Freedom, Terror and Semiotic Democracy
Steve Kurtz, a renowned artist and Associate Professor in the Department of Art at the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo whose work addresses the implications of information and bio technologies, was arrested by a joint terrorism task force on 12 May, 2004. In a tragic antecedent, Kurtz's wife had died unexpectedly in the early morning of the previous day due to a cardiac arrest.
Critical Art Ensemble have been working on projects designed to expose the strategies of the biotech industry and to enable a critical public debate on bio technologies, whose life-transforming power contrasts sharply with the lack of a public discourse. Kurtz' tools included laboratory material needed to show transgenic contamination of food products. The materials pose no danger and Steve Kurtz has successfully used them in international art shows for years. Although the materials represent devices and substances that are commercially available and can be legally obtained by anyone, Steve Kurtz's home was searched by a hazmat squad and declared a danger zone.
A founding member of the renowned Critical Art Ensemble, Steve Kurtz now faces an indictment based on laws that severely curtail fundamental rights using the fight against terrorism as a pretext. The 'Patriot Act' serves as justification for a campaign not only against immigrants, but also against critical journalists, scientists, and recently also artists. Steve Kurtz has publicly denounced the patenting of the biosphere and the role played by corporations, and recently examined the transgenetic contamination of food products. His attempt to use artistic means to make the genetic manipulation of the food chain and the practices of the bio industry visible have meant that state authorities dazed by paranoia now view him as a “terrorist”. Eight other members and associates of Critical Art Ensemble received subpoenas.
As part of an international response, the Free Bitflows conference, organized by World-Information.Org's partner organization Public Netbase on 3 – 4 June, 2004, issued a declaration in support of Kurtz. An international audience of artists, academics and cultural workers condemned the actions taken by the US justice authorities against Steve Kurtz in the strongest possible terms. They demanded an immediate stop of the repressive steps taken against Steve Kurtz as well as his full vindication and restoration as an artist. The petition was handed over to the US representative in Vienna on 15 June as part of a protest at the US Embassy.
On the same day a Grand Jury hearing began which will decide whether Kurtz will be formally indicted. Chances are that he will be, given that "the Grand Jury courts have been traditionally used to eliminate social and political resistance", according to one CAE member. These courts have no obligation to hear contradicting evidence, and therefore are expected to subscribe to the police's version of events, "I could indict a ham sandwich", in the words of the attorney general.
Critical Art Ensemble's theoretical work and analysis of technologically saturated societies has been of crucial importance in the emergence of post-ideological forms of critique. Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble have been contributors to World-Information.Org from the project's beginning in 1999. As a cultural intelligence provider, World-Information.org was affected by CAE's theoretical work in a decisive way, and the group was present with their art projects at all World-Information.Org events, including their famous presentation of Cult of the New Eve in Brussels in 2000. The fact that Steve Kurtz has become the object of aggressive police maneuvers shows that his art does in fact touch the nerve of occult power in the techno state. As a matter of fact, even assuming the most evil intentions, nothing of what Kurtz did or possessed in a material way could be categorized as criminal. His 'offence' can only be constructed on a symbolic level. On this level, behavior that is formally perfectly legal seems to violate symbolic restrictions of the information containment architecture. Coupled with government-nurtured security paranoia Kurtz as a critical artist becomes the target of state repression that neither adheres to principles of freedom of thought nor freedom of expression.
His case shows the urgency of an open debate about the meaning of semiotic democracy, while illustrating the lack of checks and balances that could restrain semiotic repression.
Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund
Critical Art Ensemble
Institute for New Culture Technologies/t0
Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics