[Autonogram] Critical Art Ensemble on trial

Ben at Autonomedia ben@autonomedia.org
Mon, 7 Jun 2004 16:37:24 -0400

greetings, all --

As many of you have probably heard by now, Steve Kurtz and the other 
members of the Critical Art Ensemble (authors of 5 Autonomedia books) 
have come under the closest scrutiny by the FBI under the rubric of 
the USA PATRIOT Act, and are facing a federal grand jury on June 15, 
in Buffalo. While it is hoped that the grand jury will throw the case 
out once it sees how misconstrued the State's evidence is, two things 
appear certain: this is a particularly close-to-home example of the 
use of state power to squash dissenting voices, and the legal costs 
for the CAE are going to be high.

A full description of the events preceding these subpoenas and 
possible ways to help support the CAE can be found at 
http://www.caedefensefund.org , and the full work of the group can be 
found at http://www.critical-art.net. Please check these sites out, 
and help spread the word of this case.

The CAE's own press release follows.

Ben / Autonomedia

* * *
June 2, 2004

Contact: Beatriz da Costa, mailto:media@caedefensefund.org

Feds STILL unable to distinguish art from bioterrorism
Grand jury to convene June 15


Three artists have been served subpoenas to appear before a federal
grand jury that will consider bioterrorism charges against a
university professor whose art involves the use of simple biology

The subpoenas are the latest installment in a bizarre investigation
in which members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force have mistaken an
art project for a biological weapons laboratory (see end for
background). While most observers have assumed that the Task Force
would realize the absurd error of its initial investigation of Steve
Kurtz, the subpoenas indicate that the feds have instead chosen to
press their "case" against the baffled professor.

Two of the subpoenaed artists--Beatriz da Costa and Steve Barnes--are,
like Kurtz, members of the internationally-acclaimed Critical Art
Ensemble (CAE), an artists' collective that produces artwork to
educate the public about the politics of biotechnology. They were
served the subpoenas by federal agents who tailed them to an art show
at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The third artist,
Paul Vanouse, is, like Kurtz, an art professor at the University at
Buffalo. He has worked with CAE in the past.

The artists involved are at a loss to explain the increasingly bizarre
case. "I have no idea why they're continuing (to investigate)," said
Beatriz da Costa, one of those subpoenaed. "It was shocking that this
investigation was ever launched. That it is continuing is positively
frightening, and shows how vulnerable the PATRIOT Act has made freedom
of speech in this country." Da Costa is an art professor at the
University of California at Irvine.

According to the subpoenas, the FBI is seeking charges under Section
175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which has
been expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act. As expanded, this law prohibits
the possession of "any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system"
without the justification of "prophylactic, protective, bona fide
research, or other peaceful purpose." (See
http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/175.html for the 1989 law and
http://www.ehrs.upenn.edu/protocols/patriot/sec817.html for its USA
PATRIOT Act expansion.)

Even under the expanded powers of the USA PATRIOT Act, it is difficult
to understand how anyone could view CAE's art as anything other than a
"peaceful purpose." The equipment seized by the FBI consisted mainly of
CAE's most recent project, a mobile DNA extraction laboratory to test
store-bought food for possible contamination by genetically modified
grains and organisms; such equipment can be found in any university's
basic biology lab and even in many high schools (see "Lab Tour" at
http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/free/ for more details).

The grand jury in the case is scheduled to convene June 15 in Buffalo,
New York. Here, the jury will decide whether or not to indict Steve
Kurtz on the charges brought by the FBI. A protest is being planned at
9 a.m. on June 15 outside the courthouse at 138 Delaware Ave. in


Financial donations:
The CAE Defense Fund has so far received over 200 donations in amounts
ranging from $5 to $400. This is a wonderful outpouring of sympathy,
but a drop in the bucket compared to the potential costs of the case.
To make a donation, please visit http://www.caedefensefund.org/

Letters of support:
Letters and petitions of support from biologists, artists, and others,
especially those in positions of responsibility at prominent
institutions or companies, could be very useful. See
http://www.caedefensefund.org/ for a sample letter of support.

Legal offers and letters of support:
If you are a lawyer, offers of pro bono support or offers to write
amicus briefs would be very helpful.


Early morning of May 11, Steve Kurtz awoke to find his wife, Hope,
dead of a cardiac arrest. Kurtz called 911. The police arrived and,
after stumbling across test tubes and petri dishes Kurtz was using
in a current artwork, called in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Soon agents from the Task Force and FBI detained Kurtz, cordoned off
the entire block around his house, and later impounded Kurtz's
computers, manuscripts, books, equipment, and even his wife's body for
further analysis. The Buffalo Health Department condemned the house as
a health risk.

Only after the Commissioner of Public Health for New York State had
tested samples from the home and announced there was no public safety
threat was Kurtz able to return home and recover his wife's body. Yet
the FBI would not release the impounded materials, which included
artwork for an upcoming exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of
Contemporary Art.

While most observers assumed the Task Force would realize that its
initial investigation of Steve Kurtz was a terrible mistake, the
subpoenas indicate that the feds have instead chosen to press their
"case" against Kurtz and possibly others.

To donate to the CAE Defense Fund, and for up-to-date information on
the case, please visit http://www.caedefensefund.org/

For more information on the Critical Art Ensemble, please visit

To join a list about the case, please visit

Articles and television stories about the case:

On advice of counsel, Steve Kurtz is unable to answer questions
regarding his case. Please direct questions or comments to