Emergency Officials

Propaganda stops thinking: an interview with Steve Kurtz.

It reads like a movie. It is a movie. It’s the subject of a documentary called Strange Culture as well as an exhibition, and its main character, Steve Kurtz, tells his story in university halls and in newspapers.

The story goes: in 2004, Kurtz’s wife had a heart attack. The emergency officials that responded to his 911 call noticed blacked-out windows and various sorts of medical equipment. Folks who knew Kurtz knew that that the equipment was for his ongoing work with the Critical Art Ensemble. The Ensemble had, among other things, created an artwork by reverse-engineering GMO soy. The blacked-out windows? Well, Kurtz likes to sleep late.

But the aftermath of that call resulted not only in the death of his wife but an series of subpoenas and indictments that accused Kurtz of domestic terrorism and, when that wouldn’t stick, mail fraud. All charges were finally dropped in 2008 after years of legal fundraising and outcry. Kurtz was kind enough to give an interview to greenmuseum.blog to catch us up on how he’s recovering, and what sort of terrorist acts CAE is up to next. Read on. It’s better than a movie.

GM.B: How is life?

SK: Life is returning to normal. It’s certainly much more relaxed. My body is pretty much healed now after 4 years of neglect and stress.

GM.B: How has your perspective on the world changed since 2004? Has the trial upended or just confirmed your worldview of American government and power?

SK: My perspective is pretty much the same. Most adjustments stemmed from the removal of neoconservatives from positions of political power. It’s back to the global struggle against neoliberalism, as opposed to the more national struggle against neofascism (the neocons) in the US. It’s back to the future to take up where we left off in 1999.

GM.B: Michale Brenson argues in his book “Visionaries and Outcasts” that the critical outsider role traditionally filled by the American artist has been scrambled and undermined since the collapse of the Soviet Union. What do you think the role of the American artist is?

SK: Who knows? There are so many art worlds and models of being an artist that no generalization really holds up. Critical Art Ensemble’s (CAE) role has been to produce anti-authoritarian narratives and images, invent tactics and tools for resistance, and explore new sites of contestation.

GM.B: Is it the responsibility of the artist to address critical issues like civil rights and the environment?

SK:I would say that’s a bit too prescriptive. There are so many issues that need addressing, and great disagreement about which are most important. Just don’t be naïve. All cultural production has a politics. One should be aware of the political economy that envelops us, and how one is navigating and negotiating it.

GM.B: What’s the difference between art and propaganda?

SK: Propaganda stops thinking. Overtly political cultural production advances it. Propaganda must exhaust itself on impact. It must leave nothing more to be said. The receiver of propaganda’s message must consume it as something self-evident and respond in an emotive manner. Cultural production creates situations for dialogue, exploration and experimentation, and even space for the interrogation of our most beloved narratives (human rights, social justice, free speech, world peace, sustainability, etc.).

GM.B: The trial has brought the work of Critical Art Ensemble national attention and had made you a kind of poster man for artists’ civil rights. Its artifacts were the subject of their own exhibition. You’ve been invited to speak on the subject extensively. How do you feel it will continue to shape your work and the work of the Ensemble?

SK: It’s an event that we are stuck with. We certainly minimize talking about it. The only reason we did an exhibition on the case was that we thought it would help with transparency while I was at trial. I never went to trial but the exhibitions had already been scheduled, so we went ahead with them. CAE has no plans to make any more work about the case. At the same time, while I like to think of case as in the past, I realize it is historic in its significance, so I have to be the poster boy to some extent, like it or not.

GM.B: What would your wife have thought of all of this?

SK: About the case? She would have been off the charts angry. Hope was a very emotional woman who had a real problem with authority–especially when it is arbitrary in its use/abuse of power. I can remember in the days before she died, as rights were rapidly eroding–she would yell at the reports, “We’ll never give up; we’ll never surrender!” I think that is how she would have felt about the case too. As for the dismissal, she would have been delighted. She loved it when those brief glimpses of the impossible manifest themselves. It’s not often that we get to humiliate a US Attorney for four years.

GM.B: What are you working on now? What’s coming up in the future?

SK: CAE is making a temporary monument to economic inequality in the US. We are modeling the proportional spatial relationship between quintiles of wealth. While the first four quintiles, represented by a banner, will rise about 43 feet into the air, if we stacked on the proportional wealth of the top quintile, the entire monument would have to reach up another 257 feet. Since we can’t make a monument that high, we are going to use hot air balloons to take people up to this height.

The other project is about the use of the so-called “dirty bomb” as an instrument for state propaganda. I suppose this goes back to your earlier question. We intend to recreate the hype. With the help of a great curator in Germany, we have hired a professional demolition team to safely set off a bomb with a non-radioactive, metallic tracer simulant in an urban area in Germany. We’ll have people in Hazmat suits with metal detectors. However, we will also set up a PA system in the crater where a panel consisting of a nuclear scientist and a radiological weapons expert will speak to the public about the actuality of making, deploying, and detonating a dirty bomb. The reality is that weapon is basically a myth. For a truly harmful one to be built it would require state sponsorship. It not something any terrorist could ever do, nor is it a “poor man’s nuke.” If we don’t take the “dirty bomb” as a self evident threat (its propaganda form), and instead look at it from a reflective reasoned position, it’s easy to understand that there is nothing to fear, and that the state is using this image for other more nefarious purposes. For example, to produce fear in the population, unquestioned acceptance of authoritarian agendas, and ever greater budgets for the military.

GM.B: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

SK: “Never surrender.”

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