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Artist detained for, well, art.
May 27, 2004 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Got art supplies? The police would like a word with you. Steve Kurtz, a member of the Critical Art Ensemble and a professor at the University of Buffalo, called 911 when he discovered that his wife had died of cardiac arrest. When the police saw his art supplies, however, he was detained on suspicion of being involved in bioterrorism.
posted by jennyjenny (45 comments total)

 
Yes, government suspicions run high and it is easy to say they overreacted (probably true) but your post makes it sound like he was using crayons and watercolors.

Instead, as the article reads...

The art Kurtz produces is not the type of art most people are used to. "It wouldn't look in most cases like paintings on a wall or traditional sculpture but there would be maybe vatrines with objects that are crafted as art objects, but look very scientific or technological in form,"

Non-typical art supplies, non-typical response. Sucks for him but not quite worth the outrage.
posted by tdstone at 12:34 PM on May 27, 2004


I'd say this is outrageous: "Though Kurtz has finally been able to return to his home and recover his wife's body, the FBI has still not returned any of his equipment, computers or manuscripts, nor given any indication of when they will. The case remains open. "
posted by ericost at 12:46 PM on May 27, 2004


td I hear what you're saying but we're in an era where we must demand maximum efficiency from the FBI and related government agencies. Every moment they are spending on this guy is a moment they aren't spending on something truly important.

In my mind the outrage isn't because of one guy's bad treatment, but of a system that, 3 years after 9/11 is inefficient and wastes time and money.
posted by cell divide at 12:55 PM on May 27, 2004


Not worth outrage, tdstone? Nice. Place yourself in his shoes before you say something like that ... imagine your wife has just died, which alone is enough to break many men, and on top of that you're subject to a FBI bioterrorism investigation and thrown in prison? I don't know about you, but I'm pretty outraged at the complete lack of background checking done by the FBI/police before they made a kneejerk reaction.
posted by SpecialK at 12:57 PM on May 27, 2004


td I hear what you're saying but we're in an era where we must demand maximum efficiency from the FBI and related government agencies. Every moment they are spending on this guy is a moment they aren't spending on something truly important.


They are doing something important. In the private sector we call it CYA.

(That would be "cover your ass".)
posted by Wulfgar! at 1:06 PM on May 27, 2004


Considering this is on an rtmark site, I question its veracity.
posted by mischief at 1:14 PM on May 27, 2004


mischief -- I thought the same thing, so I made sure that those stories existed on the site that rtmark is posting them from. They do, they just aren't permalinked, hence the rtmark origin of the pages. You can find them on google cache. (Also, he's a friend of a friend of a friend of mine, but I'm not sure that carries a whole lot of weight, credibility-wise.)
posted by jennyjenny at 1:19 PM on May 27, 2004


"Non-typical art supplies, non-typical response."

Are you listening to yourself? He's being investigated as a terrorist. The FBI has confiscated his stuff and, if they handle this like they've handled other bullshit investigations, they won't ever give it back. His coworkers have been ordered by the FBI to never talk about the "investigation".

Non-typical response? This is Orwellian. It's like a scene out of a bad movie. This is the way my freedom works in this country now? The FBI gets to act like idiots, and ruin someone's life in the process, and that's considered routine?

The FBI's record over the last 15 years has been so abysmal that I find it chilling people are still willing to give them a free pass on crap like this. Are you saying that you actually don't expect the FBI of all groups to be able to tell the difference between bioterrorist weapons and art supplies?

"Sucks for him but not quite worth the outrage."

You, sir, are a complete tool of Big Brother.
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:22 PM on May 27, 2004


He also had a "mobile DNA extraction laboratory." Not saying that's reason to arrest the guy, but it ain't exactly "art supplies" either.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:27 PM on May 27, 2004


fucking Kafka.
posted by Satapher at 1:38 PM on May 27, 2004


Not worth outrage, tdstone? Nice. Place yourself in his shoes before you say something like that ... imagine your wife has just died, which alone is enough to break many men, and on top of that you're subject to a FBI bioterrorism investigation and thrown in prison?

but police have to think not just from the perspective of the person who calls them, but from the perspective of the victim and of society in general. From those points of view, it might be considered irresponsible to disregard potentially dangerous agents, even if they have other uses.

