Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

FBI ABDUCTS ARTIST, SEIZES ART Feds Unable to Distinguish Art from Bioterrorism Grieving Artist Denied Access to Deceased Wife's Body DEFENSE FUND ESTABLISHED - HELP URGENTLY NEEDED

Steve Kurtz was already suffering from one tragedy when he called 911 early in the morning to tell them his wife had suffered a cardiac arrest and died in her sleep.  The police arrived and, cranked up on the rhetoric of the "War on Terror," decided Kurtz's art supplies were actually bioterrorism weapons.

Thus began an Orwellian stream of events in which FBI agents abducted Kurtz without charges, sealed off his entire block, and confiscated his computers, manuscripts, art supplies... and even his wife's body.

Like the case of Brandon Mayfield, the Muslim lawyer from Portland imprisoned for two weeks on the flimsiest of false evidence, Kurtz's case amply demonstrates the dangers posed by the USA PATRIOT Act coupled with government-nurtured terrorism hysteria.

Kurtz's case is ongoing, and, on top of everything else, Kurtz is facing a mountain of legal fees. Donations to his legal defense can be made at

It reminds me a bit of when the Secret Service came after etoy.

RTMark is nortorious for social hacking, but this story appears to have at least two supporting news stories.

WKBW Local News - Local Investigation Into Ub Artist Continues
WKBW Local News - Bio Hazard Or Art?

The weird thing is that these news articles are archived on RTMark's site and I can't seem to find them on the WKBW site. Having said that, a search on Google News shows an article about this, but it has "expired" and can't be accessed.

IF this is true, it's another example of patriotic stupidity, but it's often the role of artists to help us understand this stupidity.

Anyone else heard about this? Lately I'm becoming more wary of single source news stories. ;-) Any help in veting this story before I get really excited would be greatly appreciated.

via Scott

UPDATE: Email from artist, Steven Kurtz.


It's not single source news stories (or even bloggers picking them up) that worry me so much as that some bigger news agencies sometimes pick this stuff up and run with it without indipendant corroboration.

I've been concerned about the erosion of civil liberties with the inception of the Patriot Act and certainly there have been abuses of it. Every American should be vigilant in monitoring the abuses of civil liberties. The society as a whole pays a price each time another person's liberties are stolen. But, I tend to be an optimist and that while the USA does stray from the path we are pretty good about self righting.

Well, there's a guy named Steven Kurtz who has the job they say he has at SUNY University at Buffalo, and he appears to do some kind of biotech art: LINK

So maybe it's not bullshit.

There was a search, but I haven't found much additional information since that time. I imagine some of the stuff is being tested (hell, it took 2 weeks just to confirm one shell in Iraq had Sarin so I guess we'll have to be patient).

Kurtz hasn't arrested or even been charged with a crime, but there is some concern about his art group, the "Critical Art Ensemble" which uses things like E.Coli bacteria and DNA as part of their exhibitions/performances, mixing "Radical Politics" with Modern Art (according to some publicity documents I found on the net. In fact, the University of Washington went a bit ape when the group came to visit last year. Here's some good quotes from Wired:

"University administrators have found themselves in an unprecedented situation: an art show that needs biosafety committee approval.

"The likelihood of it killing you is minimal, but it's still bacteria that could cause an infection," said Michael Antee, health and safety supervisor for the University of Washington's institutional biosafety committee.

In fact, the likelihood of it killing someone is practically nonexistent, scientists say. The bacterium is indeed a strain of e. coli, but while some strains are extremely dangerous, this one occurs naturally in the intestinal system and dies when released into the air."

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) requires that any research involving transgenic DNA or an environmental release of bacteria must be reviewed by an institutional biosafety committee. Any university that receives funding from the NIH is required to have such a committee.,1286,50830,00.html?tw=wn_story_page_prev2

I suspect what happened was basically a bunch of firemen, who probably aren't the best trained in "modern art" respond to a call for a dead person and find a house full of test tubes, chemicals, and more than likely, a few biohazard signs. There might have even been some political hacking material stuff around (see -- Kurtz apparently published this work: Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas and The Electronic Disturbance) They didn't know it was a heart attack (that's the coroner's job) so they call the cops, who then call the FBI.

The FBI has not charged him. They in fact are quoted as saying "we're erring on the side of caution." "Until they do the testing, they don't know what they have. We're handling this as the real thing until proven otherwise," said Maureen Dempsey, an FBI spokeswoman.

