Critical Art Ensemble (Steve Kurtz, Steve Barnes, Dorian Burr, Hope Kurtz and Beverly Schlee)
(United States), 1986-present
CRITICAL ART ENSEMBLE:
ARTISTIC RESISTANCE IN THE AGE OF TERROR
"Do artists cross the line when they breed plants or animals, or use the tools of biotechnology? Scientists routinely cross the line. So do farmers, business people, military men, and doctors. Only artists and certain religious people hesitate. Of course one of the great human dilemmas is that we do not know the extent of our powers. We invent outrageously and casually as we breath, but we have no idea where our inventions will take us. Extinction? Slavery? 1000 years in Disneyland? […] To the extent that art favors awareness, the more artists who cross the line the better."
"It's vitally important whenever we think about insurgency to remember that the essence of any insurgency and its most decisive battle space is the psychological. In the 1960s, insurgency was referred to as armed theater, which I think is a really poignant way of thinking about it."
Steven Metz, U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.2
Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a group of contemporary artists with diverse and complementary talents who since 1986 have explored the boundaries of art, technology, critical theory, and political activism.
Original members Steve Kurtz, Steve Barnes, Dorian Burr, Hope Kurtz and Beverly Schlee in conjunction with other collaborators on a project-by-project basis, share group authorship for the production of CAE.
When asked about their collaborative model they state:
"No member of CAE has had an individual practice, so we cannot speak from experience.
We do know that none of us individually could have accomplished all that we have if we were not working together".3
CAE's performances, critical texts, and art installation / interventions critique and often directly appropriate consumer products, marketing strategies, and media design that addresses the impact of new electronic and biological technologies in the public sphere. CAE speculates about the potential for bio-revolution in global capitalism through their art actions and critical writings, eschewing a commercial art practice for ephemeral interventions in the media and transient performance actions.
In freely available texts such as The Electronic Disturbance or Electronic Civil Disobedience, they question the fundamental underpinnings of rational technological social evolution and speculate upon the role that 'Slacker Ludditism' will play as a resistance model to state/corporate authoritarian cultural models. CAE insists upon an urgent need for public awareness, scrutiny and disclosure surrounding new technologies, particularly electronic surveillance and biotechnologies.
Recently, CAE has focused its efforts on directly occupying and interrogating the propaganda models and media representations of corporate ownership and ongoing attempts to establish direct control over emerging markets and living biological systems.
CAE members suggest:
"Our work has been focused on how surveillance will act as a means for body invasion - that every strand of DNA in our bodies, every molecule will be visualized, mapped and ordered to better serve capitalist interests."
FUZZY BIOLOGICAL SABOTAGE (FBS):
CAE's art practice explores the techniques of anarchic resistance, creating performance and participatory art actions that directly engage the viewer in their production. CAE revel in undermining the authoritarian underpinnings of pancapitalism and Western cultural values towards dissolving monopolistic authoritarian economic models. For the past decade, CAE has focused on biotechnology, genetic modification and the commercial ownership of traditional food crops; particularly the ongoing diffusion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the ecosphere, and the commercial control over recombinant life forms, as with genetically modified food products. In some performance actions, CAE has explored direct public participation (participatory theatre) through conducting actual scientific experiments, thus performing science as theatrical ritual and directly engaging the viewer in a garden of pure ideology. In many respects CAE is postulating an open source model of biological interrogation that enables public scrutiny of claims made by corporate and government bodies.
Beginning in 2000 with the project Cult of the New Eve (Critical Art Ensemble with Paul Vanouse and Faith Wilding), CAE reconfigures the hidden ideological and often pseudo-religious metaphors that underscore much slick government and corporate propaganda about evolving biotechnologies.
Donning red track outfits, sunglasses and side-bags, CAE members encourage participants to consume their cult sacramental host. Transgenic beer and a communion wafer that is purported to contain a random genome library of the New Eve (the first human to volunteer for the Human Genome Project) are offered to the public. Webcast sermons, cultish street actions/performances, and the ritual consumption of 'GMO sacraments' blend to offer clues to the cults true identity and intent. Are they indeed a freakish new religious organization like the Raelians? Or, perhaps they are representatives of a startup company like CloneAid seeking to commercially benefit from the religious connotations of perpetual good living through cloning?
