Friday, February 15, 2008

Art Becomes Crime

Two recent art-related stories blend tragedy with criminal charges and raise some questions about liability and the potential perils of artmaking.

First is the case of Professor Steven Kurtz, whom we've discussed before:

Dr. Steven Kurtz is a Professor of Art at SUNY Buffalo and a founding member, with his late wife, Hope, of the internationally acclaimed art and theater collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Over the past decade cultural institutions worldwide have hosted CAE’s participatory theater projects that help the general public understand biotechnology and the many issues surrounding it.

In May 2004 the Kurtzes were preparing to present Free Range Grain, a project examining GM agriculture, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), when Hope Kurtz died of heart failure. Police who responded to Kurtz's 911 call deemed the couple's art suspicious, and called the FBI. The art materials consisted of several petri dishes containing three harmless bacteria cultures, and a mobile lab to test food labeled “organic” for the presence of genetically modified ingredients. As Kurtz explained, these materials had been safely displayed in museums and galleries throughout Europe and North America with absolutely no risk to the public.

The next day, however, as Kurtz was on his way to the funeral home, he was illegally detained by agents from the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force, who informed him he was being investigated for "bioterrorism."
Obviously these bacteria pose significant enough a risk to the security of the homeland that the investigation had to be expanded:
Dr. Robert Ferrell, a University of Pittsburgh geneticist, has been sentenced to a year of unsupervised release and fined $500 for providing Steven Kurtz, an artist friend, with bacteria to use in his biotech-theme artwork, The Associated Press reported. Dr. Ferrell pleaded guilty in October to a misdemeanor count of “mailing an injurious article.” Mr. Kurtz, a member of the faculty of the University at Buffalo, faces trial on federal mail and wire-fraud charges. Prosecutors say Dr. Ferrell sent away for the relatively harmless bacteria for Mr. Kurtz because he could not have obtained it on his own. His defenders maintain that Mr. Kurtz was merely trying to provoke discussion through art and that government prosecution stifles debate.
The other story actually resulted in two deaths and multiple injuries, but still led to some dubious judicial decisions, IMO:

The creator of an inflatable sculpture that killed two people after breaking free of its moorings was charged with manslaughter yesterday.

Maurice Agis, 76, has spent more than 40 years devising public art and had toured Europe for a decade with the ill-fated Dreamspace, a giant walk-in artwork half the size of a football pitch, which visitors said was like a “psychedelic cathedral”.

The incident happened on a warm Sunday afternoon at Riverside Park, Chester-le-Street, Co Durham, in July 2006. Dozens of families, many with young children, were exploring Dreamspace’s coloured caverns and corridors when it suddenly reared 70ft into the air and flipped over.

The artist tried vainly to grab on to a rope to stop the plastic structure from taking off. Some of those inside were flung clear. Others were trapped inside.

Mind you, Dreamscape was such a popular attraction that even the BBC had recommended families try it out and the UK Arts Council sponsored a tour of the piece to the tune of £60,000. There's no doubt that the authorities had to investigate this tragedy and that the families deserved someone to be held accountable, but to charge the artist for manslaughter, after permitting it to travel throughout Europe for a decade? It never occurred to the authorities in any of those locations before 2006 that this posed a danger?

As I've noted before, we've presented some potentially dangerous work in our gallery and I've lied awake worried that someone might be injured. Posting notices and hovering over visitors only go so far, and I'll be the first to step up and agree that galleries and institutions showing dangerous art are indeed responsible for the safety of their visitors. Precautions must be taken.

But there's something rather offensive about both these cases in terms of the courts' decisions as well as the prosecutions' point of view. For Professor Kurtz, the state should have stopped hounding him when it was apparent he wasn't a terrorist. Pushing through the investigation in search of misdemeanors and mail-fraud charges can't be the best use of the FBI's resources. Not if President Bush is correct in asserting that "terrorists are planning attacks on American soil 'that will make Sept. 11 pale in comparison.'" And in the case of Mr. Agis, who is 76 years old, and whose piece worked perfectly for 10 years before this freak accident, a charge of manslaughter strikes me as political scapegoating. Yes, the victims deserve justice, but will imprisoning this man really bring them such?

Labels: crime, liability


Anonymous t.whid said...