Personally, I think I'd be more concerned if the cops found a dead person in a house full of chemicals and biological material and just said "oh, it's art, no big deal."

I think the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in 1995 woke up a lot of police departments to be extra cautious when dealing with stuff like this (i.e. stuff they don't really know). The Japanese police were pretty heavily criticized if I recall for missing a number of clues (including bulk chemical purchases, cult defector's testimony, and a big Russian helicopter).

Joi, come on. The way your post is presented, it sounded like some idiot feds saw a tube of guache and went berzerk. Reading the link though shows that the "art supplies" was "a mobile DNA extraction laboratory." Why post this crap in such a sensationalistic way?

(1) The guy had some sort of bio lab device, and (2) his wife, an apparently healthy youngish woman was dead. Maybe they erred on the side of caution, don't you think you need to cut them a little slack until you find out the facts? The very lack of news stories on implies it was nothing.

Patiki, I'll wait until we hear the whole story before I admit that I over-sensational. Cops can "err on the side of caution." I "err on the side of questioning authority" these days. Authority has the power to fight back, people locked up in prisons don't.

See links to actual TV news reports @


CR News Staff Reporter
WC 584 words
PD 14 May 2004
SN Buffalo News
LA English
CY Copyright (c) 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.


An Allentown street was closed off for more than eight hours Thursday as hazardous-materials teams from the FBI searched a University at Buffalo art professor's home and seized suspected biological agents.

The College Street home of Steven Kurtz, an artist and associate professor in UB's art department, aroused suspicions after Buffalo police went there at about 1 p.m. Tuesday to investigate the death of Kurtz's wife, Zell, 45.


Kurtz told dispatchers he found his wife unconscious and not breathing in bed. His wife was dead when emergency crews and police arrived.

Authorities said they suspect the death had nothing to do with materials inside the house. It appears she died of heart failure, officials said.

But what they found inside the house raised red flags, officials said.

"The first responders noted what appeared to be hazardous materials inside," said Paul Moskal, special agent for the FBI.

Moskal said they are unsure what the materials are but believe they are some type of biological agents or bacteria.

The Joint Terrorism Task Force was contacted immediately.

Kurtz told authorities the biological agents he was cultivating in the house were being used for his artwork and agreed to let authorities search the house.

Wednesday evening, Kurtz was taken out to dinner by the FBI and put up in a hotel overnight. He has not been charged.

"He's been cooperative and helpful to the investigation. He told us what he knew to be there and what we could expect to find there," Moskal said.

Federal authorities consulted with Erie County Medical Center, the state Department of Health and FBI chemical and biological experts and obtained a sealed search warrant for the house early Thursday morning. They began executing the warrant at about noon.

College Street was cordoned off from Maryland to Allen streets as agents from the FBI's hazardous-materials teams from Pittsburgh and Quantico, Va., began their search. The agents wore white biohazard suits with masks, headgear and breathing devices, along with orange rubber boots, as they searched the house and collected material.

Hazmat crews from the Buffalo Fire Department were stationed outside the house and helped decontaminate federal agents as they emerged.

"Until they do the testing, they don't know what they have. We're handling this as the real thing until proven otherwise," said Maureen Dempsey, an FBI spokeswoman.

"We don't believe it's anything that poses a danger outside of the house," Moskal said.

One substance Kurtz is believed to use in his artwork is a strain of E. coli, according to a 2002 article published about the Critical Arts Ensemble, an artistic group that Kurtz helped found.

Further investigation is continuing.

Kurtz was not at the house Thursday evening. The FBI will await laboratory findings on the agents before deciding whether criminal charges will be levied. That could take a few days or up to several weeks.

The search was called off for the night at about 8:30. A Buffalo police cruiser and officer kept watch over the scene overnight. Agents were expected to return and continue their search this morning.


Caption: PHOTOS BY DEREK GEE/Buffalo News Agents with the FBI's hazardous-materials response unit remove suspicious biological material from a College Street home Thursday. Buffalo firefighters help decontaminate federal agents emerging from the College Street home of UB professor Steven Kurtz.

Joi: The source links you use appear to be hoax sites (BuffaloTalks). If you hit the links you get an error page in french (Objet non trouve'-hilarious touch) that take you back to RTMARK. The article's last line is the key: when would you EVER see a news outfit thinking the public would be interested enough in "cutting edge art" to use that as the tease, instead of what the results of the biohazard, if any, might be? The slant is totally art related, not public safety, or news related. Didn't anyone else check the links for dentists and legal services? They do not work. It's a fake site.

