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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Artist Charged with Terrorism

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Olga Koumoundouros Monument to a Town Meeting, after Acconci

Does a work of art reinforce the power of the status quo, or does it act as an instrument of social change? That is the question posed by The Interventionists, an exhibit at MASSMoCA that features artists who seek to "place their work into the heart of the political situation itself." Works include mobile homeless shelters that are set outside the gallery for actual use. But artists are paying a price for stepping into the arena of political discourse, especially if they come down on the side of change -- and one of the artists from the Interventionist show is now being charged with terrorism under the Patriot Act.

Alarmingly, just days before their works were scheduled to appear in the MassMoCa show, the FBI seized everything from the Critical Art Ensemble, a group who conducts public performances in which members test common foods for genetically modified organisms. The wife of one of the group's founding members, Steven Kurtz (who is also an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Buffalo) died of natural causes in her sleep one night in May of last year, but police became suspicious of lab equipment and bacteria samples they found in Kurtz's house during the investigation. He is now being charged with bioterrorism under a clause of the USA Patriot Act which makes it unlawful to possess "any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system" except for "prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose."

According to D.A. Henderson, Senior advisor for the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, nothing Kurtz had in his possession was the slightest bit dangerous:
I am absolutely astonished... based on what I have read and understand, Professor Kurtz has been working with totally innocuous organisms....I am dismayed by what appears to me to be yet one more instance in which knowledgeable persons in the field of bioterrorism are not being brought in and consulted to ascertain what might be real problems and what are purely spurious problems.
The deeper meaning of the government's actions is lost on no one. "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," says Nature magazine. Mary-Claire King, a University of Washington geneticist, further states that "Kurtz's materials are politically, not physically, dangerous."

Kurt's case has been postponed until March 2, at which time his defense team will have the opportunity to respond to the prosecution's case. There is a website set up that offers information on the case, and they are soliciting email letters of support. There is also an online petition you can sign.

Freedom is on the march, all right. And it's dragging its sorry ass outta here just as fast as it can.