Art Becomes Crime
First is the case of Professor Steven Kurtz, whom we've discussed before:
Obviously these bacteria pose significant enough a risk to the security of the homeland that the investigation had to be expanded:
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."
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?