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Spring 2010

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Steven Kurtz

Strange Culture

In a celebrated case, visual studies professor Steven Kurtz rebounds after a lengthy legal battle

Story by Nicole Peradotto; photo by Douglas Levere, BA ’89

Steven Kurtz has made it his life’s work to take aim at the status quo. With the counterculture ensemble he co–founded as a response to the Reagan era, he stands at the axis of art and activism, challenging government policies and promoting social justice in performance pieces, installations, videos and books. If there has been a universal theme wending its way through Kurtz’s oeuvre, it’s this, says the UB visual studies professor: “Authority is watching, and authority is everywhere. You think you have some free spaces or some autonomous spaces, but you really don’t.” Yet even Kurtz couldn’t have imagined how close to home this sentiment would hit. Right inside his home, to be precise. The facts of Kurtz’s saga read like a bizarre case of life imitating art. On May 11, 2004, he awoke to find that his 45-year-old wife, Hope, had died in her sleep. Emergency responders answering Kurtz’s 911 call became suspicious by what they saw, including bacteria growing in petri dishes and tinfoil covering the bedroom window.

“We would stop what we were doing before they would arrest us, but the point was made: If you do something out of the usual, ‘routinized’ plan of a given space, the police are going to come.”

When Kurtz explained that the bacteria were innocuous agents in one of his art projects and that the tinfoil was nothing more nefarious than a do-it-yourself blackout shade, authorities were unconvinced. FBI agents subsequently sealed off his block and quarantined his home in Allentown—an artistic neighborhood within the city of Buffalo—impounding scientific materials from his makeshift lab, as well as computers, his cat and his wife’s body.

Suddenly, a longtime peace advocate found himself cast as a bioterrorist suspect. Even after the bacteria were found to be harmless, the FBI pressed on. Six weeks after his wife died of heart failure, a federal grand jury indicted Kurtz on charges of mail and wire fraud for receiving the bacterial samples through the mail—under the Patriot Act, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in jail.

“It was both barrels,” says Kurtz, pretending to cock an imaginary shotgun—an illustration of what it was like to lose his wife and face a federal felony charge in one sweep.

In 2008, Kurtz was vindicated when a U.S. district court judge dismissed the case, declaring the indictment “insufficient on its face.” A legal drama that raised pivotal questions about the First Amendment in a post-9/11 world—all the while testing a UB professor’s mettle—had finally concluded.

Today, with his life no longer under the microscope, Kurtz, 51, is repairing the emotional fabric that was torn during the four-year ordeal. At the same time, he continues his creative projects and academic duties apace, as he did throughout his prosecution. “I never missed a day of teaching,” he says with pride. Freed up from strategy conferences with his legal team and regular visits to a probation officer—a required pretrial supervision he endured for over a year—he’s grateful that the only meetings he need attend are departmental.

“It was just a really unfortunate moment for me … and emblematic of a very sad time in America,” says Kurtz. “Many of my friends said this was what I’d been preparing for my whole life—this fight. Maybe they were right. My struggle was really about how far we were going to allow these agencies to overstep their boundaries just by saying the magic word ‘9/11.’

“For me, and for everyone who joined in, it was a very serious fight.”

Unlikely beginnings

If Kurtz didn't fit the profile of a suspected bioterrorist, those who knew him growing up in the 1960s and 1970s neither would have pegged the San Francisco native as a future academic.

From a young age, he found little use for school, other than socializing. “It was the most boring thing ever,” he says. “The whole enterprise seemed just nothing but authoritarian, where you learn how to sit still all day and cut off all your energy and creativity.”

Kurtz’s father was a DuPont executive, a job that required frequent relocations and made his son feel a bit like an Army brat. By the time Kurtz was in high school, the family was living in Sydney, Australia, and he was routinely skipping school to surf. “It seemed that the only life worth living was the hedonistic life,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out how the intellectual life was a path worth living at all.”

After barely graduating from high school, Kurtz’s attitude toward education did an about-face when he began undergraduate studies at the University of North Texas. There, thanks to several influential professors and students—including his future wife, whom he met in a freshman philosophy course—he became enamored with academia.

“Suddenly, the intellectual pathway made perfect sense,” Kurtz says. “It was like, OK—this is the end of surfing and skateboarding. It’s time to put the childish stuff away. I’ve got matters to attend to.”

After receiving an undergraduate and master’s degree in sociology, Kurtz moved to Florida with Hope, where he started interdisciplinary PhD studies in art history, comparative literature and philosophy at Florida State University.

