Steve Kurtz is a professor of art at the SUNY Buffalo, former professor of art history at Carnegie Mellon University and a founding member of the performance art group, Critical Art Ensemble. He is known for his work in BioArt, and Electronic Civil Disobedience, and because of his arrest by the FBI in May 2004. His work often deals with social criticism.
Life and work
Kurtz is a founding member of the award-winning art and theater collective, Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Since its formation in 1987 in Tallahassee, Florida, CAE has been frequently invited to exhibit and perform projects examining issues surrounding information, communications and bio-technologies by museums and other cultural institutions. These include The Whitney Museum and The New Museum in NYC; The Corcoran Museum in Washington D.C.; The ICA, London; The MCA, Chicago; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; and The London Museum of Natural History; and the Kunsthalle Luzern.
The collective has written seven books, and its writings have been translated into 18 languages. Its work has been covered by art journals, including Artforum, Kunstforum, and The Drama Review.
Critical Art Ensemble is the recipient of awards, including the 2007 Andy Warhol Foundation Wynn Kramarsky Freedom of Artistic Expression Grant, the 2004 John Lansdown Award for Multimedia, and the 2004 Leonardo New Horizons Award for Innovation.
In May 2004, Kurtz called 911 to report the death of his wife, Hope Kurtz, of congenital heart failure. In order to create their art installations the Kurtzes sometimes worked with biological equipment and had a small home lab and petri dishes containing biological specimens. At the time of Hope Kurtz's death they were working on an exhibit about genetically modified agriculture for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Buffalo police deemed these materials suspicious and notified the FBI, who detained Kurtz for 22 hours without charge on suspicion of "bioterrorism." Meanwhile, dozens of federal agents in hazardous material suits raided the Kurtz home, seizing books, computers, manuscripts, and art materials, and removing Hope Kurtz's body from the county coroner for further analysis.
Kurtz was allowed to return to his home one week later, after the Commissioner of Public Health for New York State had determined that nothing in the home posed any sort of public or environmental health or safety threat, and that Hope Kurtz had died of natural causes.
In July 2004 a grand jury refused to bring any bioterrorism charges, but did indict Kurtz on federal criminal mail fraud and wire fraud charges. Also indicted was Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, who served as a scientific consultant on Critical Art Ensemble's projects. The charges concern the way Kurtz and Ferrell allegedly ordered and mailed the non-pathogenic bacteria used in several museum installations. Under the USA PATRIOT Act the maximum possible sentence for these charges has increased from five to twenty years in prison. The charges related to how Ferrell allegedly helped Kurtz obtain $256 worth of harmless bacteria. "This is the first time in the history of the federal courts that the U.S. Department of Justice is intervening in the alleged breach of a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) of nonhazardous materials in order to redefine it as a criminal offense[,]" reads a FAQ for a Kurtz defense fund website.
In October 2007, Ferrell pled guilty to misdemeanor charges. Ferrell's wife and daughter subsequently issued public statements saying the plea deal was due to the stress of the case and severe illness (Ferrell is a 27-year survivor of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and suffered a series of strokes following his indictment in 2004). Ferrell was later sentenced to a year of unsupervised release and fined $500.
On April 21, 2008, the indictment for mail and wire fraud was ruled "insufficient on its face" by the presiding Judge Richard Arcara. This means that, even if the actions alleged in the indictment (which the judge must accept as fact) were true, they would not constitute a crime. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) had thirty days from the date of the ruling to appeal. No action was taken in this time period, thus stopping any appeal of the dismissal. The only option left for the DoJ would be to re-indict Kurtz.
The story of Kurtz is told in the film Strange Culture, 2007, by filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson. The film was simultaneously screened and webcast to the Second Life game on January 22, 2007. It focuses on Kurtz' art, character, and interaction with law enforcement. Strange Culture premiered at the Sundance International Film Festival in 2007.
- USA PATRIOT Act controversy
- Orfeo (novel), by American author Richard Powers, has some resemblances to Kurtz.
- "Critical Art Ensemble".
- "The Humanities Project Events for January 2008".
- "UB Art Professor "Strange Culture" Case Goes to Court".
- "Leonardo/ISAST gives New Horizons Award for Innovation to Critical Art Ensemble".
- "The Insider". The Daily Telegraph (London). November 4, 2007. Retrieved May 24, 2010.[dead link]
- "The Strange Case of Steve Kurtz: Critical Art Ensemble and the Price of Freedom".
- "Critical Art Ensemble-Defense Fund".
- "Diane Raeke Farrell Discusses Kurtz Case, Husband's Plea Deal".
- "Professor Sentenced for Providing Bacteria for Art". The New York Times. February 12, 2008. Retrieved May 24, 2010.
- "ARTIST CLEARED OF ALL CHARGES IN PRECEDENT-SETTING CASE".
Articles about the case:
- CAE Defense Fund - Organization raising money for Kurtz's legal defense. Has additional information about the background of the Steve Kurtz case with extensive documentation.
- Trailer for documentary about the case, "Strange Culture" (directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson; features 2008 Oscar winner Tilda Swinton, Thomas J Ryan, Peter Coyote, Wallace Shawn)
- Washington Post article about the arrest June 2, 2004.
- College Quarterly article about the case and Bio Art Spring 2005.
- Huffington Post article about the case June 14, 2007.
- Alternative Film Guide interview with Steve Kurtz and Lynn Hershman Leeson March 31, 2008.
- Art or Bioterrorism - Who Cares Interview with Steve Kurtz by RU Sirius, 10 Zen Monkeys, September 26, 2007.
- Disciplining The Avant-Garde, The United States versus The Critical Art Ensemble by Gregory Sholette
- The Political Problem of Luck Interview with Steve Kurtz by Julia Bryan-Wilson, Plazm magazine, Issue 28, Summer, 2006.
- Navigating the Gray Zone Interview with Steve Kurtz, Arts Hub, April 21, 2006.
- CASE UPDATE: 21.Apr.08: DR. STEVEN KURTZ CLEARED OF ALL CHARGES!
Information about Steve Kurtz & Critical Art Ensemble:
- Critical Art Ensemble website
- Critical Art Ensemble project at the Corcoran Museum, Washington D.C.
- Critical Art Ensemble at the Edinburgh International Science Festival
- Critical Art Ensemble at the World Information Organization
- "Art in a Time of Terror: Acclaimed Art Professor Steve Kurtz on How He Became a "Bioterrorism" Suspect" – video report by Democracy Now!' program, June 16, 2008