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


RH: What key ideas in Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s book Empire (2000) are relevant to CAE?

SK: Empire was an interesting argument until George W. Bush got into office. Bush is a raving nationalist and a unilateralist who seems intent on bringing the U.S. back to the days of old-fashioned imperialism. The U.S. seems to be back to slicing and dicing up territories in a manner in which those who maintain military control of a territory have proprietary rights over its resources and governmental structure. This is a long way from a universal smooth space free from boundaries (at least for the commodity), controlled through interlocking markets and international interests. Hopefully, this last gasp of imperialism supported by industrial capitalism will be short-lived. It’s funny to think that the sections of Empire on the early twentieth century and the rise of fascism are the most urgently applicable ones in the U.S. Hardt’s question of why did America embrace the welfare state instead of fascism in the 1930s becomes much more complex. We also must wonder that if unilinear progress in the mode of production can instead have phases of retrogression is there a possibility of World War III? I think Negri is the first to admit that since the election of Bush his analysis has been seriously problematized.

RH: What do you think about globalization?

SK: I go with Negri on this one—it’s better than imperialism. Is that damning with faint praise?

RH: Do you believe in originality?

SK: No, only recombination and invention.

RH: What is your position on artists who use copyrighted materials?

SK: If they need them, why not? I am no sympathizer with copyright. The privatization of culture is scandalous.

RH: How does CAE define an “intervention”?

SK: Any deliberate act outside of domestic space that is designed to disrupt, subvert or shift the material and/or the symbolic orders of the status quo.

RH: Have any CAE projects intentionally broken the law?

SK: No, we will walk up to the line, but we don’t cross it. There isn’t a work of art anywhere that is worth going to jail for. However, as we all know you don’t have to break the law to go to jail. Just exercising one’s rights is all it takes. There are plenty of laws on the books that are there so that arrest remains discretionary—creating a false public emergency for example—and it’s often a way to disguise that the people being arrested are in fact political prisoners. This situation is now intensified since the rise of protofascism in the U.S. Expressing dissent will get a person arrested. We have to say no to fascism and expose the current trends for what they are. Doing so will mean people are going to have to put their bodies on the line, and be willing to go to jail.

RH: How does CAE view the relationship between art and science?

SK: Science is a great resource for us to raid and appropriate— in terms of knowledge, materials and processes—and to use in a manner that is in the “public interest.”

RH: What do you consider CAE’s first important project?

SK: Projects are important for different reasons. “Cultural Vaccines” (1988) was significant for CAE in that the exhibition (consisting of work around the topic of AIDS by CAE, Gran Fury, Don Moffett and Felix Gonzales Torres) led to the formation of the first ACT UP chapter in Florida. It was a meeting of cultural politics and direct action politics. Florida isn’t New York in terms of receptiveness to radical culture. “Exit Culture” (1992) [which showcased videos and performances at malls, rest stops and tourist destinations on Florida’s highways] was also important to CAE, as it was the first fully realized successful tactical media project.

RH: Why has CAE focused on biotechnology?

SK: It’s one of our focuses. It is significant because it’s a new form of colonial invasion that will have an impact on all individuals. Now capitalist power vectors can manifest themselves in the flesh of all living things. We don’t know what all the consequences will be, but like all colonial endeavors, it won’t be good.

RH: Explain the fundamental concept of CAE’s book project Electronic Civil Disobedience (1995).

SK: Blocking access to good data through electronic means could help resistant forces gain leverage over nomadic authoritarian power vectors. Now that an “attack” on data is considered terrorism as opposed to civil disobedience, that loophole has closed.

RH: Why is distributing free publications part of CAE’s strategy?

SK: Cultural products should be free and available to whoever wants them. From the position of self-interest, CAE wants people to read the texts, so we give them away to those who don’t want to or can’t buy the books. Moreover, the faster the texts circulate, the wider the audience, the more funds we can generate for our services.

RH: Explain the “Society for Reproductive Anachronisms” (SRA, 1998-1999) project.

SK: SRA was a spin off of the “Flesh Machine” project (1997- 1998), which examined eugenics in capitalist culture. “Flesh Machine” was too big and costly to be very mobile. Only institutions with real budgets could stage it. We needed to reframe the information we had on contemporary eugenics in a manner that we could do anywhere. SRA was fast and simple.

The SRA was the opposite of the BioCom Corporation of “Flesh Machine.” The SRA position was that there should never be medical intervention of any kind in reproductive process. They worked on the street setting up tables, as activists do, and provided information and services on the current state of reproductive process. Because they were so militantly embodied and sexuality positive, they were quite a popular stop, particularly on university campuses.

RH: What is CAE’s position on the role of the “amateur” (non-specialist) in its “interventions?”

SK: Interdisciplinary work requires amateurism. We can’t be experts in all areas, but we can be informed in many. And informed well enough that the collective opinions of amateurs should matter in the public sphere. Some of our projects are designed in part just to make this point. When we did a biochemical intervention on Monsanto’s main cash product (RoundUp Ready plants)2 in a project called “Molecular Invasion” that we installed at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. and at World Information Organization in Amsterdam, Monsanto sent its lawyers with cease and desist orders. Apparently, we, as amateurs, were well enough informed that we were taken seriously in this instance.

RH: Tell us about “Molecular Invasion” (2000).

SK: “Molecular Invasion” is an ongoing project. It’s an experiment to see if, from an amateur position, we could develop a safe biochemical intervention that would transform the genetically modified genes in Monsanto’s biggest cash crop from traits of adaptability into traits of susceptibility. It’s coming along well.

RH: Describe CAE’s last project “Free Range Grains.”

SK: In “Free Range Grains” we Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tested (with a machine that can amplify selected isolated genes) unlabeled food (meaning allegedly not genetically modified) in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Graz in 2003 to see if it was genetically modified. (next page)

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