Week 6/ Steve Kurtz and Bioterrorism/ Ariel Alter

I was shocked at the neurotic swiftness that it took for swarms of men in hazmat suits to invade the artist and college professor Steve Kurtz’s house in Buffalo, New York after the discovery of what superficially appeared to be petri dishes fermenting “bio-terroristic” organisms. I was also troubled by the immediate equation of the appearance of a science experiment in a suburban home with the popular Bush buzzword- terrorism. The immediacy with which the FBI deemed Kurtz a “terrorist” without fully evaluating the items of scientific inquiry in his house demonstrated the pathological tendency of the Bush state to scrutinize anyone who even remotely resembled orchestrating terrorist activities or disagreed with the administration, and the inability to fathom that an artist would harness biotech research as a medium for critiquing the institutional status quo of biotechnology. The FBI tore apart his house and confiscated materials they deemed suspicious, including the body of his dead wife.
Instead of using traditional mediums such as paint and a canvas for social critique, Kurtz conducts science experiments and research at the biotechnology level. His activist art group, the Critical Art Ensemble, literally seeks to understand the science that goes into the stuff that they are critiquing. The level of research being conducted by the CAE usually occurs on much larger scales in institutions or large corporations in the hope for profit. The research found in Kurtz’s apartment was a project meant to incite debate about the safety and morality of genetic research. The FBI was suspicious of Kurtz and the CAE’s politics, because it uses “bleeding edge” art to critique values and practices of the dominant (heavily funded) institutions of society.
The CAE’s project The Marching Plague was meant to critique the copious and unnecessary amounts of time, money, resources and energy devoted to research regarding bioterrorism. Steve Kurtz and the CAE unleashed harmless bacteria meant to be a stand-in for anthrax. Participants stood outside a tower in Germany (the CAE’s description claims that “because Germany is not a hysterical reactionary state,” unlike the U.S., “the use of public buildings by the public is still possible.”) and were tested for bacteria. Only a couple of participants were tested positive for mild amounts of the bacteria. A procession of men in hazmat suits arrived at the scene to demonstrate a “hysterical reactionary state.”
On their website, the Critical Art Ensemble accompanies each description of an artwork with a manifesto that informs the artwork. Here is the conclusion of the manifesto that accompanies The Marching Plague:

“We believe that biowarfare “preparedness” is a euphemism for biowartech development and the militarization of the public sphere. Preparedness, as it now stands, is a madness that continues because it gets votes for politicians, audiences for media venues, profits for corporations, and funds for militarized knowledge production. If there is any real threat to our bodies and health, it is not coming from weaponized germs, but from the institutions that benefit from this weaponization.”
Just recently, Bruce Edward Ivins, a biodefense researcher for the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, was traced back to the anthrax attacks in 2001. Ivins is confirmed to have sent out the anthrax envelopes to promote his research for the cure of an anthrax infection. The “real threat… is from the institutions that benefit from this weaponization.” The real threat may be something inside ourselves, very close to home, not in the house of the artist who works independently from a large profit-driven institution.
For someone whose artwork is devoted to critiquing the state’s hysteria over his supposed threat of bioterrorism, this incident was a nightmare for Kurtz. Kurtz and another professor were convicted not of bioterrorism but mail and wire fraud, for transferring non-hazardous materials through the mail, a crime just recently instated under the U.S. Patriot Act. Kurtz’s story is representative of the modern state’s attempts to curtail free speech in preservation of state that uses fear as a form of social control and pacification. As Kurtz tearily recounted the words of his late wife at the end of the Strange Culture trailor, “Hope would never forgive us… she always said never surrender, never give up.”

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