June 5, 2004

Feds can’t tell art from terrorism

by Michael Mateas · , 12:59 pm

A couple of weeks ago I received the sad news that my friend Steve Kurtz’s wife Hope had passed away in her sleep. This personal tragedy was compounded by the bizarre twist that, when police and medical workers arrived in response to Steve’s call, they saw some of the biological equipment in his home studio that Steve uses for biotech art performances with the Critical Art Ensemble. Hyped up on “War on Terror” fervor, they called in the Feds to investigate a potential bioterrorism case. While this was shocking, and certainly added insane stress to an already emotionally intense situation (Steve was even denied access to his wife’s body for awhile), I assumed that the bioterrorism case would blow over, as investigators discovered the ridiculous mistake they’d made. But, as many GTxA readers may already know, in the last few days the situation has grown ever more Kafkaesque, prompting me to make this public post on what was initially a private tragedy. Steve is now being brought before a Grand Jury on bioterrorism charges. Other artists have been called in to testify, including my friends Paul Vanouse and Beatriz (Shani) da Costa. Below I’ve included the text of a CAE defense fund press release.

Be careful what kind of art you make. The Feds may come a knockin’…

June 2, 2004

Contact: Beatriz da Costa, media@caedefensefund.org

Feds STILL unable to distinguish art from bioterrorism
Grand jury to convene June 15


Three artists have been served subpoenas to appear before a federal
grand jury that will consider bioterrorism charges against a
university professor whose art involves the use of simple biology

The subpoenas are the latest installment in a bizarre investigation
in which members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force have mistaken an
art project for a biological weapons laboratory (see end for
background). While most observers have assumed that the Task Force
would realize the absurd error of its initial investigation of Steve
Kurtz, the subpoenas indicate that the feds have instead chosen to
press their “case” against the baffled professor.

Two of the subpoenaed artists–Beatriz da Costa and Steve Barnes–are,
like Kurtz, members of the internationally-acclaimed Critical Art
Ensemble (CAE), an artists’ collective that produces artwork to
educate the public about the politics of biotechnology. They were
served the subpoenas by federal agents who tailed them to an art show
at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The third artist,
Paul Vanouse, is, like Kurtz, an art professor at the University at
Buffalo. He has worked with CAE in the past.

The artists involved are at a loss to explain the increasingly bizarre
case. “I have no idea why they’re continuing (to investigate),” said
Beatriz da Costa, one of those subpoenaed. “It was shocking that this
investigation was ever launched. That it is continuing is positively
frightening, and shows how vulnerable the PATRIOT Act has made freedom
of speech in this country.” Da Costa is an art professor at the
University of California at Irvine.

According to the subpoenas, the FBI is seeking charges under Section
175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which has
been expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act. As expanded, this law prohibits
the possession of “any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system”
without the justification of “prophylactic, protective, bona fide
research, or other peaceful purpose.” (See the 1989 law and its USA
PATRIOT Act expansion

Even under the expanded powers of the USA PATRIOT Act, it is difficult
to understand how anyone could view CAE’s art as anything other than a
“peaceful purpose.” The equipment seized by the FBI consisted mainly of
CAE’s most recent project, a mobile DNA extraction laboratory to test
store-bought food for possible contamination by genetically modified
grains and organisms; such equipment can be found in any university’s
basic biology lab and even in many high schools (see Lab Tour for more details).

The grand jury in the case is scheduled to convene June 15 in Buffalo,
New York. Here, the jury will decide whether or not to indict Steve
Kurtz on the charges brought by the FBI. A protest is being planned at
9 a.m. on June 15 outside the courthouse at 138 Delaware Ave. in


Financial donations:
The CAE Defense Fund has so far received over 200 donations in amounts
ranging from $5 to $400. This is a wonderful outpouring of sympathy,
but a drop in the bucket compared to the potential costs of the case.
To make a donation, please visit the CAE Defense Fund.

Letters of support:
Letters and petitions of support from biologists, artists, and others,
especially those in positions of responsibility at prominent
institutions or companies, could be very useful. See the CAE Defense Fund for a sample letter of support.

Legal offers and letters of support:
If you are a lawyer, offers of pro bono support or offers to write
amicus briefs would be very helpful.


Early morning of May 11, Steve Kurtz awoke to find his wife, Hope,
dead of a cardiac arrest. Kurtz called 911. The police arrived and,
after stumbling across test tubes and petri dishes Kurtz was using
in a current artwork, called in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Soon agents from the Task Force and FBI detained Kurtz, cordoned off
the entire block around his house, and later impounded Kurtz’s
computers, manuscripts, books, equipment, and even his wife’s body for
further analysis. The Buffalo Health Department condemned the house as
a health risk.

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 able to return home and recover his wife’s body. Yet
the FBI would not release the impounded materials, which included
artwork for an upcoming exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of
Contemporary Art.

While most observers assumed the Task Force would realize that its
initial investigation of Steve Kurtz was a terrible mistake, the
subpoenas indicate that the feds have instead chosen to press their
“case” against Kurtz and possibly others.

To donate to the CAE Defense Fund, and for up-to-date information on
the case, please visit the CAE Defense Fund.

For more information on the Critical Art Ensemble available here.

To join a list about the case, go here.

Articles and television stories about the case:

On advice of counsel, Steve Kurtz is unable to answer questions
regarding his case. Please direct questions or comments to media@caedefensefund.org.