Radical media, politics and culture.

Martin Rosenberg, "The Paranoid Persecution of Steve Kurtz"

bhagat writes:

The article below is by Martin Rosenberg, Ph.D., a scholar of science, technology and culture living in the Pittsburgh area. I know it's a few weeks old now, but Martin is currently working on a new article about the CAE case, and so any comments from this audience would be much appreciated. The upcoming article, which will appear in one of the major Boston papers, makes an argument about the CAE case transforming the entire Ashcroft Justice Department into a conceptual art piece. Maybe a draft of the next piece will get posted here? — Lex

"The Paranoid Persecution of Steve Kurtz"
Martin E. Rosenberg, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

For the past month, artists, scientists, academics and others interested in freedom of thought and expression have had their eyes on Buffalo and a bizarre grand jury investigation into the case of The Artists Who Play With Petri Dishes.

The case involves a heart attack victim, and then a range of claims and denials: wrongful death by bacterial infection, possession of biological agents suitable for warfare, public health threats, terrorism, sedition, artistic freedom and First Amendment violations, paranoid McCarthyism and Keystone Cops shenanigans. Artists and scientists are so united in outcry that you would think that C.P. Snow had never written his "Two Cultures" thesis that in the modern world, never the twain shall meet. The Bill of Rights makes for strange bedfellows.On May 11 in Buffalo, Hope Kurtz suffered heart failure at home. Her husband, Steve Kurtz, called 911. Buffalo EMS technicians arrived and pronounced her dead. But during their routine investigation, the police were alarmed by what they found in the home of Mr. Kurtz, who is an internationally recognized artist and a faculty member at the State University of New York at Buffalo (and former art professor at Carnegie Mellon University). They discovered laboratory equipment, petri dishes and experimental samples of the following bacteria: bacillus globigii, serratia marcensens and a genetically sterilized form of E. coli. They also found DNA extracting technology, as well as a range of publications addressing genetic engineering, the human genome project, bioethics, bioterrorism and biowarfare.

The police called the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and FBI agents from Buffalo as well as Pittsburgh arrived, dressed in biohazard suits straight from the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial."

Kurtz had been preparing to install a biological art exhibit on May 30 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (known as MASS MoCA). Instead, after being detained a day, he discovered his laboratory equipment, library, correspondence and computers containing his life's intellectual work confiscated. In a nightmare straight out of Kafka, Kurtz, the members of his collaborative performance group Critical Art Ensemble and an increasing web of associates found themselves under investigation by a grand jury that continues to expand its purview.

For over a decade, Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble have committed themselves as artists to raising public awareness of the consequences of science and technology on the public sphere. Often using a form of participatory theater, they have addressed the ethical and political dimensions of issues ranging from eugenics and the human genome project, to genetically engineered grains and agribusiness ("Free-Range Grains" is the title of a recent piece). Recently they decided to address the history of our own nation's complicity in the growing menace of bioterror. They may have intended to devote part of the May 30 show at MASS MoCA to that issue.

Part of this project concerns what the philosopher and translator Brian Massumi calls, in a work with the same title, "the politics of everyday fear," by which they may mean the fear generated by an overstated bioterrorism threat against this country — a position shared by many in the scientific community.

Kurtz and colleagues are now caught up in the machinations of a national security/Justice Department operation that should split our sides with the absurdity of its focus and reach if it didn't also scare us silly. We don't have to look outside the United States, to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or to the Guantanamo Bay detention center to give us the willies about the behavior of U.S. officials under this current administration with respect to human rights. The increasing intensity of this federal investigation suggests not William Blake's proverb that if a fool persists in his folly he will become wise, but rather Blake's hellish images of satanic wheels endlessly turning — the wheels of the Industrial Revolution after which we still model our bureaucracies.

To understand the feds' behavior, we must understand that this machine is not out of control. It works according to the standards of behavior given to it by those at the controls. By those at the controls, I refer to the executive branch in charge of the Justice Department dictating policy and procedures of Homeland Security, the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the FBI.

And the wheels do continue to turn.

