What Is This Case About?

 
 

Language: Espanol |Franšais | Deutsch | Italian

 The Issues

 The "Case"

What happened to Steven Kurtz?

 

 Why is this absurd "case" still being pursued? Some analyses:

• Read When Thought Becomes Crime* by Critical Art Ensemble (03/17/05)
• Read how this case fits into the context of the new Justice Department: “Reflections on the Case by the U.S. Justice Department against Steven Kurtz and Robert Ferrell” by Claire Pentecost (04/11/05)
• Read “Disciplining The Avant-Garde, The United States versus The Critical Art Ensemble” by Gregory Sholette (PDF)
• Read Nancy Murray's (Director of Education, ACLU of Massachusetts) speech to the Museum of Fine Arts (03/11/05)
• Read the Background on CAE and Bio-Art written and compiled by Claire Pentecost
• Read the Historical Background of the US Biowarfare Program written by Eugene Thacker (PDF)

 Legal Documents Concerning This Case:

• Read the Indictment as a PDF or RTF (05/07/2004)
• Read the arraignment details (06/08/2004)
• Read the Magistrate’s recommendation on the Pre-trial Motions PDF (01/06/2006


Press Release: September 17, 2009
FOUR YEAR LEGAL BATTLE ENDS WITH SUBSTANTIAL DONATIONS TO CIVIL & HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS

Press Release: June 11, 2008
ARTIST CLEARED OF ALL CHARGES IN PRECEDENT SETTING CASE

Press Release: April 21, 2008
JUDGE DISMISSES MAIL FRAUD CASE AGAINST BIO-ARTIST KURTZ

Press Release: February 14, 2008
DR. ROBERT FERRELL GIVEN MINIMUM SENTENCE

Press Release: January 29, 2008
KURTZ LAWYERS PRESENT MOTIONS TO DISMISS CASE

Press Release: October 11, 2007
ILLNESS, 'ABSURD' PROSECUTION FORCE SCIENTIST TO PLEAD IN PRECEDENT-SETTING CASE

Press Release: November 17, 2005
ARTIST RELEASED FROM PRETRIAL SUPERVISION

Press Release: May 17, 2005
JUDGE HEARS MOTION TO DISMISS

Press Release: April 22, 2005
Terrorism Charges Again Possible

Press Release: April 21, 2005
AUCTION TO BENEFIT CAE DEFENSE FUND IS OVERWHELMING SUCCESS
Government intensifies investigation

Press Release: April 13, 2005
MASSIVE ART AUCTION WILL SUPPORT INDICTED ARTIST STEVEN KURTZ AS
BIOTERRORISM CHARGE THREAT RETURNS

Press Release: July 8th, 2004
FBI HARASSMENT CONTINUES--ARTIST FACES 20-YEAR CHARGES

Read this release in German here.

Press Release: June 29th, 2004
"BIOTERROR" CHARGES AGAINST ART PROFESSOR DOWNGRADED TO "MAIL FRAUD" INSTEALTH INDICTMENT

Read this release in German here.

Update: June 8th, 2004
TEN SUBPOENAS ISSUED IN FBI CASEAGAINST ARTIST

Press Release: June 2nd, 2004
ARTISTS SUBPOENAED IN USA PATRIOT ACT CASE

Press Release: May 25th, 2004 (Franšais | Deutsch)
FBI ABDUCTS ARTIST, SEIZES ART

 


The Issues

The issues here are fundamental: freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom. The case is precedent-setting, and will help determine whether anyone exercising their right to free speech can be criminalized merely for their ideas, in fundamental violation of the United States Constitution. The case of Steve Kurtz is one more example of the contemporary abuse of power by the Justice Department, that of continually accusing innocent civilians of "terrorism" and subsequently ruining their lives. The DoJ's tactics recall the McCarthy trials of the nineteen-fifties when powerful members of government also ruined the lives of many innocent citizens. Like that infamous challenge to democracy, this is a "test case" for how far the government can reach, unopposed, into colleges, universities, museums, and even our homes to silence free speech, thought, and inquiry.

