CTHEORY — on CAE — When Taste Politics Meet Terror

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When Taste Politics Meet Terror
The Critical Art Ensemble on Trial
Joan Hawkins
“And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been
created to teach us that first of all.”
— Antonin Artaud, “No More Masterpieces,” 1938. [1]
Setting the Stage
In late September 2001, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus
Ohio, announced that the performances of Charlie Victor Romeo scheduled
for September 26-30 had been cancelled. “We hope you’ll understand that
this is not an appropriate time to present this award-winning
Off-Broadway show,” the letter accompanying my refund said. “We will
continue to stay in contact with the Collective Unconscious company who
created and perform Charlie Victor Romeo regarding the potential for
rescheduling CVR at the Wexner Center at an appropriate time in the
Charlie Victor Romeo is a documentary play, based on transcripts taken
from the black boxes of downed airplanes, the final communication
between air personnel and the tower. A serious and sober look at the
way people actually behave during a crisis, it won the 2000 Drama Desk
Awards for Best Unique Theatrical Experience and Outstanding Sound
Design, the 2000 New York Fringe Festival awards for Excellence in
Drama and Outstanding Sound Design, and the Backstage West Garland
Award for Best Sound Design. It was filmed by the U.S. Air Force to be
used as a training video for pilots and “has been invited to be
performed for groups of physicians and healthcare administrators
studying the effects of human error and emergencies in a medical
context” (www.charlievictorromeo.com). It also belongs to a group of
experimental dramas — the plays of Anna Devere Smith, The Laramie
Project , etc — which have been mixing ethnography, documentary (with
the emphasis here on documents) and theater in provocative and
compelling ways. Theater which has learned and borrowed from
performance art, one could say.
In late September 2001, I was still badly shaken by the events of 9/11.
I had cancelled my planned sabbatical trip to New York when the
apartment I had sublet was needed to house a writer-friend who’d been
evacuated from her flat, and nothing I heard from her about life in the
City in the immediate aftermath of tragedy bore any resemblance to
anything I was hearing on the mainstream news (with the exception of
Democracy Now, U.S. news broadcasts were all about spin). Weary of
platitudes and patriotic cant, I was looking forward to seeing the
play, to hearing something real (in the street sense of that term) and
to feeling some connection with the New York art scene that had been. I
wanted to be challenged and I wanted to think, to be addressed as an
adult rather than as a slightly addled child. I was disappointed when
the play was cancelled. The box office staff member who took my call
was surprised at my reaction. “Most people have been telling us they’re
happy we’re rescheduling the show,” she told me. “When has it been
rescheduled for?” I asked. “We don’t know yet,” she said.
I’ve chosen to open this essay on the recent harassment of the Critical
Art Ensemble with this older story because it seems to me to highlight
some of the problems confronting the art world in this post 9/11,
Patriot Act-hysterical, time. I understand some of the reasons the
Wexner felt it had to postpone the performance. The Wexner Center for
the Arts is small, and totally dependent on public funding and the
support of its patrons and members for survival. It certainly cannot
afford to bring a New York show to Columbus and play to a near-empty
house. And it probably can’t really afford the loss of community good
will which such a move might entail.
But the cancellation also served to unmask the ambivalence with which
we (even those of us in the art world) regard truly provocative,
risk-taking art. Charlie Victor Romeo was rescheduled because of its
content, because it wasn’t “an appropriate time” to present the
material.[2] As I indicated above, for me it was exactly the
appropriate time. And my initial reaction of disappointment remains my
final one. But I’m disappointed not only because I didn’t get to see
the show when I wanted, but because the cancellation seemed to
trivialize (or at least to contain) the entire project of cutting-edge
art. By cancelling the performance, the Wexner effectively
communicated that provocative and radical theater can be mounted and
tolerated only when nothing serious is at stake. That to mount
provocative art — especially art which deals with disaster — when
something real IS at stake is somehow in bad taste. And that to raise
the question of the politics of taste — the fact that the whole notion
of bad taste is itself an ideologically inflected construct — is also
intolerable in the face of real crisis. This episode, then, seemed to
signal that art and theory both are reduced, in times of crisis, “to an
academic parlor game” — something we do when there’s nothing really on
anyone’s radar screen.[3] Something we do only when it’s “appropriate.”
The question of the appropriate role and function of art post 9/11 is
one which has been framed largely in terms of taste. The removal of
Eric Fischl’s commemorative sculpture, Tumbling Woman, from Rockefeller
Center, the elimination of three choruses from John Adams’ opera The
Death of Klinghoffer from a November 2001 Boston Symphony program, and
the quiet de-funding of work by performance artist William Pope (he
lost an NEA grant for a series of works on racial and social injustice;
the Andy Warhol Foundation magnanimously stepped in and funded the
exhibition) all were done in the name of taste — the fear of offending
the public in its still-sensitive, post 9-11, traumatized state.