IANAL, but wouldn't there need to be gross negligence in order for that artist to be charged with manslaughter? Is there more to the case? Did he do something different in the tragic instance? Like not secure safety ropes or something?

I'd like to hear more about the case, but it just sounds like a tragic accident.

And as for CAE -- ridiculous gov't witch hunt. Pretty scary... once they have you in their sights, they'll try to take you down no matter what.

2/15/2008 09:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We all know how the press slants the story line to present to the public. Like twhid, I'd have to know more details before giving a verdict.

The CAE case I've read enough about to charge the Homeland Security department with arrogance, stupidity and hatred of free speech.

2/15/2008 09:56:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

In the case of Dr. Kurtz, this administration has revealed its woefully inept m.o. Concerned about bioterrorism? Go after an artist. Concerned about 9/11? Go after the leader of a country that was not involved in the attack. Hey, it's easier. They're right there. A bird in the hand is worth two in the, ah, bush.

Meanwhile, in terms of actual toxicity, the Fema-purchased trailers, for which over $1 billion was spent, have been found to have unacceptable high levels of formaldehyde.

Counting down the days.......

2/15/2008 10:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yes, the victims deserve justice, but will imprisoning this man really bring them such?"

Being the "victim" of accident is not the same as being a victim of a crime. Presumably there was some sort of insurance policy, covering loss of life, taken out for this public art work that traveled the world for ten years. The insurance co. should pay some restitution to the family members of the dead people and everybody should move on. Also, presumably people sign some kind of waiver before they enter this giant "football pitch" (is that a football field?) -sized inflated balloon. There is so much real violence going on in the world (did you see the news today about the latest school shooting? 6 dead so far) that manslaughter charges are ridiculous in this case.


2/15/2008 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

A football pitch is a soccer field. About the same size as an American football field.

This reminds me of Christo's artwork being picked up by wind and accidentally killing someone. There's a reason why engineers go to school as long as they do. Artists shouldn't be allowed to play with this stuff.

2/15/2008 10:39:00 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Did you not read the latest - artists are the latest front in the so called war against 'terror'... They are running out of innocent people...

Thanks for posting this...

2/15/2008 11:10:00 AM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...


While I see your point (and agree), I think it's overly generous to call the Kurtz case one of incompetence.

CAE has been an active revolutionary voice for years, and IMO is being actively silenced because of the content of the work.

This is one reason why the next presidential choice is such a big deal. Starting with Clinton and accelerating into the Bush administration, the administrative branch has accreted an outrageous amount of power. It's incredibly important to vote in someone who is visionary enough to give back some of that power and restore some balance to what is, increasingly, an "elected" dictatorship with democracy icing on top.

2/15/2008 12:21:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

Re: Agis

This is why I like sculpture. It's so reality based, it kills!

Serra wasn't charged with manslaughter, neither was Christo.

Nor should they be. Accidents are terrible, and life is full of them.

Of course artists should be "allowed" to play with reality.

Surely Agis worked directly with a structural engineer. Any public project practically requires an architect or engineer on hand to resolve exactly these kinds of problems. WTF?

2/15/2008 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Architects are dangerous too.

Did a Serra piece kill someone? I've never heard about this.

2/15/2008 01:34:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

"A rigger was killed attempting to install a Serra sculpture in the early 1970s."


2/15/2008 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger Ries said...

When art is outlawed, only outlaws will make art.

And while I agree that architects are dangerous, its usually due to their obsessive and meaningless verbiage.

Buildings fall down all the time- should we also prevent contractors, engineers, and developers from "playing with this stuff"?

A great read is "Why buildings fall down" by Levy and Salvadori.
Relatively speaking, artists kill far fewer people than building professionals.

But there have been a series of art deaths.

There was a crew death on the european tour of Survival Research Laboratories.

Then there was a Beverly Pepper sculpture that killed her assistant.

In 1971, a worker installing a Serra at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis was killed when a two-ton steel plate fell on him.

n 1991, the artist Christo installed 1,760 yellow umbrellas north of Los Angeles, California. The installation was taken down early when a freak storm blew a few of the umbrellas over. One of those 500-pound umbrellas killed 33-year-old Lori Rae Mathews instantly when the umbrella crushed her against some rocks.
Then, in Japan, Masaaki Nakamura, was fatally electrocuted while removing umbrellas when he came into contact with a high voltage power line.

