- Steve Kurtz is an artist operating in an unusual medium.
Rather than exploring ideas with brushes and paint, he uses bacteria and
DNA to create works meant to spark debate about the safety and morality
of genetic research.
- But Kurtz's work and his beliefs are more radical than
those of many of his peers. He has written proposals for releasing mutant
flies into restaurants, and demonstrated methods for destroying genetically
modified crops. And it is Kurtz's views, his supporters say, that have
Kurtz on the wrong side of a federal investigation sparked by the death
of his wife, Hope Kurtz.
- It now appears that a judge and jury will ultimately
decide whether and how artists will be allowed to work with the materials
that scientists are trusted with daily inside biotech laboratories. The
Department of Justice this week took steps toward charging Steven Kurtz
with running an illegal biotech laboratory in the Kurtzes' home in Buffalo,
- FBI agents are trying to find any connections that may
exist between the Kurtzes' radical agenda, their DNA lab and Hope's untimely,
and unexplained, death last month.
- Rescue workers from the Buffalo Fire Department responded
on the morning of May 11 to a 911 call from the Kurtzes' home, where they
found Hope Kurtz, whom a fellow artist and Kurtz family friend described
as healthy and in her 40s, dead.
- The rescue workers attending to Hope Kurtz were alarmed
by the presence of petri dishes and lab equipment in the home, and called
in local and federal hazmat teams, who quickly sealed off the residence
and removed bacteria samples for testing by the New York State Department
of Health in Albany.
- The Erie County Medical Examiner's Office was unable
to determine the exact cause of Hope Kurtz's death after an autopsy and
toxicology tests, and ruled that she died of natural causes, said the family
friend, Beatriz da Costa.
- FBI agents between May 14 and May 17, acting on a sealed
search warrant obtained by the U.S. Attorney's Office, searched the Kurtz
home and removed petri dishes bearing bacteria, lab equipment, computers,
disks, books and the couple's passports and birth certificates, said da
- FBI agents last month also interviewed the chair of the
art department at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New
York school where Steven Kurtz is an associate professor. The FBI agents
asked Adele Henderson why the Kurtzes were operating a lab in their home,
and not at the university.
- "(The FBI agents) didn't seem to get it," said
Henderson. "They're used to the science model, with scientists working
in a lab with government funds. In an art department that's rarely the
case. Things get down more in an entrepreneurial way."
- And this week the FBI subpoenaed da Costa and two other
artists connected to the Critical Art Ensemble, a group that Steven and
Hope Kurtz collaborated with. Paul Vanouse and Steve Barnes are set to
appear before a grand jury June 15.
- The subpoenas cited Section 175 of the U.S. Biological
Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which prohibits the use of certain
biological materials for anything other than a "prophylactic, protective,
bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose."
- Kurtz, reached at his home, referred all inquiries to
his lawyer, Paul Cambria Jr.
- Cambria said the FBI is overreacting to the discovery
of Hope Kurtz's body and the Kurtzes' DNA laboratory "in a colossal
way," because it does not understand art that uses bacteria and DNA
- Kurtz is one of several artists experimenting with bacteria
and DNA outside traditional laboratory settings. The Critical Art Ensemble,
or CAE, and other artists who have contributed to a traveling exhibit called
Gene(sis) had to comply with stringent biosafety requirements at the University
of Washington in Seattle when the show first opened in 2002, said Henderson,
the SUNY art professor.
- The CAE's work includes a website and CD-ROM promoting
the fictitious biotech firm, GenTerra, and a performance arts piece aimed
at deconstructing and disrupting the growth of genetically modified foods
produced by companies like Monsanto.
- The CAE presents its performance arts pieces as satire.
But the group's electronic books, with introductions featuring quotes from
the likes of Malcolm X ("By any means necessary," is one of the
quotes), may have the federal government suspecting that artists connected
to the ensemble harbor sinister motives.
- One of the ensemble's e-books advocates releasing mutant
organisms into the environment to disrupt the work of biotech firms. Another
proposes secretly releasing mutated flies into restaurants.
- The CAE says this tactic, which it calls "fuzzy
biological sabotage," would encourage "those who never would
join a movement (to) become unknowing cohorts or willing allies" in
the struggle against the biotech industry.
- The FBI has contacted an artist who has collaborated
with the CAE, as well as the director of a gallery that has shown the group's
work. The agents asked the gallery director whether she believed Steven
Kurtz holds anti-American sentiments, according to an e-mail from the gallery
director received by da Costa.
- For their work in the CAE, the Kurtzes operated a home
biotech lab with several strains of bacteria, chemicals and enzymes, a
centrifuge and a PCR machine, the device scientists use to amplify genetic
markers for visualization.
- Scientists in biotech labs every day operate centrifuges
and PCR machines in their attempts to create new, genetically modified
and transgenic organisms for the global food supply, and genetic therapies
for treating devastating diseases.
- Tests of the suspect materials at the Kurtzes' home could
only have found nonpathogenic strains of E. coli, Serratia and Bacillus
globigii, according to Da Costa, who contributed to the CAE's GenTerra
- But local and federal authorities are reacting appropriately
to the discovery of a suspect biological and chemical laboratory in the
Kurtzes' home, said a law enforcement analyst with the University of Maine
who helped formulate protocols for responding to bioterrorism attacks in
Maine's urban areas.
- "Unless you know what the heck you're doing,"
said Richard Mears, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University
of Maine at Augusta, "you can get hurt playing games with microbes."
- Even harmless bacteria can become harmful under certain,
but extremely rare, circumstances, said Richard Roberts, a leading DNA
- "It's pretty unlikely," said Roberts, co-winner
of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1993 for discovering the
biological process that made gene-splicing technology possible. "It
takes a lot more than a simple little gene to make something pathogenic.
But you could teach these skills to a high-school student, and you could
probably teach them to an artist."
- Da Costa said that none of the Kurtzes' unusual artistic
creations could have led to Hope's death. "Hope could have eaten all
of the stuff the FBI found in that house," da Costa said, "and
no harm would have come to her."
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