A ‘Bioterrorist’ at the Biennial

Photo: Courtesy of Critical Art Ensemble

There will be no shortage of political work at this year’s Whitney Biennial—there’s an entire thematic “strand” called “Shock and Awe”—but none of the other artists have the anti-Bush cred that Steve Kurtz has. After all, the government was trying to send him to jail for bioterrorism.

On May 11, 2004, Kurtz, a long-haired 47-year-old who teaches art at SUNY Buffalo and keeps tinfoil over his bedroom window to help him sleep during the day, called 911. His wife had died of heart failure. The police arrived and saw the “lab” in his three-story Victorian home—petri dishes and books on bio-weaponry that he was using to make Marching Plague, a video installation—and alerted the FBI. Agents arrived in Hazmat suits, impounded Kurtz’s computers, locked his cat in the attic, and seized his wife’s body from the coroner. He was under investigation for bioterrorism. A grand jury wouldn’t indict him on that, but Kurtz is still facing mail- and wire-fraud charges; he could get up to twenty years.

He’s become an art martyr: It’s a role the self-described anti-authoritarian artist seems to revel in. A benefit auction last year at the Paula Cooper Gallery—with donations from Sol LeWitt, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Serra—raised nearly $170,000. His lawyer, Paul Cambria, also once defended Larry Flynt.

Marching Plague re-creates a 1952 British military experiment wherein guinea pigs were infected with the plague to see how fast it would spread. Only instead of plague, Kurtz used a harmless bacteria. It’ll be included in the Biennial, but just on video. The Whitney didn’t want the bacteria in the building.

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A ‘Bioterrorist’ at the Biennial