People can use fertilizer to fertilize, but if there has recently been an explosion, people with unusual amounts of fertilizer will probably be looked at. Likewise, after a death, anyone near the deceased in possession of toxic substances has to be looked at. The police may not have handled this perfectly and it's entirely plausible that they're reacting more aggressively than they would have five years ago, but the basic action in question doesn't seem fundamentally wrong to me.
posted by mdn at 1:40 PM on May 27, 2004


"He also had a "mobile DNA extraction laboratory.""

Which is harmless. Or the FBI would have already known about it. Right? If such a device is a national security threat, then why isn't the FBI tracking who has one? And if it's not a national security threat, then why arrest the guy and steal his stuff?

It's buffoonery. It's the FBI not knowing what the hell they're doing. So they just do a bunch of stuff. And it's okay if they screw innocent people. Because they're the FBI. It's an organization that would feel most comfortable in Soviet Russia.

Well fuck that. Haven't we seen enough innocent people ruined by the FBI? Why is this agency even getting funding with the budget so bad? Are there *any* high profile cases they've not screwed up in the last 15 years?
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:44 PM on May 27, 2004


The way I see it, the sane way to react would be to ask him what the DNA extractor was and why he had it, and if they found that suspicious, to check out his story. He's a professor. Of art. And his artistic pursuits are well-documented. There's no reason to go busting out the biohazard suits and impounding all his stuff indefinitely, for god's sake.

If they are called to a chemistry professor's house, will they do the same thing? What if it's a chef's house and they've got a weird-looking blender? This stuff has to be viewed in context.
posted by jennyjenny at 1:46 PM on May 27, 2004


The guy makes anti-corporate art. In our current world, I wouldn't be surprised if he was on an FBI list somewhere anyway. The death of his wife becomes an excuse for them to confiscate his stuff and poke into his life. Who knows what dangerous information about genetically altered peas he has on those computers? He might use that to engineer a protest against a food corporation!

/tin foil hat

This is silly. Yes, the police need to investigate the death of his wife, but it doesn't seem (from the Google cache) like they had any reason to suspect he killed his wife *except* for his unusual art supplies. This is, IMO, unreasonable search and seizure. If we don't stand up against it now, who will stand up for us when they break down our doors looking to see what we have in our houses?
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:52 PM on May 27, 2004


I was ready to be outraged, but having read the article, it sounds like the cops showed up to find a woman who had died in her sleep, and a bunch of scientfic equipment whose function was probably hard for them to understand. Of course they would feel this warranted further investigation. And it's actually to their credit that instead of arresting the guy themselves, they called in experts. Unfortunately, they called in the FBI terrorism experts. The FBI, getting a report from the police that there may be terrorist activity in an incident involving a dead body, a college professor, and a bunch of strange-looking equipment, is of course going to seal off the block and send in guys with hazmat suits. As far as they know, it could be another unabomber.

Of course, that doesn't mean that things should have gone down that way. I feel for the guy, he is rightfully angry, and I don't think he should have to pay a penny for the legal process he's had to go through. And, of course, he should get all his stuff back. On the other hand, I don't have an easy answer for how this kind of thing could have been prevented. You have to admit that it's a pretty unusual situation. Hopefully someone in the FBI will have the guts to fight for this guy a little.
posted by bingo at 1:53 PM on May 27, 2004


"The police may not have handled this perfectly"

The police handled it fine - They called the FBI. Then the FBI drove a bulldozer through someone's life.

"Within hours, FBI agents had "detained" Kurtz as a suspected bioterrorist and cordoned off the entire block around his house. (Kurtz walked away the next day on the advice of a lawyer, his "detention" having proved to be illegal.) Over the next few days, dozens of agents in hazmat suits, from a number of law enforcement agencies, sifted through Kurtz's work, analyzing it on-site and impounding computers, manuscripts, books, equipment, and even his wife's body for further analysis. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Health Department condemned his house as a health risk."

This doesn't seem wrong? The material and equipment were harmless. He had a legitimate reason to have it. Does it even seem like a screw up to you? How many times would you let them get away with something like this?
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:56 PM on May 27, 2004


jennyjenny and y6..., my point in pointing out the DNA lab was that trying to ratchet up the outrage factor by referring to this as merely "art supplies" was disingenuous, at best. I don't necessarily disagree with you that this could have been handled better, but the post did make it sound like crayons and watercolor. There's a good point to be made without resorting to exaggeration, is all.
posted by pardonyou? at 2:10 PM on May 27, 2004


This is so completely stupid. And of course, if no one lost their jobs over 3000 people dying, you know there will be no consequences for this debacle.

