The Emergency Response Team might have thought they'd stumbled upon an underground bioterrrorist's laboratory.
On May 11, 2004, 911 received a call from SUNY Buffalo University professor and artist Steve Kurtz reporting the death of Kurtz's wife Hope from heart failure. The responders entered the home where Kurtz worked on his projects for Critical Arts Ensemble (CAE) — projects which explore and critique bio-issues like our contemporary use of biotechnology for weapons programs, reproduction, and food. The responders noted a table with scientific equipment and peculiar substances that are an essential part of Kurtz' work.
The FBI detained and questioned Kurtz for 22 hours. His house — and his wife's body — were confiscated. Kurtz' entire street was quarantined while agents from numerous agencies, including Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, descended on his home in hazmat suits. Everything was confiscated – computers, books on bioweaponry, garbage, posters with "suspicious" Arabic lettering on them… everything.
After about two days, the authorities had tested the biological materials and declared that no toxic material had been found. On May 17, Kurtz was allowed to return to his home.
So did the authorities apologize to the grieving professor before busying themselves with pursuing real crimes and threats? Not on your life!
Despite the Public Health Commissioner's conclusions about the safety of Kurtz's materials, and despite the FBI's own field and laboratory tests showing they weren't harmful to people or the environment, the Justice Department still sought charges under the U.S. Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, as expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act — Prohibitions With Respect to Biological Weapons.
A federal grand jury rejected the charges, but instead handed down indictments with two counts each for "mail fraud" and "wire fraud." According to the CAE, the charges "concern technicalities" about how Kurtz obtained "$256 worth of harmless bacteria for one of CAE's art projects." (Robert Ferrell, former head of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health, and a collaborator on several of CAE’s projects, now facing charges along with Kurtz) In this interview, Kurtz characterizes the charges even more bluntly. "The Department of Justice can drop a major felony on someone for filling out a warranty card incorrectly and mailing it."
To bring more attention to the case, film director Lynn Hershman Leeson (Teknolust, Conceiving Ada) has released a unique new film, Strange Culture. Starring Tilda Swinton, Peter Coyote, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Josh Kornbluth — plus Kurtz himself — the film effectively communicates the story while also reinventing the documentary genre in Leeson's unique style.
Strange Culture was screened in the virtual world of Second Life as part of the 2007 Sundance Festival, a first for the festival. The film has also been screened in Los Angeles, Albequerque, Chicago, Buffalo, Seattle and Minneapolis and is just finishing up showings in San Francisco and San Rafael on September 27. The film has not gone into conventional release, but future showings are planned for New York City.
RU SIRIUS: Describe the project you were working on that caused you to have the materials that caused law enforcement officials to go nuts.
STEVE KURTZ: Three projects seemed to really bother law enforcement. Critical Art Ensemble was working on a biochemical defense kit against Monsanto’s Roundup Ready products for use by organic and traditional farmers. That was all confiscated.
We had a portable molecular biology lab that we were using to test food products labeled “organic” to see if they really were free of GMO contaminant. Or, when in Europe, to see if products not labeled as containing GMOs really had none. We'd finished the initiative in Europe and were about to launch here in the U.S. when the FBI confiscated all our equipment.
Finally, we were a preparing project on germ warfare and the theater of the absurd. We were planning to recreate some of the germ warfare experiments that were done in the '50s (which were so insane that they could only have been paid for with tax dollars). We had two strains of completely harmless bacteria that simulated the behavior of actual infectious diseases — plague and anthrax. To accompany these performances, we were in the middle of a manuscript on the militarization of civilian health agencies in the U.S. by the Bush administration.
Everything described was confiscated. We had to start from scratch on the project and the book. Happily, we did eventually do the experiments, and published the book — Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health.
RU: Would you say that originally, they authentically suspected they had found some sort of bioterror weapon, and once they realized they hadn't, they found other reasons to remain hostile?