While writing his doctoral dissertation, however, he experienced a crisis of conscience. “I was not able to put the two me’s together: the political thinking one and the scholarly one,” he says. “I came of college age in the ’80s. It was the time of Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’”—the former president’s most popular campaign slogan—“and every bit of it sounded false. It just seemed like the U.S. was on another 1950s-style march toward authoritarianism. There were all these authoritarian tendencies in the culture, and a group of us decided that it’s not enough to be academic. You have to do something to resist these tendencies.”

That something was Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a collective of five artists and writers who joined forces in 1987 to explore the intersections of art, technology, radical politics and critical theory.

Although the CAE’s exhibitions have been seen in such prestigious venues as the Whitney Museum in New York and the London Natural History Museum, the group was, at the outset, committed to creating provocative art for the masses, not just for gallery-goers. One of their first performances was a piece about cyborgs presented in a Mississippi blues bar.

“We’re a lot more flexible about it now, but at the time we were very interested in demonstrating that you could do this kind of work in these alternative places,” Kurtz says. “When the trend was to go back to the museum and the gallery, we were going the opposite direction and saying, ‘How do we reach people that are not those that normally see [artistic] work?’”

For “Exit Culture,” another early project, the avant-garde troupe intersected with the “Trip Tik” crowd. For four days they traveled by Winnebago to Florida tourist sites and rest stops, playing videos about highway travel and using a CB radio to read poetry they’d created from reassembled driver manuals and lyrics about the road.

Inevitably, Kurtz says, the police showed up, even though nothing illegal was taking place.

“We would stop what we were doing before they would arrest us, but the point was made: If you do something out of the usual, ‘routinized’ plan of a given space, the police are going to come."

Difficult sojourn in Pittsburgh

As the CAE’s members finished graduate school and began settling into jobs throughout the country, they continued collaborating on projects that sought to dissect social, political and, increasingly, scientific issues. For his part, Kurtz remained in Florida until 1995, when he accepted a full-time teaching appointment at Carnegie Mellon University.

He describes his tenure at the Pittsburgh institution as “very conflicted.” “Carnegie Mellon is an extremely conservative school, and I was considered a troublemaker there, so everything was just a battle,” he recalls.

Shortly after arriving on campus, Kurtz completed “Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas,” a manual of electronic activism—or “hactivism,” as it’s sometimes called—that explains how readers can commit nonviolent yet disruptive acts in the cyber age.

Kurtz’s book galled his colleagues in the business school and computer science department. At a university that operates a federally funded research and development institute for the U.S. Department of Defense that is devoted to studying Internet security, his were considered fighting words.

“They wanted me fired, and they tried so hard to do it,” he says. “The college of arts took great umbrage with this, and it was not a minor force on campus, as it is in most places. So, I had this island of protection, and they never could get rid of me if they wanted any semblance of academic freedom. But it still broke out into a campus war.”

In 2001, Kurtz received a call from Paul Vanouse, like him a bio-artist who uses tissue, bacteria and microorganisms to bridge the gap between science and art. Vanouse, one of Kurtz’s former graduate students at Carnegie Mellon, had joined the faculty at UB. When he told Kurtz about a job opening in Buffalo, Kurtz didn’t hesitate to apply.

“This was the place I wanted to be, where I didn’t have to fight for anything, where what I do is actually appreciated and the battle was over,” he says. “I could live a fairly harmonious existence.”

Two years after Kurtz was hired, that peace was shattered.

Community and campus support

While federal officials rifled through his house, Kurtz followed his attorney’s advice, leaving town to avoid the media glare. At that point he’d endured a 22-hour FBI interrogation with barely a moment to grieve his wife of 27 years.

What would happen next? he wondered. Would he come home to find the word “terrorist” spray-painted on his house?

“When I got back, the neighbors were furious—not with me but with law enforcement,” Kurtz says. “I never had one bad comment ever from anyone. Not an e-mail. Not regular mail. No one yelled at me in public or said they hoped I would go to jail.”

On the contrary, Kurtz was showered with support. Rallies were held as far away as Paris and Amsterdam. As the FBI tried to depict him as “some yahoo artist living in the depths of bohemian Allentown,” he says, artists from around the world rallied to his defense, cementing his international stature.

Closer to home, he was buoyed by spontaneous displays of encouragement. Once, a city bus driver stopped his route to get off his bus and sympathize with the professor. Another time, as he walked down Elmwood Avenue, a city parks crew drove past and shouted, “We’re behind ya, Steve!”

