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Interventionist artist Kurtz is new chair of visual studies

Portrait of Steve Kurtz

Steven Kurtz, a founding member of the the internationally renowned art and theory collective Critical Art Ensemble, is the new chair of the Department of Visual Studies.

By PATRICIA DONOVAN

Published October 18, 2012

Steven Kurtz, professor of visual studies who is considered “the grandfather of interventionist art,” is the new chair of the Department of Visual Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Kurtz, a founding member of the internationally renowned art and theory collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), succeeds Millie Chen, professor of visual studies, who served as department chair for the past four years.

Kurtz, who came to UB in 2002 from Carnegie Mellon University, is best known for interventionist art, described by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA) as art that “critiques, lampoons, interrupts and co-opts; art that acts subtlety or with riotous fanfare, and art that agitates for social change using magic tricks, faux fashion and jacked-up lawn mowers.”

Kurtz’s artistic interventions are in the fields of electronic civil disobedience and Bio Art, a practice in which he works with live tissues, bacteria, living organisms and life processes using biotechnologies like genetic engineering, tissue culture and cloning.

He is the author or co-author of several books produced by the CAE, most recently, “Critical Art Ensemble: Disturbances,” a landmark handbook for activists in art, theory, science and politics launched in London, UK, on Oct. 4, where Kurtz currently is a visiting artist at the Goldsmiths College of Art, University of London.

Kurtz says his administrative work in the Department of Visual Studies is cut out for him, in part because undergraduate recruitment is more difficult than it used to be.

“There was a time when we were deluged with undergraduates from New York City,” he says, “but these days, they’re staying downstate, perhaps because of the cost of an out-of-town education for families struggling with job security or unemployment.

“Nevertheless, there will always be people who are driven to express themselves through the arts,” Kurtz says,” and they will find a way to do it.

“Students from the more ‘comfortable’ classes benefit from families that often will compensate the graduate who faces difficulty making a living,” he says.

“For art students whose families are engaged in economic struggle, however, there is a sense that there must be vocational dimension to their training. They may be attracted to fields like commercial art, graphic design or teaching,” Kurtz says, “something they can turn into a job.”

He says he hopes to increase undergraduate enrollment and continue development of the department’s very successful China exchange programs established by Chen.

“We have excellent programs and facilities for whatever art form a student might want to pursue,” he says, “including those that challenge assumptions about the political sphere, the economy, science, the body and technology.”

On the graduate side, he says the department is doing fine, enrollment-wise.

“Our MFA program has always been robust and we now have four PhD students on board. With our upscale gallery space, including the UB Art Gallery, the Anderson, the new downtown project gallery that allows large-scale and group work, and the return of the student gallery, we have a lot to offer,” he says, citing “an excellent faculty,” some of whom, like Kurtz, hoist our profoundly commoditized, technologized, restrictive culture on its own petard.

In addition to his provocative art, Kurtz is known for the USA Patriot Act controversy that began with his arrest by the FBI in 2004 (charges eventually were dropped) for possessing materials that were to be used for “Marching Plague,” a project sponsored by the Arts Catalyst, London, one of the United Kingdom’s most distinctive arts organizations focused on experimental work that critically engages science.

His exceptional story, which raised the profile of interventionist art and the cause of artistic independence throughout the world, was told in the film “Strange Culture ,” about which The New York Times wrote, “In its creative assessment of our current judicial climate, the need for artistic freedom has seldom seemed so urgent.”