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[BKARTS] Fwd(2): CAA weigh's in on CAE case
I encourage you to forward this excellent letter of support from the new
president of CAA Ellen Levy and CAA Executive Director Susan Ball
regarding the Buffalo Artist v FBI case and the negative impact of the
Patriot Act on the arts and academia- gs
Letter From the CAA to the Editor at the New York Times:
To the Editor:
David Staba's June 7th article highlights the vulnerability of the
freedom of artistic expression since the enactment of the USA Patriot
Act. Based on Staba's report, Steve Kurtz's detention and the grand jury
investigation being faced by him and some fellow members of the Critical
Art Ensemble appear unwarranted. Such actions adversely affect art and
arts-related institutions and chill the right of Americans to question
The College Art Association urges Congress to carefully review the USA
Patriot Act. Since some of these provisions are likely to be abused, we
strongly support not renewing the USA Patriot Act.
The artistic freedoms established by America have long been sources of
national pride and have been emulated by other nations. Revoking the
extreme measures incorporated into the USA Patriot Act will insure that
the US once more becomes the standard against which we measure artistic
freedom of expression throughout the world.
Ellen K. Levy, President
Susan Ball, Executive Director
College Art Association
June 7, 2004
Use of Bacteria in Art Leads to Federal Inquiry
By DAVID STABA
UFFALO, June 6 - The F.B.I. agents in hazardous-material suits are gone
from Steven Kurtz's house here.
He has buried his wife, Hope, whom Mr. Kurtz, an art professor at the
University of Buffalo, found dead in their home last month. But the
attention of federal investigators, drawn after his wife's death to Mr.
Kurtz and the tools of his unusual means of artistic expression, has not
Civil liberties advocates and supporters of Mr. Kurtz say the case is a
matter of the authorities' misdirecting post-Sept. 11 investigative zeal
and in the process, trampling First Amendment rights to artistic
expression. Fellow members of his art ensemble, which describes itself as
"dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical
politics and critical theory,'' call it frightening.
On May 11, Mr. Kurtz phoned 911 after waking to find Hope Kurtz, 45, his
wife of 20 years, unresponsive. One of the paramedics who arrived at the
Kurtz home noticed laboratory equipment used in Mr. Kurtz's artwork. That
observation triggered a series of events that led to F.B.I. agents
shuffling through the home in hazardous-material suits and confiscating
the equipment and biological material. They also carted off his books,
personal papers and computer.
The authorities searched the house for two days before announcing that
there was no public health risk and that no toxic material had been found.
Mr. Kurtz was allowed to return home on May 17, and his wife's death was
attributed by the authorities to heart failure.
An F.B.I. spokesman, Paul Moskal, referred all questions to the United
States attorney's office in Buffalo. William J. Hochul Jr., the lead
terrorism prosecutor for the office, declined to comment on the case,
citing Justice Department policy regarding current investigations.
Mr. Kurtz, 46, is not talking to reporters, either. His fellow artists and
his lawyer are speaking on his behalf.
"No one likes the whole force of the whole federal government to come down
around their shoulders," said Mr. Kurtz's lawyer, Paul J. Cambria, who
represented Larry Flynt, the Hustler magazine publisher, in his Supreme
Court case over censorship. "He feels he's being unfairly treated and
would like it all to be over."
But members of the art collective Mr. Kurtz founded, the Critical Art
Ensemble, say it is far from over.
A member of the collective, Beatriz da Costa, an art professor at the
University of California, Irvine, said she was leaving her hotel to attend
an art show in North Adams, Mass., last Sunday when a stranger called out
"I heard someone say my name," she said. "I turned around and an F.B.I.
agent was there and served me with the subpoena." She was summoned to
appear before a federal grand jury in Buffalo on June 15.
Ensemble members heard reports that F.B.I. agents had questioned museum
curators and administrators at university art departments with connections
to the group. The group produces Web sites, books and touring shows and
orchestrates 1960's-style "happenings," aimed at showing the impact of
technology and its representation on modern life.
