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Curtailing Kurtz

Former CMU professor's political art draws probe, galvanizes supporters

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On June 15, 50 people gathered near the steps of the Federal Building Downtown in support of former Carnegie Mellon University art professor Steve Kurtz, who faces indictment by a federal grand jury for possession of benign biological agents related to his artwork.

Kurtz's case has mobilized artists in Pittsburgh, Buffalo -- where he teaches art at the State University of New York branch -- and around the world; protests against the grand jury investigation, for which Kurtz affiliates were subpoenaed, have been staged as far as Amsterdam and Paris.

 

On May 11, Kurtz phoned 911 after waking to find that his wife Hope, 45, had died. One of the paramedics who arrived at Kurtz's home noticed laboratory equipment, as well as harmless strands of the bacteria E. coli that Kurtz uses in his art-related projects. That observation eventually lead to an FBI inquiry, which included agents shuffling through the house in haz-mat suits and confiscating Kurtz's equipment, biological materials, books, papers and computer.

 

Kurtz was denied access to Hope and his house. Agents searched the house for two days before announcing that there was no public health risk, that Hope had died of heart failure, and that no toxic material had been found. Kurtz was allowed to return home on May 17. Yet the investigation has continued: Members of his art collective, Critical Art Ensemble, fellow professors at both CMU and SUNY, and even his students have been served subpoenas and were summoned to appear before a federal grand jury in Buffalo that convened on June 15. The results of the hearing -- which many Kurtz associates have described as a violation of his First Amendment rights and blamed on the USA PATRIOT Act, despite denials from government officials -- have not yet been made public.

 

For many of his students, Kurtz fathered the genre of artistic critique of technology -- using art to remove the mystery, authority and power from technology and make it available for public understanding -- and has furthered the hybridization of art and science. "So it also makes sense that he's the first to be attacked for it," says Todd Pavlisko, who earned his master of fine arts degree at CMU under Kurtz. 

 

"He really introduced me to critical theory, to different ways of thinking about what art can be, its significance, and its social, political relevance," says Carrie Schneider, a CMU art-school graduate, photographer and City Paper contributor. "It's a very emotional, tragic situation, and ironic: So much of his work was about educating people about this kind of frightening activity on the part of the government."

 

When Rich Pell, now a visiting professor of art at the University of Michigan, attended CMU, he took classes from Kurtz and collaborated with him on projects that laid the groundwork for Pell's current collaborative art projects, which still address the area where art, politics and technology overlap. Pell earned degrees from both CMU's art department and the university's Robotics Institute -- a collaborative artistic education that Kurtz encouraged.

 

"It was Steve who got me interested as an artist in the social implications of a technology," says Pell. "He would build technologies that make people address those issues and make them visible in order to encourage informed decision-making. That's what his work has always been about for me -- demystifying those technologies."

 

The E. coli found in Kurtz's house was used in a Critical Art Ensemble production called "GenTerra," which explored genetic engineering of organisms from the perspective of a fictional corporation.

 

"When I was at CMU he was just starting out with this biotech stuff," Pell says. "He would go around campus asking students questions about how reproductive technologies work. He was always writing essays, making performances, speaking to people in some way, making a point that if you want your work to reach people you have to extend beyond the gallery in order to do so.

"Steve is well loved. This protest [in Buffalo] was a bit like a family reunion, in that lots of people who he has influenced, who have gone on to do lots of things, came back to support him. He has impacted so much of what I believe is important."

 

Concludes Todd Pavlisko: "His work is about informing society, and now he's a victim of what he critiques."

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