Monday, January 28, 2008

Art, Science, and Civil Liberties

Last week I had the chance to catch a screening of the film Strange Culture about artist and SUNY Buffalo professor Steve Kurtz.

The movie tells (part of) the story of Kurtz' treatment as a suspected bioterrorist:
The surreal nightmare of internationally-acclaimed artist and professor Steve Kurtz began when his wife Hope died in her sleep of heart failure. Police who responded to Kurtz’s 911 call deemed Kurtz’s art suspicious and called the FBI. Within hours the artist was detained as a suspected "bioterrorist" as dozens of federal agents in Hazmat suits sifted through his work and impounded his computers, manuscripts, books, his cat, and even his wife’s body.
In contrast with this gripping teaser, there was no evidence against Kurtz--the bacteria he had been culturing were harmless and his wife died of natural causes. The Department of Justice is pursuing the case nonetheless (more info here).

Kurtz' artwork makes use of scientific images and scientific practices in order to invite his audience to reflect on the potential harmful effects of biotechnologies such as genetically modified foods. It blends art, science, teaching, and political commentary. The case truly threatens academic freedom.

Jim Johnson has more commentary on the political valence of the artwork of Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble. Jim quotes Dewey:
“The function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness."

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