SK: What I think they thought was that they had a situation, along with a vulnerable patsy, out of which they could manufacture a terrorism case. After all, the rewards that were heaped on the agents, prosecutors, and institutions that brought home the so-called “Lackawana Six sleeper cell” case — another railroad job — were witnessed by others in these agencies and noted. This made it too lucrative to pass up turning anything they could into “terrorism”.
They also had plenty of other reasons to be — and remain — hostile.
RU: Could you describe the scene of the raid? Did they use a lot of weaponized overkill?
SK: I really don’t know any more than anybody else about that. At the time of the real action, I was at the Yes Men’s compound in Troy, NY. (Due to the initial media circus, I was told by my lawyers to leave town for a few days.) From what I can tell from the news footage and the reports of neighbors, the entire alphabet soup of the federal investigative agencies was launched. Each took a turn entering my home wearing hazmat suits with guns drawn, and proceeded to do their “bioterrorism” exercises.
RU: Oh, I had the impression that the entire situation involving your wife's death, the discovery of the materials, and the raid all happened fairly instantly. Did this scene stretch out over days?
SK: It did stretch out a ways. Even though I was illegally “detained” for 22 hours the day after my wife’s death and they had confiscated my house, the raid didn’t begin. It took a few days for them to assemble all the troops and to obtain a search warrant.
RU: And did they think you were trying to avoid arrest since you were hiding?
SK: No. I was out of town on advice of my attorneys. I had already been in custody and released. They knew they only had to contact my lawyer and I would self-surrender.
RU: This must have all been a tremendous strain, coming as it did coupled with the death of your wife. Can you describe some of the thoughts and emotions you had around all this?
SK: I think all adults know the feelings of intense grief and depression that are brought about by the loss of a loved one. My feelings were in no way unique. But when you spice it with the adrenalin and the hyperanxiety of being attacked by the full weight of federal forces, which in turn causes all your survival instincts to really kick in, you have a bad trip from which you are not going to come down for a long time. In my case, it was six months or so before I started feeling anything approaching normal. This close proximity to mortality stemming from two different extremes (loss and attack) creates a feedback loop that turns your brain into static. Patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior deconstruct and seem to lose any identifiable point of origin. I was a zombie— an animated organic mass with modest brain function.
RU: Have you run into particularly Kafkaesque scenarios given this cases' attachment to The Patriot Act and Homeland Security?
SK: The case has been a hyperreal, bureaucratic grind, but I have yet to wait endlessly in any hallways not knowing why I was there or what I was charged with.
RU: Explain a little bit more about the project you were planning around these materials related to biological warfare and theater of the absurd.
SK: We did the projects. You can see them at our website at critical-art.net. We just recreated a couple of the experiments that different militaries did to see if germs were viable candidates for weaponization.
For the British Plague experiments, Critical Art Ensemble went to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland where they had originally been done. The British tests started south of this location and were land-based, but the results were so appallingly bad from a military perspective that they began to believe that the only way infectious disease could possibly be of use militarily was as a tactical ship-to-ship weapon. To test this idea they moved to an even less populated area (the Isle of Lewis). They put a bunch of monkeys and guinea pigs on a pontoon and started shooting germs at them in both powder and wet forms from about a mile away — a very difficult shot in the blustery weather of Northern Scotland.
The infection rates were again poor, and included a fishing vessel that unsuspectingly sailed through the experiment. The British Navy had to follow the vessel to make sure it didn’t land or make physical contact with other ships until they were sure no one on the boat was infected. No one was. The only conclusion reached from this experience was to move the test to the colonies — in this case, the Bahamas.
Critical Art Ensemble did the same thing, only we recreated the harmless simulant tests (not the actual plague tests), and only used guinea pigs overseen by the SSPCA — no monkeys. Our results were just as bad, so it seems as if we reliably replicated the test. CAE went to the end of the world to shoot bacteria at guinea pigs.
