Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Political art (and the Kurtz case) [EXTRACT]

The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life

Edited by Nato Thompson and Gregory Sholette. MIT Press, USD25

The Interventionists is a catalogue of some of the most politically informed and inspired artists’ projects from the past fifteen or so years, most of them originating in the US. It includes in its pages, SubRosa, Rubén Ortiz-Torres, The Surveillance Camera Players, The Atlas Group, Krzysztof Wodiczko, The Yes Men (also the subjects of a newly released documentary) and the Critical Art Ensemble. The book is presented as a ‘users’ manual’ designed to accompany a similarly titled show, held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), from mid-2004 to spring 2005.

Critical Art Ensemble is a collective that has, since 1987, conducted ‘independent experimental research for anti-capitalist resistance movements’. It is featured on pages 115-118 of The Interventionists. According to an interview in this book, the five members of CAE ‘try to find new methods of intervention, explore new territories, and develop tools that could be of use.’ One such ‘tactic’ has been to conduct public performances in which members of the group have tested common foods for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Why? Because ‘when the industry states that there are no studies on these products indicating harm to human health, what they are saying is that there are no studies – at all.’ (1)

The group’s work has recently taken a tragic and twisted turn, with the pending Federal prosecution in the US of Steven Kurtz, founding member of CAE, and Associate Professor of Art at the University of Buffalo. This odyssey began when Kurtz awoke one morning in May 2004 to find that his wife, Hope Kurtz – also a member of CAE – had died in her sleep. After the police arrived they became suspicious of some materials they noticed in the Kurtzs’ house, which prompted them to call in the FBI. The house was then quarantined for five days and searched, and certain items were hauled away for examination. (The only thing that has been returned to Steven Kurtz so far is his wife’s body.) Meanwhile, Kurtz himself immediately fell under suspicion of bioterrorism.

He was initially questioned under the premises of the USA Patriot Act, but has since had the charges against him – and against another local professor with whom he was collaborating – dramatically lessened to counts of mail and wire fraud (the kind of charges that are often levelled against fraudulent telemarketers). Still, they both face up to twenty years in prison. The two men’s legal bills, as of September 2004, stand at around USD300,000 combined.

The consequent chill on artists wishing to explore issues of biotechnology is startlingly clear.Critics have argued that the case against Kurtz, and against the professor / scientist who provided him with the kind of materials one can find in many a school chemistry lab, is tantamount to government persecution: CAE representative Claire Pentecost writes: ‘They want their scientists isolated, quietly doing their military and corporate duty, beholden to the big budget projects that allow them to do any science at all. Just like they want their artists quietly self-destructing in the sterile circuits of art-world careerism, divorced from the consequential debates of modern life.’ (For updated information on the case, visit

It is often thought that when an artist’s or activist’s work is enshrined in a museum it must be well on its way to be being bloated and irrelevant. However, in a hostile political climate such as ours, it would seem that a show such as The Interventionists can actually provide a degree of shelter for groups such as CAE. Joseph Thompson, the director of MASS MoCA, wrote in his introduction to this book, ‘The organised disruption of the World Trade Organization’s 1999 meeting in Seattle always mystified me . . . Yet the depth of conviction of the protest movement was unmistakable. I could watch it on TV, as it played from Switzerland to Mexico.’ [...]

1. See Claire Pentecost, Sept 2004, selections from ‘Trials of the Public Amateur’.