For CAE, tacticality is a deliberate willingness to resist specialization and demystify scientific processes, encourage amateur or open-source scientific exploration and release the tools of rational interrogation back into public hands. Throughout the diverse strategies of these works, CAE raises timely questions concerning democracy, pancapitalism, the utopian promises of biotech, eugenics, and the ownership of life itself. As CAE suggests:
"Tactical Media is situational, ephemeral, and self-terminating. It encourages the use of any media that will engage a particular sociopolitical context in order to create molecular interventions and semiotic shocks that contribute to the negotiation of the rising intensity of authoritarian culture."
This kind of tactical media practice is imperative when countries such as Iraq are creating international legal precedence by introducing new forms of patent legislation governing food crops such as Order 81.
The US lead provisional occupational government authority in Iraq has implemented legislation that will compel Iraqi farmers to plant "protected" crop varieties, establishing a legal precedent for new notions of "ownership" of biologic materials. With ongoing critical seed shortages in Iraq, the birthplace of modern cereal crops some 10,000 years ago, many farmers will be compelled to accept subsidized seasonal GMO seed varieties from agricultural giants such as Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and Bayer. Under the harsh conditions of brutal famine, food shortages and the fall-out from ongoing war, this new legislation will likely see mandatory GMO crops without the public resistance that has arisen in North America and European countries. It would seem vitally important for public audiences to question the motivations and special interests of the corporate bodies who most stand to profit from direct control over the food chain from seed to supermarket in Iraq and around the world.
A WARNING TO ARTISTS, EVERYWHERE?
On May 11, 2004, Steve Kurtz, an artist, Associate Professor of Art at the University of Buffalo, and founding member of Critical Art Ensemble, woke up to find his wife Hope Kurtz (also a well known artist and founding member of CAE), had suffered cardiac arrest and died tragically in her sleep. He called 911. When the paramedics arrived, they observed laboratory equipment, samples of bacteria growing in Petri dishes, books on biological warfare and bio-terrorism in his home. Kurtz, as a member of Critical Art Ensemble, has engaged in BioArt production as a critical methodology for many years. Cranked up on the pervasive media rhetoric of the "War on Terror" the police feared that Kurtz's art supplies might be bio-terrorist weapons and contacted the FBI. The FBI took Kurtz into custody for a 22 hour period without Miranda rights or pressing charges. They sealed off his entire block, brought in a HAZMAT team dressed in futuristic bio-containment suits, and confiscated his computers, research materials, manuscripts, art supplies ... even his wife's dead body as potential evidence.
Subsequently, Kurtz, along with nine of his colleagues, were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury. The FBI was seeking charges of terrorist activity under Section 175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, and the expanded USA PATRIOT Act. This law prohibits the possession of "any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system" without the justification of "prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose."4
This law was applied to Kurtz's possession of equipment for DNA analysis and cultures of three common and harmless bacterial species (Escherichia coli, Bacillus globigii, and Serratia marcescens.) CAE had intended to utilize this bacteria for an artwork that critiqued the history of US involvement in germ warfare experiments, bio-medical experimentation and directly criticize the Bush administration's recent rush to fund high-security laboratories for bio-weapons research. Of course, the real danger posed by Kurtz and Critical Art Ensemble goes far beyond their possession of simple biological cultures widely used in high school science education. The true threat of Kurtz's practice is not to the health and safety of the American people, but to the intellectual, and ideological stronghold of the corporate and government monopoly over biotechnological research and commercialization. Yet, by simply asserting the fundamental right to raise very timely questions about the control of living systems beyond institutional sanction and challenge the corporate mores of 'bunker America' CAE appears to have provoked a federal response of seeking restrictive prohibitions on information sharing, artistic expression and free speech.