Makes me want to spit.
posted by geekhorde at 2:11 PM on May 27, 2004


"The FBI [...] is of course going to seal off the block and send in guys with hazmat suits."

Of course?

A dead body + a DNA test lab = Biohazard?

Sure, if you care about theatrics more than people's rights.

This is America. Supposedly, one of the principles that makes it great is that we don't do things this way here. We don't shit on citizens "just in case". We don't use the fact that we're a scary federal agency to justify sloppy procedure. And we prosecute people who abuse the authority we entrust them with.

With 10 minutes of Google time all of us here have found out who this guy is and why he has this equipment. I'm hoping the FBIs files are better than Google.

Knowing what you can find about this guy and his art group on Google, do you still think sealing off the block, labeling him a bioterroist, and stealing his stuff is reasonable?
posted by y6y6y6 at 2:14 PM on May 27, 2004


He also had a "mobile DNA extraction laboratory."

Um, I can buy those as toys without any effort at all.

We're not talking super-high tech here. But hey, the kids must be terrorists too, right?
posted by aramaic at 2:22 PM on May 27, 2004


I was ready to be outraged, but having read the article, it sounds like the cops showed up to find a woman who had died in her sleep, and a bunch of scientfic equipment whose function was probably hard for them to understand. Of course they would feel this warranted further investigation.... As far as they know, it could be another unabomber.

God forbid any citizen should be in possession of "scientific equipment."

Hell, he could be a witch terrorist in unholy communion with Satan bin Laden!

(bingo, I see where you are coming from, but this should not be considered "unusual circumstances.")
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:26 PM on May 27, 2004


I think it might speak more to the technical incompetence of the local police, which in and of itself is cause for outrage:

[imagined conversation]
"Well chief, it sure looks techincal to me..."
"So what do we do with this guy?"
"Let's bring the feds in on this -- I don't understand why he has a" (reads from notes) "DNA Extraction and Analysis Unit, Mark 4"
"Yep" (hawks and spits) "sure sounds technical to me. Mighty suspicious too. I never trusted them college-boys anyways."
"Let's book 'em!"
"Yeah, let the feds sort this out..."

Yeah -- now is he heading to GITMO?
posted by mooncrow at 2:31 PM on May 27, 2004


fucking Kafka.

Speaking of Kafka, we need something like this.
posted by homunculus at 2:38 PM on May 27, 2004


What's a "DNA extraction laboratory" anyway? Unless it's supposed to do something very special, that's just some chemicals and a centrifuge. Add some gelatine and dye if you want to make those nifty little barcode thingies.

(I'd follow aramic's link but shopping.discovery.com won't even let me look at the link since I'm not in the US)
posted by fvw at 2:43 PM on May 27, 2004


fvw: here's a Froogle link. Only $80!

...I did this kind of stuff when I was a kid, for science projects. I bet nowadays I'd be arrested...
posted by aramaic at 2:49 PM on May 27, 2004


5 years ago, he probably would have been accused of running a meth lab. Same paranoia, different rationale.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:50 PM on May 27, 2004


Ah yes, the third link of that page actually allows me to view the kit contents. I forgot about the bits of of wire in a saucer (aka "Electrophoresis chamber").
posted by fvw at 3:11 PM on May 27, 2004


I'm with Satapher et al; this is more Kafkaesque than Orwellian. But then, I've never read Kafka, and it's been ages since I read anything by Orwell, so what do I know?

A question for tdstone and pardonyou: do you think citizens should be allowed to own scientific equipment, or to have any hobbies - such as photography or computers - that require equipment not found at the local big-box sporting goods store? If so, how do you justify arresting someone and confiscating his belongings for having such equipment? If not, why not?
posted by hattifattener at 3:26 PM on May 27, 2004


Good lord, that first article is in full-on hysterics mode. It is full of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt), and totally undermines any sympathy I may feel for Mr. Kurtz getting his stuff siezed by the FBI.

"Kurtz's case amply demonstrates the dangers posed by the USA PATRIOT Act "

No, this does not. I see nothing in the article about how the PATRIOT act is even remotely involved in this case. No examples are provided of what PATRIOT powers were used against Mr. Kurtz. Warrants for the seizure of Mr. Kurtz's stuff would be obtained using the good ol' "in plain sight" rule once the cops were invited into his house to check on his wife.