The Case

In May 2004, the Joint Terrorism Task Force illegally detained artist and SUNY Buffalo professor Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). They seized documents, computers, and equipment used in four of CAE’s projects, including scientific equipment used to test food for the presence of genetically modified organisms. The seized materials included a project that was to have been part of an exhibition and performance at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) and three other projects that had been safely displayed in museums and galleries throughout Europe and North America. The New York State Commissioner of Public Health determined that the materials seized by the FBI pose no public safety risk. All of the materials are legal and commonly used for scientific education and research activities in universities and high schools, and are universally regarded by scientists as safe. Nevertheless, today Steve Kurtz and Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, face a possible 20 years in prison in what has become increasingly clear is a politically motivated attempt to silence an artist and scientist whose work is critical of government policy.

Background to the case

Dr. Steven Kurtz is a Professor of Art at SUNY Buffalo and a founding member, with his late wife, Hope, of the internationally acclaimed art and theater collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Over the past decade cultural institutions worldwide have hosted CAE’s participatory theater projects that help the general public understand biotechnology and the many issues surrounding it.

In May 2004 the Kurtzes were preparing to present Free Range Grain, a project examining GM agriculture, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), when Hope Kurtz died of heart failure. Emergency personnel who responded to Kurtz's 911 call deemed the couple's art suspicious, and called the FBI. The art materials consisted of several petri dishes containing three harmless bacteria cultures, and a mobile lab to test food labeled “organic” for the presence of genetically modified ingredients. As Kurtz explained, these materials had been safely displayed in museums and galleries throughout Europe and North America with absolutely no risk to the public.

The next day, however, as Kurtz was on his way to the funeral home, he was illegally detained by agents from the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force, who informed him he was being investigated for "bioterrorism." At no point during the 22 hours Kurtz was held and questioned did the agents Mirandize him or inform him he could leave. Meanwhile, agents from numerous federal law enforcement agencies - including five regional branches of the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Buffalo Police, Fire Department, and state Marshall's office - descended on Kurtz's home in Hazmat suits. Cordoning off half a block around his home, they seized his cat, car, computers, manuscripts, books, equipment, and even his wife's body from the county coroner for further analysis. The Erie County Health Department condemned his house as a possible "health risk."

A week later, only after the Commissioner of Public Health for New York State had tested samples from the home and announced there was no public safety threat, was Kurtz allowed to return to his home and to recover his wife's body.

A week later, only after the Commissioner of Public Health for New York State had tested samples from the home and announced there was no public safety threat, was Kurtz allowed to return to his home and to recover his wife's body.

FBI Seizes Art

To this day, the FBI has refused to return most of the tens of thousands of dollars worth of impounded materials, including a book Kurtz was working on. Kurtz and his acclaimed art collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) were using the harmless bacteria and materials in several projects:

1) GenTerra used a harmless form of gut E. coli to educate the public about transgenic organisms. When the FBI seized the materials for this project during their raid on Kurtz's home, it had already been exhibited and performed at major museums, galleries, and other public spaces throughout North America and Europe.
To watch a video of a GenTerra performance, click here

2) The second project seized by the FBI, Marching Plague, was commissioned by the Arts Catalyst, UK, and received its American premiere in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Marching Plague used the benign bacteria Bacillus subtilis and Serratia marcescens in an installation, performance and film dedicated to demystifying the issues surrounding germ warfare. To learn more about Marching Plague please see:
www.artscatalyst.org/projects/biotech/caeplague.html
www.critical-art.net/biotech/

CAE's companion book, Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health (Autonomedia, 2006) had to be reconstructed after the FBI refused to return the manuscript. Read a review of the book here.

3) The 3rd project seized by the FBI, Free Range Grains, allowed participants to test food for the presence of genetically modified organisms. Like GenTerra it had also been performed internationally and was then scheduled for exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA):
www.critical-art.net/biotech

4) The FBI also took the seeds CAE was using in Molecular Invasion, a participatory science-theater work done in cooperation with students from the Corcoran School of Art and Design, at the Corcoran Museum, Washington, DC:
www.critical-art.net/biotech/

Artist accused of "bioterrorism"

While most observers assumed the Task Force would realize its initial investigation was a terrible mistake, the feds have instead chosen to press their "case" against Steve Kurtz, Robert Ferrell, and possibly others (see below for more information on the charges). Despite the Public Health Commissioner's conclusion as to the safety of Kurtz's materials, and despite the fact that the FBI's own field and laboratory tests showed they were not harmful to people or the environment – it would actually be impossible to make any sort of weaponized or dangerous germ from them – the U.S. District Attorney continues to waste vast sums of public money on this outrageous and politically motivated persecution.

For more information about the case, including the charges against Steve, please see our FAQ

(back to top)