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Arts community rallies in support

August 29, 2004|Louise Roug

Over the course of a single day, Steven Kurtz, a 46-year-old art professor from Buffalo, N.Y., lost Hope, his wife of 20 years; had his house combed through by counterterrorism agents; saw his work and papers confiscated; and was targeted for investigation as a possible bioterrorist.

In the nearly four months since, artists from across the world have offered their support or raised money for Kurtz, a founding member of a group known as the Critical Art Ensemble, who in his work often explores issues surrounding genetically modified food.

The case began on May 11, when Kurtz awoke to discover that his wife had died in her sleep. A paramedic responding to his 911 call noticed lab equipment in the house and alerted authorities. (No one suggested that Kurtz had anything to do with his wife's death.) By the end of the day, members of the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force had searched Kurtz's home, seized his computer along with books and papers, and put him under investigation for bioterrorism charges.

At an arraignment last month, federal authorities decided not to bring terrorism-related charges against Kurtz. Instead, he was charged with four counts of mail and wire fraud, each carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

In response to the indictment, artists in Vermont, Oregon, Illinois, New York, Australia and Britain have rallied in support of Kurtz. (One group that held a Seattle fundraiser on Tuesday calls itself Scared Artless.)

Artists in Pittsburgh and Austin, Texas, have planned events for next month, and the performer Rev. Billy is planning to gather his flock at St. Mark's Church in New York to raise money for Kurtz.

Meanwhile, the sinister-sounding Bureau of Inverse Technology has set up a Kurtz "shout-out line" to "capture the public outcry at the persecution of this man, the criminalization of dissent and the intimidation of academic inquiry that this action effects," according to a statement on the website www.bureauit.org/uphone/kurtz/, which has an archive of callers commenting on the case.

"Is this the Kurtz shout-out line?" asked one caller before judging the case "a wild injustice and a waste of time." Another described it as "emblematic of the sorry state that this country is in."

If supporters are looking for a T-shirt-ready slogan, one caller offered "Art is not terrorism."

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