Artist or bioterrorist? The highly combustible art of Steve Kurtz

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Imagine walking through a local park, enjoying the solitude and the autumn air, when you unexpectedly find a woman in a lab coat in front of a shiny machine with petri dishes and a big red button. You ask her, “What are you doing with this machine, right in the middle of the park?”

She responds, “We’re releasing bacteria with human DNA into the air. Would you like to push the button?”

Steve Kurtz and his art performance collective, Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), have had some serious run-ins with the law because of projects like these. So it may be surprising to know that the University of Minnesota’s Department of Geography hosted Kurtz—Professor of Art at SUNY Buffalo—at their Friday Coffee Hour series, in part because he was accused of bioterrorism. On Friday, October 16th, he delivered a highly entertaining, but also frightening, talk about his work. It was frightening not because of Kurtz’s BioArt, which is safe and legal, but because his projects all demonstrate the disappearance of the cultural commons.

“The Future of the Common” coffee hour series, organized largely by Professor Bruce Braun, delves into networks of technology, biology, and society that form the basis for who we can be and what we can do. In the current social and political climate, access to shared spaces of information and interaction is often restricted through law and the enclosure of the cultural commons as private property. Kurtz and CAE’s artistic works are often conceptualized in protest of these limitations. He spoke on Friday about the difficulty in finding a position to do strategic cultural activities and tactical media with CAE.

“When you are encroaching on knowledge and the knowledge economy,” said Kurtz, “it can be a problem.” Many of his projects must be ephemeral, he said, because there are agencies and laws with the ability to arrest people for minor and nonexistent offenses. “The interpretation grid of threat now is so sensitive,” Kurtz said, “so if you’re planning to go out and work in public space, this is the main consideration.”

Many of CAE’s projects have been ephemeral to avoid being arrested. Kurtz has depended on institutions like the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. to back him when he’s faced legal challenges. In a recent Corcoran exhibit, Kurtz and CAE showed how a non-toxic substance can cause photocombustion in genetically modified plants. When combined with Round-Up and sunshine, the vitamin B6 explodes the cells of Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready corn. He could have faced a lawsuit, but “even Monsanto didn’t have the stones to go after the Corcoran.”

When asked if he is doing something more than pop art, he said he’s given up the attitude of “I’ve gotta be original! I’ve gotta be the first!” Instead, he’s hoping his tactics will also be reusable, taken up as a form of resistance in many different ways. Sometimes, his tactics do engage unexpected viewers’ sense of panic, such as with the Bacteria Release Machine. “People have to understand they have a stake in it and you have to create the theater for them to have that stake.” Kurtz shows people how access to what was once common, such as water, air, genetic information, etc., no longer exists except in areas that capital can’t see any way of commodifying, or translating into private property. “If there is a spatial commons yet,” said Kurtz, “it’s there by default.”

Before Kurtz’s talk, “The Future of the Common” coffee hour series took on the concept of the common, but the rest of the series will build on the basics with some historical and current examples, like Kurtz’s art. Braun explains, “Subsequent talks in the series will explore the consequences of these historical shifts in our productive capacities for, among other things, artistic production, affective labor and reproduction, media and communication, and political action. Not all the speakers will be singing from the same song sheet.”