By Dimitry Tetin
Steve Kurtz is not someone who should be sitting across the interrogation table, submitting to random drug tests and regularly meeting with his parole officer. He is an artist and educator who masterfully subverts the aesthetic to serve his goals. Kurtz, an Associate Professor in the Department of Art at SUNY, Buffalo, is the founding member of the Critical Arts Ensemble (CAE), a group of artists “whose multi-media projects fuse the political pedagogy of Bertolt Brecht with the madcap performance of Mr. Wizard. Donning lab coats and armed with household supplies and high school lab equipment, they assume the persona of amateur scientist. Their aim is to demystify the shadowy world of bio-weapons, trans-genetic manufacturing and the corporate appropriation of visual culture as well as more broadly, the public sphere itself,” writes Gregory Sholette, former Chair of the Art Administration Department at SAIC. The CAE take their performances into museums, festivals and the streets. They are actively engaged in theorization of their practice and regularly publish manifestoes advocating “tactical media activism.” They are “specialists in revolt,” according to Gregg Bordowitz, Assistant Professor, Film Video and New Media.
The work of Walter Benjamin provides an important subtext for Kurtz’s practice. It is the great failure of the late 20th century that Walter Benjamin remains relevant. His critique of technology, art and society in “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is still as vital to the comprehension of the relationship of contemporary art to politics, as it was in 1934. His theories are essential to connect scientific advancements in society with technological advancements in the arts, and the alienation inherent in that relationship.
Perhaps the reason Benjamin is still relevant is because of his attack on the origins of modern warfare, a topic still most relevant in contemporary society. “The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production,” he writes. To him Fascism renders the war aesthetic, and the only response artists can have is to politicize art. Kurtz takes this further, completely subjugating the aesthetic to the political, presenting a critique of the art world as well as the structures that enable it to function.
Kurtz is no longer being charged with bioterrorism, but with what his attorney, Paul Cambria calls “petty larceny,” and the Federal Government calls “mail and wire fraud.” On January 11th, he will have a hearing. The defense will be able to respond to the prosecution’s case and present motions. [Editors note: in 2008 all charges against Kurtz were cleared]
Kurtz spoke to a packed Michigan Ballroom on November 4th. Prohibited from talking about his case, Kurtz spoke about his work, while Gregg Bordowitz handled the questions about the case. Later, Kurtz sat down with Gregg for an informal conversation about CAE’s work. The two know each other well and words flowed effortlessly.
Gregg Bordowitz: How does the CAE fit into the history of left-identified, progressive political art?
Steve Kurtz: Sometimes comfortably and sometimes uncomfortably. Since some [progressive political art] seemed so issue-driven and party and movement affiliated, we tend not to fit all that well there. We like to keep our independence. I see us as being like an experimental wing, searching for new tools and ways of behaving, new kinds of situations we can create. Some of them work and some of them don’t. Hopefully, when we are successful, other movements can pick them up and use them however they feel like it.
So much [progressive political art] seemed separate from its theorization. Much in the way the Situationists were the first [to ask], “How do you have real practice and work that is completely theorized at the same time?” These two things work hand in hand. Often times this is not the case, you get the artist wanting to act, and the theorist wanting to think. Where does it get together? Because of the conflicts that often come of that rift, we just said, “we’ll take care of this in-house, and then people can take it from there.”
GB: There is a seeming set of contradictions, but they are not necessarily contradictions. CAE woks collectively, is committed to a collective model, not only internal to its organization, but also in the way it reaches out to and works with other artists who function under their own name or group name. At the same time, you’ve talked about how you wanted to remain autonomous from large movements. That would seem to be a contradiction, but it’s not. What is the benefit of a collective group remaining autonomous from larger social organizations?
SK: Well, this is just like the Surrealists. They had to eventually break away from the Communist party. It was not going to work, because those organizations tend to want direct support. That’s not necessarily where we are. We follow our own interests on this. A lot of the reason for that is self-preservation. To give a concrete example, we were much involved in AIDS activism in the late eighties and early nineties. It really came to a point where it was like, “Man, we are really burnt out.” We felt a little bit lost, that we weren’t using the abilities and resources that we had to the best advantage. That made us have to pull away from it. We decided we needed to just find what is of interest to us and do it, to maintain a “pleasure principle.” If that goes away, the party is over. So that, concerns of enjoying production„of it not becoming an alienated labor„has kept us out of having to subordinate to a very specific set of causes and consistently thinking within that smaller frame. We wanted to be able to wander around different disciplines and different knowledge sources and not have to worry about getting off the beat somewhere and upsetting organizers of the larger movement [who might say], “What you are doing is unhelpful.”
GB: There are many beneficial and encouraging aspects of the tactical model for students and, especially, recent graduates. Could you talk about some of the aspects of a tactical practice that lend themselves to enabling the practices of younger people or people who don’t have a great many resources?
