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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  July 2005

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE July 2005

Subject:

Fwd: <nettime> The $256 Question - and CAE

From:

Michael H Goldhaber <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 28 Jul 2005 01:33:00 -0700

Content-Type:

multipart/alternative

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (452 lines) , text/enriched (697 lines)

An update on the Kurtz case (art in Science for the People vein becomes 
"terrorism")

Best,
Michael

Begin forwarded message:

> From: Ricardo Dominguez <[log in to unmask]>
> Date: July 25, 2005 6:31:06 AM PDT
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: <nettime> The $256 Question - and CAE
> Reply-To: Ricardo Dominguez <[log in to unmask]>
>
> The $256 Question
>
> By Stan Cox, AlterNet. Posted July 25, 2005.
> http://www.alternet.org/story/23601/
>
> By prosecuting Steven Kurtz and Robert Ferrell, is the Justice 
> Department trying
> to clamp a lid on political art or looking to chalk up a win by 
> exploiting fears
> of bioterrorism?
> by Stan Cox
>
> S. marcescens: dangerous bacteria or harmless art material?
>
> The way William Hochul sees it, the situation couldn't be simpler: "We 
> take an
> oath to follow the Constitution and enforce the law. The law says you 
> can't
> acquire any property by fraud -- whether it's a gun or an automobile or
> something biological, it doesn't matter."
>
> As an assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York, 
> based in
> Buffalo, Hochul is leading the prosecution of Steven Kurtz and Robert 
> Ferrell,
> who were indicted a little over a year ago for mail and wire fraud. 
> Kurtz, a
> professor of art at the University of Buffalo and co-founder of the
> internationally acclaimed Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), is accused of 
> obtaining
> bacterial cultures illegally through the mail.
>
> Ferrell, a geneticist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, 
> allegedly
> provided Kurtz the organisms for use in an artwork, rather than using 
> them in
> his own research, thereby violating an agreement he had signed when he
> purchased the cultures for $256 from the American Type Culture 
> Collection
> (ATCC).
>
> Although Hochul doesn't say so, this has to be a frustrating time for 
> him. Last
> spring, he and the Terrorism Division that he heads appeared to be 
> setting
> their sights on a big-time conviction. Federal agents in biohazard 
> suits had
> confiscated laboratory equipment and bacterial cultures from Kurtz's 
> home. And
> they had served subpoenas -- under the U.S. Biological Weapons 
> Anti-Terrorism
> Act -- on several of Kurtz's colleagues and a company that publishes 
> CAE's
> books.
>
> Then, in July 2004, after health authorities declared Kurtz's bacteria 
> to be
> harmless, and once it became clear that his lab equipment was to be 
> used for
> art, not bioterrorism, the grand jury produced indictments only for 
> mail and
> wire fraud.
>
> A year later, Ed Cardoni of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in 
> Buffalo and a
> friend of Kurtz's, told me the prosecution still has no case. "They're 
> just
> sifting through a lot of chaff, trying to find a few kernels of wheat 
> in it."
> Why is this case in federal court?
>
> A dispute involving $256 worth of merchandise would seem to be more at 
> home in
> Judge Judy's courtroom than in a high-profile federal prosecution. 
> Indeed, the
> United States Attorney's Manual published by the Department of Justice 
> appears
> to discourage prosecutors from bringing such a case to the federal 
> courts.
> The manual states, "Prosecutions of fraud ordinarily should not be 
> undertaken if
> the scheme employed consists of some isolated transactions between 
> individuals,
> involving minor loss to the victims, in which case the parties should 
> be left
> to settle their differences by civil or criminal litigation in the 
> state
> courts."
>
> It goes on to describe the sort of case that federal authorities 
> should pursue:
> "A scheme which in its nature is directed to defrauding a class of 
> persons, or
> the general public, with a substantial pattern of conduct." The 
> Kurtz-Ferrell
