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Q&A: SUNY Buffalo Prof. Steve Kurtz, artist/activist

On Thursday December 2, Steven Kurtz, professor of visual studies at the State University of New York-Buffalo, and founding member of internationally acclaimed art and theater group Critical Art Ensemble, gave a convocation in JRC 101 on ‘“Intervention and Public Art.” CAE was founded in 1987 and is a group of artists exploring the intersection of art, critical theory, technology and political activism. They have performed in a host of different places and have written six books.

When and from where did your interest in Critical Art Ensemble first originate?

Well, I was in graduate school working on my Ph.D., and I was doing my dissertation on the influence of Schopenhauerian philosophy on late 19th century salon culture. When I had an internal crisis, where I felt so isolated, and I knew then what it meant to be on the ivory tower. I felt like I needed to reconnect myself with the world and the way that seemed most probable was through some sort of art form as most of my friends were in the arts. So I knew some people that were interested in collaborating with me on a project. The ideological side of this is that it was Good Morning America with Ronald Reagan, from the AIDS crisis to the intervention in Latin America.

Who did you collaborate with the most in the beginning?

I worked with Steve Barnes, we decided to just make a generic name so we just used Critical Art Ensemble. We also thought why limit ourselves to just film and video, and why not incorporate all mediums.

How do you expand your artworks beyond film, what inspired you to pick up different forms?

Well, film and video can only be used in small amounts, you can’t use it everywhere, for instance it doesn’t function that well outside. There were too many sites we were interested in using, and too many issues we wanted to address. Since film wasn’t the best medium to address all of these, we were going to use the right tool for the right context.

What was the first project that you guys worked on?

Originally, we weren’t project based, but we considered ourselves like a jazz ensemble. It was like we would have a theme, and then everyone would have a chance to make their own statements.

Can you explain what happened when you were arrested?

It was a series of projects in which we were using biological materials. It was about releasing transgenic organisms into the wild. Another one was called molecular invasion where we found a way to biological intervene at the Monsanto round-up ready project. We were saying the biological means could be used for activist purposes, that we should leave these very valuable tools to the government and military, but we could actually use them in the public interest. [Laughs] The FBI was not keen on any of these ideas. The final one day we did was marching plaque where we did recreations of 50s germ warfare experiments, and they didn’t really like that either. The policy of Ashcroft was you don’t wait for someone to do something, but you arrest them before they do it. So you find some trumped charge and put them in jail, and that’s what basically happened to me.

How has your career as professor at University of Buffalo played off your career with CAE?

I think they’re reasonably separate, because what I’m doing with CAE is a public project, whereas what I’m doing as a professor is student centered learning. But the overarching theme is pedagogy because I am always interested in consciousness raising whether in my artwork or in the classroom.

What is your most memorable project?

I can’t really go there, that’s like for a parent asking them to pick a favorite child.

How did you expand to doing projects beyond the US, to doing them globally?

There’s a story to that, we were discovered essentially. There was an artist/curator named Peter Bible who was very involved in the Vietnamese activist group. As he matured he acquired the job of director of Arts Electronica, which in the mid-90s was the biggest festival dedicated to new media. We had just published a book Electronic Disturbance, which he admired very much, and he asked us to come to the festival and said that he would put us on the keynote panel to talk. I had no idea this was such a big deal, but I soon found out and I mean every curator and critic were there, it was just packed. You had a platform to speak to all of Europe in this one moment. Being the cagey fellow that he was, he put me on with this woman, who worked for media personnel for Reuters and this military kernel and then John Perry Barlow, who was a lyric writer for the Grateful Dead, but at that point had become a key player in a bizarre digital utopian group. I was young so I had nothing to lose by this so I just came out swinging. The audience was so put off by the horrible corporate militant experience of the other speakers, to hear a radical critique of these positions. It was just for that one moment of walking into this situation that we were about to become famous.

Are there any future projects or current projects that you guys are working on?

Currently we are focused on Radiation Burn, which is about the use of the fear of radiation particularly in terms of the use “Dirty Bomb” as a key statement of state propaganda. The government calls this “the poor man’s nuke,” but the only way to do this would be if it were state funded. But they make it sound like at any moment this mini-atom bomb is going to go off. So much of this has been about putting in new safety protocols and why rights must be narrowed. We wanted to make the statement that this is so unlikely to happen that this is not a real threat.

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    Terri GellerDec 4, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    I want to thank the S&B for publishing this interview. I am happy that so many people enjoyed the convocation Professor Kurtz presented and were as moved and inspired as I have been over the years by the work of the Critical Art Ensemble. I invited Professor Kurtz to campus for just this reason and I am glad he had such a palpable positive effect on the campus. Also, I am grateful to everyone who helped sponsor Steve’s visit (and, in doing so, future Critical Art Ensemble projects): the Art Department, the Center for Prairie Studies, the Convocation Committee, and the office of Conference Operations and Events (especially Rachel Bly and Pam Montgomery). I also want to thank Professor Sarah Kanouse for hosting Prof. Kurtz at the University of Iowa. I was glad to have the opportunity to partner with the University of Iowa and hope we can do more bridging events like this in the future. I am grateful for the support of the college to bring speakers and events like this to campus (for example, next semester the CFC is sponsoring a campus event featuring animator/filmmaker Nina Paley).

    This is a terrific interview and I appreciate the S&B support in following up with Steve Kurtz’s visit in this way. However, there are two minor errors above: it is Ars Electronica (no “t”) and “kernel” should be spelled “colonel”.

    Terri Geller
    Asst. Professor of Film Theory and History
    Department of English