The other day I was looking for a movie I could watch with instant streaming that featured Josh Kornbluth* and I came upon Strange Culture. Strange Culture is a documentary about the arrest of artist and SUNY-Buffalo professor of art history Steve Kurtz on charges of bioterrorism, mail fraud, and wire fraud in 2004 after the death of his wife, Hope.
At the time Strange Culture was released in 2007, the legal case against Steve Kurtz (and against University of Pittsburgh professor of genetics Robert Ferrell) was ongoing, so the documentary uses actors to interpret events in the case about which Kurtz could not speak on advice of counsel, as well as the usual news footage and interviews of people in the case who were able to talk freely. It also draws on a vividly illustrated graphic novel about the case (titled “Suspect Culture”) written by Timothy Stock and illustrated by Warren Heise.
The central question of the documentary is how an artist found himself the target of federal charges of bioterrorism. I should mention that I watched Strange Culture not long after I finished reading The Radioactive Boy Scout, which no doubt colored my thinking. If The Radioactive Boy Scout is a story of scientific risks taken too lightly, Strange Culture strikes me as a story of scientific risks blown far out of proportion. At the very least, I think there are questions worth pondering here about why the two cases provoked such wildly different reactions.
In 2004, as part of the Critical Art Ensemble, Steve and Hope Kurtz were working on an art installation for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art on genetically modified agriculture. The nature of the installation was to demonstrate (and involve museum-goers in) scientific techniques used to isolate genetic information from various food products and to identify genetically modified organisms. The larger aim of the installation was to help the audience better understand the use of biotechnology in agriculture, and to push the audience to think more deeply about the scientific decisions made by agribusiness and how they might impact everyday life.
Regardless of whether one thinks the Critical Art Ensemble was raising legitimate worries about GMOs, or ignoring potential benefits from this use of biotechnology**, there is something about the effort to give members of the public a better understanding of — and even some hands-on engagement with — the scientific techniques that I find deeply appealing. Indeed, Steve and Hope Kurtz were in active collaboration with working biologists so that they could master the scientific techniques in question and use them appropriately in assembling the installation. Their preparations included work they were doing in their home with petri dishes and commercially available incubators using benign bacteria.
However, this was where the problems began for Steve Kurtz. One night in May of 2004, Hope Kurtz died in her sleep of heart failure. Steve Kurtz dialed 911. The Buffalo first responders who responded to the call saw the petri dishes and freaked out and notified the FBI. Suddenly, the Kurtz home was swarming with federal agents looking for evidence of bioterrorist activities and Steve Kurtz was under arrest.
Watching Strange Culture, I found myself grappling with the question of just why the authorities reacted with such alarm to what they found in the Kurtz home. My recollection of the news coverage at the time was that the authorities suspected that whatever was growing in those petri dishes might have killed hope Kurtz, but at this point indications are that her death was due to a congenital heart defect. First responders are supposed to be alert to dangers, but they should also recognize that coincidence in space and time is not the same as causation. Hope Kurtz’s death was less than three years after the September 11th attacks, and the anthrax attacks that came close on their heels, which likely raised anxiety about the destructive potential of biological agents in the hands of someone who knows how to use them. I wonder, though, whether some amount of the reaction was not just post-9/11 hypervigilance but a deeper fear of biological material at the microscopic level. If you can grow it in a petri dish, the reaction seemed to say, it must be some seriously dangerous stuff. (I am grateful that these first responders didn’t stumble upon the forgotten leftovers in the back of my fridge and judge me a bioterrorism suspect, too.)
More baffling than the behavior of the first responders was the behavior of the federal agents who searched the Kurtz home. While they raised the specter that Steve Kurtz was producing biological weapons, they ended up leaving the place in shambles, strewn with bags of purportedly biohazardous material (as well as with the trash generated by the agents over the long course of their investigation). Leaving things in this state would be puzzling if the prime concern of the government was to protect the community from harmful biological materials, suggesting that perhaps the investigative teams was more interested in creating a show of government force.
Strange Culture raises, but does not answer, the question of how the government turned out to be even more alarmed by biotechnology in widespread agricultural use than was an art group aiming to raise concerns about GMOs. It suggests that scientific understanding and accurate risk assessment is a problem not just for the public at large but also for the people entrusted with keeping the public safe. It also suggests that members of the public are not terribly safe if the default response from the government is an overreaction, or a presumption that members of the public have no business getting their hands dirty with science.
It’s worth noting that a 2008 ruling found there was insufficient evidence to support the charges against Steve Kurtz, and that the Department of Justice declined to appeal this ruling. You can read the Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund press release issued at the conclusion of Steve Kurtz’s legal battle.
*Yes, it’s a very particular kind of thing to want. People are like that sometimes.