PROFILE
All is peaceable on the porch
Story and photos by Nancy J. Parisi

Iconic is what the front steps at College and Maryland had become in 2004—photographed and videotaped as white-suited, orange-booted masked men traipsed up and down with big bright yellow collection buckets. A private citizen’s personal space and his home’s welcoming neighborhood face became the setting for a surreal manifestation of post-9/11 paranoia. The image of these front steps was broadcast and reprinted internationally for months.

One evening this past May, driving past Steve Kurtz’s home (he still lives there and is still an art professor at UB) this writer noted that there were party lanterns hanging on the porch. It seemed that making portraits of Kurtz on his porch during this time might be a small visual antidote to the activities following “5/11,” Kurtz’s private 9/11, the death of his wife Hope, his eviction from the property, and the subsequent governmental invasion.

The party lanterns had been hung for a fiftieth birthday party for Steve, four years after the beginning of his ordeal, and one month after his mail and wire fraud charges (two counts each) were dismissed by Federal Judge Richard Arcara. At the time this portrait was made, Kurtz was within a timeframe wherein federal prosecutors could appeal the dismissal; he was in a surreal limbo, but had been continuing, to the best of his abilities, an art practice while grieving amid a flurry of defense fund benefits, lectures, and court appearances for four years.

The opening of Seized at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center.

What the government employees in protective gear snatched over several days in May and June ’04 were computers, artworks-in-progress, portions of a book collection, and other personal effects. In the end nothing illegal or hazardous was found and none of the confiscated items have been returned to Kurtz.

What the suited-up bioterrorism-seekers left behind largely became the materials for a reverse-examination: the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) exhibition Seized at Hallwalls in June and July of this year. The show’s work is credited to CAE, of which Kurtz is a founding member. The internationally renowned, frequently commissioned, and multiple award-winning collaborative group CAE came together in 1987 when Kurtz collaborated with another artist/student, Steven Barnes.

During the Hallwalls opening in June, Kurtz spent a lot of time outside the gallery, talking with attendees on the quiet stairwell nearby.

Inside the gallery, hazmat suits, gasmask filters, to-do lists, and other notes—saved by the artist and his inner circle—were on display. The take-out meals of the FBI workers were also left behind and preserved: pizza boxes (all from one pizzeria, not even the closest one to the Allentown home) and hundreds of plastic bottles of water and energy drinks. There was no evidence of any deviance from this curiously boring menu.

Ironically, the dozens of moldering pizza boxes left behind at College and Maryland, a central presence in the exhibition, were probably more of a biohazard than anything else ever found in the Kurtz home.

The Hallwalls show also included banners, materials, and documentation of four CAE projects that were seized: Free Range Grain, Molecular Invasion, Marching Plague, and GenTerra. Each of these projects is described by CAE as “science-theater,” focusing analytically on genetically modified foods and biological weaponry, its ever-increasing funding, and corporate profits. These pieces were each funded by arts or science organizations abroad and seek to bring worldwide issues affecting human health and well-being to the public in interactive gallery settings.

The Hallwalls show was a good introduction to CAE projects but was not a true representation of the scope of each of these works.

The pizza boxes and other materials
left behind by the FBI.
Seized was on view at Hallwalls from June 7 to July 18.
Marching Plague: Germs of Deception and Global Public Health is the piece that was nearly obliterated by the FBI in 2004. The dates of the piece are 2004–2007 as it had to be reconstructed and was later completed with a grant from “UK-based art-science initiative the Arts Catalyst, and produced in consultation with bioweapons experts from the Harvard-Sussex Program. The project used the harmless bacteria Bacillus subtilis and Serratia marcescens in an installation, performance, and film dedicated to demystifying issues surrounding germ warfare and the cost of its development to global public health,” in the words of Lucia Sommer, CAE spokesperson.

Kurtz and CAE also refer to their work as “tactical media,” best described as a collage of expression. As Kurtz puts it, “Our projects are really complicated, in presentation and concept. It’s not like you can go and hang it on the wall.”