But as I have written elsewhere [4], questions of taste are never
ideologically neutral, and almost immediately the issue of taste in
post 9/11 cultural production began to overlap with heavy-handed
manifestations of political corporate and state power. Bill Maher’s
television show, Politically Incorrect, was taken off the air by
several ABC affiliates after Maher called the U.S violent response to
the 9/11 attacks “cowardly.” John Lennon’s song Imagine and all music
by Rage Against the Machine were placed on a “don’t play” list by the
corporate giant Clear Channel. The woefully misnamed group “Students
for Academic Freedom” launched a number of websites, inviting students
to turn in professors who had made “anti-patriotic” remarks in class
and the U.S Legislature introduced a bill that would tie the continued
funding of area studies programs in American universities (American
Studies, Near Eastern Studies etc.) to governmental “curriculum
oversight.” In the bill, renowned scholar Edward Said was specifically
named as the kind of thinker we have to guard against in these troubled
post 9/11 times. Finally, Steve Kurtz, founding member of the Critical
Art Ensemble, was arrested for bio-terrorism.
The Case
On May 11, 2004 Steve Kurtz, a filmmaker, performance artist and
founding member of the Buffalo-based Critical Art Ensemble, phoned 911
after waking to find his wife, Hope Kurtz, unconscious in bed beside
him. Apparently, Ms. Kurtz had died in her sleep. But it was not only
her death that worried the emergency aid team that came in response to
Kurtz’s call, but also the laboratory equipment and inert biological
compounds which Mr. Kurtz uses as part of his art work and which he had
stored in his home. The 911 team phoned the FBI (this is where things
get murky — because the group that actually came was the Joint
Terrorist Task Force). Steve Kurtz was arrested on suspicion of
bio-terrorism. Hope Kurtz’s body was impounded (which meant that it
couldn’t be released for a funeral). Kurtz’s equipment, computer, art
supplies, books, films and biological material were confiscated. The
Joint Terrorist Task Force Agents also took Mr. Kurtz’s car, his house,
and his cat.
Authorities searched Kurtz’s home and tested the biological material
for two days, before declaring that there was no public health risk in
Kurtz’s work and that no toxic material had been found. Kurtz was
allowed to return to his home on May 17, his car and cat were released,
and his wife’s death was attributed to heart failure. But while the
case should have ended there, it was only beginning. In June, Kurtz and
other members of the Critical Art Ensemble were brought before the
Grand Jury and again investigated on the charge of bio-terrorism. Again
it was found that there was no evidence that any members of the
Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) had been involved in bio-terrorism.
Nonetheless, their case was referred to a Federal District Court and on
July 8, 2004 the Federal District Court in Buffalo charged the
Defendants with four counts of mail and wire fraud, charges connected
with the purchase of the inert biological material used in their
installation work. Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at the
University of Pittsburgh, the researcher who helped the CAE procure the
biological material, has similarly been indicted. They were enjoined
from performance, travel, or even speaking about the case. In addition,
Mr. Kurtz has been subject to random visits from a probation officer
and to periodic drug tests.
On March 17, 2005, Steven Barnes, also a founding member of the CAE,
was served a subpoena to appear before a Federal Grand Jury in Buffalo.
According to the subpoena, the FBI is once again “seeking charges under
section 175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 as
expanded by the USA PATRIOT ACT — charges which a previous Grand Jury
appeared to reject when they handed down indictments of mail and wire
fraud last summer.”[5] Autonomedia, the independent book company which
publishes and distributes books written by the Critical Art Ensemble,
as well as books by theorists like Foucault and Deleuze, has also been
under investigation. Records of mail orders, purchases, editorial
reports and the press’s correspondence have all been subpoenaed.
Kurtz’s hearing was originally set for January 11, 2005, and was
postponed to give the Defense an opportunity to review the
Prosecution’s case. It was postponed a second time at the Prosecution’s
request. As I mentioned earlier, Kurtz and Ferrell have been charged
with four counts of mail and wire fraud (US Criminal Code Title 18; US
Code Sections 1341 and 1343), which each carry a maximum sentence of 20
years in prison.
Charges of mail and wire fraud are normally brought against those
defrauding others of money and property, like telemarketers who try to
sell unwitting consumers swamp land in Florida or Web scams that try to
persuade respondents to authorize fictive bank transactions by giving
them real bank account information. As the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE)
Defense website (www.caedefensefund.org) points out, historically these
laws have been used when the government could not prove other criminal
charges (Marcus Garvey, for example, was indicted under similar
It is clear from both the indictment and the statutes, however, that
what Ferrell and Kurtz did WAS, strictly speaking, a breach of
contract. Prof Ferrell identified himself as the “primary researcher”
to be using the compounds on the application form which he submitted
when purchasing the materials. And he signed a document acknowledging
that the material could be used in his laboratory only. Such breaches
of contract with a seller, however, are usually matters of civil suits,
not federal cases; and while they may involve a fine, there is no risk
of a lengthy prison term.
At the time of this writing, there is cause for cautious optimism. On
May 17, 2005 in Buffalo, Judge Kenneth Schroeder heard motions to
dismiss the federal charges against Kurtz. Defense Attorney Paul
Cambria argued that “a dangerous precedent would be set by ‘exalting’
into a federal criminal case of wire and mail fraud what is at best a
minor civil contract issue — the purchase of the bacterium Serratia
marcescens by scientist Robert Ferrell for use by Kurtz in his artwork.
Judge Schroeder seemed to agree, asking Federal District Attorney
Wiliam Hochul whether an underage youth who uses the internet to
purchase alcohol across state lines, for example, should be subject to
federal wire fraud charges. ‘Yes,’ Hochul answered after some hedging,
and Schroeder chuckled. ‘Wow, that really opens up a Pandora’s Box,
wouldn’t you say?’ he asked.