"We knew there was an investigation going on - they were talking to people
and they weren't giving him his stuff back," said Steven B. Barnes of
Tallahassee, Fla., another founding member of the group, who was
subpoenaed to testify before the federal grand jury along with Ms. da
Costa. "Those things had nothing to do with public health."
Ms. da Costa said her subpoena indicated the grand jury is looking into
"possession of biological agents."
She said the bacteria E. coli, which can be fatal in some forms and
harmless in others, was used in a Critical Art Ensemble production called
"GenTerra," which looked at genetic engineering of organisms from the
perspective of a fictional corporation.
"I know everything we did was legal," Ms. da Costa said. "We didn't buy it
illegally or make it ourselves. We worked in cooperation with a
microbiology lab in Pittsburgh to create a transgenic E. coli that was
completely harmless." Transgenic cells include genes or DNA transferred by
genetic engineering from a different type of living thing.
The bacteria's benign nature was one of the central themes of the work,
which allowed audience members to expose themselves to the material.
"We were kind of demystifying the whole procedure and trying to alleviate
inappropriate fear of transgenic science and redirect concern toward the
political implications of the research," Mr. Barnes said.
Mr. Kurtz's fellow artists believe federal prosecutors will try to show
that his possession of E. coli and other forms of bacteria - harmless or
not - violated a federal law. The statute they refer to was expanded and
strengthened by the Patriot Act passed after Sept. 11, 2001, and
subsequent anthrax scares in Washington and elsewhere. It prohibits the
possession of "any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system of a type
or in a quantity that, under the circumstances, is not reasonably
justified by a prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other
Supporters maintained that the "peaceful purpose" exception should have
snuffed out the investigation well before it got to the grand jury.
"Once they established that nothing in that house was toxic and that he
had no connections to anyone but legitimate artistic and educational
institutions, this should have been dropped," Mr. Barnes said. "Everything
he's ever done has been in the public sphere. There's no secret or private
work. The transgenic bacteria was part of a show that's been traveling
across the country for two years."
A spokesman for the New York Civil Liberties Union said the initial
phases of the Kurtz investigation were handled properly. The group had
previously criticized the Buffalo offices of the United States attorney
and the F.B.I. for their handling of the case of six men from the
neighboring city of Lackawanna who pleaded guilty last year to attending a
Qaeda terrorist training camp in Afghanistan in the summer of 2001.
John Curr III, assistant director of the Buffalo chapter of the civil
liberties union, said of the Kurtz investigation, "Given the set of
circumstances when it happened, I don't think there was an overreaction.
Unless there's some golden nugget of information that they're not sharing,
we feel they're overreacting now.''
"The code even makes a stipulation about a 'peaceful purpose,' '' Mr. Curr
went on. "I don't think anybody could make the argument he was doing
anything that wasn't peaceful.''
Mr. Barnes said: "We're not an activist group. We're what we refer to as
tactical media. We're mainly interested in issues of cultural
representation, how things are represented to the public, and what's the
ideology and the subtext to how something is being represented."
The group's works, many of which can be seen online at
www.critical-art.net, include Web sites and mock newspaper ads touting
fictional biotech companies, and shows in which the audience has the
chance to drink beer containing human DNA.
"That's the essence of the First Amendment," said Mr. Cambria, Mr.
Kurtz's lawyer. "It allows people to be different and express themselves
in unique and creative ways. It's unsettling any time that the government
comes down on someone because of the message they're trying to send or
because they're different, because they're not cookie-cutter individuals
in the eyes of clean-cut, blazer-wearing people. He's to be applauded for
Up until the moment he and Ms. da Costa were served with their subpoenas,
Mr. Barnes said he was confident no reason would be found to prosecute Mr.
"I was optimistic that when they saw what was going on and talked to
enough people, they were going to realize there was no threat and no
crime," Mr. Barnes said. When he was subpoenaed, he said his reaction was:
" 'They're really going to do this. They're going to push this.' I was
also a little disturbed to realize I was being followed."
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