Wednesday, June 9

FBI thinks Art is Bioterrorism


Contact: Beatriz da Costa,

ARTISTS SUBPOENAED IN USA PATRIOT ACT CASE Feds STILL unable to distinguish art from bioterrorism Grand jury to convene June 15

Early morning of May 11, Steve Kurtz awoke to find his wife, Hope, dead of a cardiac arrest. Kurtz called 911. The police arrived and, after stumbling across test tubes and petri dishes Kurtz was using in a current artwork, called in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Soon agents from the Task Force and FBI detained Kurtz, cordoned off the entire block around his house, and later impounded Kurtz's computers, manuscripts, books, equipment, and even his wife's body for further analysis. The Buffalo Health Department condemned the house as a health risk.

Only after the Commissioner of Public Health for New York State had tested samples from the home and announced there was no public safety threat was Kurtz able to return home and recover his wife's body. Yet the FBI would not release the impounded materials, which included artwork for an upcoming exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

While most observers assumed the Task Force would realize that its initial investigation of Steve Kurtz was a terrible mistake, the subpoenas indicate that the feds have instead chosen to press their "case" against Kurtz and possibly others.

Three artists have been served subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury that will consider bioterrorism charges against a university professor whose art involves the use of simple biology equipment.

The subpoenas are the latest installment in a bizarre investigation in which members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force have mistaken an art project for a biological weapons laboratory (see end for background). While most observers have assumed that the Task Force would realize the absurd error of its initial investigation of Steve Kurtz, the subpoenas indicate that the feds have instead chosen to press their "case" against the baffled professor.

Two of the subpoenaed artists--Beatriz da Costa and Steve Barnes--are, like Kurtz, members of the internationally-acclaimed Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), an artists' collective that produces artwork to educate the public about the politics of biotechnology. They were served the subpoenas by federal agents who tailed them to an art show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The third artist, Paul Vanouse, is, like Kurtz, an art professor at the University at Buffalo. He has worked with CAE in the past.

The artists involved are at a loss to explain the increasingly bizarre case. "I have no idea why they're continuing (to investigate)," said Beatriz da Costa, one of those subpoenaed. "It was shocking that this investigation was ever launched. That it is continuing is positively frightening, and shows how vulnerable the PATRIOT Act has made freedom of speech in this country." Da Costa is an art professor at the University of California at Irvine.

According to the subpoenas, the FBI is seeking charges under Section 175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which has been expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act. As expanded, this law prohibits the possession of "any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system" without the justification of "prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose." (See the 1989 law and its USA PATRIOT Act expansion.)

Even under the expanded powers of the USA PATRIOT Act, it is difficult to understand how anyone could view CAE's art as anything other than a "peaceful purpose." The equipment seized by the FBI consisted mainly of CAE's most recent project, a mobile DNA extraction laboratory to test store-bought food for possible contamination by genetically modified grains and organisms; such equipment can be found in any university's basic biology lab and even in many high schools (see Lab Tour for more details).

The grand jury in the case is scheduled to convene June 15 in Buffalo, New York. Here, the jury will decide whether or not to indict Steve Kurtz on the charges brought by the FBI. A protest is being planned at 9 a.m. on June 15 outside the courthouse at 138 Delaware Ave. in Buffalo.


Financial donations: The CAE Defense Fund has so far received over 200 donations in amounts ranging from $5 to $400. This is a wonderful outpouring of sympathy, but a drop in the bucket compared to the potential costs of the case. To make a donation, please visit the CAE Defense Fund.

Letters of support: Letters and petitions of support from biologists, artists, and others, especially those in positions of responsibility at prominent institutions or companies, could be very useful. See the CAE Defense Fund for a sample letter of support.

Legal offers and letters of support: If you are a lawyer, offers of pro bono support or offers to write amicus briefs would be very helpful.

Articles and television stories about the case:

applied autonomy

washington post


buffalo news

On advice of counsel, Steve Kurtz is unable to answer questions regarding his case. Please direct questions or comments to