> case does not appear to meet any of those criteria.
> A mail or wire fraud conviction can result in up to 20 years 
> imprisonment. But
> this case does not appear to have any of the characteristics -- large 
> numbers
> of victims, large sums of money, physical endangerment, etc. -- that 
> the U.S.
> Sentencing Commission applies when weighing the seriousness of a fraud 
> crime.
> When I asked Hochul about the U.S. Attorney's Manual guidelines, he 
> explained
> his office's actions this way: "All of our practice is guided by 
> guidelines,
> our supervisors, and levels of review. I can't answer more 
> specifically."
> Buffalo attorney James Harrington, who is not representing Kurtz or 
> Ferrell but
> has squared off against Hochul in the past, thinks that in a case like 
> this,
> guidelines are not the determining factor.
>
> "There's no way of knowing whether it's Bill Hochul or the U.S. 
> Attorney in
> Buffalo or their superiors in Washington making the decisions. But 
> this has
> gotten a lot of publicity, and, generally, the more publicity a case 
> receives,
> the higher in the food chain it goes before decisions are made."
> Is a sneeze-guard all you need?
>
> Members of Kurtz's defense team fear that once Hochul is in front of a 
> jury, he
> will try to make the government's case seem more substantial by 
> exaggerating
> the hazard posed by the bacterial cultures Kurtz obtained from 
> Ferrell. If
> that's his plan, Hochul isn't talking. He emphasized to me that Kurtz 
> and
> Ferrell, "were never prosecuted for anything but fraud. ... Read the
> indictment."
>
> So I did, and he's right. But I noticed something interesting. 
> Throughout the
> first one-third of the document, in which ATCC and University of 
> Pittsburgh
> policies are described, the neutral terms "biological materials" or 
> "organisms"
> are used. However, once the indictment turns to the actions of Kurtz 
> and
> Ferrell, all 11 references to the bacteria they purchased from ATCC -- 
> two
> species called Bacillus atrophaeus and Serratia marcescens -- employ 
> the term
> "biological agent."
>
> Of course, "biological agent," defined as "a cultivated micro-organism 
> that
> cause damage to biological material" has become firmly associated in 
> the public
> mind in the past few years with weapons of mass destruction.
> But B. atrophaeus is non-pathogenic, and S. marcescens, as we will 
> see, does not
> cause disease except under special conditions. And, as Hochul has 
> admitted in
> court, no laws or regulations govern possession or use of either 
> species.
> S. marcescens has drawn the greater interest because it is implicated 
> in at
> least 1% of serious infections that occur in hospitals, where large 
> numbers of
> immunologically vulnerable people undergo injections and invasive 
> surgery. At
> the same time, it has been declared "safe for health and the 
> environment" when
> used in student science projects.
>
> Jonathan Ewbank, a Group Leader at the Centre d'Immunologie de 
> Marseille-Luminy
> in France, routinely uses S. marcescens in his research. I asked him to
> evaluate the risk that the species would pose to healthy museum-goers 
> if used
> with care in an art exhibit, assuming a hazard scale on which water 
> would be
> rated at 0 and weaponized anthrax at 1,000. His answer: "I'd rate it a 
> 5."
> According to Ewbank, "A healthy person can eat or drink something 
> contaminated
> with S. marcescens, and nothing will happen. You can inject very large
> quantities into healthy mice without seeing any symptom worse than a 
> mild
> fever.
>
> "However, it is important to be aware that for immunocompromised 
> people,
> Serratia can be a very nasty bug, and that it can cause eye infections 
> even in
> healthy people."
>
> Ewbank considers the use of S. marcescens in art to be "a rather silly 
> idea, but
> nothing close to bioterrorism." If minimal precautions are taken -- 
> for example,
> by keeping the cultures behind salad-bar-style Plexiglas screens -- he 
> would not
> be concerned.
>
> Bill Picking, Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences at the 
> University of
> Kansas, is more cautious. Even though S. marcescens is considered a 
> Biosafety
> Level One organism (that is, it does not necessitate the use of special
> containment equipment), Picking told me his laboratory handles all 
