“There ought to be limits, there ought to be limits, there ought to be limits to, uh, uh, to freedom….”
--George W. Bush, speaking to a reporter in April 1999 regarding the prankster Internet site GWBUSH.com.

“I Wasn’t Using My Civil Liberties Anyway.”
--Bumpersticker recently for sale on GWBUSH.com

Last year, when I signed up to write this column, the last thing I thought I’d be concerning myself with was the so-called War on Terror. This was to be a space that explored legal issues of art, artists and creativity. But these are strange times. There’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.

Steve Kurtz is a tenured art professor at SUNY Buffalo. He’s also a member of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), an almost twenty-year-old performance collective made up of a handful of academic activists who claim to be “dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics and critical theory.” CAE periodically stages agitprop installations and savvy media manipulations, “encouraging the use of any media that will engage a particular socio-economic context in order to create molecular interventions and semiotic shocks that contribute to the negation of the rising intensity of authoritarian culture.” They’ve turned their sights on the health care industry, Big Media, and have published books on electronic civil disobedience. Lately CAE has been concerned with bio tech, including genetic engineering in agriculture, and has produced a myriad of websites, publications, and installations/performances in museums throughout Europe, and recently, at the Corcoran in Washington, DC. CAE is a thorn in the side of the powerful; they are pointy-headed pranksters; they are the kind of folks that make being a Liberal fun again. They are artists. Political artists. Sort of like John Dos Passos. Or Sinclair Lewis. Or Thomas Paine.

On the morning of May 11, Kurtz awoke to find his wife and collaborator, Hope Kurtz, dead of cardiac arrest. He called 911; the police and EMT’s arrived, and upon seeing Kurtz’s collection of lab equipment, petri dishes, and various containers of substances, decided to bring in the FBI, who brought in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, who, in turn, refused Kurtz access to his wife’s body and instead spirited him away for questioning. Kurtz’s block in the Allentown section of downtown Buffalo was cordoned off while HazMat squads combed Kurtz’s home, apparently looking for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Kurtz’s computers, notes and passport were also taken. While these authorities reportedly determined quite quickly that Kurtz possessed nothing illegal, or even dangerous, it was two days before he was allowed access to his home and his deceased wife’s body, which itself had been also tested by the Feds for noxious substances.

If things had ended here, perhaps with a red-faced apology from overzealous law enforcement personnel, there wouldn’t be much of a story here. Recall that Buffalo was the home of a small Al-Queda cell that was busted a year or so ago; maybe a little slack is warranted, given the situation. But it didn’t end here.

Instead, the FBI has been beating the bushes gathering information on Kurtz—agents have reportedly grilled his department head at SUNY about his personal life, where CAE gets its money, and why CAE is called a “collective” rather than a group of individuals. They’ve also asked a gallery director where CAE’s works have shown whether she believed Kurtz harbored any anti-American sentiments.

Then, in late May, FBI agents tailed two CAE members to MassMoca (where the artists were attending the anniversary gala) and served them with subpoenas to appear before a grand jury that has been impaneled in Buffalo to investigate Kurtz.

CAE members have told the press that they don’t think the FBI remotely understood what Kurtz was doing, even though Kurtz attempted to convince them that he was an artist (and showed them documents to prove it), and not a terrorist. Apaarentlyly, none of this matters. Paul Moskal, an FBI agent in Buffalo, told the LA Weekly: “We don’t know anything about an art project. That’s not something that concerns the FBI nor should it.”

People I’ve spoken to who know Kurtz say this is a witch hunt, and suspect he’s being forced to run the gauntlet by the FBI and the Department of Justice because of his strident and unusual views, as expressed in his art. The idea of someone having one’s life turned inside out for owning some off-the-shelf lab equipment and benign substances is horrifying. The idea of FBI spooks shadowing artists at MassMoca is revolting.

Meantime, Kurtz’s supporters and friends are planning an exhibit of the detritus of the Fed’s two-day search of Kurtz’s house—they’ve collected the pizza boxes, biohazard suits, and gas mask filters left behind by the government agents.

This case may be resolved by the time this article gets to print. Maybe the grand jury will laugh this one out of the courtroom. Maybe, just maybe, Kurtz was up to no good. I doubt it and I’m not inclined to cut the FBI any more slack. This strikes me as just more sick behavior that is promoted and led by a man who thinks God gave him orders to invade Iraq. It smacks of McCarthyism. It smacks of totalitarianism. It is out of control. The loud and clear message that’s being sent is to stay in line, keep your criticisms to yourself, and watch your back. It’s not OK to question, especially in a novel way.

FBI Agent Moskal also told the LA Weekly that he’s enjoying the attention the Kurtz case has brought: “It’s kind of fun for me. In the past three or four days, I’ve gotten 10 calls from the national outlets for a case that’s a couple of weeks old, and some of them are — well, just really fun.”

It’s nice Moskal’s having fun. Perhaps one day, after he’s allowed to grieve for his dead wife, after he clears his name, and pays for his A-list criminal defense attorney, Steve Kurtz can start having fun again, too.

© 2004 Paul C. Rapp
This article originally appeared in The Artful Mind, and is intended to provide the reader with an awareness of copyright law and not legal advice.