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Art Not Terrorism

Art Not Terrorism

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Published by Charlie Gere

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Charlie Gere on Nov 12, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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ART IS NOT TERRORISM!Steve Kurtz, Robert Ferrell, bioterrorism and Mail FraudBy Charlie Gere, Birkbeck College, University of LondonThe title of this piece is taken from the Internet banner that is being distributedfollowing the arrest of artist Steve Kurtz, genetics professor Robert Ferrell and their indictment for mail fraud. Before discussing these arrests and their ramifications inmore detail it is instructive to look at this statement and to consider its implications.At first glance it seems so obvious a statement as to be barely worth saying; of courseart is not terrorism. And yet on closer examination the difference between the two isnot so clear. Inverting the statement makes this clear. The statement ‘terrorism is notart’ is ostensibly far harder to justify. Days after September 11
KarlheinzStockhausen famously commented that…
…[W]hat happened there is - they all have to rearrange their brains now - is the greatest work of artever. That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for 10 years, completely, fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatestwork of art for the whole cosmos. I could not do that. Against that, we composers are nothing.
A year later, on the anniversary of the atrocities, the British artist Damien Hirstsuggested that…
…[Y]ou've got to hand it to them on some level because they've achieved something which nobodywould have ever have thought possible - especially to a country as big as America. So on one levelthey kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerousthing. The thing about 9/11 is that it's kind of an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it wasdevised in this way for this kind of impact.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, such comments were widely condemned and Stockhausenand Hirst were forced to apologise. In comparing the events of 9/11 to a work of artStockhausen and Hirst were both right and wrong. Right in the sense that avant-gardeart and terrorism are in some ways quite similar, and could possibly be shown to havedeveloped out of the same historical context. Many avant-garde artists, from theFuturists through Dada to the Destruction in Art Symposium and beyond, have usedart as a kind of cultural ‘terrorism’ and have pursued strategies of staging spectacular events, which are intended to shock people out of their complacency and thus, intheory at least, to change the world, much like terrorism. But the comparison is alsowrong at a deeper level. To describe an act of terrorism as a work of art is a kind of category error, which fails to take into account the ineluctable differences betweenterrorism and art.The purpose of terrorism is to directly invoke terror in its potential and actual victims,usually terror of death or injury. Whatever the sophistication of their implementationacts of terrorism are simple minded in their intentions. In invoking such terror thoseresponsible intend to disrupt the lives of those targeted by making them fearful of going about their normal activities. By contrast art works through symbolic action andmediates the sensations it invokes. In a sense it is the direct opposite to terrorism inthat it precisely allows us to face that which we fear, or which makes us anxious, froma position of safety. A good example of the difference between art and terrorism is to be found in the work of Gregory Green, who makes fully functioning nuclear bombs
and guided missiles, lacking only the explosive and fissile materials necessary tomake them destructive. Their effectiveness as art works resides precisely in their ineffectiveness as bombs or missiles. Were Green actually to arm them they wouldcease to be works of art and would become instead chilling terroristic devices.Because they are unarmed we are able to contemplate the destructive force theyrepresent symbolically and thus allow us to come to terms with it rationally.Thus,
Hirst and Stockhausen, the atrocities of 9/11 were not works of art,however much they might have appeared as such. Furthermore it is important that artand terrorism are not conflated, whether by artists themselves, commentators andcritics or those hostile to the experimental and radical nature of much contemporaryart. It is important to maintain the difference because it is only thus that art can retainits autonomy as a means by which it can be used to open up discussion about complexand controversial issues and ideas, which otherwise might be a source of terror or anxiety. This point has been foregrounded by the arrest of and subsequent indictmentagainst Steve Kurtz and Robert Ferrell for Mail Fraud.In May of this year Kurtz, internationally respected artist, founder member of