“This outpouring wasn’t surprising in a way because it just shows that people are fair-minded,” says Kurtz, describing the response as a “great moral victory.” “They can tell when something is not right, and they do care about it.”

On campus and off, members of the UB community stood in solidarity with Kurtz. Some wrote letters to the Department of Justice and the local newspaper. Others demonstrated outside City Hall and sat in on court proceedings. To give Kurtz an opportunity to mourn his wife, Vanouse held a memorial for her at his home. “I thought that had to be done immediately, to help Steve separate the grief from all of the other things he was dealing with,” Vanouse, associate professor of visual studies at UB, explains. “At least there would be proper grieving before he had to get pragmatic about how to deal with the assault from the Department of Justice.”

Although UB administrators never commented on Kurtz’s case, he considers them among his boldest champions for making a pivotal decision as it was still pending—namely, promoting him to full professor. “I think that was a pretty gutsy call to not say, ‘We’re going to table this and, after the trial’s over, we’ll talk about promotions and firings,’” Kurtz contends. “That’s what the gutless university would have done.”

Individuals from UB were also instrumental in raising money for the legal defense of Kurtz and his co-defendant, Robert Ferrell, the University of Pittsburgh geneticist chair who mailed Kurtz the bacteria. Battling lymphoma, Ferrell ended up pleading guilty to a lesser, misdemeanor charge out of concern for his health.

As Kurtz’s case was channeling through the court, “Strange Culture,” a cinematic re-creation of the events of his arrest, premiered in art houses around the country. In one scene, several of Kurtz’s students refuse to sign a petition supporting their professor for fear of repercussions from the FBI.

That, he points out, was dramatic license on the filmmaker’s part; it never happened. “The students were great. They would turn out for the fundraisers, if not organize them. And they were understanding when I had to [leave campus to] go to probation.”

One of Kurtz’s most vocal defenders was former UB graduate student Julie Perini, MFA ’06. In addition to chronicling his arrest and prosecution for a campus publication, she helped organize a symposium about the law and the Patriot Act. “The crime he was charged with carried a 20-year sentence, so I and many others took that possibility seriously,” says Perini, now a film studies instructor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. “I appreciated having Steve as part of my community of intellectuals and artists, and I did not want to have him gone.”

Perini, who describes Kurtz as a “life–changing professor,” credits him with transforming the way she thinks about art. “I was always interested in activism, but I didn’t want to get involved because the activists I’d met seemed off-putting. Then I met Steve and realized that art doesn’t have to be a separate endeavor from activism. All of his projects make complex social, political and environmental issues understandable to regular people. That, to me, is very powerful. He is very sincere in his message, and he lives it every day.”

Vanouse agrees that Kurtz’s straightforward style is one of his fortes—not just in his installations, but in his classroom. “Steve is good at taking really complex material that can be daunting for students, like high theory or philosophy, and putting it forth in a user-friendly way. Sometimes, in our reverence for the material, teachers aren’t willing to allow for simplification. Steve was never that reverent of materials he spent his whole life researching.”

Artistic productivity amid trauma

To look at the CAE's body of work during the four years of Kurtz’s prosecution–from “Free Range Grains,” an installation on genetically modified food, to “Marching Plague,” a critique of germ warfare programs—you wouldn’t know that one of its members’ lives had been turned upside down.

“They were the most productive years ever because we felt we had to be role models,” says Kurtz, who suffered from high blood pressure throughout the prosecution. “It was to send the message to the FBI and the Justice Department that they weren’t going to stop us. We were going to do exactly what we had set out to do, and even step it up a notch.”

After his case was dismissed, Kurtz and the CAE presented “Seized,” an installation that documented the household objects the FBI confiscated from his home, as well as the pizza boxes, Gatorade bottles and other trash the agents left behind.

Beyond that, he has no desire to reference his ordeal in his art.

“We have tried to continue with our activities as they would have gone on,” says Kurtz, who’s currently writing a book about how the government uses weapons systems as propaganda. “We didn’t want to turn the case into our practice. I think if I had said it would be good that we do that, everybody would have gone along, but I was never tempted. I thought clearly we had to keep these two things separate. That would be playing into the Department of Justice’s hands to stop all of our antiwar activities in order to focus on them. And for what?”

Asked whether that nightmarish chapter of his life has made him even more indignant of the powers that be, Kurtz laughs.

“I was pretty indignant to begin with.”

A former reporter for The Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a freelance writer/editor who has written for numerous local and national magazines.

Critical Art Ensemble

Collective of artists and writers explores intersections of art, technology, politics and critical theory.

Critical Art Ensemble

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