Steve Kurtz, artist or terrorist? – Update

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Legal Issues, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

snapshot_001-200.jpgUpdate: October 11, 2007 — Buffalo, NY – Today in Federal District Court, Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, under tremendous pressure, pled guilty to lesser charges rather than facing a prolonged trial for federal charges of “mail fraud” and “wire fraud” in a surreal post-PATRIOT Act legal case that has attracted worldwide attention.

Dr. Ferrell’s colleague Dr. Steven Kurtz, founder of the internationally acclaimed art and theater group Critical Art Ensemble, was illegally detained and accused of “bioterrorism” by the U.S. government in 2004 stemming from his acquisition from Dr. Ferrell of harmless bacteria used in several of Critical Art Ensemble’s educational art projects. After a costly investigation lasting several months and failing to provide any evidence of “bioterrorism,” the Department of Justice instead brought charges of “mail fraud” and “wire fraud” against Kurtz and Ferrell. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, the maximum penalty for these charges has increased from 5 years to 20.

The Ferrells’ daughter, Gentry Chandler Ferrell, said: “Our family has struggled with an intense uncertainty about physical, emotional and financial health for a long time. Agreeing to a plea deal is a small way for dad to try to eliminate one of those uncertainties and hold on a little longer to the career he worked so hard to develop… Sadly, while institutions merely are tarnished from needless litigation, individuals are torn apart. I remain unable to wrap my mind around the absurdity of the government’s pursuit of this case and I am saddened that it has been dragged out to the point where my dad opted to settle from pure exhaustion.” To read Gentry Ferrell’s full statement, visit:

“It’s deeply alarming that the government could pressure someone of Dr. Ferrell’s stature into agreeing to something like this. The case threatens all Americans’ Constitutionally guaranteed right to question the actions of their government,” said Igor Vamos, Professor of Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The government is vigorously attempting to prosecute two defendants in a case where no one has been injured, and no one has been defrauded. The materials found in Dr. Kurtz’s house were obtained legally and used safely by the artist. After three and a half years of investigation and prosecution, the case still revolves around $256 worth of common science research materials that were used in art works by a highly visible and respected group of artists. These art works were commissioned and hosted by cultural institutions worldwide where they had been safely displayed in museums and galleries with absolutely no risk to the public.

The Government has consistently framed this case as an issue of public safety, but the materials used by Critical Art Ensemble are widely available, can be purchased by anyone from High School science supply catalogues, and are regularly mailed.

The plea bargain agreement comes at a time of overwhelming public support for the two defendants. A film about the case, Strange Culture, directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson and featuring Tilda Swinton (Chronicles of Narnia, Michael Clayton), Thomas Jay Ryan (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich) – has drawn widespread critical praise and public interest, with screenings in dozens of U.S. cities after its selection to open both the 2007 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival documentary section. An October 1 screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City drew a crowd of 400 who stayed for an hour afterward for a discussion with Professor Kurtz, director Hershman Leeson, and actress Tilda Swinton. Special benefit screenings of the film in numerous cities have raised thousands of dollars to offset the two defendants’ escalating legal costs.

For more information about the case, read the, June 25, 2007 and see “Background to the Case” at To see a movie trailer, visit For a screening schedule, visit CAE Defense Fund.

Source: Excerpted from October 11, 2007 press release: Sickness, “Absurd” DOJ Prosecution Force Scientist to Please in Precedent-Setting case: Scientist’s Wife and Daughter Comment on Case

Image: The Presence Project,