Schroeder also asked Hochul whether there are any federal regulations
concerning Serratia. Hochul admitted that there aren’t. (“The alleged
danger of Serratia forms the basis of the government’s argument for
making this a federal case, rather that simply allowing the bacterium’s
provider to pursue civil remedies”). In the course of the hearing,
Cambria further argued that “FBI intentionally misled a judge into
issuing the original search warrant. That judge was never told of
Kurtz’s lengthy, credible and complete explanation of what the seized
bacterial substances were being used for, nor of the fact that Kurtz
tasted Serratia in front of an officer to prove it was harmless. Also
the judge was told of Kurtz’s possession of a photograph of an exploded
car with Arabic writing beside it, but not of the photograph’s context:
an invitation to an important museum art show. The photograph, by
artists the Atlas Group, was one of several exhibited pieces pictured
on the invitation.”
As the CAE website is quick to point out, however, “the apparent
courtroom victory” for the Defense does not necessarily mean that Judge
Schroeder will grant any of the defense motions. And if he does, it is
likely that the Prosecution will appeal the case. Whatever the outcome
of the May 17 hearing, “it will not come quickly: rulings in such
hearings typically take two or three months.” In the meantime, Steven
Barnes is still under indictment for bio-terrorism, and the cost of the
case is rising at a ruinous rate. The defense so far has cost the
Critical Art Ensemble $60,000.
The Scientific Community has been alarmed by the case. Despite the fact
that scientists are enjoined, by the letter of law, from sending
compounds through the mail to other unauthorized labs, they do it on a
regular basis. “I am absolutely astonished,” said Donald A. Henderson,
Dean Emeritus of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health
and resident scholar at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of
Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Based on what I have read and understand,
Professor Kurtz has been working with totally innocuous organisms…to
discuss something of the risks and threats of biological weapons —
more power to him as those of us in the field are likewise concerned
about their potential use and the threat of bio-terrorism.” Henderson
noted that the organisms involved in the case — Serratia marcescens
and Bacillus atrophaeus do not appear on lists of substances that could
be used in biological terrorism.
Natalie Jeremijenko, a University of California San Diego Professor of
Design Engineering, noted that scientists ship material to each other
all the time. “I do it. My lab students do it. It’s a basis of academic
collaboration. They’re going to have to indict the entire scientific
community” (quoted at www.caedefensefund.org).
Some believe the entire case is a face-saving tactic of the FBI. Others
see the intent as a much more insidious attack on the art world. “It’s
really going to have a chilling effect on the type of work people are
going to do in this arena and other arenas as well,” noted Steven
Halpern, a SUNY Buffalo law professor who specializes in constitutional
law. Clearly the Arts community agrees. Since June 2004, the art
community has mounted public events in support of the CAE Defense Fund.
On April 17, 2005, the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York hosted a
benefit auction which attracted donations from some of the biggest
names in the contemporary art world–including Vito Acconci, Richard
Serra, Cindy Sherman, Martha Rossler, Sol LeWitt, Kiki Smith, Chris
Burden and many others. Even fairly conservative organizations, like
the College Art Association have come out in favor of Kurtz in what
appears to be a clear case of artistic and academic freedom. CAA has
been running updates about the case on its website since May, 2004. And
for awhile it provided links to the CAE Defense Website.
The Critical Art Ensemble
The Critical Art Ensemble is a collective of 5 artists of various
specializations dedicated to exploring the intersections between art,
technology, radical politics and critical theory. Drawing on feminist
theory, as well as the theoretical writings of Hardt and Negri, Deleuze
and Guattari, Foucault, Adorno, Stuart Hall, and Walter Benjamin, The
Critical Art Ensemble has consistently seen its mission as one of
education and provocation. Seeking alternately to inform audiences
about the corporate influences that affect our lives and to inspire
people to what it calls “electronic disobedience,” The CAE is one of
the latest practitioners of an avant-garde art tradition that has
extended from the early work of the Dadas and Surrealists to
contemporary performance art. They are also indebted in no small
measure to both the cinematic and political work of Jean-Luc Godard.
They formed in 1987; originally from Tallahassee, they soon moved into
the Eastern urban scene and became participants in a fin-de-si?cle
cultural formation that elsewhere I have called “Downtown art.”[6] They
have made films, done theater, produced installations and written
books. Along with other downtown artists like Kathy Acker, Amos Poe,
Patti Smith, David Wojnarowicz and others, they share a commitment to
formal and narrative experimentation, a view of the human body as a
site of social and political struggle, an intense interest in radical
identity politics, and a mistrust of institutionalized mechanisms of
wealth and power. And while they have not participated in the
taste-transgressive productions that people like Nick Zedd favor (where
art cinema meets true in-your-face, gross-out aesthetics), they have
consistently challenged the normatization of middle class taste-culture
and the politics of affect which usually accompanies it.
Their earliest productions were what might be called “traditional”
avant-garde art. That is to say they were made for people with a
certain kind of cultural capital, who could easily get the references
and enjoy the joke. The film “Excremental Culture” (1988), for example,
references Duchamp’s famous urinal, as well as Freud’s notion that
feces frequently equal money in the neurotic imaginary. “Godard
Revisted” (1987) is a 5 minute pastiche of the Eve Democracy segment in
Godard’s edgy 1968 film “Sympathy for the Devil” (a.k.a “One Plus
One”). “Speed and Violence” (1987) is a nod to the theory of Paul
Virilio and to the experimental collage film technique of Bruce Conner.
