|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
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
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