SK: Tacticality is basically about adaptability and scarcity. What do the people do who have no resources, have no power, have no platform, and how do they still make something that is worthwhile? In this case, tacticality is partly predicated on collective action: you need to pool skills, resources. And once that’s done, you can almost always make something, believe it or not, out of nothing. Sorry to contradict Aristotle. We’ve tried to stick to that. One of the reasons we tend to stay away from big monumental projects is, problems with monumentality aside, we want people to look at our projects and say, “I can do those.”
Tacticality has always been made for those who don’t have the power for strategic platforms. For most of the things that we are interested in, whether it is experimentalism or radical politics, there is no territory from which strategic initiatives can be launched. It’s really about assessing the reality of it and thinking very practically about what to do next. If you think practically and pool resources, you can make things. Simple gestures can have big consequences, if you can think them out. If you have the knowledge base between a different bunch of people that are kicking ideas around, you can get something to happen. Where do you get the materials? It’s amazing what people can come up with, how well scavenging and scrounging, borrowing and stealing can work. I think that’s why it works for everyone. No one is excluded from it. Everyone has agency in the realm of the tactical, unlike in the realmof the strategic.
GB: I think it will be useful to readers to know how your collective model allows for individuality to arise, that it does not necessarily squelch it or demand uniformity.
SK: There’s another reason for staying independent of the larger movements, where you have to really think about it in terms of solidarity. In the smaller units, you can think of it in terms of differentiation. The reason that works without alienation is because of embodiment, face-to-face communication, and a small enough social constellation where everyone is heard and there is a place for everyone. When we tried to construct our collective, one of the things we did was to make sure everyone had a very clear sphere of influence. Whatever the project was, everyone could see themselves in that project. The work spoke back to them. They could affirm themselves through this labor.
GB: Your work often seems anti-art, it is definitely anti-aesthetic. And, yet, it falls within the category of art and is, not exclusively, welcome in some spheres of art: particularly, museums, but not so much galleries, and art institutions in Europe over the United States. Still, the art world is one of a number of homes that CAE has. How is that? Why is that? Why continue to work within the framework of art, even though you are not limited to it or defined entirely by the art world.
SK: It’s the realm of image production and since we are very interested in that, we are very interested in the critique of representation. The arts are major contributors to that, so we do have a very large intersection. Just on a practical basis, these institutions, particularly the ones in Europe, are much wealthier, so it is a money resource. It’s a way we can take money out of the system and re-deploy it in other directions. Finally, it is a kind of legitimizing platform which gives us easier access to things that we need, other knowledge systems, other materials and so on. The art world is useful to us. Obviously the gallery system, the commodity system, is not very helpful at all, but museums and festivals have been pretty good to us.
GB: We don’t want to give people the impression that you are soley dependent on the art world, because you’re not. And, at this moment in history there is not one [art] world, there are many art worlds and, actually, when you talk about festivals, you’re talking about an art world that is not comprehended or included within the art world as described by Art Forum.
GB: And so could you talk a little bit more about ZKM or Next Five Minutes, or the culture in which your work is greatly recognized and legitimized?
SK: I don’t mean to be derogative or anything, but the Art Forum world is rather a retro world. For them, the communications revolution never quite happened and there is still this belief in cultural centers and the importance of maintaining those cultural centers. Of course, for the market, that’s completely understandable, especially since you are selling analog luxury goods, not digital goods, so you want to keep that sense of sedentary nature about it. It’s one of the reasons that New York is so provincial. It’s one particular scene and in terms of experimental culture, it’s falling terribly behind. Where is experimental culture happening? It’s happening everywhere and it’s happening nowhere. It moves constantly. The festival is one of those mechanisms to help it move, so that it doesn’t set roots and start gathering dust.
You’re in Belgrade one minute. you’re in Berlin the next, you’re out in San Francisco the next. It’s constantly in flux. Different groups and demographics are meeting that way. Ideas are being exchanged. It’s very mobile, at the same time, it’s not the jet-set, international, elite scene that we see at all the Biennials. It’s a very different kind of grouping, that relates to speed in a very different way. That is, trying to use speed as a different kind of production, as a part of cultural production, as opposed to speed as means to
GB: Often, the artists I meet at these festivals don’t come from art schools: they are engineers, they are science graduates. They have an interest in art. That reminds me, the arts and sciences a hundred years ago or so were not really separated. The separation between them is part of the movement toward specialization and fragmentation. Are you conscious about the relationship between art and science historically? Is it something you draw influence from, or is it something you came at because of your interests in the communication revolution?