In the 1990s, CAE’s work took an interventionist turn. Following
Godard’s famous dictum, elaborated inTout va bien (1972),[7] they moved
away from making political art towards making art politically. That is,
they stopped making films which merely had overt political content and
started making cultural products which directly intervene in the
Spectacle. In one famous project, for example, they procured a number
of GameBoys, which they reprogrammed along more Reichian lines. Here,
the end goal for the player is to reach a brothel. She receives
information that will help her, as well as game points, by running the
numbers, selling crack and so on.[8] The CAE placed these “improved”
games, which they call “Super Kid Fighter” back on store shelves in
time for the Christmas shopping season. Similarly, they built a series
of contestational robots, which distribute pamphlets on street corners,
spray graffiti slogans, and perform other political acts for which
human agents are frequently arrested.[9] In 1994 they updated Debord’s
notion of the spectacle and elaborated a plan for digital civil
disobedience, a move which led participants at the Terminal Futures
conference in London to accuse them of “terrorism.”[10]
While CAE advocates denying corporate and political agencies access to
data and information (through hacking and online political
intervention), they have increasingly seen their mission as one of
increasing the public’s access to data and information (information
which, they believe, the power structure would like to deny
consumer-citizens). In service of this educational mission, CAE’s
recent installation work, computer websites, and theater pieces have
taken both their art and the very concept of “artistic production” in
radical directions. And this has provided something of a challenge to
the affect-ive politics usually embraced by cultural institutions like
museums and theaters. For one thing, members of the CAE don’t call
themselves “artists,” but rather “tactical media practitioners.”[11]
And it’s clear that they see their role more in terms of political
engagement than they do in terms of formal experimentation.
If CAE has to pick a label, we prefer ‘tactical media practitioners.’
However, in keeping with this tendency we use labels in a tactical
manner. If the situation is easier to negotiate using the label
‘artist,’ then we will use it; if it’s better to use ‘activist’ or
‘theorist’ or ‘cultural worker,’ then we will use those labels.
Regardless of the label, our activities stay the same…
The label that best taps the knowledge resources of the audience is the
one we try to choose. A lot of this problem has to do with the social
constructions of the roles of artist and activist. For the most part,
these roles are placed within a specialized division of labor, where
one role, segment or territory is clearly separated from the other. We
view ourselves as hybrids in terms of role. To CAE, the categories of
artist and activist are not fixed, but liquid, and can be mixed into a
variety of becomings. To construct these categories as static is a
great drawback because it prevents those who use them from being able
to transform themselves to meet particularized needs.”[12]
The five principles of tactical media as outlined by the CAE are as
? specificity (deriving content and choosing media based on
the specific needs of a given audience within their everyday life — so
they’re not wedded to a particular medium or approach)
? nomadicality ( a willingness to address any situation and
to move to any site)
? amateurism (a willingness to try anything, or negatively
put, to resist specialization — they take great pride in their roles as
‘amateur scientists’ for example)
? deterritorialization (an occupation of space that is
predicated upon its surrender, or anti-monumentalism — a way of
de-sacralizing space)
? and counterinduction (a recognition that all knowledge
systems have limits and internal contradictions, and that all knowledge
systems can have explanatory power in the right context [13])
Clearly these tactics put the CAE at odds with the traditional politics
of theaters and art museums, which generally rely on notions of
expertise, the sacralization of space, and the assurety that certain
forms of knowledge are appropriate to specific historic situations
(putting Surrealist techniques in historical context makes them seem
like a necessary response to an admittedly grim historical situation,
for example). They also, however, dictate a different affect-ive
relationship between viewer and cultural object than the ones that
museums routinely favor — and highly different notions of both the
viewer and the object itself.
If you’ve been to any large museum shows in the U.S. lately, you will
probably have encountered the study area that is usually spatially
situated at the end of the exhibit, just before the room where you’re
invited to buy mugs, mousepads and notecards. Generally there is a
table or bench that has copies of the exhibit catalogue and other books
by and about the artists whose work you’ve just seen. There may be some
art history texts or a copy of Aperture magazine. In more explicitly
political shows, there may be books of political theory as well. At a
recent exhibit at the Smart Museum on the University of Chicago campus,
for example, I ran across Hardt and Negri’s Empire, Gramsci’s Prison
Notebooks, some works by Foucault and Derrida’s book on Marx in the
study area — and people were indeed reading this selection of
continental political theory.
It is the geographic placement of the study area that interests me. In
most museum shows, it comes as I’ve said, at the end of the exhibit.
And while throughout the exhibit itself, there may be placards or notes
guiding you to read a work of art in a certain way, or there may be
historical contextualization provided, for the most part the pure
“aesthetic” experience of the work is privileged over academic
discourse, and over intellectualization of the art. In this way, I
would argue that museum culture — and to some degree mainstream
theater, as well — privileges affect and sets the intellectual aspects
of the work apart — in the study area, or in notes included in your
program or out in the lobby. I should say here, though, that
avant-garde theater and some experimental exhibition culture does have
a tradition of directly instructing the audience.
