Art or Bioterrorism?

For two months now, School of the Art Institute photography professor Claire Pentecost has been caught in the web surrounding her friend and associate, SUNY-Buffalo art professor Steven Kurtz. On May 11 she retrieved a cryptic message to “call me as soon as you get this” from Kurtz on her answering machine, and by the time they hooked up she’d already heard his shocking news: Kurtz had awakened that morning to find his wife of two decades, 45-year-old Hope Kurtz, dead at his side. Pentecost says the death, later determined to have been caused by a heart attack, was a complete surprise. She told the dazed Kurtz, who had no family in Buffalo, that she’d come as quickly as she could, and when she arrived the next day she called his cell phone from the airport. He said he’d be right over to pick her up, but had another surprise: “The FBI is coming with me. Everywhere I go.”

When Kurtz saw that his wife wasn’t breathing he called 911 for help; the paramedics and police who responded noticed petri dishes, a mobile DNA extraction laboratory, and other scientific equipment in his home. Kurtz is a member of the Critical Art Ensemble, a performance group that tries to demystify science and illuminate the effects of technology in the hands of major corporations. Kurtz had supplies used in those performances–including material for a piece he was working on for an upcoming Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit–on hand. The emergency workers, in post-9/11 alert mode, promptly called for more police, who searched the house. The next day the FBI showed up.

Before Kurtz knew it, his home was crawling with agents of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, including investigators in biohazard suits. They carried off manuscripts, books, his computer, and the lab equipment, sealed the house, then took possession of his wife’s corpse. When he met Pentecost at the airport he was accompanied by two agents. “They’d told him, you’re not under arrest but we’re detaining you,” Pentecost says. They detained her too, escorting the two of them to dinner and checking them into a hotel for the night. “They had already been questioning Steve,” Pentecost says. “They said, ‘You can call an attorney,’ but we didn’t know who to call. We were both pretty stunned. He answered a ton of questions, and [the next day] they took me aside and questioned me too. It was all so unexpected.” Kurtz, grieving and vulnerable, wanted to cooperate and didn’t think he had anything to hide, Pentecost says. “The equipment [in his home] was used in public projects.” By the following afternoon friends had put them in touch with the ACLU, which recommended high-profile attorney Paul Cambria, who’s defended Larry Flynt and Marilyn Manson. When he reached them at the FBI’s downtown Buffalo office he told them, “This is illegal. They can’t hold you. Don’t answer any more questions. Just walk out of there.”

In June, Pentecost, eight other artists, and Autonomedia, publisher of five works by Kurtz and other Critical Art Ensemble members, were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in an investigation that appeared to be about bioterrorism. On the advice of her lawyer, “not knowing what the charges would be,” she refused, invoking her Fifth Amendment rights. As word of Kurtz’s problems traveled in the international art world, she also researched, wrote, and posted a background paper at www. According to this, when Kurtz’s home was searched “he was in the midst of researching the issue of biological warfare and bioterrorism, to assess the actual danger these weapons pose and to bring U.S. policy on such threats into public dialogue. To do this research, he had many books on the subject and had legally acquired three bacteria commonly used as educational tools in schools.” Pentecost identifies the bacteria as globigii, Serratia marcenscens, and a benign strain of E. coli and argues that all are common and regarded as harmless. But on June 29 a grand jury charged Kurtz and University of Pittsburgh geneticist Robert Ferrell–not with bioterrorism but with four counts of wire and mail fraud in a case that now appears to turn entirely on the way Kurtz acquired the bacteria. Ferrell is accused of getting the organisms ostensibly for use in a classroom and turning them over to Kurtz.

Kurtz was scheduled to be arraigned this week, and Pentecost says the grand jury investigation is still open, with the possibility that other charges will be forthcoming. She’ll speak at a benefit to raise money for Kurtz’s legal costs at Buddy, 1542 N. Milwaukee, on Thursday, July 22. Another event in support of Kurtz is planned at Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood, on July 10.


Bill Sheldon wanted to be Frank Sinatra but settled for a career in sales and public relations, doing a little radio on the side. A self-taught music historian, he hooked up with vocalist Spider Saloff a few years ago and, along with pianist and singer Bradley Williams, they recorded 55 installments of Words and Music, a one-hour radio show featuring composers of the Great American Songbook. Produced by WFMT, it ran for more than two and a half years on as many as 80 stations in the U.S. and was picked up by the BBC. Then, in 2002, it was canceled for lack of sponsors. But though none of them ever made any significant money on the show, Sheldon would like nothing better than to revive it. On Tuesday, July 13, he and Saloff will reunite at HotHouse for a Bastille Day program of French songs that became American hits….Julia Friedman will close her Peoria Street gallery at the end of July and plans to reopen in New York. She’s looking for a space in Chelsea….The Art Institute, which raised its suggested donation from $10 to $12 this month, also changed its long day from Tuesday, when admission is free, to Thursday, reducing the number of free hours for a public that ponies up the suggested price 80 percent of the time….Leslie Hindman will auction hundreds of works from the Kemper Insurance Companies’ art collection on eBay July 10; she says it includes lots of good regional work that could go for as little as $75.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.