UB's Steve Kurtz -- One of Europe's Popular Experimental Artists

Work focuses on global wealth discrepancy, social and ecological injustice

Release Date: July 27, 2012

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Steve Kurtz is known worldwide for his work in bio art and electronic disobedience.

An installation by UB artist Steve Kurtz consists of a vertical bar graph the height of a crane, which depicts global wealth disparity.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Steve Kurtz, professor of visual studies at the University at Buffalo, a social critic known for his work in bio art and electronic disobedience, has had a busy summer in Europe where he has been involved in three high-visibility projects.

Most notable is "A Public Misery Message: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality," an installation for the exhibition Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, a cultural event of world standing.

Documenta, which runs this year from June 9 to September 16, is presented every five years in an effort to offer a snapshot of the global state of contemporary art. It features 100 international artists for whom inclusion is a major distinction.

Kurtz's work for Documenta 13 and his other exhibitions feature the Critical Art Ensemble, which he co-founded 25 years ago. This collective of five tactical media practitioners from across the U.S. and with various specializations famously operates at the intersections of art, technology, radical politics and critical theory.

"A Public Misery Message" consists of a vertical bar graph the height of a crane, which depicts global wealth disparity. It represents the economic wealth of the world population in quintiles (that is as fifths of the whole) with each .39 inch representing $100 in U.S. currency. The top one percent owns more than 15 times more wealth that of the rest of the world combined, an amount so great, that, if depicted graphically, would require the graph to be 738 feet tall. So the CAE employs a helicopter that rises 738 feet into the air, a point at which it represents, hyperbolically, the top one percent of us. A photo of "A Public Misery Message" is available here: (insert link).

On June 9, opening day, a red carpet stretched along the grass of Kassel's Orangery, and the first 50 people who could afford to buy tickets for the helicopter flight lined up. The other 99 percent could a purchase a lottery ticket in any currency for a chance to win a ride.

From September 20 to October 21, Kurz and the CAE will present "New Alliance" as part of a year-long eco art project with Parco Arte Vivente Center for Contemporary Art in Turin, Italy. It will address the question, raised in CAE November workshops at the PAV, of whether plants and men can be allies. The group will present in-house research and the methodology developed in the field during the production process.

"Seized," a June 13-29 exhibition at the Aksioma Contemporary Art Institute in Ljubljana, Slovenia, is the work of the CAE and the Institute for Applied Autonomy, a group of anonymous artists known for employing technology in protest.

The complex installations in the exhibition grew out of Kurtz's infamous 2004 arrest and the FBI seizure of his art materials, books, archives, as well as his wife's corpse. These were used as evidence to support allegations of bioterrorism against him.

After the raid, CAE artists confiscated pizza boxes, Gatorade bottles, hazmat suits, biological sample bags, written notes and a single cigar butt -- all left behind at Kurtz's home by the FBI as they collected the evidence ultimately presented against him. This material is presented in an installation at Askioma along with critical text. The artists call it "a subversive strategy of counter-appropriation" and a window into the anatomy of this infamous "bio-terror" investigation as it was opening up.

The exhibition screened "Strange Culture," Lynn Hershman Leeson's award-winning film about the Kurtz ordeal.

The exhibition also featured the installation "True Crime." Grounded in the assumption that everyone occasionally breaks the law, even if only in small ways, Kurtz et al invited the public to send in painted, drawn, photographed, scanned or output images of illegal objects, an object obtained illegally or any illegal act in which the individual was specifically connected. The stated purpose of this effort (and subsequent exhibition of the images) was "to make visible this secret structure of everyday life and in some cases, to even celebrate moments of resistance to authority."

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