Robert Hirsch
The Strange Case of Steve Kurtz:
Critical Art Ensemble and the Price of Freedom

By Robert Hirsch

From Afterimage: the Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism,
May/June 2005


The indictments against Kurtz and Ferrell last June ignited protests from artists all over the world. Protesters—including hundreds who gathered in downtown Buffalo—accused the U.S. Justice Department of unfairly targeting Kurtz because he participated in art exhibits and wrote books that criticized the government. “It’s not an exaggeration to say artists all over the world are watching this case,” said Chicago artist and Kurtz’s friend Gregg Bordowitz. “To me, it’s a test case on how far the government can go to repress artists and intellectuals.”

Bordowitz and Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator of Exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio organized an art auction to benefit the CAE Defense Fund at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City on April 17, 2005, which included work by Chris Burden, Hans Haacke, Ann Hamilton, Barbara Kruger, Sol LeWitt, Vik Muniz, Lorna Simpson, Kiki Smith, Alexis Rockman, Richard Serra and Cindy Sherman, among many others, and raised $167,700.

From the project "The Society for Reproductive Anachronisms"
(SRA, 1998-1999) by Critical Art Ensemble.
On March 17, 2005, Steven Barnes, a founding member of CAE, was served a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury in Buffalo on April 19. According to the subpoena, the FBI is once again seeking charges under Section 175 of the U.S. Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, as expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act—charges that a previous grand jury appeared to reject last summer when they handed down indictments of mail and wire fraud.

Kurtz continues to teach in the Art Department at UB, but if convicted both Kurtz and Ferrell could face up to 20 years in prison. The following dialogue was initiated the last week of November 2004 and concluded in the beginning of March 2005. On the advice of Cambria, his lawyer, Kurtz was not able to discuss any events surrounding his pending legal case.

Robert Hirsch: In relation to the 2004 presidential elections, tell us about your family.

Steve Kurtz: I grew up an only child in an upper-middleclass family mostly around the Northeast. The men of my extended family were all corporate executives and the women were all homemakers. Of course, everyone was a Republican. This has changed somewhat since my arrest. My mother voted for John Kerry, and my father abstained, claiming that “if [he] couldn’t vote Republican [he] wasn’t voting at all.” My generation must be a bit of a disappointment for the older generations since none of us are corporate; for the most part myself and my cousins work in social services, and all of us would rather eat ground glass than vote Republican.

RH: How did you become politicized?

SK: That was a slow process. When I was a teenager, living in Sydney, Australia, I was sent to a boys’ school. This experience put a hatred of authority and institutional structure in me that still burns to this day. It was the first time I was exposed to a totalizing institution that was far worse than the violence and boredom of school that I experienced in the States. While in college at the University of North Texas in Denton (UNT) during the late 1970s and early 1980s, studying sociology and social philosophy, I learned how to articulate my anti-authoritarian tendencies. In the mid-1980s, while involved in interventionist practices with CAE I discovered my own political agency. Again, not anything special, just a textbook process of consciousness raising.

RH: How did you get involved in cultural/social issues?

From the project “Flesh Machine” (1997-1998)
by Critical Art Ensemble.
SK: What shook me out of my academic slumber was the U.S. intervention in Central America and the AIDS crisis because so many friends were dying.

RH: How did you get drawn into the arts? SK: That began in 1985. I was into my PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities in Tallahassee, Florida and was getting more alienated by the day from abstract theoretical work.

All through college most of my friends were artists. The academics were much too stiff and boring. Cultural intervention seemed like a viable way to reground myself in everyday life and politics. I was teaching film studies at the time and was interested in film/video production. This was the point that I met Steve Barnes, CAE co-founder, in a film class. From that moment, I was involved in concrete cultural practices.

RH: Did being an artist in the traditional sense have any appeal to you?

SK: No.

RH: What other people and ideas shaped your thinking?

SK: I’m not sure that CAE or myself had any unique influences. Most were the usual suspects. One of the odder ones was the Living Theater. They were really important to us in terms of understanding participation and how to blend the real and the hyperreal (symbolic realities that have no material corollary). The artists of interest were Group Material, Guerilla Art Action Group, Hans Haacke, Boal and the Feminist Art Movement (one had to be selective, but when carefully mined there is a wealth of cultural and political value to obtain from this movement). Others that were important for us were the Situationists, Felix Guattari and Antonio Negri. We liked anyone that demonstrated critique by doing. The proof of one’s validity wasn’t in the logic and specificity of the argument, but in the ability to produce concrete results when the theoretical principles were put into action.

RH: What made you decide to work in academia?

SK: I have always been interested in pedagogy. As soon as I started as a teaching fellow in Sociology at UNT, I felt a compulsion to figure out how to be effective. The acquisition of knowledge is a pleasure whatever part one plays in the process and is one reason why open access to knowledge is being stopped as quickly as possible (as evidenced by my arrest for daring to engage amateur science). Plus the hours are good. It leaves a lot of space for cultural production that is not focused on the creation of profit.

RH: What were your first teaching positions?

SK: I worked in experimental programs at Vermont College and Goddard College in the early 1990s. I still work at Vermont College as Graduate Faculty in Art.

RH: How has academia changed?

SK: Academia is giving a greater nod to interdisciplinary studies. There seems to be a desire to offer more than specialized programs, and to investigate where disciplines intersect. The irony is that the university is still an enlightenment institution grounded in a form of knowledge management based in specialization, so it has no way to really implement this desire except in the most superficial of ways. Further, many areas, such as business, engineering, computer science and the hard sciences, are so deep into corporate and military relationships that they have had to close their doors to “outsiders” for fear of losing intellectual property. An additional consequence, intensified by budget cuts, is to create workers rather than thinkers. It’s a sad time when doing is decoupled from critical thinking. Instrumentalization has intensified in most universities. So much of school is just about job training. And sadly, as with all institutions, universities are growing more conservative. Administrations are afraid of losing funders/investors, litigation of all types and political punishment. Consequently, the spectrum of research possibilities is at a low point.

RH: Do you have any problem justifying working for a university?

SK: No. As Karl Marx said, we may have a degree of autonomy in choosing where to work, but we don’t have the choice not to work. That being the case, the university seemed to offer the most opportunity for me to carry on the activities that interested me the most—teaching and tactical media. It was a little harder when I taught at Carnegie Mellon University from 1994-2002. That was the university of the war machine. Its mandate seemed to be to create workers for the techno-military-industrial complex. That’s one reason why I eventually left. (next page)

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