[Reader-list] CAE Artists Subpoenaed - Artistic Freedom under Attack in the USA

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Thu Jun 3 10:58:20 IST 2004

Dear Friends on the Reader List,

Paranoia sometimes attains heights difficult for us to even imagine. 
That the so called 'War Against Terror' is going drastically wrong is 
obvious to anyone who cares to examine the facts as they present 
themselves to us. The pictures in Iraqi prisons (although not very 
different in terms of the attitudes they portray from what is 
commonplace in US prisons) have confirmed that what we are seeing is a 
deep systemic pathology manifesting itself in every possible way.

I am appending below news of another symptom of the same malaise.

Not in Iraq, but in the United States. The persons involved are not 
'terrorist' but  'artists', people many of us know and respect. Steve 
Kurtz, artist, thinker and writer, member of the Critical Arts Ensemble, 
known to some of us on this list as an incisive but gentle creative 
practitioner- intellectual who has always (together with his colleauges 
in CAE) in the foreground of inaugurating new ways of thinking and doing 
art, was detained for questioning by the Joint Terrorism Task Force and 
FBI agents following the tragic death of his wife Hope due to a cardiac 
arrest (see background below). Following this detention, Kurtz's papers, 
computer, and materials for a CAE Art Project in process were also imponded.

Subsequently, Kurtz, and his colleagues in the Critical Arts Ensemble, 
Beatriz da Costa and Steve Barnes have been subpoenaed under the Patriot 
Act in the United States. Some of you on this list may have had occasion 
to meet Beatriz at Sarai during her brief time here and have spoken to 
her about her projects. I personally know of very few people as gentle 
and as sensitive as Beatriz, only a sick and insane state apparatus can 
begin to see someone like Beatriz as a suspected terrorist.

The immediate provocation for this sad turn of events seems to be 
materials associated with CAE's artistic projects that relate to 
Biotechnology. In a strange way, it is almost as if the things that CAE, 
in its dramatization of the new militarized culture and apparatus of the 
intersection between 'intelligence', state terror and surveillance and 
the bio science milieu, used to point our attention towards in gently 
allegorical ways, have now become scarily real.

I have always had the highest regard for the intellectual rigour and 
artistic depth of the work of the CAE and I have found both their art 
projects as well as their writings inspiring, particularly in the way 
they are able to address the poltics of knowledge, and critically 
interrogate the cultures of science as it is practiced today, without 
ever falling into the trap of a vague and ill informed 'anti scientism'

I find the arbitrary actions of the concerned US government agencies 
with regard to the members of the CAE insulting and injurious to the 
freedom of expression and artistic/scientific inquiry and urge everyone 
to make their protest known.

Please read the notice below for more details. I would urge everyone on 
this list to write letters in his support at the address given below.

In solidarity with Steve Kurtz, Beatriz da Costa, Steve Barnes and their 
  colleagues in the Creative Arts Ensemble.



June 2, 2004						

Contact: Beatriz da Costa, mailto:media at caedefensefund.org  ARTISTS 
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
http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/175.html for the 1989 law and
http://www.ehrs.upenn.edu/protocols/patriot/sec817.html for 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" at
http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/free/ 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 http://www.caedefensefund.org/

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
http://www.caedefensefund.org/ 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 http://www.caedefensefund.org/

For more information on the Critical Art Ensemble, please visit

To join a list about the case, please visit

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
mailto:media at caedefensefund.org.

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