theCritical Art Ensemble and Associate Professor in the Department of Art at the StateUniversity of New York's University at Buffalo, awoke early in the morning to findthat his wife had died in her sleep of a cardiac arrest. He rang 911. A paramedicspotted some of the equipment he was using in his latest work, which concernedissues of biotechnology. As a result Kurtz was detained as a suspected ‘bioterrorist’,his house was rapidly cordoned off by FBI, his computer, work materials, manuscriptsand books, and perhaps most offensively of all, his wife’s body, were impounded for ‘analysis’. He was released almost immediately, as his detention turned out to beillegal and has since recovered his wife’s body, but the rest of the impounded materialremains in the possession of the FBI, with no prospect of immediate return.The biotechnological materials the FBI seized turned out to be some harmless andeasily obtained bacteria and a mobile DNA extraction laboratory for testing food products, equipment that can be found in any university and in many high schools.Despite the innocuous nature of the material seized, the impossibility of using it to produce weapons, and Kurtz’s international reputation as an artist, the FBI were firstdetermined to charge him and other members of the CAE under section 175 of the USBiological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which has subsequently beenexpanded by the notorious US PATRIOT Act. Since then the charges have beendowngraded to ‘Mail Fraud’, which may sound comparatively unthreatening, but stillcarries a maximum penalty of twenty years in prison. Indicted with him is
RobertFerrell, head of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh'sSchool of Public Health, who is charged with helping Kurtzfraudulently obtain $256 of what is widely regarded as harmlessbacteria.It is plausible that the FBI and the District Attorney, realizing thatcharging Kurtz and others under the USA PATRIOT Act was bound tofail, are trying to save face. Mail and wire fraud legislation arenormally used against anyone defrauding others of money orproperty, as in telemarketing schemes. Unfortunately for the
prosecution, to make a federal case for such a minor allegation willrequire proving criminal intent, which would be very hard.Meanwhile the harassment of Kurtz and Ferrell has both horrifiedand bemused many in the United States and abroad, not leastbecause of the implications for both scientific research and artisticpractice.It may seem at first glance that the authorities in the United Stateshave backed themselves into a corner, while also furthercompromising the United States’ already damaged reputation interms of the calculated suppression of free speech. Yet there maybe method in this madness. The materials Steve Kurtz and theCritical Art Ensemble use in their art may well be harmless, but theirideas are not. The CAE have gained an international reputation fordeveloping works of art and practices that engage with and promotediscussion of complex and controversial political, technological andscientific issues. At a time when discussion of such issues in themass media appears at best nugatory and at worst deliberatelymisleading, work by artists such as those involved with the CAE areamong the only means by which these matters can be properlyexposed and debated. The current administration in the United States has a particularlyappalling reputation for stifling debate, spreading misinformationand denying access to knowledge. One wonders if the FBI seizedupon the chance offered by the zealous paramedic to make anexample of a troublesome character with a reputation for exposingdifficult and controversial issues,
‘pour encourager les autres’ 
. To doso required deliberately making the same category error committedby Stockhausen and Hirst, of conflating art and terrorism. This maybe attributing forethought to the authorities to a flattering degree.But even if it is not deliberate the effect is the same. It offers anextremely worrying precedent if the symbolic actions of artists areno longer distinguished from the direct actions of terrorists. At thevery least this offers unprecedented scope for the suppression of debate and free speech.Whatever the intentions behind the decision to prosecute SteveKurtz and Robert Ferrell it is important that the authorities in theUnited States are left in no doubt about the degree of disgust anddismay it has engendered, both in America and abroad. Anybodywho wishes to sign a petition, read about the case and keep up withevents as they happen, find out about benefits, or make acontribution to the defense fund, go towww.caedefensefund.org. Ata personal level not only do the defendants face possible twenty-year sentences, but also exorbitant legal bills. At a more generallevel protesting against Kurtz and Ferrell’s indictment and theharassment that has accompanied it, may help to make such eventsless likely in the future. It is worth remembering that Kurtz is lucky

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