As organizations committed to artistic, intellectual, and academic freedom, we are concerned about the extended and apparently unwarranted investigation of Buffalo-based artist Steve Kurtz and the chilling effect it is likely to have on other artists or scholars whose work explores the border of art and science or employs harmless biological and chemical materials.

Critical Art Ensemble, the artists' collective of which Kurtz is a member, is well known for its focus on the politics of biotechnology. Its latest project, Free Range Grain, includes a mobile DNA extraction laboratory for testing food products for possible genetic modification. Kurtz' work combines satire, scientific research, performance, digital technologies, and imaging, and uses the kind of harmless biological material and equipment found in high school and college labs.

The laboratory material that was accidentally discovered in Kurtz' home when he sought emergency medical attention for his wife was part of CAE's Free Range Grain project. It was scheduled to be exhibited on May 29 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, but is not on display because it has been confiscated by the FBI.

CAE's work falls squarely into an artistic tradition drawing on scientific knowledge and invention. For example, the camera obscura, microscope, knowledge of anatomy, MRI scans, chemical experimentation, digital imaging and other technologies are central, not only to their respective disciplines, but also to artistic creativity. The artwork of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, Robert Rauschenberg, Mierle Ukeles, and Sue Coe, among many others, illustrates the use of scientific techniques and insights. In the past ten years there have been a number of exhibitions of art addressing the genetic code.

Even though press reports indicate that the New York State Commissioner of Public Health determined that the material seized by the FBI poses no public-safety risk, and even though its presence in Kurtz's house was fully explained by his artistic work, he remains the target of a federal grand jury investigation into possible unlawful possession and/or transport of 'biological agents,' and his colleagues have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury.

It hardly advances national security to pursue innocent users of technology. Targeting scholars and artists like Steve Kurtz does not counter terrorism so much as inhibit intellectual and creative activities. The 'war on terrorism' could stretch into the indefinite future: we cannot afford to suspend intellectual and creative freedom for its duration.

American Association of University Professors
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Association of American Publishers
College Art Association
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
Feminists for Free Expression
The First Amendment Project
National Coalition Against Censorship
PEN American Center, Freedom to Write Committee
Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts


Svetlana Mintcheva, Ph.D.
Arts Program
National Coalition Against Censorship
275 7th Avenue Fl 9
New York, NY 10001
phone 212-807-6222 ext. 23
fax 212-807-6245