Strange Culture, a documentary: On Government and Critical Art Ensemble artist Steve Kurtz, featuring Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan

By Daniel Garrett

Strange Culture, a documentary film directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson
Docurama Films, 2007

Governments do not have to censor or circumscribe, prosecute or persecute, but out of a concern for their own power, and to protect moneyed interests, and sometimes to ensure public safety, they do.  One such occasion seems to be that of artist Steve Kurtz, whose work with Critical Art Ensemble, a five-person collective, investigated the relationships among industry, science, the government, and the public, especially regarding the introduction of genetically modified food, without proper labeling, to the consumer market: people literally do not know what they are eating, or what the long term effects are likely to be (they are walking experiments).  In addition, with the current and increasing inclination of corporations to patent life forms, greater monopoly threatens.  In Strange Culture, we see how two events converged in Steve Kurtz’s life to profoundly detrimental effect.  As Steve and his wife Hope Kurtz and their colleagues prepared for a large exhibit focused on experimental produce, as part of his work Steve acquired through an internet purchase bacteria that he prepared in glass-enclosed cultures (he was consulting scientists too); and in May 2004 when Kurtz awoke in bed to realize that his wife Hope—an editor known for her gift for identifying patterns and anomalies—was not breathing, he then reported that, and the people investigating the sudden death saw his arty science work, the equipment and chemicals, and they feared bioterrorism—and Kurtz’s prosecution, or persecution, began.  The justice authorities knew nothing of contemporary art, and the broad range of domains art explores or the analytical practices it engages; and they did not care to listen as Steve Kurt tried to explain.  Ignorance and power were aligned against Steve Kurtz.

Strange Culture is an intelligent and useful film, demonstrating how several cultures acquire and disseminate knowledge, specifically the art world and the justice system.  It allows experts to speak, and it presents evidence.  We even see some art—some of which is expectedly odd, and some of which is obvious tribute to tradition.  The center of the film is Steve Kurtz, a long-haired blond, blue-jeaned artist and teacher, with dark circles under his eyes and a soft, humorous manner.  He talks directly to the camera; and other times he is impersonated, quite effectively, in scenes by actor Thomas Jay Ryan, who projects sensitivity with intelligence, an indirect sensuality, and a certain impatience.  Several ironies occur: the work of Kurtz and his associates was about the nature of social justice, and the impact of ignorance and knowledge on the public, and Kurtz came to feel the force of law (knowledge did not protect him); and when police authorities—the local police and then the Federal Bureau of Investigation—did their own work, driven by a supposed suspicion of bioterrorism, they were careless and clumsy with the materials they handled and the garbage they left behind.  Kurtz’s case embodies his worry, exemplifying the warning in his work; and the manner and methods of the policing authorities defied their own announced standards and concern for possibly hazardous materials.  Both the police and the FBI autopsy Hope Kurtz; and heart failure is found as the cause of her death, but they persist in pursuing her grieving, stunned husband.  Steve Kurtz is described as an open and giving collaborator and teacher, someone who is missed as he becomes involved in the legal case against him; and his students, who are fond of him, are afraid of signing a petition on his behalf.  The students do not want to be on the FBI’s radar.  It is sad to think that a benign gesture could threaten one’s own security (it makes an individual wonder about whether the genuine complaints one has lodged, or the legitimate protests one has joined, are part of a file that—ignobly, maliciously—will be used against one).  Why should an individual be punished for seeking justice, especially by the justice department?  Kurtz does get a vigorous defense from a lawyer named Cambria who has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union; and that defense is necessary, as Kurtz realizes that a persona and crime are being constructed by the prosecutors that bear no real resemblance to who he is or what he has done.  Government investigators ask those who know Kurtz about Kurtz’s politics, sexual habits, and drug use, questions that seem both crass and stupid.  Why is such an effort being made?  More than one person says that this is an attempt to broaden the reach of the (George W. Bush) government into academe and art, achieving the ability to silence dissent.  Making civil issues a criminal matter could do that; and agencies and laws—and the power they create and employ—survive the change in administrations.  First, silence the artists and thinkers.  An auction at the Paula Cooper Gallery is held, with writer Wallace Shawn’s participation, and many in the art world seem to rally and more than one-hundred-and-sixty thousand dollars are raised for the defense of Kurtz and the ailing scientist who is charged with him, Robert Ferrell.  One might think the case could be dropped completely when the public health commissioner declares that Steve Kurtz’s work did not provide or provoke a threat to public safety, but then prosecutors simply shift gears, charging him with wire fraud connected to how the bacteria he used was acquired.  (Someone says it is a unique fraud charge, in which no one directly involved—buyer or seller, museum or artist, or anyone else—has complained of being defrauded.)  The film Strange Culture was made before the case was resolved, and shows us some of the artists and lawyers who were actually involved in this real world event but it also features dramatic scenes with Tilda Swinton (smart, quick, shrewd, honest) as Hope, and Thomas Jay Ryan (casually comprehensive and responsive) as Steve.  It is one of those real world matters that you have to see to believe and even then it seems fantastical—or, more precisely, nightmarish.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  The commentary on art above originally appeared on the pages of his internet log The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker.

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