Bogus site or not (prev msg), the original story contained this, which should have set off alarm bells - no - Cathedral bells:

"Thus began an Orwellian stream of events in which FBI agents abducted Kurtz without charges.."

Orwellian and abducted, two highly-charged words that taken together demonstrate an article gone mad. Not even a pretense of impartiality there. The entire article is riddled with such highly-charged words and phrases.

IMO questionning 'authority' has little to do with what we see on this blog, because that's the job of the primary news-gathering folks in this instance, as part of their prejudice or as honest intellectual curiosity: their call. It's also what a blog does once-removed: gather news from various sources.

So in the end, right here, truth does seem to be emerging - much more quickly - from analytical minds, and new sources.

Blogdom wins out yet again. Nex

So what is the verdict? I agree that the RTMark site sounds "sensationalized" and a bit doctored, but that's what they do... but is it the consensus that this guy actually exists and the story was overblown, but happened? I talked to someone who says they know someone who knows Kurtz and I'm waiting for more information.

A simple search turns up stuff like

and others that to me shows that everything proceeded pretty much as it should have. There were questions as to the devices and materials found, there was a body, and it was better to err on the side of caution. Case closed.

Oh wait, those with an agenda need dead horses to beat. Okay, how about this:

A perfectly innocent man was abducted by the evil FBI for no reason at all. He was just an artist. The FBI fed him bread and water for a considerable amount of time in a secret hideout. The FBI are bad people. This could happen to anyone. So be on the alert and if the FBI ever investigates anyone else for anything, do your best to impede their progress.

To me, this whole fiasco shows how willing some are to berate authority whatever its doing, Truth be damned. Nex

I too am sceptical of the wording used in the rtmark press release. The words "orwellian","abducted", and "fbi" in the same sentence sound a little bit fishy. There is some debate as to the course of events that have taken place, and the information available. I having my doubts sent them an email for more info, they did respond. This was posted on mefi may 27 within a fpp thread.
"At 5:24 PM -0700 5/27/04,
Hello Carla;
I am sending you this e-mail to inquire about any
details you might have that have not been published
on- line as of yet. There is debate at the moment
within some online communities as to the authenticity
of the unfortunate events that have taken place in
regards to Steve Kurtz, and the passing of his
partner. The news sources available at the moment are
fragmented at best. Can you confirm that this is not a
hoax or an art performance and is indeed true. I am not
a reporter. I am an artist from Toronto, with a blog
and am a member of numerous web communities that have
posted the story, such as Metafilter et al. If true my deepest condolences to Steve and family,
and friends.
Thank you for your time."

The response:

"Date: Thu, 27 May 2004 22:57:57 -0400
From: "Frank Guerrero"
Subject: Re: Carla Mendes
I am going to step in and answer because carla is setting up a show
at Mass Moca right now. This is not a hoax. There are news sources
out there... there has been no major national news, perhaps because
steve can't talk to the press.
but here is one local story:
this event was covered in over fifty local TV news stories in
Anyway, sorry to say its true
There you have it. If anyone has any new info on this, it would be great if you just got it out there.

I did some google searching and found this story,

This is in the story,

[Steve Kurtz is a founder of Critical Art Ensemble
( The 'UB' mentioned in the story is University
of Buffalo, where he works. Staying in Toronto currently, I caught the end of
a news item on the raid, during which a reporter mentioned that suspicions were
raised by a link from Steve's website to 'The Cult of the New Eve']

I did a search for "The Cult of the New Eve" and found this link,

If you search the page you will find this

[Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) (American) will feature their most current subversive concoction entitled The Cult of the New Eve. Having gained access to human DNA via Eve, CAE has spliced this DNA with yeast. They then use the yeast to make beer and bread for consumption. The beer and bread will be presented alongside the catered fare for the evening. So — "eat, drink, and be wary."]

If they are doing gene splicing in his house I could see how the FBI would be interested.

Couldn't help laughing out loud at that. Seems the story ends with a little mirth, a fitting end to such whackiness. Nex

Just throwing in a few random comments as a college biology student:

E. Coli is nothing to be afraid of--the variety which I used in more than half of the labs in my intro bio class at the University of Minnesota is completely harmless, and is used in a wide variety of classroom exercises and basic experiments. I'm perfectly willing to believe that there are many scientists and other interested individuals out there who have private labs that they work on it at.

