failure. But the case against Kurtz has not gone away. Forced to drop charges of weapons manufacture, the federal prosecutor in Buffalo instead brought charges of mail fraud against both Kurtz and Robert Ferrell, a professor of genetics at the University of Pittsburgh who sent Kurtz the (harmless and legal) bacterial cultures used in his art work. The “fraud” alleged is that Ferrell and Kurtz did not properly reveal, in a requisition form, the purpose of the mailing. It must be noted that neither the University of Pittsburgh nor Buffalo has asserted fraud, and neither Farrell nor Kurtz believed that there was anything fraudulent in their dealings. The allegation of fraud is made exclusively by the federal prosecutor–a first as far as anyone knows.
Even assuming that there were a defrauded party, one wonders why it isn’t being handled as a fairly routine civil matter–i.e., why on earth any putative misrepresentation regarding paperwork is being pursued as a criminal matter. But to give it the ultimate Kafka-esque twist, the charges against Kurtz and Farrell have been pursued under the USA Patriot Act. That means that the sentence for otherwise ordinary crimes is doubled. Since mail fraud carries a sentence of ten years, Kurtz thus faces a possible sentence of twenty years.
After all these years, the prosecution has yet to set a date for the trial. But meanwhile, Strange Culture, a documentary film based on Kurtz’s ordeal, offers a brilliant and moving examination of fear and its manipulations.
Strange Culture, a film by Lynn Hershman Leeson starring Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan and Peter Coyote opens October 5 at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, New York, NY.