"Kurtz walked away the next day on the advice of a lawyer, his "detention" having proved to be illegal."

Cops do this all the time, have done so for years. Surely you've seen an episode of NYPD Blue or Law & Order where they ask someone to "come downtown" and answer questions? Same idea. The fact that he was able to consult a lawyer and walk away under his own power after talking with the FBI less for only about 24 hours is proof that he was NOT illegally detained.

"The police arrived and, cranked up on the rhetoric of the "War on Terror,"...."

Or maybe they don't know what the hell his art supplies were and decided to call in people who might? The cops weren't necessarily over-reacting. Further, this exact same case could have happened 5, 10, 20, 50 years ago. In fact a very similar case to this one happened in 1990: Steve Jackson Games vs. the Secret Service. It's very tempting to go around blaming every bogus government action on Bush / Ashcroft / The War on Terror / The Man / whatever. The fact is the FBI made a mistake. Going on about the sky falling and shadowy government conspiracies isn't going to fix anything.
posted by falconred at 3:50 PM on May 27, 2004


Well if the guys is a "bioterrorist" (and I guess that's unlikely) then the F.B.I. is two years late

As far as I understand he uses E.Coli bacteria for a very interesting kind of performance art show. Found this link which describes part of this kind of show:

The performance featured 10 petri dishes: five with mold, four with the bacteria of human spit and one with E. coli bacteria spliced with jumbled human DNA. Push a large red button and the dishes turn and, in a game of transgenic-DNA roulette, a magnet lifts the lid off one of the petri dishes, releasing mold or bacteria. In another area, participants can swab petri dishes with transgenic DNA

No wonder the police called FBI, they did well. How the FBI will react to this ? Hopefully they're out of their Hooverian behavior (yeah right) cause they guy is definitely controversial and _criticizing_ corporations (which is tantamount to treason to some).
posted by elpapacito at 4:11 PM on May 27, 2004


a very interesting kind of performance art show

"Interesting" is not the word I'd use. Wouldn't that be potentially dangerous if a child or an HIV-positive person or someone else with a depressed immune system were attending the art exhibit? It's irresponsible at the very least.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:21 PM on May 27, 2004


Aspara: correct, potentially harmful , but read the links please before knee-jerking. The visitors were informed of the risks of temporary or permanent illness and they even were made sign a waiver. Read more in the links, it wasn't an irresponsible act at all.
posted by elpapacito at 4:26 PM on May 27, 2004


Happily this thread has attracted google ads for FBI training programs and watercolor painting supplies. The FBI agents of the future will simply set up their easels outside a suspect's home and capture its rosy hues at sunset.
posted by liam at 4:37 PM on May 27, 2004


"......I see nothing in the article about how the PATRIOT act is even remotely involved in this case." - Well, that's especially chilling. So : the PATRIOT Act picks up where this abuse of police/FBI powers leaves off.

Great. So would an invocation of the PATRIOT Act mean that this artist would have been shipped to Guantanamo for bizarre psychosexual torture and a regime of alternately freezing and then baking - while hooded and shackled ?

Or, would they simply have dispensed with the "torture lite" crap and just sent him off to another country for some truly evil medieval torture methods ?


posted by troutfishing at 4:50 AM on May 28, 2004


"......I see nothing in the article about how the PATRIOT act is even remotely involved in this case."

Well, okay. (ianal)

Sec. 806, extending seizure of assets of terrorist orgs

`(iii) derived from, involved in, or used or intended to be used to commit any act of domestic or international terrorism (as defined in section 2331) against the United States, citizens or residents of the United States, or their property.'

The 'derived' and 'involved' are pretty vague for a court of law since it doesn't specify whose intent or derivation is at issue. In other words if the item in question could be intended for use in terrorism by someone you've never even heard of, this could apply.

And since the definition of terrorism now includes :

'1363 (relating to injury to buildings or property within special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States)'

(sec 808)

That pretty much defines anything more dangerous than a gum eraser. Also in this case, his chances of ever seeing his stuff again is pretty low since:

`(b) NO LIMITATION- Notwithstanding any other law, an indictment may be found or an information instituted at any time without limitation for any offense listed in section 2332b(g)(5)(B), if the commission of such offense resulted in, or created a forseeable risk of, death or serious bodily injury to another person.'.