The same goes for the "DNA extraction kit," which could be a wide variety of things: again, in my intro bio class, we extracted DNA using a microfuge and some standard lab equipment (beakers, reagents, etc.). Throw in an incubator, which can easily be rigged out of household equipment, and you basically have everything you need for gene injection. Yes, it would be necessary for a bioterrorist to use this equipment. But it also is ubiquitous in even the most elementary of bio labs, and none of this is stuff whose sale or possession (as far as I know--other than some of the chemicals involved) is regulated in any fashion.

So, my point being that he has not broken the law in any fashion, and there isn't really any more probably cause than if you walk into someone's house who collects semi-automatic weapons as a hobby, or sets off rockets as a hobby--both of these will have the capability to kill large numbers of people at their fingertips. It's the police's job to be able to figure out when someone is an intended lawbreaker and not fly off the handle just because they don't have any clue what they're dealing with, and I'd have to say they screwed up here.

Hmm using bioharzardous stuff as art...sounds fishy to me.

In the U.S. Freedom of expression is a protected right by all citizen and is enforced by the courts...I find that Prof. Kurtz was in the right to express his views and that he has been performing his art for many years... The Federal Government has been in the business of eroding and dissolving civil liberties for years. 911 and the Patroit Act game them the ample fuel and reason to spearhead the demise of our civil liberities..Beware Big Brother is Watching.....

History will establish another episode of overt and covert Governmental spying...

Since e.coli is the most common bacillus in feces, evacuating ones bowels is now bioterrorism...

I see that all those who defended the FBI on this have gone silent. The guy has been charged and is being indicted. All for messing with ecoli? No, it's because his art is critical of certain people in authority. That's a fact. You should be very scared of the FBI these days under the Patriot Acgt. It's unreal that they can act like the Gestapo here in the US.

Why did you delete my comments that were critical of Kurtz, and included his own writing?

Oops!! You had posted your comment 3 times and I meant to only delete the 2 duplicates! my apologies!!! (Alos you posted from varying IP addresses and email addresses.. that usually denotes spam...)

Here is your comment:

He is just an innocent well meaning artist? ha ha ha ha .
Below from his recent book:

CAE believes that the best response to these ultimately unsolvable problems is the idea of fuzzy biological sabotage (FBS). The fuzzy saboteur situates he/rself in the in-between—in the areas that have not yet been fully regulated. This situational strategy was very well developed by Brian Springer in his backhaul video work and in his laser information conduit interventions. His idea was to take what was considered private property, but functionally was public property. A backhaul (off-air live satellite video feeds) was considered the property of the media, but since it was in the public domain of the reception of airwaves and existed without copyright, it could be copied, replicated, and even marketed (now Fuzzy Biological Sabotage 101 backhauls are scrambled to stop this process). Springer was brilliant at finding these little cracks in the system and exploiting them. The fuzzy saboteur has to stand on that ambiguous line between the legal and the illegal (both criminally and civilly). From that point, the individual or group can set in motion a chain of events that will yield the desired final result. The opening activity— the only one to which the saboteur should have any direct causal link—should be as legal as possible and hopefully within the rights of any individual. The more links in the chain, the better from a legal standpoint, but extending causal chains increases the difficulty of controlling all the exponentially growing number of variables that could doom the action. For the most part, such actions will only have two phases—the legitimate or fuzzy act and the upheaval it causes. The authorities then have the legal conundrum of proving guilt by indirect action—an unenviable task for any attorney. Moreover, unlike CD, fuzzy sabotage does not require a physical confrontation with authority, and in many cases does not require any type of trespass.

If an action is done correctly, the fuzzy saboteur has an additional safety net supplied by the various governments of the world—plausible deniability. For centuries state forces have sabotaged one another by various means that cannot be proven within any judicial system other than by military field justice. Simply by creating a nonaggressive scenario, or denying activity all together, agencies of discord have avoided direct charges. This symbolic shield can be reverse-engineered to serve resistant culture. With any luck, the fuzzy saboteur will never have to use this shield, but if this is necessary it can create 102 The Molecular Invasion a platform for public attention where “tactical embarrassment” (to use the RTMark term) can be employed. It may be nostalgically reminiscent of 19th-century anarchism, when it was incumbent upon any member of the movement who was arrested to use the court or any other public stage to denounce the bourgeois system, but practically speaking, and for the health of the tactic, such public displays should be avoided at all costs. A single publicity battle can potentially be won through deniability and campaigning; however, a series of these occurrences will dilute the plausibility of the denial and allow the development of spectacular countertactics by the authorities. Like hard-core ECD, FBS is not a public process. CAE requests that those groups and individuals whose goal it is to spectacularize hacking and perform as activist pop stars to do the movement(s) a favor and leave this method alone—particularly in its testing stage. The final question then is, who are the agents of FBS? CAE suggests the use of wildlife to do the deed. Microorganisms, plants, insects, reptiles, mammals, tactical GMOs, and organic chemical compounds can all be a part of the resistance. The use of living nonpathogenic biological agents as disrupters will depend on each individual’s or group’s particular relationship to these creatures, as well as on localized conditions. Obviously, considerable arguments will erupt between the various positions on what constitutes an acceptable relationship between humans and other living creatures, and how various creatures will be employed, but let us say at the outset that we are not proposing that sentient organisms be considered for suicide missions or other incarnations of sacrificial economy.

