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Art, Biotechnology and the Public Sphere: The Steve Kurtz Case and Beyond

On May 11 2004 ,SUNY Buffalo art professor Steve Kurtz awoke to discover that his wife had died of cardiac arrest in her sleep. Responding to his emergency call, police discovered in his home microbiology equipment and bacteria cultures, prompting them to call the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Taskforce. Kurtz was detained for 22 hours, his laboratory was confiscated, and he became the subject of a grand jury investigation. The material in question (all of which was later deemed by the county health comissioner to be harmless and legal) related to an art exhibiton dealing with the public health implications of genetically modified food by the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a collective of artists co-founded by Kurtz dedicated to exploring intersections between art, technology, radical politics and critical theory.

The Kurtz case is the point of departure for this event, a daylong symposium/teach-in organized by 16 Beaver Group to be held at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS). The case crystallized and confronted us with a set of urgent questions, many of which exceeded our typical frames of reference and made clear the necessity of an informed cross-disciplinary response.

  • What are the politics of biotechnology under global capitalism?
  • What are the private and public institutions that govern its development of control its interpretation?
  • What is or should be the status of scientific expertise in a democracy?
  • Is the prinicple of freedom of speech relevant to contemporary science?
  • Is the prinicple of freedom of research relevant to contemporary art?
  • How does activist art relate to activist science, if there is such a thing?
  • How might these forms of activism engage the multiple social movements around the globe˜from communities of color in the South End of Boston to Indian peasant farmers˜ fighting for what might be called biopolitical justice?
  • Beyond designing museum dioramas and illustrating textbooks, can artists or ordinary citizens contribute in developing peadagogical means for creating a literate public debate about the constituion of life itself in the contemporary world?

Established in 1967 by George Kepes with the mandate of bridging the divide between the humanities and the technosciences, the CAVS is a uniquely appropriate venue in which to address these questions. While Kepes's original desire to stimulate dialogue and experimentation between what C.P. snow famously called the the Two Cultures remains a crucial point of reference for our endeavor, his assumption that the proper task of art was to "harmonize" the"inner sensibilities" of humanity with the otherwise "disorienting" advances of science is no longer tenable. The Third Culture to which this event seeks to contibute must proceed on the assumption that science and art alike as social practices embedded in the power relations of their time, and as such should be treated as terrains of conflict rather than taken-for-granted means of human improvement.

In this sense, we are animated not only by the work of recent groups such as Critical Art Ensemble, but also by a document that appeared in the year following the founding of CAVS that haunts the techno-utopianism of Kepes's statement: The 1968 MIT Faculty Statement which gave rise to the Union of Concerned Scientists (http://www.ucsusa.org/ucs/about/page.cfm?pageID=1006)

Explicitly invoking Vietnam and the nuclear arms race, the document condemns the „misuse of scientific and technological knowledge" as a "major threat to the existence of mankind" and proposes "to initiate a critical and continuing examination of governmental policy in areas where science and technology are of potential significance" and "to devise means for turning research applications away from the present emphasis on military technology toward the solution of pressing environmental and social problems."

Bringing together professionals from the fields of molecular biology, science studies, law, public policy, political organizing, art, and critical theory, this event will probe the dialectical tension between these two historic documents of "Visual Studies" and "Concerned Science." In attending to their genealogical traces in the present, we will cooperate in elaborating what Nato Thompson would call a "Resistant Visual Culture"(www.journalofaestheticsandprotest.org) for the biotech century informed by science, activism, and art˜provided of course that the latter forego its all-to frequent investment in the rhetoric of the genomic sublime.