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Art becomes the next suspect in America's 9/11 paranoia

London Guardian | June 11 2004

On May 10 Steven Kurtz went to bed a married art professor. On May 11 he woke up a widower. By the afternoon he was under federal investigation for bioterrorism.

What began as a personal tragedy for Mr Kurtz has turned into what many believe is, at best, an overreaction prompted by 9/11 paranoia and, at worst, a politically motivated attempt to silence a radical artist.

Several of Mr Kurtz's colleagues and artistic collaborators have been subpoenaed and a date for a federal grand jury hearing set for Tuesday. Both artist and his art are set to go on trial for their alleged links with terrorism.

The ordeal started when Mr Kurtz, who teaches at the University at Buffalo, New York state, called the emergency services when he woke up to find Hope, his wife of 25 years, had stopped breathing.

A paramedic who came to his house saw laboratory equipment used in Mr Kurtz's art work. Within hours agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force were combing his house and had seized his books, personal papers, computer as well as his work which have still not been returned.

Hope, it transpired, had died of a heart failure which no one suggests had anything to do with Mr Kurtz or his work. But as her body lay in the house Mr Kurtz, 46, was whisked off to be questioned for two days while his home was cordoned off and searched. "It's a complete fishing expedition," says Mr Kurtz's lawyer, Paul Cambria. "There's no question that it's a paranoid overreaction that would never have happened before 9/11. I only hope that it is not simply aimed at trying to silence his message or the methods he's using to convey his message." The FBI refuses to comment.

Mr Kurtz, who is not speaking to the press, is part of the Critical Art Ensemble, "dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics and critical theory".

His art often involves blending biology with agricultural issues. In 2002 his exhibit Molecular Invasion, a statement against genetically modified crops, created a display of small soy, corn and canola plants growing under large incubating lamps. Other exhibits allowed visitors to watch bacteria grow in petri dishes. "He's trying to change the world through his work and his discourse," says Adele Henderson, the head of the art department at the University at Buffalo.

The New York-based writer and artist Greg Sholette says: "His art itself is going to be on trial. The Critical Art Ensemble has a strong tradition of critiquing capitalism and pushing the edges through its art but always within constitutional boundaries."

When the police came to Mr Kurtz's house they found equipment used for extracting and amplifying DNA, as well as three types of bacteria - prompting bioterrorism fears.

"He is obviously not someone who is attempting to make a weapon," says Mr Cambria. "He explained that he uses the equipment for his art."

The subpoenas say the FBI is seeking charges under section 175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which has been expanded by the Patriot Act.

It prohibits the possession of "any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system" without the justification of "prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose".

Mr Cambria argues that Mr Kurtz's work "obviously" comes under the last two categories.

"I know everything we did was legal," said Beatriz da Costa, a member of the CAE who says FBI agents followed her to an art show in Massachusetts to serve her a subpoena. "I can only think they are trying to intimidate us and maybe make us an example."

Ms da Costa, a professor at the University of California, says everything found in the house has been exhibited in public before.

Those close to Mr Kurtz or the case believe the case has spun out of control and has potentially huge ramifications. "I feel harassed and hassled," Ms Da Costa says. "But mostly I feel sorry for Steve Kurtz because he lost his wife, and his life has been a nightmare ever since. And he didn't even have time to grieve."