SK: We came at it because of the interest in technology, which eventually led us to web technology. Then we had to start learning it. The separation goes back. I put it somewhere in the 18th century, where the Renaissance man no longer appeared as a real possibility, and there was enough of a knowledge boom that there had to be some other form of management. The management scheme that was copied was the emergent production management scheme. How do we put something efficient together fast and cost-effective? When the bourgeois questions started getting asked, it seemed to get transferred right over into organization of knowledge. The separations have become bigger and bigger ever since. I think that by the time of the late 19th century, if you look at Salon culture, there is still togetherness between artists and scientists. There is a place for all of them to be together. There was, though very managed, a public sphere of sorts. It was exclusive, but it was a public sphere, where all of these issues could come together in exchange. It was seen as a good thing for them to meet. It got more specialized and more complete. Obviously, alienation is inherent in division of labor and as intensification became a means to profit, that was the final deathblow.
The scientists I meet stay in their lab, they never leave it. I’ve never seen people that work so much. They don’t have much time for anything else. It becomes strange. But, there are these rogue scientists out there. Those are the ones you can meet at the festivals. Usually, for some reason, they have been disenfranchised and they find their second home [at festivals].
GB: CAE is in line with the appropriation of the aesthetics of information, aesthetics of bureaucracy. This is something that arises within the conceptual period in the ’70s. Part of that history is not entirely defined by [artworld] history.
SK: Probably very little. For now, most interdisciplinary and experimental artists are defined by very little of what happened in the art world. Not that there’s no influence, but that’s not really the defining moment.
GB: I was thinking more historically about whether the artists of our generation are defined directly from that influence or if it’s just problematic of capitalism. I don’t think conceptual artists would even admit it, but they are doing their work at the same time as a new kind of blue-collar, office-temp, computer-information-driven work arises. I think that they are American workers captured in the same rubric as other American workers. I think that CAE’s work is riding out a set of historical possibilities, that are made possible by an underlying structure that you are formed by,but also resist.
SK: Certainly, in thinking of methodologies like appropriation, there is no way we can divorce ourselves from the history of art. I think that the technological interventions have changed it so drastically. Then, all of a sudden, the influences that come in become so different. The wild card is global networks and decoding DNA.
Dimitry Tetin: You work globally. Do you see yourself as a particularly American artist or more as part of this larger, global art community?
SK: Yeah, as part of this larger nomadic, flowing movement. For the most part, it seems people are not so big on identifying themselves nationally. There are, obviously, still some residues of that. If you look at a catalogue, it would say what country you are from, but in terms of the actual face-to-face conversations, it’s not that significant. Unless it’s a troubled place, then, it’s like, “I’m from here, we need help.” There’s identification that way, if people have really strong local issues, like when we were working with the Serbians during Milosovic times. Or, when Haider was in and we were working with the Austrians to deal with that fascist. Then, national identity becomes important. For the most part, I feel it is of very modest significance. I’ve always felt pretty happy that most people, not from America, say that we’re not very American. In this day and age [that] is probably a good thing.
DT: So your critique is more of global capitalism?
SK: That’s always our general one, but not necessarily. When we do tactical media projects, they are usually very specific and have achievable goals. Many times they are quite localized, but hopefully can contribute to the [solution] of the overall problem. The two things that are very consistent in almost anything we do are anti-authority, anti-capitalism. Whether it’s a micro-project or a big one or if we’re trying to think globally, though we do that the least, those two things are always there. It’s what ties everything together. It all has that same point.
DT: In the ideal world would you want to reach the maximum number of people possible?
SK: Well, in the ideal world, yes, but we’re only five people.
DT: Do you see any way to do that?
SK: No. I don’t know. The way you do that is you have this long continuum and you have people working at points all along this continuum. They’re are different groups that are out there, and they all have different niches and have aligned themselves in different positions on this continuum. Then everyone keeps going.
I don’t think that in the ideal world you should think in terms of collective units or individuals. You have to think about it in terms of what’s happening on a large scale. Think about all the different groups, and individuals, and movements, and campaigns and such that are out there, and measure it that way. That is a lot more productive. There’s no artwork that’s going to change the world, but we do know that history has been better at some times than others and image production plays a large part in it. If we look at it that way, there is, in the grand sense, a collective effect. That is more how I tend to think about these kind of questions. Are we getting skewed or clustered? Are we getting too focused on one issue? If we see that we’re not staying diversified, that’s when we get worried. If it was getting to the point where I said, “I’m not going to make any more virtual work, that’s it. It’s all going to be participatory.” That would be bad.
Additional transcription of the interview: Maria Elena Murguia
Recording by: Stephen Bell
For more information on Steve Kurtz’s case and work of CAE see :
September, 2004 issue of F Newsmagazine
For a review of Steve Kurtz’s November 4th Lecture, see “The Week in Missed Lectures” only at F Online!