SPILL STINGS 5: Infect/Intersect (cont.)

Thu 01 Jan 1970

This is a continuation of Johanna Linsley’s writing about the context of artists working with infection as both a theme and a material for their work.

One of the striking things about the SPILL festival programming is the multiplicity of outputs – staged performances, facilitated talks, film and video screenings and various other more or less defined actions, interventions and conversations.  As I continue to think about a cultural context for SPILL’s theme of ‘infection’ (see previous post on ACT UP), I am keen to consider how different forms of production and interaction can serve and enrich such a large concept.

One potentially useful touchstone is the work of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), partly because it deals directly with the materiality of biopolitics, including the way public health officials and policy react to infection, and the way infection may be militarized.  The group has also been involved in AIDS activism, collaborating on a project with the collective Gran Fury, among others, in 1988, which resulted in the first ACT UP chapter in Florida. However, CAE is also interesting here for the interdisciplinarity that structures their practice, where their outputs are matched to the critical issues they approach.

Founded in 1987 in Florida, the group has three main types of output.  First, there are book projects, which range from ‘plagiarized text poetry’ to extensively researched polemics on subjects such as technology and civil disobedience or biological warfare. These latter projects are all published by Autonomedia, and available to download for free (

Second, they produce biotech-related projects (often with a performance/installation output).  An example is Molecular Invasion (2000), a ‘biochemical intervention’ on a genetically-engineered product of Monsanto, the multi-national agricultural company. Monsanto issued cease-and-desist orders against the work, in spite of the fact that the project was produced by amateurs for a cultural institution, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC. For these projects, the group often dons lab coats, and presents lectures on the topics.

Finally, the group produces tactical media interventions, where the group’s media outputs, such as videos, pamphlets and even radio and print ads, are inserted into public spaces.  One such coordinated effort was Exit Culture (1992), where the public spaces included areas off of Florida highways, such as rest stops and shopping malls. All of these works are unsigned by individuals, producing a collective, semi-anonymous yet still accountable pseudo-authorship for the work.

All of the group’s projects target specific instances of authoritarian manipulation by powerful corporations and government institutions.  Their use of media and scientific processes responds directly to the disproportionate influence and destructive effects of the institutional manifestations of these processes, particularly by the pharmaceutical industry, the proponents of genetically engineered agriculture, and the forces behind biological warfare.  The CAE’s position is then structurally marginal.  Founding member Steve Kurtz says, ‘without the asset of a territory to work from, strategy is off the table, and we are left only with the choice of flying under the radar, responding to specific situations’.  This position explains the many different forms the CAE’s practice takes – each project is a reaction to a specific situation, and the outputs so as most effectively to deliver a message or intervention.

One recurring theme of the Critical Art Ensemble is their insistence on the value of the amateur.  While not dismissing the value of specialization, the group asserts that interdisciplinarity and exchange make for better public knowledge.  They propose amateurism as an opportunity to be responsibly informed about things that affect public life, but are often kept strictly private, either by repressive governments or corporations driven by competition.  Their performance lectures, while neither distanced nor ironic, nevertheless operate theatrically to make this point.  When CAE wears the costumes of scientists and perform some of their tasks, the group shows how the role needn’t be mystified.

The most notorious series of events in the CAE history points to how radical this position is.  The story is fairly familiar by now.  In May of 2004, Steve Kurtz woke one morning to find his wife and fellow CAE member Hope Kurtz unconscious.  When the paramedics came to the house, they noted the presence of lab equipment in their home and notified the FBI. The Joint Terrorism Task Force descended, and materials, computers and Kurtz’s passport were confiscated. Kurtz was apparently being investigated under a statute related to biological warfare, which had been expanded with the introduction of the USA Patriot Act.  This would likely have been due to the presence of harmless bacteria in the Kurtz home, which was going to be used for a later project dealing with US biological warfare.  However, NYC Commissioner of Public Health reported no hazardous materials were found, and the initial bio-terrorism charges were soon dropped.

In the period around 2004, anxieties were still high around the threat of anthrax attacks and the Patriot Act had recently been enacted.  The initial overreaction by authorities might have been chalked up to an atmosphere of over-caution.   However, after the bioterrorism charges were dropped, Kurtz and a colleague from the University of Pittsburgh were brought up on charges of mail fraud.  The colleague, Dr. Robert Ferrell, had procured the harmless bacteria for Kurtz in a transaction that both insisted was common in the university culture (claims which a number of colleagues supported).  For four years, Kurtz and Ferrell underwent exhausting investigation, incurring over a hundred thousand dollars in legal expenses. Many in the art and academic worlds came to their support, holding an art auction to raise legal fees, and speaking out publicly against what looked undeniably liked politically motivated targeting.

The indictment against Kurtz was eventually dropped in 2008. Ferrell, in ill health at the start of the ordeal and suffering several strokes during the investigation, submitted to a plea deal.   And finally, the importance of policing the disciplinary barriers between expert and amateur, science and culture, private and public interest, seems clearly to have been pressed on the personal life and well-being of several people who attempted to bring those territories closer together. ***

See www.critical-art.net for extensive documentation of all CAE projects. See caedefensefund.org for more information on the case against Kurtz, including details of the excellent documentary Strange Culture. Other references for the post include: ‘Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble’ by Rebecca Schneider, and a timeline of CAE’s work, both included in a special issue of TDR (The Drama Review), Issue 44, Volume 4, 2000. An interview with Steve Kurtz from the Article ‘The Strange Case of Steve Kurtz: Critical Art Ensemble and the Price of Freedom’ by Robert Hirsch, in Afterimage, Volume 32, Issue 6, 2005 ‘Disciplining the Avant-Garde: The United States versus The Critical Art Ensemble’ by Gregory Sholette in Circa Issue 112, 2005