GMO testing brings bio-terrorism charges against Buffalo artist

By Cara Hungerford

June 15, 2004: His work is perhaps unusual, for his last exhibit, artist Steve Kurtz, set-up a mobile DNA extraction laboratory and tested food products for possible transgenic contamination, but is it illegal? The Joint Terrorism Task Force and the FBI are prepared to argue that it is.

An associate professor in the art department at SUNY-Buffalo, Kurtz was charged with federal violations under the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act after art supplies, including the extraction laboratory, were discovered at his Buffalo home.

The bizarre story starts with what could only be classified as one very bad day for Mr. Kurtz. The 54-year-old tenured professor awoke May 11 to find that his wife of 25 years had died in her sleep of cardiac arrest. When paramedics and police arrived they became suspicious of cultures and equipment that were found around the Kurtz household. Despite explaining his occupation and the reason for the materials, the FBI arrived and Kurtz was detained while his house was cordoned off.

"He explained to them that he uses [the equipment] in connection with his art, and the next thing you know they call the FBI and a full hazmat team is deposited there from Quantico -- that's what they told me," Paul Cambria, the lawyer who is representing Kurtz, told the Washington Post. "And they all showed up in their suits and they're hosing each other down and closing the street off, and all the news cameras were there and the head of the [Buffalo] FBI is granting interviews. It was a complete circus."

According to the Post report, FBI agents put Kurtz in a hotel, where they continued to question him. Paul Moskal, spokesman for the Buffalo office of the FBI, says the bureau put Kurtz in a hotel because his home had been declared off limits. The probe, Moskal says, was a by-the-books affair from the very beginning.

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, a fellow member of CAE who has been subpoenaed to testify at the hearing. "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."

Even under the expanded 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, “Free Range Grains,” 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.

The grand jury in the case is scheduled to convene June 15 in Buffalo. The jury will decide whether or not to indict Steve Kurtz on the charges brought by the FBI.

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