Marching Plague was CAE’s reenactment of the British military’s biological warfare testing off the Scottish coast at remote Isle of Lewis. The UK did testing on human guinea pigs afloat on the sea and exposed to plague. CAE’s reenactment involved harmless bacteria, dozens of real guinea pigs, and a blower to see if, as had been done in 1953, microbes could be sprayed over the sea at living targets one mile away. Result: only one guinea pig and the woman in charge of the animals (also an animal advocate) showed minor exposure failure, then and now. For Seized Kurtz conducted a test on airflow of Hallwalls via the dissemination of harmless bacteria (Serratia marcescens) within the gallery space. Atop pedestals imprinted with factoids about germ warfare throughout human history, Petri dishes showed that the bacteria were thriving closest to the gallery’s ceiling-mounted ventilation.

When asked about his earliest art projects, Kurtz states that he didn’t have “an a-ha moment; [he] slid into art slowly.” He was on an academic, scholarly path but found himself surrounded by those whom he didn’t find very much fun. Instead he was “attracted” to a circle of artist friends, and began to face “a crisis moment of too much thinking and not enough doing.”

Kurtz studied late-nineteenth-century French salon culture, and, amongst others, was entrenched in Schopenhauer, whom the artist respected for spanning the ideological frameworks of aesthetics, philosophy, and politics. His dissertation centered on the German philosopher.

Kurtz’s meeting with Steve Barnes, who was taking a film class, was a decisive moment for both: the duo decided to make some work.

“One of our first pieces as the collective was Edible Revolution ... It was about transgenderism, and grand narratives of gender ... That was the birth of Critical Art Ensemble, pretty much. It was me and Steve making films and then we felt we needed a name, so others could just take credit, to create a collective signature.”

For artists, the experience of collaboration is powerful and complex. As with any creation, there has to be a moment of letting go, of letting the piece, no matter its genre, take form and to become its best incarnation—while exercising diplomacy and ego management. Those who collaborate regularly, including Kurtz, note the ability to create work that is larger than what could have been made solo. Kurtz’s late wife, Hope, an early CAE member, acted as the group’s editor: “Nothing was sent out until she gave it her approval,” he says. He summoned her words to “never give up” at his most difficult times.

Kurtz says that because of the current U.S. culture of fear, much of CAE funding is mainly international. “If we want to make a project, we have to leave the country.” He goes on to mention several institutions that were intimidated away from showing CAE pieces post-2004, and a lecture series of a certain U.S. college that lost partial government funding because Kurtz was part of that series. The rest of this year, the artist will be making work in Germany, Manhattan, San Francisco, and Australia.

CAE projects in the works include a piece about “the hoax of the dirty bomb, showing that it’s a figment of Ashcroft’s imagination,” slated to happen in Australia. Kurtz would also like to create an encyclopedia of military hoaxes such as SDI.

The artist’s personal mission, mirroring that of CAE, is “to expose and/or subvert authoritarian tendencies in culture.” Is art the best way to do this? “Yes, it’s a good way. What we’re good at is using culture and using it in a critical way, using it as our political conduit.”

On July 12 Kurtz posted a letter of thanks on www.caedefensefund.org:

“Please remember also that this case was about so much more than just keeping me out of jail. This is a great legal and political victory that will affect many cases to come. Through its prosecution of this case, the Department of Justice was hoping to expand the most broadly written law on the books (mail fraud) into an all-encompassing leviathan that could be used at its discretion against any citizen at any time. Not only did we prevent this dangerous expansion of the law, the precedent we set has narrowed it.

“What have I learned from my ordeal? I’ve learned that with tens of thousands of supporters, with hundreds of thousands of dollars, with one of the best legal teams in the US, with a crack media team, with a group of experienced fundraisers, with four years of one’s life, and with total innocence, sometimes one can slice off a piece of American justice. Which in the end means: The overwhelming majority of people ain’t gettin’ justice, and we have to keep fighting until they do.”

Nancy J. Parisi has been a journalist and photojournalist in Buffalo for two decades and in 2005 completed an MFA at Parsons School of Design. She is a proud urban pioneer and has lived in the city’s Old First Ward for fifteen years.


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