What the CAE has done in its most recent installation work has been to
move the study area front and center, to make it an integral part of
the art exhibit itself. What you see when you enter a CAE exhibit is
something that looks like an open science classroom. There’s art on the
walls, and video installations and digital displays, but there are also
computer terminals and science experiments set up for you to do, and a
group of artists dressed like lab assistants who are there to help
A major part of the CAE’s current project is to demystify science, “to
provide a tactile relationship to the material” which goes beyond
reproduction. To that end, the artists guide you to do hands-on work
that will give you the tools you/ we/all of us need in order to
understand the political and social economy of science/technology in
our present age. Not only is the object itself different here — since
the CAE makes no distinction between the traditional art on the wall of
the exhibit and the science lesson you the viewer complete on the
computer terminal — but clearly the notion of audience is radicalized.
“Viewers” of a CAE exhibit are more like participants, and in the sense
that the finished “work” of art — the finished product — is the sum
of all the contributions viewers have made via experiments and computer
screens, they can be seen as co-producers as well.
The use of biological compounds in these installations is key to
helping participants understand the risks and dangers of
biologically-engineered food, to cite the example of one show, or of
true bio-terrorism, the show they were preparing when Steve Kurtz was
arrested.[15] Here, participants really do perform chemistry
experiments, with the guidance of the CAE cultural workers. Mixing
materials and looking through microscopes, museum visitors can see
first-hand what happens when you mutate or “modify” certain cells, can
see first hand what the basic structure of that apple you’ve just given
your child actually resembles. In a sense this is “autopsy” art. It
depends — as Stan Brakhage’s famously disturbing avant-garde film of
an autopsy does — on “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes” (the
literal meaning of the term “autopsy”). But as in Brakhage’s film, the
act of visual examination in CAE pieces encroaches radically on what is
normally considered the proper bounds of art and of taste.
As I’ve hinted above, the CAE’s engagement with the affect-ive politics
of space and product frequently tips over into the realm of taste
politics. Their play, Flesh Machine, which is about eugenics, opens
with a biology lecture — delivered without irony — to the audience.
As Rebecca Schneider points out, “CAE finds the lecture to be both the
gentlest and most reliable entry into what quickly becomes a more
complexly challenging event.” In the second act, the audience becomes
more involved — this is the lab part of the production, where
spectators participate in actual laboratory processes and encounter
various models of artificial reproduction. For this section, CAE builds
its own “cryolab” to house living human tissue for potential cloning,
so that audience members become hands-on genetic engineers.[16] Also
during Act 2, audience members sit at monitors and take a standardized
test to assess their individual suitability to be further reproduced
through donor DNA, cytoplasm, and/or surrogacy. If they “pass” the
test, they are given a certificate of genetic merit. They can even
donate cell samples and tissue to lab technicians there at the site, if
they wish their DNA to be stored for some real (non-theatrical)
eugenics project. “The artists have been collecting photos of audience
members who ‘pass’ this standardized test, and they claim that the
similarities among those deemed fit for reproduction is astounding. By
now they can predict ‘passes’ just by looking at them: straight-looking
white white-collars, usually male.”[17]
“After this hands-on cell-sharing experience, the audience re-assembles
as a group for the close of the performance. This final section of
Flesh Machine is intended to underscore the class politics, economics,
and logic of human commodification implicated in eugenics,” writes
Rebecca Schneider in a passage which is worth quoting at length.
At this point, CAE presents a frozen embryo to their audience — an
embryo that CAE inherited from a couple who no longer needed their
eggs. A live image of the embryo is projected through a video beam onto
a screen. The image has a clock marking the time the embryo has until
it is ‘evicted’ from its clinical cryotank. If enough money is raised
to pay the rent (approximately $60) on the cryotank through the
performance, the embryo will live. If not, it will be ‘terminated.’
Put another way, if no one buys the embryo, it dies.
CAE then takes donations from the audience. To date, every performance
has ended with the death-by-melting of the embryo. This part of the
performance, CAE claims, speaks for itself — though on more than one
occasion CAE has had to speak in the wake of their actions. In Vienna,
for instance, they found themselves on national TV debating the ethical
implications of ’embryo murder’ with the Archbishop of Salzburg live
via satellite.”[18]
What Schneider calls the “death-by-melting” of a live embryo as part
and parcel of a live theater performance clearly pushes the envelope on
the norms of good taste, even those that have already been stretched by
theatrical representations of similarly controversial actions. And it
is precisely because the CAE has been so spectacularly willing to
violate the norms of artistic good taste that their work has been so
controversial (this more than the political content gets them into
trouble with the art world). Encroaching vigorously on low culture (not
in a playful safe way, the way someone like Jeff Koons encroaches on
porn, but in a profoundly disturbing way), the CAE’s work is frequently
criticized as not being art at all.[19]
Final Acts
The title of this article is “When Taste Politics Meet Terror.” I have
put the two terms “taste politics” and “terror” together, not in order
to suggest a causal link (implying that the CAE was specifically
targeted because of the radical content of their work, as some
commentators have claimed) — but I do believe that the content of
their work and their entire demystification project has made them
vulnerable to the law — particularly in these post 9/11 times.
