We’re pleased to announce a new series of interviews with artists called “Groundswell Talks.” With this semi-regular spot, we aim to give audience to the best voices in art and activism. Check back regularly for talks with artists from around the globe.
Critical Art Ensemble offers a marriage of art, activism, and technology that spurns the current tactics of the Left – which they consider both nostalgic and naïve – and offers only proposals in its place. The 21st century is no place for 1960s mentalities, nor can we trust the philosophies that claim to be vanguards or harbingers. As a self-described “freelance cultural research wing for the anti-authoritarian left,” CAE has found new ways to resist the current political climate, and pursue civil disobedience through tactical media, bio-tech demonstrations, and DIY publications. They redefine the old ways of trespass and blockage, reminding us that the best ways of subversion are decentralized, and nomadic, transient and terminal.
Their philosophy and strategy is obviously unfriendly to authority, and CAE founder Steve Kurtz has been dealt an unreasonable and unfair blow as a result. He faces federal charges for supposedly illegally obtaining bacteria samples, which he was using for a CAE project. On the morning he discovered his wife had passed away from heart failure, Kurtz was held without charges, and had his computers, manuscripts, art supplies confiscated. Sine his arrest, the charges have oscillated from bioterrorism to mail fraud. A fund has been established to aid his defense.
We discussed their general approach and the response to the Kurtz trial in a short interview with CAE via e-mail:
Groundswell Collective: Much of your work has been responsive, a reaction to current events and social issues, and yet you have avoided affiliation with particular organizations or causes.
Critical Art Ensemble: Generally speaking this statement is true; however, in the late 80s and early 90s we did do a lot of work with ACT UP, as well as a bit with Prostitutes of New York (PoNY), but they are the only exceptions.
GC: Can you speak to the ways that CAE has been able to embrace these subjects without straying too far into partisanship or association?
CAE: Avoiding organizations and institutions is an easy thing to do. Once allied to an organization, you serve the specific interests of that organization and not your own goals. It’s an old story. In the modern period think of how many cultural workers left the communist party because they were sick of making agitprop, pamphlets, and parade floats. Doing work like that is often a waste of talent and hence quite alienating to the producer. CAE views itself as a freelance cultural research wing for the anti-authoritarian left. Some of the tactics and techniques we develop turn out to be useful and some are not, but that is the nature of experimentation. And this returns us to the problems of organizations. They want results, not experimentation and radical research where failure is likely.
GC: You have described the commonalities among CAE members and their work as “anti-authoritarian” and “anti-capitalist.” What role does the production, promotion, and distribution of public knowledge play?
CAE: One of the tricks elite interests consistently play on the public is to say that while they would like a given sphere of life (science for example) to be guided through democratic process, unfortunately for democracy, this sphere is too complicated for nonspecialists. They then claim that committees composed exclusively of experts must be in charge of the real decision-making, and that these should be appointed by government executives. And thus, every time, we get experts who happen to share the interests of the corporate-military state. Until nonspecialists can say, no, we know enough to be involved in policy development and we demand to be included, energy policy will be run by oil executives; the FDA will be run by pharmaceutical and corporate food executives, the FCC will be run by media executives, and so on. This is why knowledge distribution is key to our activities.
GC: The character of technology’s influence has changed drastically and rapidly with the advent of ubiquitous computing, and this phenomenon directly informs CAE’s philosophy. In what ways do you see this trend acting upon resistance tactics? What new avenues has tactical media paved, and do you see more traditional activists walking down those roads?
CAE: Happily, we are no longer are in the 90s when deep suspicions about the usefulness and desirability of new information and communication technologies were readily apparent. With the exception of small groups of luddites, the use of ICT is now perceived as a necessity. On-line organizing, indy media, on the ground tactical networks, etc, are all in play. The down side now, if there is one, is too much digitality. If activism comes to mean sitting in front of a screen all day, we are in trouble.
The struggle of this decade is to get activists to see the value of knowledge systems, technologies, and materials developed by the life sciences. This initiative will not be easy. While ICT was forced upon almost everyone, because these tools require general complicity, the powerful tools of biotechnology are being withheld. They do not require a general complicity—only a specialized one. The public only sees the products of this techno-revolution, but never the tools and techniques. We need to claim these as well, and use them in our interests rather than surrendering them wholesale to the military and to the multinational corporations. Because those outside of the life sciences are so alienated from this form of knowledge production and see many of the horrible products it has created, they often reject it outright. This is a mistake that CAE is working to correct, and has had to pay high price for attempting to make this change. CAE member Steve Kurtz was arrested in part for this kind of activity.
GC: Some artists have reached out creatively to support you and your defense. The Bureau of Inverse Technology’s Kurtz 911 comes to mind. Have others contributed? What do you think of their efforts?
CAE: Lynn Hershman Leeson did a film with Tilda Swinton on the case titled Strange Culture. It’s been really helpful in getting the word out. The Yes Men are working on a documentary and have been filming since the beginning of the case back in 2004. Paul Chan did a series called Charged in the Name of Terror that includes the case. There are too many to list, but it has all been helpful.
Another thing that has been life saving is the way the commercial art world has come to Steve’s rescue. Normally, CAE doesn’t intersect with that sphere of cultural production very much, but that doesn’t seem to matter. They have raised so much cash for the case. They have a clear understanding that an attack like this on one is an attack on all, and they are acting accordingly. This case has really highlighted the similarities of those working in the art world rather than the usual factional differences.
GC: You mentioned that an upcoming project will involve taking on the myth of the “dirty bomb.” Can you give us a glimpse of what it might look like?
CAE: CAE is going to do radiation experiments on human tissue cells. One of the many myths about the “dirty bomb” is that it will cause a radiation disaster. The implication is that spreading some radioactive material around is the same as what would exist after a nuclear blast. This is not true. They are not even remotely related. Even the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has had to admit (begrudgingly) that “Most RDDs would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness—the conventional explosive itself would be more harmful to individuals than the radioactive material.” And, “A dirty bomb is in no way similar to a nuclear bomb.” This myth was created by the paranoid mind of John Ashcroft as way to heighten the level of fear in the US, so people would willingly surrender their rights and further empower the Justice Department. CAE intends to demonstrate these facts on both a cultural and a scientific level.