> bacteria,
> even those generally considered harmless, under Biosafety Level 2 or 
> higher.
>
> While acknowledging that if cultures were displayed, say, in covered 
> petri
> dishes, "the public would be safe," he prefers to err on the side of 
> caution.
> He believes that using S. marcescens in works of art "is not a good 
> idea." But
> Ewbank told me that to put things in perspective, we should remember 
> artist
> Mary Kelly, who caused a stir in the 1970s with a piece called Post 
> Partum
> Document, Part I (Analysed faecal stains and feeding charts) that 
> included
> soiled diapers.
>
> He noted, "These represented about as much of a health hazard as would 
> an
> artwork with Serratia, and probably less of a risk than walking in a 
> park full
> of dog feces, or spending an afternoon in a baby's daycare or a 
> doctor's
> waiting room in winter."
>
> What's really dangerous
>
> CAE artists may have drawn unwelcome attention by doing some of their 
> most
> well-known work in the controversial area of biotechnology. For 
> example, the
> group's projects in nonviolent Contestational Biology are designed to 
> "combat
> the new capitalist colonial campaign in the organic realm," according 
> to their
> website.
>
> Ed Cardoni pointed to what he sees as the government's political 
> motives: "The
> FBI confiscated all of Steve's files. I could be wrong, but I think 
> that as
> they looked at the writings of CAE, they saw radical ideas they didn't 
> like.
> The CAE artists' only threat is their ideas."
>
> Hochul insisted, however, that "this case has nothing to do with art. 
> The only
> question is, did they acquire property illegally?"
>
> If that's the only question today, things seemed to have been 
> different in the
> spring and summer of 2004. Back then, federal authorities were 
> demonstrating
> what appeared to be quite a deep interest in artistic matters. In 
> asking a
> judge for a warrant to search Kurtz's home and office, prosecutors 
> described a
> photograph accompanied by Arabic writing that had been seen in Kurtz's 
> home.
> They failed to mention that the illustration was part of a fictional 
> work by
> artists of The Atlas Group, examining the violence that wracked 
> Lebanon in the
> 1970s and '80s.
>
> The photo was featured on an invitation to a show entitled "The
> Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere" at the Massachusetts 
> Museum of
> Contemporary Art. That show incorporated provocative work by 29 
> artists and
> collectives, including the Atlas Group and CAE. (CAE's group effort, 
> called
> "Free Range Grains" ended up as a near-empty space at the show, 
> because the FBI
> had confiscated key elements of it from Kurtz's house.)
>
> Kurtz and colleagues believe the FBI was present at the show. Agents 
> got at
> least as far as the Holiday Inn in North Adams, Mass., where the 
> museum is
> located -- in order to serve subpoenas on two other artists involved 
> in the
> "Free Range Grains" project. One of them, Beatriz da Costa, told me she
> believes that the FBI continues to visit CAE shows.
>
> Claire Pentecost, an associate professor at the Art Institute of 
> Chicago, has
> worked with CAE on two projects. She said that artists who 
> participated in "The
> Interventionists" draw suspicion because they're "asking the real 
> questions:
> Who's controlling technology, how is it being applied, who has 
> benefited so
> far?"
>
> Kurtz himself is convinced he and Ferrell are being prosecuted for 
> political and
> economic reasons. He asked me to join him in a thought experiment: 
> "Suppose we
> were using living organisms just to make something pretty, that we 
> were making
> biotech seem safe and fun. Would we be prosecuted? No way! They'd love 
> that."
>
> He sees two main motives for the government's actions: "First, they 
> want to show
> that they can turn what should be civil cases into crimes. They think, 
> 'This is
> the best way ever that we can get more power.'
>
> "Second, they are creating an internal enemy. They aren't satisfied 
> with Middle
> Easterners and undocumented immigrants. They want to really scare 
> people by
> saying, 'Even that nice white art teacher next door could be 
> dangerous. You
> must look to your leaders. Only we can make you safe.'"