As Stephanie Kane has argued, the current political regime of the U.S
depends on a certain illusory performance art of its own — a mimesis
of control, if you will — to gain legitimacy for its post 9/11
policies. Central to that performance of control is the demonstration
of containment. That is, people have to believe that biological
compounds can be policed, regulated and contained, that their
circulation can be controlled — if only we’re vigilant enough and give
up enough of our civil liberties — in order for the system to work. If
organisms can travel outside the bounds that are policed, then the
metaphors that organize the discourse of bioterrorism and public safety
— at least in the U.S. — are challenged. (The links to the control of
other substances-like recreational drugs- are interesting here — as I
mentioned earlier, as part of his current status, Steve Kurtz is
subject to random drug tests, presumably because he is a substance
In that sense this case is more about the system than it is about the
people critiquing the system. The FBI didn’t set out to bust the
Critical Art Ensemble, but once the compounds were found they weren’t
able to drop the case. In the most blatant and simple way, what the CAE
has done through the very materiality of its art is challenge the
illusion of government control — “you can’t control the commerce of
this stuff; through our art, we make it obvious you can’t.” As
Stephanie Kane has noted, this case is really about the battle for and
over the political unconscious of the U.S., and the ways in which art
can tap into (or at least temporarily intersect with) that unconscious.
But there’s more here that needs to be unpacked here. Progressives have
been arguing against the Bush Administration and fighting it within a
territorialized flow of logic. Our attention is continually drawn to
artifacts (the pictures from Abu Ghraib, the testimony of human rights
organizations, and in this case, the results of chemical tests) and to
outcomes/results (the pathetically tiny number of actual terrorists
caught) to prove the moral and political bankruptcy of the current
political machine. Oppositional political discourse — in the States
anyway — seems frozen in a concomitant territorialized zone of
disbelief. We don’t understand how the Bush Administration could start
the Iraq war in the face of so much global opposition (our attention
drawn by even mainstream news broadcasts to the marchers in London, in
Paris, in Rome, in New York), we don’t understand why it continues to
pursue a strategy that is financially and politically (in the
international arena anyway) ruinous, we don’t understand why it can’t
simply admit a mistake and let the CAE continue their activities in
But that’s because we’re not taking the nature of the political machine
as machine seriously. In her article “Reflection on the Case,” Claire
Pentecost writes:
One can imagine that investigative agencies and U.S. attorneys are
under enormous economic pressure to produce results in the “War Against
Terror.” To put it crudely, in the last three and a half years,
probably nothing has influenced promotions and funding more.[20]
But she moves from this observation back into a territorialized
discourse which critiques the Administration’s actions on the basis of
logical outcomes — the racist nature of the incarceration process, the
incompetence (in terms of procedures and convictions) of the military
and the police, the “shame of … [the U.S. Justice Dept’s] waste.”
If you’ve read much Deleuze and Guattari you probably see where I’m
going with this. Ironically I myself didn’t until I read a news article
the other night. Journalist Ted Rall reported on the terrifying case of
2 teenaged girls from Queens who have been arrested — one for
rebelling against parental authority and the other for an essay she
wrote as part of a school assignment. According to reliable news
sources, “‘the FBI says both girls are an imminent threat to the
security of the United States based upon evidence that they plan to
become suicide bombers.'” The feds admit that they have no hard
evidence to back their suspicions. Nothing. Just an essay written for a
school assignment and parental claims that one girl was defiant of
authority. “‘There are doubts about these claims, and no evidence has
been found that… a plot was in the works,’ one Bush administration
official admitted to the [New York] Times . ‘The arrests took place
after authorities decided it would be better to lock up the girls than
wait and see if they decided to become terrorists.'”
Rall writes that he himself defied his mother’s authority when he was a
teenager and wrote school essays which betrayed his fascination with
“morbid, violent subjects.” During the calmer days of his youth,
however, nothing much happened — a few quarrels with his mother, a
trip to the school principal’s office. But for these girls the case is
much different. They are both facing possible deportation to countries
they have never seen (their parents are immigrants), because “this is
post-9/11 America and post 9/11 America is out of its mind.”[21]
Out of its mind. Crazy. Schizophrenia. Schizoanalysis. That was more or
less the thought chain that brought me back to Deleuze and Guattari.
In terms of political analysis, we need to return to the notion of
desiring machines, to Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of deterritorialized
flows of desire. Put in terms that some of my political friends would
find more congenial, we need to focus our analytical attention more on
processes than on products, but in such a way that logic is not taken
to be the defining feature of process (so that if you show something
doesn’t make logical sense, you expect that everyone will just say “oh
all right then, release the prisoners and bring the soldiers home”).
One thing that the Vietnam war should have taught us about political
activism is that these policies are not about logic. And they are not
sold to the American people on the basis of logic. Instead they belong
to that economy of flows by which political economy and libidinal
economy are seen as inextricably linked. That economy whereby “the rule
of continually producing production” (be it the production of terror or
terrorists or criminals) is the dominant mode.[22] This is production
for its own sake, production without a “logical” goal. That is what
we’re up against under the current regime — the desiring machine of
the State, what Foucault might call “governmentality” — with a
particular schizo-twist.