The grand jury was called even after it was determined that 1) Hope did not die of foul play, 2) Hope did not die accidentally from exposure to biological agents and 3) the laboratory and house pose no health risk to the public. Agent Paul Moskal of the Buffalo FBI claims that the grand jury investigation is not about terrorism. And he claims, as Jonathan Silver reported in the Post-Gazette last Sunday, that it's not about "artistic endeavor or the First Amendment." The FBI has established that Steve Kurtz has had an international reputation for over a decade as an artist and beloved professor addressing biology, technology and politics.

Yet the FBI has interviewed acquaintances of Kurtz, and now acquaintances of those acquaintances as those first have been subpoenaed by the grand jury, asking whether Kurtz "had ever advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government," and whether "he could be a terrorist." Now Autonomedia, the publisher of books by the Critical Art Ensemble, is under grand jury subpoena, as are records of the purchasers of its books. (Hint to FBI: The Tower Records chain sells Autonomedia books. That's where I buy them... whoops!)

Let's be clear: We are talking about the deliberate intimidation of the producers and consumers of intellectual content. The FBI seems committed to cruelly exploit what seemed (charitably) at first to be a case of an honest but overzealous investigation.

Why don't they just make this go away? Is this a case of telling a bigger lie to hide a smaller one, or are Steve Kurtz and colleagues terrorists? Are we missing something?

One clue comes from the June 20 Post-Gazette article, and it has to do with the admittedly harmless biological samples found in Steve Kurtz's laboratory. Claire Pentecost, a friend of Kurtz and a faculty member at the Art Institute of Chicago, states that Kurtz's interest in these biological agents had to do with his attempt "to assess the actual danger [biological weapons] pose and to bring U.S. policy on such threats into public dialogue."

I contacted Gregg Bordowitz, colleague of the subpoenaed (and silenced) Pentecost, who supplied me with the following fascinating information. While the biological agents bacillus globigii, serratia marcensens, and E. coli are harmless, Kurtz was indeed researching the possible use of these agents in biological warfare and bioterrorism. And, he was trying to "bring U.S. policy on such threats into public dialogue."

One of these agents was used in developing biological weapons in the 1950s, when past experimenters have used serratia marcensens to simulate the dispersal behavior of lethal bacterial under various weather conditions. The other two are not related: Experimenters have used bacillus globigii as a harmless stand-in to test the effectiveness antibacterial soap, and E. coli was a sample from an earlier and unrelated genetic engineering art project. But, to underscore the harmlessness of these materials, all three are readily available and used for a variety of academic scientific purposes.

Kurtz, to be sure, was not developing bioterrorist weapons. But he was surveying the research practices within the U.S. during the Cold War development of bioterrorist weapons of mass destruction of the 1950s and '60s — developments that no doubt still continue.

What did Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble do with these materials? They engage in participatory theater in art museums, constructing "period" sets of laboratories and computers, with artists/actors wearing lab coats or uniforms of scientists or military officials engaging in the design and production of genetically engineered food (or bioweapons). Viewers wander through the installation observing and asking questions of the artists. Their aim seems to be to educate the public about policy issues concerning biology and technology, such as genetic engineering, bioterrorism and biowarfare.

Dangerous? Perhaps only to the authors of the policies that are under question.

The machine operating in Buffalo remains both hilarious and chilling because 1) we know that we have absolutely nothing to fear from Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble and 2) we know that the FBI knows that, too — and it makes absolutely no difference to them.

Clearly, this inquiry has been employed to suppress artistic and political dissent, despite Agent Moskal's protestations to the contrary. From my vantage, I expect that those convening the grand jury hope that fear will outweigh memory for that jury, and they will try to make that dissent look as suspicious as possible. Perhaps some on the jury will have a long memory. I remember my father, Allen Rosenberg, telling me about his interrogation by the FBI during those awful years of the early 1950s. A fervent patriot, he was an electrical engineer working first on radar, nuclear submarines, then eventually on guidance systems for ICBM missiles. He was cursed with anti-Semitic slurs by agents looking into all Rosenbergs, even those whose family name before Ellis Island was Hasenput and even though the agents already knew that. He really never got over it.

People interested in helping those caught up in these particular machinations should visit the Web site of the Critical Arts Ensemble Defense Fund, www.caedefensefund.org