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Terror inquiry snares art exhibit


FBI seizes material intended for Mass MoCA display on genetically modified food; four artists subpoenaed

Times Union
By TIMOTHY CAHILL, Staff writer
Sunday, June 13, 2004

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- Visitors to "The Interventionists" exhibit at MASS MoCA are greeted by a sight unusual even for the cutting-edge art museum. One of the galleries in the show devoted to contemporary political art is oddly vacant, dominated by empty tables and a sign explaining that the materials intended for the display have been impounded by the FBI.
The seized materials, including simple bacteria, have become part of a case that some feel is pitting artistic expression against the sweeping anti-terrorism powers of the federal government. In addition to confiscating the makings of the art installation, federal officials have subpoenaed the artists involved in the work and may be pursuing charges of biological terrorism.

The computers, test tubes, laboratory instruments and other supplies not on view were intended for an installation titled "Free Range Grains," part of the exhibition "The Interventionists," on view at MASS MoCA through next spring. The installation, designed to draw attention to genetic modifications in food, was created by Steve Kurtz, a founder of the artist collaborative Critical Art Ensemble. The materials were taken from Kurtz's Buffalo home last month.

Kurtz and three other members of CAE have been ordered to appear before a grand jury in Buffalo on Tuesday.

Kurtz's attorney, Paul J. Cambria Jr., called the proceedings "preposterous" and an assault on the First Amendment.

FBI spokesman Paul Moskal said the investigation, which involved quarantining Kurtz's home and the participation of some three dozen workers in protective clothing, "isn't an art question at all. For us this was a public-safety issue."

Federal authorities became involved on May 11, following the death of Kurtz's wife, Hope, of heart failure. Emergency personnel responding to Kurtz's home noticed the laboratory equipment the University at Buffalo art professor uses in his installations, became suspicious and notified the FBI.

The equipment was to have been used at MASS MoCA to conduct simple experiments on food products to determine if they contained GMOs, genetically modified organisms. Critical Art Ensemble has staged such performative-art installations in this country and Europe to call attention to the proliferation of food-related biotechnology.

According to news reports, the FBI also seized samples of three relatively benign bacteria used to demonstrate the presence of manipulated genes in common food items. Erie County health officials later reported they had tested Kurtz's possessions and found nothing to endanger the public.

The FBI referred the case to U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., chief of the anti-terrorism unit in western New York. Hochul would not comment on the Kurtz investigation, and no charges have been filed to date.

But reports from individuals interviewed by federal authorities, including other members of CAE served with subpoenas, say the tone of questioning suggests Hochul is attempting to build a case against Kurtz as a bio-terrorist. Beatriz de Costa, a member of the CAE collective, told The New York Times the grand jury is looking into "possession of biological agents."

On the advice of his lawyer Cambria, Kurtz is not available for comment.

Cambria has fought other notorious First Amendment cases, most notably defending Hustler magazine Publisher Larry Flynt in the Supreme Court. "It's dead-bang a First Amendment case," Cambria said of the Kurtz situation. He described Kurtz as "simply an artist with a critical message."

"Trying to make a case that he's really a terrorist is bull," Cambria said. "The country is conditioned for suspicion and paranoia -- 9/11 makes it ripe for the government to find a terrorist under every leaf."

At MASS MoCA, the "Free Range Grains" gallery features the empty lab tables and four posters on the back wall. The posters contain photographs of genetically modified foods captioned with familiar corporate slogans. An image of a tomato, for instance, reads, "We bring good things to life."

At the gallery entrance, a text panel explaining why the installation is incomplete states, in part, "the lab equipment used for 'Free Range Grains' could not be successfully used for the production and weaponization of any germs dangerous to humans or animals."

Gregory Sholette, a volunteer with the Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund and the author of an essay in the "Interventionist" catalog, said letters of support for Kurtz have been coming in from artists around the country. Speaking of federal investigators, he said, "I think they got their foot stuck in a hole. Instead of pulling it out, they're digging deeper."

He said a demonstration for CAE and artistic freedom is planned for Tuesday at the federal court house in Buffalo.

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