This doesn’t mean that no action is possible. At the conclusion of his
preface to Anti-Oedipus, Michel Foucault writes:
…if I were to make this great book into a manual or guide to
everyday life:
? Free political thought from all unitary and totalizing paranoia
? Develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation,
juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal
? Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the
Negative… which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of
power…Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over
uniformity, flow over unities, mobile arrangements over systems.
Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.
? Do not think one has to be sad in order to be militant,
even though the thing one is fighting is abominable…
? Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth,
nor use political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of
thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and
analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention
of political action.
? Do not demand of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of
the individual as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the
product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of
multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must
not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals [as it is
under the Oedipal structure] but a constant generator of
? Do not become enamored of power.[23]
What we need to begin doing under this set of guidelines is to turn our
analytical attention away from logic (especially as it relates to
social and political outcomes) and to begin thinking instead about
desire. We have to begin analyzing the function of desire, both within
our own political organizations and within the State-controlled
agencies whose legitimacy we question.
This is a much more radical project than the one that most political
organizations on the left are currently undertaking. And it is one
which will bring us closer to both the affective and political projects
of the Critical Art Ensemble — whose art can be read in Deleuzian
terms as a combination of artistic machine, revolutionary machine, and
analytical machine.
I began this article with an epigram. A quote by Artaud. Artaud — who
later in life went mad, went as far as he could go toward dissolving
his own sense of ego — is the schiz who here provides the point of
departure and the point of destination. In 1938, Artaud called for a
theatre that would be like the plague. Not a nice theatre. Not a
theatre that respects boundaries and limits. Not a theatre that waits
for the appropriate time to mount its dark myths. A theatre, an art,
that is truly radical and which can, therefore, make a difference. He
called such theater the theater of cruelty. The current political
regime of the U.S. sometimes calls it a theater of terror.
Support the CAE
In very material terms, we need to try to help the CAE. Whatever
judicially happens to Steve Kurtz, Professor Ferrell and the members of
the CAE, they may never recover financially from this case (this is
true despite the incredible generosity shown by the art world). The
defense cost at the time of this writing is over $60,000. The
additional cost in cancelled appearances and lost work is staggering.
Even if the group is acquitted, it is highly unlikely that the kinds of
institutions who can afford to bear some of the costs of mounting their
shows (like Universities and grant-receiving public art agencies) will
be willing to book them and hence possibly come under scrutiny
themselves, unless we put pressure on them to do so. And in material
political terms, this is a place to start. In recent months Kurtz and
members of the CAE have begun making limited fundraising appearances.
If you are connected with an organization that might be able to arrange
a fundraiser or visit, log on to the CAE defense fund website
(www.caedefensefund.org), and when you are casting about for something
interesting to read, take a look at the Autonomedia catalogue
(www.autonomedia.org), and remember that this radically theoretical
press is itself still under threat.
An earlier version of this article was presented as part of the
“Politics of Affect/Politics of Terror” American Studies Series at
Indiana University, Bloomington, Feb. 17, 2005. A revised version was
presented at the annual meeting of Society for Cinema and Media
Studies, London, March 31-April 3, 2005. I would like to thank Andrew
Allred, Chris Dumas, Skip Hawkins, Jonathan Haynes, Stephanie Kane, Lin
Tian and the students of my G604 class for their help and suggestions.
[1] Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double. Trans Mary Caroline
Richards. (New York: Grove Press, 1958) 79. Originally published in
French by Galliomard, 1938.
[2] Charlie Victor Romeo finally came to Columbus in 2002 (May 29-June
[3] Joan Hawkins. “When Bad Girls Do French Theory,” in Life in the
Wires: The CTheory Reader, Arthur & Marilouise Kroker, eds. Victoria
(Canada): NWP, 2004. p. 202
[4] Joan Hawkins. Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific
Avant-garde, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press,
[5] See “Auction to Support Indicted Artist” (April 13,2005)
www.caedefensefund.org/auction.html. Accessed April 13,2005.
[6] Joan Hawkins. “Dark, Disturbing, Intelligent, Provocative and
Quirky: Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1980s and 1990s,” in Contemporary
American Independent Film, Christine Holmlund & Justin Wyatt, eds.
London and New York: Routledge, 2005.
[7] In Tout va bien, a filmmaker played by Yves Montand, explains the
difference between making political films and making films politically.
Political films are films which have leftist content and pretensions
but are made within the system they mean to critique. Making films
politically is a more radical gesture, one which calls traditional
modes of production into question and which attempt to intervene
directly in the spectacle.
[8] For more information on this and for instructions for turning any
GameBoy into what CAE calls “Super Kid Fighter,” see Critical Art
Ensemble, Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media, New York:
Autonomedia, 2001. p.144, 146.
[9] See Critical Art Ensemble, README:ASCII Culture and the Revenge of
Knowledge, New York: Autonomedia, 1999.
[10] Critical Art Ensemble. “Mythology of Terrorism on the Net.”
www.t0.or.at/cae/mnterror.htm, 1995.
[11] It is interesting to note that while the CAE still views itself as
a media group, they have received very little academic or critical
attention from media scholars. To date, the best and most complete
analysis of their work has appeared in drama journals. See particularly
Rebecca Scheider’s articles in The Drama Review . The Drama Review
articles are archived at muse.jhu.edu/journals/tdr
[12] Ryan Griffis. “Tandom Surfing the Third Wave,” Lumpen #81. p. 2.