Fuzzy Biological Sabotage 103 Pranks If FBS has roots, it is in the realm of pranks. Most readers probably have a story of a prank that they or someone they knew did involving a biological agent. Placing a dead rodent or fish (nature’s stink bombs) in a heating duct at school or some other offending institution is one of the classics. However, these are not among the class of pranks that are of interest to the fuzzy saboteur. FBS pranks are not done for a good laugh, for public embarrassment, or simply to be annoying; rather, they should be done as a form of psychological disturbance—more along the lines of LSD in Castro’s cigars and liquid refreshment before a public address (to use an example from the CIA’s book of practical jokes). Pranks can be used to stir up internal institutional paranoia, or they can be used to divert attention toward useless activities. Pranks can provide their own unique blend of inertia.

For example, the release of mutant flies in research facilities and neighboring offices can potentially have a disturbing effect. There are all kinds of mutated flies available on the market. They come in various colors with almost any type of deformity one might desire. Labs use them for cross-generational study because they are easy to raise, reproduce quickly, and maintain unusual genetic codes. Choose a set of mutated flies and begin a steady release of them into biotech facilities (it also works well in nuclear facilities). They can be set free in lobbies, parking garages, parked cars, almost anywhere. One does not have to challenge a fortified site—the flies themselves will do the infiltration. If enough flies are acquired or produced, you just have to be near the site and release swarms of 104 The Molecular Invasion them. Trespassing is not really necessary, unless there is a need for specific targeting. It only takes the occasional observation of them on a regular basis for people to start wondering what might be causing the appearance of these strange creatures. Needless to say, the first conclusion will not be that some fuzzy saboteur must be letting mutated flies go in the offices. The imagination will provide more exotic scenarios. The key here is consistency, not quantity. Moreover, relying on the power of the rumor mill that develops in any workplace, we can be sure that the fear and/or conspiracy factor will be considerably amplified. A paranoid work force is an inefficient work force. This approach thus creates inertia in the system. In the best-case scenario, an investigation into the origins of the flies would be launched, which would burn more cash and waste even more employee time. In the worst-case scenario, the prankster would provide a topic of conversation at breaktime.

Thanks for reposting my post.
I just wanted to add, for those who may not be familiar with the reference Kurtz is making with "Fuzz" as in "Fuzzy Saboteur". I realized today, when you made a comment about "fuzzy saboteur", being theatre, that you may not know the reference Kurtz is making. It is a reference to fuzzy logic, as in computer programming, where the logic of the program incorporate a certain amount of randomness, which tends to create much more effective and realistic artificial intellegence programming.

I also think it is interesting that CAE, (aka Kurtz), tends to respond defensivley if someone even questions his position, but is self-rightous about getting to attack certain research. Kurtz advocates anonymity in actions which are taken against the enemies he defines, but not against his own institution of CAE. He desires to create his own army of soldiers, to carry out his mission, while he sits in the background and says he is not culpable for the actions of others. He wishes to be portrayed as a grieving husband for the press, when in fact he was involved in a long term relationship with a former grad student, and not his wife.
I hope that people will try to think for themselves before they give money and support to this person.

Having said that, I do not support the patriot Act, and feel it is a vehicle for abuse by the government. But please, separate that issue from the character and work of Kurtz.

It is unclear, whether Kurtz created this event, by calling the police. It is in keeping with the kinds of performances he does. He is very aware of what would happen if the police saw his lab supplies. This event would give him more attention. Then it backfired on him, because he did not think about some of the issues, which lead to mail and wire fraud charges.

Just don't be a pawn in this game. Support the larger issues, and think about how to do this effectively.