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When Art is a Crime

Meeting Kurtz

by TONI NELSON HERRERA

Back in May of this year, like many of you, I read about the case of an artist in New York whose wife had suddenly died and he was subsequently suspected of being a bio-terrorist. I first caught the story on the AP wire, so as you can imagine it wasn’t immediately sympathetic so much as sensationalistic, but I picked up on the fact that an artist was being hassled by the state so I turned to CounterPunch to see if anyone had the real story. Sure enough, in the pages of CounterPunch, I found the kind of analysis I was looking for.

Steve Kurtz was an artist being hounded under the Patriot Act and feeling the full effects of the dangerous changes we’ve all seen in civil liberties during this bogus War on Terror. I read the story, was again angered by all that now passes for "normalcy" in this country, but ultimately the story slipped out of my mind as the daily news keeps piling up on one’s mind. I believed, perhaps foolishly, that most likely this would be cleared up- after all it was totally preposterous for the government to persecute an artist who was just doing art- "that doesn’t happen that often does it?" I consoled myself. But of course, any time is one time too many, and "an injury to one"

Every year a friend of mine who now lives in New York comes to Austin to put on the Parallax film festival–a wonderful political film festival that impresses me every year with it’s timely analysis and critical edge. So, I popped downtown to the warehouse they were screening and was immediately whisked away for dinner with old friends and new ones. As we were sitting there at the restaurant eating our hummus and catching up the man across the table began to tell bits and pieces of something that sounded familiar to me- this story of the artist who had been arrested as a presumed bio-terrorist. At first, I thought they were just making political "small-talk." Then it dawned on me, because we hadn’t already been introduced, that this wasn’t someone randomly talking about the case this was the artist himself- Steve Kurtz.

Little by little it sunk in that this wasn’t a distant news story anymore. As frightening as the Patriot Act has been, and in Austin small incidents had occurred that made it seem serious, I hadn’t felt it face to face in this way before. A local grassroots people of color organization called PODER (People in Defense of the Earth and Her Resources) had been visited by Homeland Security for taking pictures outside of the Holly Street Power Plant– a notorious case they’ve fought for years to remove this polluting symbol of environmental racism in Austin’s historically segregated, and still practically so, Eastside. I know one of the organizers there, and she told us this story at an event at the leftist people of color bookstore I worked at where we felt we might have been visited less formally ourselves by the authorities around Memorial Day. Last spring the military was also on campus at UT-Austin harassing folks about an academic conference on Islam primarily organized by a woman of color. In all of these situations the Homeland Security folks had eventually walked away. I thought the same thing would have happened for Kurtz, that his legal situation could probably be resolved quickly because it was pretty obvious he was an environmental artist, but it hasn’t been.

When Kurtz was here in September he was in that holding pattern that you get stuck in once you get charged and released and the time ticks by while the state gathers up it’s case, however flimsy and distorted, in a cut-throat attempt to destroy you at all costs in order to save face and prove a point using your fragile life. Some at the table that night were impressed at how casually Kurtz could explain the facts of his terrible situation. I think they too believed, at first, that it would all be okay somehow. But I also tuned in to something deeper, relating to the personal pain that I could see in his face and in his hand motions that his "casualness" masked.

I felt terrible. I had forgotten about this person because he seemed remote, and given his distance it seemed like someone else would take care of it right? Someone else always take care of it right? I had local issues to focus on. I’m not even a part of his art networks, I told myself. I’m just a Chicana busy trying to finish a doctorate and get on with my own life (by which I mean survive). I realized though that our networks do overlap, that the degrees of separation between the leftist art world he occupies and the people of color activist-scholar networks I move in aren’t totally separated-or don’t have to be. I was deeply affected by meeting Steve Kurtz– by his humanity, by his keen intelligence and wit, by his dignity in the face of an unimaginably terrible situation of losing his wife of twenty-plus years, and now facing the potential loss of his freedom.

The next day Kurtz gave his talk at the film festival and along with his colleague Steve Barnes showed slides of Critical Art Ensemble’s work. They entertained the questions they could given the limitations on speech imposed by the pending legal situation. By that point it had sunk in for all us, all experienced activists, that this wasn’t going away quietly. I happened to be sitting there in the dark next to Steve Kurtz while his colleague was relating the details of all that had happened since May. I heard him getting choked up, and I imagined what it must be like to be hearing your life talked about in this way, how insane that must feel to know this was all happening to you, and I instinctually reached for his hand to hold on to it and comfort him if I could. He reached back and held my hand as well, and I felt like I was holding the hand of someone slipping down a well- you don’t want to let go. I desperately didn’t want to believe that this dear person might be going to prison, but it’s absolutely true– that just might happen.

The timeline of upcoming events is that Kurtz is awaiting the trial date being set, assuming in all likelihood that this will go to court instead of the world coming to its senses. He thought that news might come before the end of the year, but it looks as if it will be January before we know if and when he will go on trial. So, not much has changed since you last read about the case probably, the holding pattern is still in place and I have no further information to relate.

Kurtz told us when he was here that the costs of his defense are huge–somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000 a month, which on a professor’s salary is easily beyond his means I suspect. I live with limited means myself, so I have to be careful about giving money away, but I chipped in what I could because I couldn’t look this person in the face not having done what I could to help. It had become personal for me. So, other than keeping him in mind and instead of hoping that someone else is taking care of it, I’m writing here to remind you about the case– sharing my own private brush with this story in the hope that you too will remember Steve Kurtz and do what you can to help pull him out of this dark well.

The CAE Defense Fund website can more fully inform you of what’s at stake here in terms of artistic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and how the state is trying to frame the scope of the case in order to limit his ability to defend himself. I just wanted to put a little flesh on the bones of the story and recall the humanity of a person I only met once, but who touched my heart profoundly.

Please see the appeal below from the CAE Defense Fund:

"Dear Friends and Supporters of CAE and freedom of knowledge and research: I am sending you this appeal for donations to the CAE Defense Fund because it is almost depleted and we are facing large bills in the coming months. The August bill for legal research and preparation of motions was over $10,000. The court has now set a hearing on defense motions for January 11, 2005. The outcome of this hearing will determine whether or not there is a trial, however, there is only a very small chance that there will not be a trial. There seems to be a strong determination on the part of the prosecution to pursue this case.

It is in all our interest that a strong defense is mounted and that we show solidarity at this moment. So I appeal to you to think of this as your Christmas contribution. I’m hoping we can each give at least $10.

Please make checks in any amount out to: CAE Defense Fund mail to:

CAE Defense Fund, c/o Hallwalls
341 Delaware Ave.
Buffalo, NY, 14202."

And please feel free to pass this appeal on to your friends and friendsters and your email lists.

In solidarity and hope of justice, faith wilding.
www.caedefensefund.org

Toni Nelson Herrera works with Resistencia Books/Red Salmon Arts in Austin, Texas is a regular contributor on Radio Caracol on 91.7 kvrx also in Austin, and is looking at the history of Chicana feminism and activism in 1970′s, and working separately on the Death Penalty and mental illness in Texas in the 1920′s and 1970′s. He can be reached at: tmnherrera@yahoo.com