[13] Jon McKenzie and Rebecca Schneider. “Tactical Media
Practitioners,” The Drama Review, Winter 2000, Vol 44, issue 4.
[14] For photos from the actual installations, go to
[15] The importance of this work can hardly be over-stated. As I was
working on this section of the essay, I took a break and went upstairs.
My husband was watching the “Democracy Now” news program, and as my
foot touched the top step I heard Amy Goodman announce that Monsanto
had tried to suppress a report which shows biological and structural
change and damage in chickens fed an exclusive diet of genetically
engineered corn. The chickens developed misshapen organs and had
irregularities in their blood. (“Democracy Now,” May 23, 2005.
[16] Rebecca Schneider. “Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble” The
Drama Review, Winter 2000, vol 44 issue 4, p. 2.
[17] Rebecca Schneider. “Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble” The
Drama Review, Winter 2000, vol 44 issue 4, p. 3.
[18] Rebecca Schneider. “Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble” The
Drama Review, Winter 2000, vol 44 issue 4, p. 3.
[19] One thing I’ve found both interesting and disturbing is that while
the CAE still uses media as an intrinsic part of its art and advocates
media activism, critical writing on the group has moved outside the
realm of media studies altogether. As far as I can tell, independent
filmmaker Gregg Bordowitz and I are the only media people working on
the group, even though many of my colleagues use CAE’s essays on
documentary and the net in their classes. And neither Bordowitz nor I
are publishing our work on the CAE in the major film and media
publications. In fact when I submitted an essay to a film and video
journal, I was advised to send it to Performing Arts Journal instead.
Most of the critical and scholarly work on the CAE has appeared in
theory-forums like CTheory or performance journals like The Drama
[20] Claire Pentecost. “Reflections on the Case,” 2005.
www.caedefesnefund.org/reflections.html. p. 1.
[21] Ted Rall. “Teen Terrorists.” The Progressive Populist, June 1,
[22] Gilles Deleuze and F?lix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia, Robert Hurley, Mark Seem & Helen R. Lane, trans.,
Preface Michel Foucault. Minneapolis and London: University of
Minnesota Press, 1983. p. 7.
[23] Gilles Deleuze and F?lix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia, Robert Hurley, Mark Seem & Helen R. Lane, trans.,
Preface Michel Foucault. Minneapolis and London: University of
Minnesota Press, 1983. p. xiv. italics mine.
Artaud, Antonin. 1958.The Theater and Its Double. Trans. Mary Caroline
Richards. New York: Grove Press. Originally published in French by
Gallimard, 1938.
Critical Art Ensemble. 1995. “Mythology of Terrorism on the Net”
(www.t0.or.at/cae/mnterror.htm) Accessed March 26, 2005.
— 1999. README:ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge. New York:
— 2001. Digital Resistance:Explorations in Tactical Media. New York:
Debord, Guy. 1967. La soci?t? du spectacle. Paris: Editions
Buchet-Chastel. English translation 1970, 1977.Society of the
Spectacle. Translation Black and Red Publishing. Detroit: Black and Red
Deleuze, Gilles and F?lix Guattari. 1983 Anti-.Oedipus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane.
Preface Michel Foucault. Minneapolis and London: University of
Minnesota Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1991. “Governmentality” in The Foucault Effect:
Studies in Governmentality. Eds. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and
Peter Miller. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 87-104.
Griffis, Ryan, 2001. “Tandom Surfing the Third Wave: Critical Art
Ensemble and Tactical Media Production.” Lumpen #81. Archived at
www.lumpen.com/magazine/81/critical art ensemble.shtml. Accessed
Hawkins, Joan. 2005. “Dark, Disturbing, Intelligent, Provocative and
Quirky: Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1980s and 1990s.” Contemporary
American Independent Film, Eds. Christine Holmlund and Justin Wyatt.
London and New York: Routledge.
— 2004. “When Bad Girls Do French Theory.” Life in the Wires: The
CTheory Reader. Eds. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. Victoria, Canada.
NWP Books. 192-206.
— 2000. Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde .
Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Kane, Stephanie. 2002. “Putting Public Health at the Center of Homeland
Defense: A Semiotic Analysis of Bioterrorism.” Unpublished ms.
Presented at the annual meetings of the American Society of Criminology
in Chicago and the annual meetings of the American Anthropological
Association, New Orleans, November 2002.
McKenzie, Jon and Rebecca Schneider. 2000. “Tactical Media
Practitioners,” The Drama Review; Winter 2000, Vol 44 issue 4 p. 136,
15 p. Archived at web20.epnet.com/citation.asp?tb=1&
ug=sid+67EFIBF%2D866752D41B5%2D. Accessed 8/122004.
Pentecost, Claire. 2005. “Reflections on the Case.”
www.caedefesnefund.org/reflections.html. Accessed 5/18/05.
Rall, Ted. “Teen Terrorists.” The Progressive Populist (June 1, 2005)
Schneider, Rebecca. 2000. “Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble” The
Drama Review; Winter 2000, vol 44 issue 4, p 120, 12 p. Archived at
Accessed 8/12/2004.
The United States of America v. Steven Kurtz and Robert Ferrell. May
2004 Grand Jury Indictment 04-CR-155E. Found at the Critical Art
Ensemble Defense website. www.caedefensefund.org