Can there be a more absurdist gesture than that? Well yes — one: Bush reinitiating a failed germ warfare program at public expense and at the cost of civilian interests in world and national health policy. The Bush administration is usurping public civilian agencies (such as the CDC and countless universities) and using them to play out the administration’s fantasies of a terrorist germ warfare attack. The resources to study infectious diseases are limited, and it's criminal to use them for a remote “what could be” scenario at the expense of real, ongoing health crises like AIDS, TB, hepatitis, malaria, and other diseases that are killing millions every year.
RU: I never thought of CAE as a really obscure project, since I'd read various manifestos or statements by you and seen stuff about you here and there. And yet, outside the avant-garde art community, very few people know about this bizarre and outrageous case. Do you think this says something about our cluttered and diffuse culture.
SK: I think you have stated the situation as well as I can. Information is ubiquitous and overwhelming. Only so much can be processed in a day. And when you think of how many outrages are occurring each day because of the war and the current U.S. constitutional crisis, who has time to follow one of the many ridiculous court cases brought by the Department of Justice?
One has to be motivated by a very direct interest in the case to take notice, no matter how precedent setting the case might be. In my case, the Department of Justice is attempting to completely implode civil and criminal law, but if you are not in the arts and sciences, there’s too many other events and situations to worry about.
RU: Is there some way we can make it more difficult for arbitrary authority to pick off people who are on the so-called fringes?
SK: I have no idea. The FBI has been a Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde type of institution from its inception. While I am happy for its work against organized crime, for example, I have always been completely outraged by its continuous assault on those individuals and sometimes entire communities (as with the current attack on peoples of Islamic faith) who openly express ideological difference. The FBI has worked against socialists and communists from the 20s through the 60s, and against the equal rights movements of the same period.
The COINTELPRO operations of the 60s and 70s are basically back, so exercising our rights is more risky than ever, but it’s for that very reason we must. Rights are won and kept through struggle, and in our struggle to preserve our Constitution, it pains me to say that the FBI is and has always been one of the anti-democratic enemies.
RU: What do you think abour Lynn Hershman's film, Strange Culture?
SK: It’s inspirational and well worth seeing. It has brought awareness about the case to new audiences.
RU: Did you participate in the creative direction at all?
RU: What kind of effect do you expect from it?
SK: Exactly what it’s doing — bringing an awareness of the case to people and communities that otherwise would not hear about it.
RU: According to the CAE defense fund FAQ, you were originally charged under prohibitions on biological weapons, but a grand jury instead handed down indictments related to "wire fraud" and "mail fraud." And then it also states that the terrorism charges could come back to haunt you.
I wonder how your attorneys are coping with all this. Are they simply trying to get across the absurdity of the whole mess, or are their any legal fine points?
SK: What they have been arguing in motion hearings is that the Department of Justice is making an absurd interpretation of the mail fraud law. The DoJ has thrown away its guidelines (which state my case should not be prosecuted) and interpreted the law in a way that is unique for my situation.
My co-defendant Bob Ferrell and I are the first citizens to ever be indicted for mail or wire fraud because we supposedly broke a material transfer agreement. The “defrauded” parties do not believe we did anything to harm them — the crime is a DoJ fantasy that they hope to prove. We’ll see at trial if rationality prevails.
If it doesn’t, the case will set a precedent that will mean that the Justice Department can drop a major felony on someone for filling out a warranty card incorrectly and mailing it. This will be a major tool for them. Talk about being able to pick off people at will!
Lynn Hershman Leeson invites 10 Zen Monkeys readers to sponsor showings of the film. For sales and exhibition information contact: [email protected]
Strange Culture Screenings
Critical Arts Ensemble Defense Fund
Homeland Security Follies
Halluncinogenic Weapons: the Other Chemical Warfare
Is It Fascism Yet?
Detention and Torture: Are We Still Free, or Not?