Critical Art Ensemble is threatening to established power structures in that they have developed a resistance model to President Bush's and the Homeland's most prized commodity: the unregulated development and exploitation of new capital markets beyond public scrutiny and debate. What is at risk but the potential profits of such corporate Goliaths as Monsanto and Advanced Cell Technologies?
Through Tactical Media, CAE has utilized various strategies, mainly electronic and scientific forms of communication, engaging the public in participatory dialogue on new technologies. And now, over one year later, a four-count indictment, substantially downgraded from early investigations into biological-terrorism handed down by the federal grand jury in Buffalo sees Kurtz charged with wire and mail fraud in the amount of $256.00 (US). Also indicted was Dr. Robert Ferrell, chairman of the University of Pittsburgh's human genetics department, for allegedly providing Kurtz with biological materials - at best a simple contract dispute between the two institutions representing the scientific and artistic collaborators. The laws under which the indictments were obtained are normally used against those defrauding others of money or property, as with telemarketing schemes.
"Kurtz's materials are politically, not physically, dangerous," suggests the eminent research scientist Mary-Claire King, a University of Washington geneticist well known for demonstrating the existence of a gene for hereditary breast cancer:
"[Steve Kurtz and the CAE] re-create [scientific] ideas using their own way of imaging, and then say, 'Maybe you'd like to look at it this way.' To me, that's teaching. It does not seem to me to threaten homeland security.
In fact, I would be threatened to live in a homeland in which that was perceived to be a threat."5
With the Steve Kurtz case unfolding in the American media circus, and a heightened sense of scrutiny (even paranoia) for artists internationally there remains a clear message: an artistic practice that directly critiques governmental and corporate desire to assert control over the fruit of legitimated scientific practices is inherently dangerous. Under the current arraignment conditions, Kurtz is forced to endure ongoing travel restrictions, random and scheduled visits from a probation officer, and provide bodily fluids for drug testing. Additionally, as Kurtz notes "I have to have permission from a probation officer to buy anything organic other than food". The science journal Nature's editorial panel has called on its readers to offer their support to Kurtz noting the potential for damage to the spirit of collaboration and free inquiry that defines scientific and artistic practice:
"As with the prosecution of some scientists in recent years, it seems that government lawyers are singling Kurtz out as a warning to the broader artistic community [...] Art and science are forms of human enquiry that can be illuminating and controversial, and the freedom of both must be preserved as part of a healthy democracy--as must a sense of proportion."6
At this stage, the greatest danger to the artistic community would be a failure to mobilize resistance to this very important legal battle. Fortunately, the case has generated a relatively high degree of media coverage at an international level (unlike other ongoing alleged international abuses). The case has become a high profile instance of state censorship affecting both the scientific and artistic communities, not unlike the Culture War of the mid 90's.7
Are we witnessing a revitalization of Neo-Macarthyism or the establishment of the winning conditions for the resurgence of proto-fascist ideologies in our last remaining Superpower? The stakes are truly high, and will directly affect the future directions of critical thinking in scientific and artistic collaboration at a global level. Fortunately, numerous fundraising events for the legal defense fund have occurred throughout the world accompanied by letter writing campaigns, documentary films and broadly based public expressions of support for Kurtz, Ferrell and the artistic strategies of CAE.
Further information, including recent developments concerning CAE and Kurtz's legal situation, including international signatories to the letter of support may be found at the CAE Defense Fund.
1 : George Gessert, "Notes on the Art of Plant Breading", in L'Art Biotech. Catalog. Hauser, Jens. ed. (Le Lieu Unique, Nantes, France, 2003).
2 : Steven Metz, Relearning Counterinsurgency: History lessons for Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global war on terror. The American Enterprise Institute, January 10, 2005
3 : Interview with C. Ondine Chavoya, in The Interventionists: A User's Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life. 2004, Mass MoCA Press.
4 : Legal Information Institute.
5 : See Kurtz and Ferrell face 20-year charges, in Noema.
6 : See the CAE Defense Fund.
7 : For more information, see Culture War, in Wikipedia.