In 2004, University at Buffalo art professor Steve Kurtz, a member of Critical Art Ensemble, called police to his home after his wife died suddenly of a heart attack. When they arrived, the police stumbled upon some biology gear and harmless bacteria that Kurtz was using in an art project. The FBI was called in and visions of bioterror danced in their heads. In July 2004, Kurtz was indicted by a federal grand jury for mail and wire fraud. The situation has caused quite an uproar in the tech-art community. Filmmaker Lyn Hersman Leeson's latest movie, Strange Culture, is based on Kurtz's story and stars Tilda Swinton, Peter Coyote, Thomas Jay Ryan, Josh Kornbluth, and Kurtz himself. The case is expected to go to trial next summer. Over at 10 Zen Monkeys, RU Sirius interviews Kurtz about what went down and the legal insanity that has ensued. From the interview:
STEVE KURTZ: Three projects seemed to really bother law enforcement. Critical Art Ensemble was working on a biochemical defense kit against Monsanto’s Roundup Ready products for use by organic and traditional farmers. That was all confiscated.
We had a portable molecular biology lab that we were using to test food products labeled “organic” to see if they really were free of GMO contaminant. Or, when in Europe, to see if products not labeled as containing GMOs really had none. We'd finished the initiative in Europe and were about to launch here in the U.S. when the FBI confiscated all our equipment.
Finally, we were a preparing project on germ warfare and the theater of the absurd. We were planning to recreate some of the germ warfare experiments that were done in the '50s (which were so insane that they could only have been paid for with tax dollars). We had two strains of completely harmless bacteria that simulated the behavior of actual infectious diseases – plague and anthrax. To accompany these performances, we were in the middle of a manuscript on the militarization of civilian health agencies in the U.S. by the Bush administration.
Everything described was confiscated. We had to start from scratch on the project and the book. Happily, we did eventually do the experiments, and published the book – Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health.
RU: Would you say that originally, they authentically suspected they had found some sort of bioterror weapon, and once they realized they hadn't, they found other reasons to remain hostile?
SK: What I think they thought was that they had a situation, along with a vulnerable patsy, out of which they could manufacture a terrorism case. After all, the rewards that were heaped on the agents, prosecutors, and institutions that brought home the so-called “Lackawana Six sleeper cell” case – another railroad job – were witnessed by others in these agencies and noted. This made it too lucrative to pass up turning anything they could into “terrorism”.
They also had plenty of other reasons to be – and remain – hostile.