> Anything for a conviction?
>
> James Harrington believes that intimidation of artists is probably a 
> byproduct
> of the government's actions, not its ultimate goal: "To justify what 
> they do,
> they need to get a statistic, get a conviction. Subtly raising the 
> subject of
> bacterial cultures can serve that purpose -- it's not too hard to 
> scare the
> public these days."
>
> He added, "Bill Hochul is a very able prosecutor who can be very 
> aggressive."
> Harrington speaks from experience, having helped defend the Lackawanna 
> Six in
> another highly publicized case prosecuted by Hochul. That group of 
> young men
> from a Buffalo suburb ventured to Afghanistan in 2001 (which was legal 
> to do at
> the time they went, before 9/11). Once they met jihadists up close, 
> they decided
> to hightail it back to Lackawanna. After 9/11, they were arrested and 
> pled
> guilty to supporting terrorism.
>
> John Curr, Assistant Director of the New York Civil Liberty Union's 
> Western
> Regional Office sat through those hearings. "We believe they pled 
> guilty only
> when they were threatened with being shipped off to Guantanamo and 
> maybe
> spending their lives in prison. Now you have a boy spending 10 years 
> in prison
> for buying a $20 surplus uniform -- which he never wore. Hochul's 
> office called
> that 'material support' for terrorism."
>
> The conviction was hailed by the Justice Department as a major victory 
> in the
> "war on terror," and the hapless band was promoted to the status of a 
> broken
> "al Qaida cell" by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union 
> address.
> Ed Cardoni claims that the Buffalo FBI office was "beefed up" 
> considerably
> during the Lackawanna investigation, and that when they found bacterial
> cultures in Kurtz's house, the Justice Department smelled another 
> high-profile
> triumph. "They were ready to pounce," he said.
>
> No winners, plenty of losers
>
> In a practical sense, it may not matter if we never discover the 
> motive behind
> the Kurtz-Ferrell prosecution. Whether the Justice Department is 
> trying to
> clamp a lid on political art or looking to chalk up a win by 
> exploiting jurors'
> microbe-phobia, or, as Hochul maintains, simply "taking the law as we 
> find it,"
> there are likely to be lots of losers and no winners.
> Whereas the prosecutors in Buffalo's Terrorism Division may have once 
> seen the
> Kurtz prosecution as a potential PR windfall, they now find themselves 
> hunkered
> down under a continuing barrage of bad publicity, with little prospect 
> of a
> graceful way out.
>
> Meanwhile, Steve Kurtz says his ordeal "has definitely scared people. 
> And I
> think it has scared scientists more than artists."
> Claire Pentecost worries about small museums and galleries. "They'll be
> reluctant to sponsor experimental shows. They don't have a lot of 
> resources,
> and will fear being shut down."
>
> Even so, says Kurtz, "We're going full speed ahead, even though we 
> can't get as
> much work done these days. A lot of our time goes to fighting the 
> case. I'm
> required to ask for permission to purchase any 'organic materials' 
> other than
> food! And we can't work on our books, because the prosecutors still 
> have all of
> our research materials. But we're not going to shut up or give up."
> Whatever the future holds, Kurtz intends to honor the words of his 
> wife Hope,
> whose sudden and tragic death attracted the attention of federal 
> authorities
> and plunged him into this ordeal. "In her last couple of years, angry 
> at the
> way this country is heading, my wife kept telling me, 'We'll never 
> surrender.
> Never.' She was right -- you've got to be willing to go to jail."
>
> A decision on a defense motion to dismiss the Kurtz-Ferrell case is 
> pending. You
> can keep up with developments at www.caedefensefund.org.
>
> Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas.
>
>
> #  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
> #  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
> #  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
> #  more info: [log in to unmask] and "info nettime-l" in the msg 
> body
> #  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: [log in to unmask]
>

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