Yep, I guess you could 'forsee' an instance in which something might be used to harm somebody. Better keep the case open in perpetuity.

I know these aren't in the article, but I think that the article assumes that we have a broad idea of how the patriot act allows the FBI to conduct unreasonable search and seizure and never account for it.
posted by lumpenprole at 6:51 AM on May 28, 2004


What I find interesting is that none of the regular media have reported on this story. A Google news search on "Steve Kurtz" finds a supposed Newsday (which I guess is a fairly respectable paper) story which I can not get to load. If the arrest were truly as misguided as the posted link maintains, then you would think more mainstream media outlets would be drawn to this story.
posted by caddis at 7:36 AM on May 28, 2004


you would think more mainstream media outlets would be drawn to this story

Hi, welcome to America. I hope your stay under A Rock has been pleasant. Please be sure to visit our gift shops.
posted by Satapher at 10:13 AM on May 28, 2004


Given the lack of information and mainstream media coverage regarding the tragic chain of events, I contacted Carla Mendes at the given e-mail at RTMark. I had been wondering if this was perhaps a hoax, or performance. She had a spokes person reply.

"At 5:24 PM -0700 5/27/04,
Hello Carla;
I am sending you this e-mail to inquire about any
details you might have that have not been published
on- line as of yet. There is debate at the moment
within some online communities as to the authenticity
of the unfortunate events that have taken place in
regards to Steve Kurtz, and the passing of his
partner. The news sources available at the moment are
fragmented at best. Can you confirm that this is not a
hoax or an art performance and is indeed true. I am not
a reporter. I am an artist from Toronto, with a blog
and am a member of numerous web communities that have
posted the story, such as Metafilter et al. If true my deepest condolences to Steve and family,
and friends.
Thank you for your time.

The response:

Date: Thu, 27 May 2004 22:57:57 -0400
To:
From: "Frank Guerrero"
Subject: Re: Carla Mendes
Hello-
I am going to step in and answer because carla is setting up a show
at Mass Moca right now. This is not a hoax. There are news sources
out there... there has been no major national news, perhaps because
steve can't talk to the press.
but here is one local story:
WGRZ
this event was covered in over fifty local TV news stories in
buffalo...
Anyway, sorry to say its true
FRank."


So I think at this point we won't hear much more until Steve makes a public statement.
posted by orbit at 11:58 AM on May 28, 2004


Aspara: correct, potentially harmful , but read the links please before knee-jerking.

Sorry to have jumped to conclusions, but I *am* one of those immune-compromised people, so just reading that description of transgenic bacteria being released onto art patrons gave me the willies. You're right, I should have read the link. My bad.

But it's still a stupid idea for an "art" exhibit--call me old-fashioned, but I think art should open your mind, not potentially give you fatal diarrhea.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:32 PM on May 28, 2004


more disease, more open minds.
posted by Satapher at 12:25 PM on May 30, 2004


The page has been updated:

"This morning, May 30, two members of the Critical Art Ensemble were subpoenaed by the FBI. The FBI, we now know, will seek to indict Steve Kurtz before a grand jury on June 15, on unknown charges."
posted by homunculus at 8:09 PM on May 30, 2004


Wow. I guess that's why they didn't give him back his stuff.

Let the record show that I am guessing that they're going to say that his wife died from some inadvertent exposure to bacteria or toxic material related to his art. Maybe that's to make it look like they had a legit reason to go all-out. Or maybe the guy really was being irresponsible.

If they're going to *seriously* suggest that he's some kind of terrorist, though, then I sure hope they found more than what we read about.
posted by bingo at 8:53 AM on May 31, 2004


...and somewhere in LA, the staff writers for one of the Law and Order spin-off series are frantically writing their latest script...
posted by Asparagirl at 12:08 AM on June 3, 2004


here's a bit of an update on this insane story...

an email from steve kurtz to joi ito

a wired article on the situation

quotes from the seattle times back in april 2002 regarding the health issues:

"The DNA is harmless, said organizers; it can't live without the special sustenance of its petri dish and reproduces too slowly all that human DNA gums up the works to compete with other bacteria"
posted by t r a c y at 9:01 AM on June 8, 2004


can't live without the special sustenance of its petri dish

Flashback to "Jurassic Park" (the book), anyone?
posted by Asparagirl at 8:13 PM on June 14, 2004


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