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  • Keep Your EYES on the FRONT and WATCH YOUR BACK
  • Rebecca Schneider (bio) and Jon McKenzie (bio)

These are times marked and marred by Homeland Security measures, terrorist attacks, preemptive "just" wars, and non-denial denials regarding the legality of torture and unrecorded detentions. The most pressing question is perhaps not "Are you paranoid?" but rather, "Are you paranoid enough?" Concerned TDR readers may be interested in the case of Critical Art Ensemble cofounder Steve Kurtz, who gained national—and federal—attention earlier this past summer [2004].

To get our own bearings on the situation, we visited Mass MOCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) to view Free Range Grain, an aborted exhibition by CAE and Beatriz da Costa. The performative exhibit was to have been part of Mass MOCA's show, The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere, which also included such artists as William Pope. L, subRosa, and The Yes Men. The show asked, in part: "How can artists and the public become engaged in complex sciences like biotechnology, sociology, and anthropology? Why would they want to?We think of science as a world unto itself, the realm of super-specialists, but is it a public sphere, too?" Mass MOCA's questions seemed entirely appropriate, and of the exhibitions was aborted. Why? The reason appears to have everything to do with policing the boundaries of the public sphere.

An aborted exhibition is an exhibition of what might have been, had there been an exhibition—that is, in this case, had CAE not been under criminal investigation. In the center of the abandoned exhibit was a sign:

While preparing Free Range Grain for The Interventionists exhibition, CAE/da Costa's lab equipment was seized by the FBI. Lawyers believe that the confiscation of the hardware and wetware could have been made possible through the use of the Patriot Act. Constitutional rights lawyers are currently considering the validity of this linkage. The lab equipment used for Free Range Grain could not be successfully used for the production and weaponization of any germs dangerous to humans or animals. Moreover, the FBI field and laboratory tests have demonstrated that the equipment seized was not used for any illegal purpose. [End Page 5] Furthermore, any person in the U.S. may obtain and possess this equipment without violating U.S. laws. In spite of these facts, the FBI has persisted in its investigation of bioterrorism with respect to the research conducted in this project, and, as of this writing, the FBI has not released any of the seized items, leaving us unable to present the project in its entirety.

CAE/da Costa

On the morning of 11 May, two weeks before the opening of The Interventionists show, Steve Kurtz awoke to find that his wife had passed away in the night. If the death of a loved one was not tragic enough, Kurtz's 911 call to EMS set off a long and troubling set of events. Soon Kurtz found himself surrounded by regional terrorism investigators, FBI agents, and the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force. Their suspicion: possession of illegal biological agents. Though medical examiners quickly determined that Hope Kurtz had died of cardiac arrest, the authorities nonetheless detained Steve and held his wife's body. Federal agents also conducted an extensive search of their home, confiscating his art materials, books, papers, and computers.

News images showed agents in HAZMAT suits going in and out of the house, the street in front closed off with police tape. The Kurtz residence in Buffalo, New York, doubles as a studio for Critical Art Ensemble. As CAE's recent work has focused on the biotech industries, the main floor of his house contained laboratory equipment, petri dishes, and biological samples. Reportedly, it was these scientific art materials that led authorities to contact federal officials, who detained Kurtz and later arraigned him before a federal grand jury, even though state investigators declared his house safe and the suspected organisms harmless (CAE Defense Fund 2004).

Initially, Kurtz and seven other CAE associates were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, as was Kurtz's boss, Adele Henderson, chair of the SUNY-Buffalo department of art. Kurtz's...


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