Reunions and resistance – Critical Art Ensemble

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Great to meet up with Steve Kurtz at AND festival, Liverpool, last week, recovered from his four-year ordeal of FBI intimidation.

Photo of Steve Kurtz in panel discussion smiling in black jumper and blue jeans
Photo of Steve Kurtz by Steve Reynolds

Kurtz’s story is well-known and much written about. But for those on another planet at the time: in 2004, Kurtz, of art collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), together with his scientific collaborator Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, were slapped with charges of bioterrorism by the US Dept of Justice. These were triggered by CAE’s art projects critiquing commercial biotechnology and US biowarfare research, and Kurtz’s biological lab equipment and supplies, discovered because he had called 911 to report that his wife had died of heart failure.

Men in white hazard suits enter a house marked of by yellow warning tape
The FBI searching Kurtz's house

When the bioterrorism charges could not be substantiated – after several months and a pile of public money – the DOJ downgraded the crime to “mail and wire fraud”. These charges involved a minor contractual technicality over Ferrell’s sale of some harmless bacteria to Kurtz for his project “Marching Plague” (commissioned by Arts Catalyst). Under the US Patriot Act the maximum sentence for these charges was five to twenty years. The FBI continued for four years to try to find ways to reinstate the bioterrorism charges.

Critical Art Ensemble, Marching Plague, action on Isle of Lewis (2006), commissioned by The Arts Catalyst)

Ferrell eventually pleaded guilty to these smaller charges to avoid a federal trial, leaving Kurtz to forge on alone for both Team Art and Team Science. Ferrell wasn’t so much scared of the DOJ as just extremely ill. He has had non-Hodgkins lymphoma for the past 30 years, and three strokes since the charges were brought against him.

In 2008, after a long expensive legal battle, a judge finally dismissed all charges against Kurtz.

But has Kurtz really recovered, as he says? He talked at his keynote lecture at AND festival / Rewire conference about the Lacunian “big other”, and the policeman and the lawyer who now sit in his head. Critical Art Ensemble will be at Documenta next year, enfolded into the bosom of the mainstream arts world, presenting critical work that is powerful but covers subject matter that other artists do. Is CAE going to play it safe now? Has the FBI won, in some sense, by quieting their critique and dulling their actions?

What inspired me so much about CAE was their tactical invasion of specialist knowledge economies, such as biotechnology, that are controlled and commodified.

But talking to Steve, I am reassured and immensely cheered. He is a remarkable man, battered but resilient, and absolutely unbroken. Expect more mischief-making and provocations in new and unexpected knowledge domains. I will report.

Three smiling people in a dark bar
Absolutely sober Arts Catalyst / Steve Kurtz reunion at AND festival. Photo:: someone in a bar

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