Terrorizing Artists in the USA

“This film is dedicated to Hope.”

Thus reads the opening epigraph in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s film Strange Culture that opens the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival this Friday, June 15th in New York. It’s a lovely sentiment for our era of unremitting pessimism. When one realizes that Hope is not only the belief that events can turn out for the best, but a 45-year old woman who died prematurely of natural causes in her sleep , chills travel up and down one’s spine.

The film chronicles Steve Kurtz, an art professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a member of the art collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Kurtz awoke on May 11, 2004, to find his wife and collaborator Hope Kurtz, who had no prior health problems, dead. When the cops arrived and saw a lab and Petri dishes planned for use in an art installation about genetically modified food at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, they called all manner of federal acronyms, including DHS or Homeland Security. The FBI arrested Kurtz on suspicion of bioterrorism, an utterly false charge that should’ve been quickly cleared up.

Because Kurtz cannot publicly discuss details of the case on advice of counsel, Strange Culture delicately and cleverly threads together dramatization and documentary footage. Actors Thomas Jay Ryan and Tilda Swinton play Steve and Hope Kurtz. While the blatant First Amendment (freedom of speech) and Fourth Amendment (the right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure) violations by the feds is horrifying, the cruel treatment of a man who’s just lost his wife is nauseating. If anyone still thinks that describing the United States government by using the F word –fascist –is an overstatement in 2007, then they should see this film.

Kurtz was illegally detained for a day, his house was turned upside down, and his work –and Hope’s body –were seized for investigation. While it was eventually ruled that there was no public safety threat or terrorism involved, the Department of Justice (oxymorons are ubiquitous in Orwell’s 21st Century America) continues to prosecute Kurtz and colleague and geneticist Robert Ferrell for wire and mail fraud, even though they followed standard procedure practiced by laboratories and universities.

The last three years have been a nightmare of filed motions and pre-trial hearings and still no one knows when the case is expected to go to trial. Kurtz and Ferrell face 20 years in prison, the same as the terrorism charges. It’s a thought crime vendetta using alleged violations that are normally civil matters.

Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble are guilty of practicing freedom of speech. Among other transgressions, including being anti-war and anti-GMO, they’ve accused corporations and their U.S. government proxy of inciting panic. Through mixed media (installation, performance, text), the CAE makes the case that the population-at-large is not susceptible to biowarfare; that the motivation for scare tactics is the “symbolic abstraction of fear” to control citizens and reap corporate profits. I know this panic-for-profits scam is real because I have an unopened box of Tamiflu in my closet. I shelled out many shekels for it, yet there have been no cases of Avian Bird Flu in the United States.

Artist and supporter Gregg Bordowitz explains in the film that a potential conviction for Kurtz and Ferrell gives the Bush Administration an “opportunity…to extend the government’s powers into the university system, into academia, into the art world…and run with it.”

The CAE Defense Fund desperately needs approximately $120,000 for legal fees. Both Strange Culture director Hershman Lee and Kurtz will be present at Friday’s screening. The film will also run on June 18th and 19th. Highly recommended is the CAE’s latest book Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health.

Michael Battle, the original federal prosecutor in the CAE case, was promoted in June 2005 to be the Justice Department’s overseer of US Attorneys. He was the official who informed seven US Attorneys in the Attorneygate Scandal that they were being dismissed and he resigned amidst controversy on March 5th of this year. His successor, the man who continues to prosecute Kurtz and Ferrell, is William Hochul.

I’m old enough to remember Richard Kuh, the assistant district attorney in New York who made deadlines in the 1960s by hounding comedian Lenny Bruce for obscenity. When Kuh ran for DA in 1974, the voters remembered that it was Richard Kuh who persecuted Lenny Bruce and contributed to his decline and eventual death. Kuh lost by a landslide and his political days were over.

William Hochul. Remember that name. William Hochul. William Hochul.

MICHAEL SIMMONS is an award-winning journalist and currently filming a documentary on the Yippies. He can be reached at guydebord@sbcglobal.net.

Michael Simmons is a musician and journalist. He can be reached at guydebord@sbcglobal.net.