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Wednesday, June 02, 2004


Critical Art Ensemble is a tactical media group- artists who utilize the "spectacle" and radical aproaches to media to discuss wider issues on the social uses and misusues of technology. Their founder is Steve Kurtz, currently an art professor at the University at Buffalo. On May 11th, Steve called 911 to report that his wife had died in her sleep of a cardiac arrest. This was the begining of a very disturbing series of events which is still ongoing. The full text as it appears on rtmark's site is reproduced below:

Feds Unable to Distinguish Art from Bioterrorism
Grieving Artist Denied Access to Deceased Wife's Body

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Steve Kurtz was already suffering from one tragedy when he called 911 early in the morning to tell them his wife had suffered a cardiac arrest and died in her sleep. The police arrived and, cranked up on the rhetoric of the "War on Terror," decided Kurtz's art supplies were actually bioterrorism weapons.

Thus began an Orwellian stream of events in which FBI agents abducted Kurtz without charges, sealed off his entire block, and confiscated his computers, manuscripts, art supplies... and even his wife's body.

Like the case of Brandon Mayfield, the Muslim lawyer from Portland imprisoned for two weeks on the flimsiest of false evidence, Kurtz's case amply demonstrates the dangers posed by the USA PATRIOT Act coupled with government-nurtured terrorism hysteria.

Kurtz's case is ongoing, and, on top of everything else, Kurtz is facing a mountain of legal fees. Donations to his legal defense can be made at


Steve Kurtz is Associate Professor in the Department of Art at the State University of New York's University at Buffalo, and a member of the internationally-acclaimed Critical Art Ensemble.

Kurtz's wife, Hope Kurtz, died in her sleep of cardiac arrest in the early morning hours of May 11. Police arrived, became suspicious of Kurtz's art supplies and called the FBI.

Within hours, FBI agents had "detained" Kurtz as a suspected bioterrorist and cordoned off the entire block around his house. (Kurtz walked away the next day on the advice of a lawyer, his "detention" having proved to be illegal.) Over the next few days, dozens of agents in hazmat suits, from a number of law enforcement agencies, sifted through Kurtz's work, analyzing it on-site and impounding computers, manuscripts, books, equipment, and even his wife's body for further analysis. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Health Department condemned his house as a health risk.

Kurtz, a member of the Critical Art Ensemble, makes art which addresses the politics of biotechnology. "Free Range Grains," CAE's latest project, included a mobile DNA extraction laboratory for testing food products for possible transgenic contamination. It was this equipment which triggered the Kafkaesque chain of events.

FBI field and laboratory tests have shown that Kurtz's equipment was not used for any illegal purpose. In fact, it is not even possible to use this equipment for the production or weaponization of dangerous germs. Furthermore, any person in the US may legally obtain and possess such equipment.

"Today, there is no legal way to stop huge corporations from putting genetically altered material in our food," said Defense Fund spokeswoman Carla Mendes. "Yet owning the equipment required to test for the presence of 'Frankenfood' will get you accused of 'terrorism.' You can be illegally detained by shadowy government agents, lose access to your home, work, and belongings, and find that your recently deceased spouse's body has been taken away for 'analysis.'"

Though Kurtz has finally been able to return to his home and recover his wife's body, the FBI has still not returned any of his equipment, computers or manuscripts, nor given any indication of when they will. The case remains open.


A small fortune has already been spent on lawyers for Kurtz and other Critical Art Ensemble members. A defense fund has been established at to help defray the legal costs which will continue to mount so long as the investigation continues. Donations go directly to the legal defense of Kurtz and other Critical Art Ensemble members. Should the funds raised exceed the cost of the legal defense, any remaining money will be used to help other artists in need.

You can read an interview I did with Steve, which I posted on this weblog back in December, here.

What's particularly dizzying about this case is the irony bubbling in this story. I stopped to think that this might be a media prank several times, but sadly, this is not the case. Steve's work is aimed at precisely this kind of tragedy; he looks at reproductive technologies and bioterrorism, bioinformatics and the like and draws out Orwellian scenarios. Hence the "Critical" moniker. But nothing in his work or anything I've witnessed in the years since the Patriot Act was enacted resembles this case in its lack of logic and its devaluation of human life. Some people have been arguing that while the incident is unfortunate, the FBI erred on the side of safety. After all, they were called to a home where a woman died suddenly in her sleep and immediately encountered buckets of equipment that resembled biological weaponry. Indeed, Kurtz has gone out of his way to make some of this equipment authentically resemble biological lab units.

This is a picture from one of CAE's exhibits on bioterrorism. It's understandable that Kurtz's work might be seen as dangerous at first. But it's been several weeks, and since then, events have only gotten more out of control--the remaining members of Critical Art Ensemble have been served subpeonas and will appear in court on June 15th. The time between Kurtz's encounter with FBI and the May 30th distribution of subpoenas was plenty of time to research Kurtz and become more acquainted with the work that he does. And if the FBI went through the trouble of finding out who and what Critical Art Ensemble are, and then tracked down the other members on the way to an ART EXHIBIT, the only conclusion we can come to is that they did in fact research Kurtz and are aware that he is a media artist. The only distinction that might conceivably be blurry is what type of art Kurtz partakes in and if it too closely resembles terrorism. Kurtz has used his own limited resources to experiment with genetically modified food products for his GenTerra exhibit, but unless he physically possesses illegal chemicals, there is no explanation for his current internment.

Whatever the outcome, all the members of CAE desperately need money to help with legal fees. You're encouraged to donate even a small amount here.