Strange Culture

Strange Culture

****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

As an example of post 9/11 paranoia, what happened to Steve Kurtz makes Looney Toons sound like Beethoven’s Fifth. In fact, it is still happening, as Strange Culture is a work in progress, since Kurtz could still go to jail - 20 years max - for mail fraud and wire fraud, whatever they are in George Dubya’s mad, mad, mad world.

Kurtz is an artist and professor at the University of Buffalo. As a member of the Critical Art Ensemble, organized by his 45-year-old wife Hope, he put on exhibitions and built installations that shed light on bad practices in public health and biochemistry.

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“We are mutant humans,” he tells his students. “And culture has become the monster.”

The night before posting off packages of live bacteria that he had bought off the Internet to make up the centre piece of the CAE’s latest exhibit, concerning, amongst other infringements upon nature, GM foods, Hope dies in her sleep. It is sudden and devastating and, for Steve, the beginning of something so bad that four years later he says, “All I can do now is move forward and try to survive.”

When taking Hope’s body out of the house, the paramedics report seeing suspicious looking scientific equipment and liquids. Before Steve has had time to recover from the shock of his wife’s death, FBI agents and men in moon suits have moved in and he is arrested on suspicion of bio-terrorism. The Feds find an invitation to someone else’s art show on his desk “with Arabic writing on it” and that’s the clincher – handcuffs, Grand Jury, the cat locked in the attic for three days without food or water.

Although this is a conventional documentary with interviews, talking heads and relevant news flashes, it is far from conventional in the way it is presented. Thomas Jay Ryan and Tilda Swinton, as Steve and Hope, reenact scenes with friends, students and each other, as if performing in a docudrama, while the real Steve Kurtz appears at regular intervals to tell his side of the story.

In the mindscape of Alice Through The Looking Glass, the surrealism of Steve’s predicament would be a footnote to The Patriot Act: Fear Or Frenzy?, if it wasn’t so tragic. Before you think, “Only in America,” remember Jean Charles de Menezes. The war on terror, like every war, makes victims of us all, especially those in a private place with live germs in lab dishes and a body in the bedroom.

As one of Steve’s friends says, “I don’t think the FBI understands art.” And one of his students explains why he is afraid to sign a petition: “You have a name that sounds like Hussein, you are a suspect.”

Hope always believed, “Never surrender. Never give up.”

Steve wipes away a tear. His case continues.

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2007
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The artist as victim of The Patriot Act.
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