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The Persecution of Steve Kurtz

Editors’ Note: Here’s the latest in the Steve Kurtz case, the Buffalo artist now being harrassed by the FBI. Recall that Kurtz’s wife died, he called 911, they looked at his art and his books and called the FBI, and now the Justice Department has empaneled a grand jury to investigate him and the artists he works with. He’s a really respectable guy and this whole thing is spiraling out of control.

The great local website Buffalo Report recently stated that “BR has been told that the real reason the Justice Department has scheduled a grand jury in the Steve Kurtz case is to cover up their lunatic overreaction in the first place: ‘If the grand jury is looking into this we couldn’t have been out of control, right?’ Wrong. They’re crucifying him just to save face. Your tax dollars at work.”

I don’t doubt that’s part of it, but I’m afraid it might be even more sinister (and more serious) than that. Here’s an email report I sent earlier today to my fellow board members of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations (NAAO), of which Hallwalls in Buffalo is a member, and which last week issued public statements in support of Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble:

My Dear Fellow NAAO Board Members,

The demonstration here in Buffalo yesterday [June 15, 2004] was a success, in that it attracted not only strong local support by artists, activists, academics, and other concerned citizens, but contingents of artists who traveled here from distant points of origin: NYC, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor, Alfred NY, and beyond. Nato Thompson, curator of “The Interventionists,” the just-opened Mass MoCA exhibition that was to have included an interactive installation by CAE, drove here from western Mass. for the demo, and I got to talk to him a little. Because the materials and equipment for this installation were among the items confiscated by and still in the hands of the FBI, Mass MoCA is instead exhibiting information about the confiscation and ensuing investigation itself, so visitors to the museum will know what’s going on, and why they are not getting to see this work. To their credit, Mass MoCA is standing behind the artists. [Unlike, in Kurtz’s case, the UB administration above the level of his Dept. Chair.]

The demonstration also got a lot of good press coverage. Today’s press coverage has not yet been posted on www.caedefensefund.org/, but there are some recent links that have been added that are quite good and worth reading: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (angle: Kurtz and other CAE artists have taught or studied at Carnegie Mellon U.), The Guardian UK, and Capital News 9.

Here’s a scary quote from the last named local TV coverage:

“Gloria Maytham of Denver [a visitor to the Mass MoCA exhibition] said, ‘If it originated in Buffalo; Buffalo, you know, had an al-Qaida cell, I want to be protected.'” [All punctuation and grammar are sic.]

In that regard, in talking to people yesterday and reading deeper into the published writings of CAE, my own current theory of the motivation behind the seemingly pointless pursuit of this investigation is that the feds (FBI, Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force, U.S. Attorney’s office) are opportunistically exploiting the convenient hook of suspicious biological material (in the context of post-9/11 anthrax incidents, both real and hoaxed) to go after an intellectual for his IDEAS. Although authorities have themselves determined that the bacterial matter found amongst Steve Kurtz’s personal and professional stuff is harmless, legal to possess, and entirely explicable in the context of the Mass MoCA installation, I’m afraid they, too, may have looked deeper into CAE writings (freely available both in print in bookstores [including Talking Leaves], and as PDFs on http://www.critical-art.net), which are in fact political, radical, and subversive [of corporate control of biotechnology for profit] in all the best senses. In other words, though the germs are harmless, their presence in Steve’s apartment ended up calling attention to ideas and writings that the feds might well deem “dangerous,” because dissident.

Chapter 5 of the CAE’s latest book, MOLECULAR INVASION, is not only illustrative of the truly political and radical nature of the CAE’s ideas, but is uncanny in its prescience, given the events of the past month. It is, indeed, prophetic.

It’s important for us all to understand that at this point it is quite likely CAE1s radical thinking and writing (i.e., things clearly protected by the First Amendment, even if the right to possess actual microbes may not be in some cases) that have made Steve Kurtz a target of possible, if not probable, federal prosecution. (Kurtz himself has written in an email statement that he is now convinced that, despite rising protests, the case will not be dropped and that his arrest and indictment are inevitable and imminent; I hope he1s wrong about that, but he1s pretty smart about most things.)

Make no mistake, then: We are no longer merely defending an artist whose work–because created and displayed differently from conventional art work–was initially misunderstood when 911 rescuers called to his home by Steve himself happened to chance upon it, and called in the feds. We are now, even more urgently and importantly, defending an artist/academic/writer/political activist/theorist [and apparent pacifist, I might add] whose self-published ideas and writings as part of the CAE might be construed (MISconstrued) as threatening. In other words, though the microbial matter might not justify prosecuting Steve as a “bioterrorist,” the feds might well conclude that his IDEAS, as articulated in the CAE1s own published writings, DO justify that label, and therefore warrant further persecution.

Moreover, according to this week’s press reports, the U.S. Attorney’s office will not even confirm to the press that a grand jury was convened at all yesterday, or that there is any federal investigation into anything. It WAS convened yesterday, and witnesses DID appear, but we only know this to be true because some of those individuals who were subpoenaed shared the contents of their subpoenas in advance with the national artists’ community, including the specifically cited statute under which Steve is being investigated.

Reportedly, Steve Kurtz is identified as the “target” of the investigation. On advice of counsel, he pled the Fifth Amendment and did not answer questions. Adele Henderson, an accomplished visual artist and Chair of the UB Art Dept., and NOT affiliated with CAE, is identified only as a “witness,” so reportedly WAS able to answer questions, presumably pertaining to Steve’s academic standing, his credentials, the validity of his research, etc.

The remaining CAE members, erstwhile members, and occasional collaborators are identified as “subjects” of the investigation, and therefore, also on advice of their various attorneys, did not testify, but invoked their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

The lawyers judged it the lesser of two evils for the subpoenaed “target” and “subjects” (though completely innocent of any wrong-doing) to risk provoking the indictment by refusing to speak than to answer questions that might unwittingly provide grist for the prosecutorial mill.

They expect an indictment to be more likely than not.

ED CARDONI is director of Hallwalls, a Buffalo arts organization. board president of NAAO Buffalo, NY

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