Associated Press, 25-05-93, ELLICOTT, Md - SCULPTURE KILLS BOY, 4

A four-year-old boy was killed when a small statue of the Virgin
Mary fell on him.

Cooper Williams was playing on the 60-cm-tall (24-inch) statue at
the Our Lady Centre on Tuesday when he lost his balance, grabbed at
the statue as he fell and pulled it down on him, police said.

The child was struck in the head and pronounced dead at a hospital.

The boy's grandmother works as a manager at the centre, a spiritual
retreat in suburban Baltimore where worshipers pay homage to the
Virgin Mary."

A Clyde, Central Otago, Australia, family are in mourning after their 5-year-old son was killed when an ornamental statue fell on him at a Bali hotel on Friday.

Jack Hogg was on holiday with parents Karen and Don Hogg at Segara Village hotel in Sanur, 20 minutes from Kuta.

Moments before the tragedy, Jack had been playing hide and seek with his dad. Mrs Hogg said he had just begun to climb the 1.4m stone statue when it fell on him.

And last year, sculptor Luis Jimenez (father of the goofy but great Elisa on project runway) was killed by his own artwork, while working on it.

Not to mention all those painters who go nuts from the fumes, or just the plain agony of not being rich and famous.

2/16/2008 01:23:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

There's a clear difference between a worker being killed while installing, moving, or creating something; here in New York City, riggers get paid an incredible amount of money just because it's a more dangerous line of work than, say, art blogging. It'd be great if no one was ever killed in an accident, but, yes, accidents do happen.

Climbing on something not designed for climbing is another source of accidents, and another lamentable occurrence, but not something the creator of the sculpture should necessarily be liable for; after all, sculptures aren't play structures. Also, Bali is hardly America. Chances are there are all sorts of hazards there which wouldn't be legal in the U.S.

Christo's umbrella, though, is to me a perfect example of an artist not thinking something through.

Buildings do fall down but we'd rather they didn't. Engineers work very hard to make sure buildings don't fall down; architects, contractors, and artists have a way of coming up with "ideas" that lead to unsafe conditions, mainly because they haven't had the proper schooling. (Architects not so much, really -- I just have a thing against architects.) But the guys on-site can be quite dangerously ignorant. (Some of them are my family members, so I know how dopey they can be.) Contractors and construction workers love saving money through substandard materials, improper substitutions, and dubious workarounds.

The Iraq War is really just this concept writ large and bloody.

"When art is outlawed, only outlaws will make art" is a bit of hyperbole -- I can't remember the last time I heard of an oil painting crushing a mother and her young daughter. "Pollock drives young viewer insane" -- I can see that, actually.

2/16/2008 01:58:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Risking death is a small price to pay to experience “real” art.

Prof. Kurtz seems to be enjoying the recognition that his “art” has generated, but in this story the suspected material morphs from “three harmless bacteria” to a “relatively harmless bacteria”. Here, as with any subject, the definitions are crucial. A “harmless” brick can be used to build a hospital for sick children. The same brick dropped from the twentieth floor is a brutal murder weapon.

2/17/2008 11:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish the presidential candidates would debate repealing "Homeland Security" and ending the PR campaign of the "War on Terror". Situations like CAE and Prof. Aegis demonstrate how easily people get scared and seek to capitalize on negative spins.

2/17/2008 08:20:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I hate to be on the conservative side of this issue, but playing with viruses is a bad idea (even without criminal or "terrorist" intents). The Irish potato famine -- in which Ireland lost half its population to starvation and emigration -- is believed to have been started by a museum botanical sample that contained the crop-killing virus.

2/19/2008 09:22:00 AM  
Blogger Carol Diehl said...

It's curious how much more extreme and punitive officialdom is when dealing with artists than it would be if ordinary citizens were involved--witness, along with these examples, 475 Kent. Surely a balloon accident at the Macy's Day Parade would have evoked an entirely different response. Artists are seen as slackers who get in the way of commerce, and our lack of obvious profit motive is threatening to the consumerist status quo.

2/19/2008 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger David Sullivan said...

The "freak accident" wasn't as freakish as it seemed:

Maurice Agis trial details

1/30/2009 04:44:00 PM  

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