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Seized: Steve Kurtz and the Art of Dissent

Gatorade bottles discarded at Kurtz's house by federal agents

Seized, the current show at Hallwalls, consists of items left behind by federal agents after they raided artist Steve Kurtz’s College Street house in 2004, as well as a series of pieces Kurtz was working on when authorities confiscated the pertinent materials.

What agents discarded in Kurtz’s home reveals a lot about their attitude toward the investigation. There are masks, filters, hazmat suits, gloves strewn all over, yards of duct tape, notes about the investigation, and “to do” lists. Strangely missing is any sign of caffeine—there are no Pepsi or Coke bottles or coffee cups, though there are dozens of pizza boxes and Gatorade bottles. Had a viable bioterror threat truly been perceived, wpuld agents have removed portions of their hazmat gear to consume pizza? This looks like the aftermath of a frat party.

“They left behind a wall of trash,” Kurtz says. “They went through my trash, and so I decided to go through theirs.”

Case dismissed

The story of Kurtz’s long, expensive, and absurd prosecution are well known: In May 2004 Kurtz was preparing for a show about genetically modified food, when his wife, Hope, suddenly died at home. He called 911. When authorities entered his house, they were disturbed by the items related to his shows: petri dishes, chemistry books, unfamiliar substances, etc..

Seized; the current exhibit at Hallwalls

Kurtz found himself drawn into a Kafkaesque narrative. The FBI detained him and agents from Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Department of Defense descended on his home with hazmat suits. They seized his car, computers, books, items related to his exhibits (inculding those that had previously been shown in public), his cat, and even Hope’s body from the coroner.

It was determined that Hope had died of natural causes. The New York State Commissioner of Health found no pathogens were present in Kurtz’s home and the public was not endangered. Still, the Department of Justice charged Kurtz with bioterrorism, accusing him of illegally possessing biological weapons. When a federal grand jury rejected those charges, he was instead indicted on mail and wire fraud. Indicted along with Kurtz was Dr. Robert Ferrell, from the University of Pittsburgh, from whom Kurtz obtained $256 worth of harmless bacteria and had served as advisor for previous Kurtz’s projects. The DoJ claimed Ferrell had defrauded the University of Pittsburgh and the American Type Culture Collection, which provided the bacteria, although those two organizations never pressed charges.

Ferrell ultimately pled guilty last fall to the misdemeanor charge of mailing a harmful substance and was fined $500, after suffering cancer and three strokes induced by the stress of his indictment. Kurtz was never offered a plea deal. “I wouldn’t have taken it even if it was offered to me,” he says.

This spring all charges were dropped against Kurtz. Federal District Court Judge Richard J. Arcara dismissed the indictment as “insufficient on its face.” The DoJ chose not to appeal. Kurtz lost four years of his life to litigation and the constant fear of being imprisoned. He is in the process of reclaiming many seized items that have yet to be returned.

A to-do list also left at Kurtz's house

The interrupted work

Kurtz worked on his interrupted projects with the Critical Art Ensemble, which examines the role of biotechnology on daily life and attempts to demystify the process of creating food for consumption, and with the Institute for Applied Autonomy, a collective of scientists, engineers, designers, and artists.

Because many of the items pertinent to the show are still in the custody of the FBI, photographs and text explain how the shows worked. Molecular Invasion, for example, at the Corcoran Gallery in DC, had CAE members and college students experimenting with crops and pruducts designed by Monsanto, the infamous producer of Agent Orange. CAE wanted to demonstrate susceptibility in what was touted by the company as adaptability—the Monsanto seeds used in the show were supposed to be impervious to herbicides, but they could be killed with vitamin B6.

Monsanto lawyers showed up at the exhibit to shut the group down. “Now that I’m no longer charged, I want to find out what if any involvement they may have had in my prosecution,” says Kurtz. “A handful of multinationals want to control the entire food supply. We’re trying to stand up to the militarization and privatization of common resources.”

Free Range Grain was the piece Kurtz was preparing for when his life was upended. The exhibit allowed attendees to bring in food to test for the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It was presented in Europe. GenTerra also had been shown in several countries before the raid. It questioned the creation of GMOs and incorporated a harmless form of E. coli, a bacteria that all humans have living in their intestinal track to help to digest food, without which we would die.

For Marching Plague, CAE consulted scientists from the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons Armament and Arms Limitation. Footage of the work was shown at the Whitney Biennial in 2006.

Kurtz takes part in Critical Art Ensemble's GenTerra exhibit at Winnipeg's St. Norbert Art and Cultural Center

Harmless bacteria released at Hallwalls to demonstrate distribution rates are displayed in petri dishes. Accompanying the petri dishes are captions that outline the global history of germ warfare. There’s also video of a CAE recreation of a germ warfare experiment the UK conducted with chimpanzees in the 1950s on the open seas. Ships sprayed contaminants over distances to see if the animals would be infected. Unfortunately for the UK military, a commercial shipping vessel happened upon the experiment and had to be monitored to make sure infection aboard hadn’t occurred. It didn’t, and the results were abysmal. CAE’s mock experiment used guinea pigs overseen by the SPCA and harmless bacteria, and produced infection rates just as poor as the original—only one in 30 guinea pigs showed traces of the bacteria.

Hallwalls is the first gallery in America to feature Kurtz’s wetware since his ordeal began. Other well-regarded institutions such as the Whitney have shied away from Kurtz’s specimens, instead opting to show video footage. “When I went to talk to the Whitney, I was greeted by a group of lawyers,” says Kurtz.

“Steve’s case may make people and institutions rethink critical positions and less likely to question or dissent,” says John Massier, visual arts curator of Hallwalls. “This was to have been a pretrial show to educate the public about Steve. Now that the charges have been dismissed, there is a celebratory aspect.”

Seized runs through July 18 at Hallwalls, 341 Delaware Avenue (854-1694/hallwalls.org).

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