Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

In the comments on an earlier post on this blog about an artist suspected by the FBI of bioterrorism, there was a great deal of speculation about the incident and the facts. (Read the link above to my previous post for the background.) I emailed the artist, Steven Kurtz, asking him for the facts, and here is his reply.

Deleted by request.

Many people talked to me about this incident and strongly support the FBI's position on this. I still don't know enough details on the FBI's handling of the matter, but I DO think biotech as art is a legitimate form of art. At Ars Electronica, we did a whole festival on Life Science as art. Artists, including Steve, publish their works, talk about the impact, and often teach. Terrorists do not.

One famous example of biotech art is the bioluminescent rabbit created by genetic engineering, adding genes from a jellyfish to a rabbit to make it glow in the dark. This created a great deal of controversy and debate. It was the intention of the artist to cause this debate with an extremely tangible project.

I believe this form of expression is important and mistaking artistic expression for something else is a great risk to society. However, I suppose it would be prudent for artists to be aware of the risks involved in handling the "supplies" they use for their art.


It's unfortunate yet understandable that this happened. Police were called to a house with a dead woman and find lab equipment and chemicals that they do not understand and, fearing the worst, err on the side of extreme caution, thinking, perhaps that they've stumbled upon a terrorist cell in the middle of brewing up a new biotoxin. The first response people acted appropriately, in my opinion.

Rereading that, it sounds as though I don't support Mr. Kurtz -- that's not the case. The FBI has access to people qualified to pronounce Mr. Kurtz's equipment harmless. Hopefully, the tragic loss of his wife will be conclusively shown not to have been caused by his work and her death will not come into play.

As for the computers and lab equipment, I'd write them off and replace them -- the FBI is notorious for returning seized computers only when they've become so obsolete as to be unusable. His writings, on the other hand, as well as his teaching materials, should be returned immediately.

I hope they are, not just for his own case, but what it says about the freedom to think and to create and to innovate in our society, outside the confines of a traditional research environment.

The people who most of society sees as "artists" don't know how to extract and analyze DNA. They don't work with chemicals more advanced than the paint thinners and pigments that they use to paint their landscapes and flowers and pretty pictures. It will be hard for society as a whole and Mr. Kurtz's neighbors on a small scale to even understand that what he was doing could be considered art. Using art to show genetic contamination of GM foods? It smacks of radical activism. Radical activists are, after all, just a molotov cocktail away from being full-blown terrorists.

People forget that some of history's greatest artists also delved into the sciences. Leonardo is the classic example, I suppose. In addition to painting lovely portraits, his work strayed into the grisly and morbid, performing his own autopsies and dissections to learn the secrets of the human body and filling notebooks with drawings of machines of war. How did Leonardo justify this kind of work to the 15th century Vatican and the Florentine government? How would he, an unqualified outsider to the scientific community, justify his work and his experiments today, to the likes of the Department of Homeland Security?

We can look now at the 15th century Vatican and see them as a backward, superstitious group bent on protecting themselves and their idea of a safe society with a cloak of misinformation and ignorance. How will we see our own society one day?

I don't know Mr. Kurtz's work or know if he's the next Da Vinci, but I hope he's given the freedom he deserves.

Please pass on my best wishes to him.

No, different guy I think. Steven Kurtz is at University at Buffalo. Here he is in the directory.

Joichi Ito is a genius, and what's more, he seems like a really nice guy and good human being :)! Congrats Joichi for being featured on the front page of Yahoo! YAY!

Torley the Technomusicologist

It's all smacking of the McCarthy Era all over again! I spoke today with people who lived through that, and they told me I picked that right.

So, this poor man is into a different type of art. As you pointed out, he shares his information freely, not playing cloak and daggers with it, like Terrorists do.

You can't seem to write about violence, without people accusing you. Like that boy who wrote about guns.

As a comic book artist an writer, I am quite concern that next they will come after people like me, telling me that I'm contributing to the delinquincy of minors.

Anyone remember the comic book bookburning of the 1950s? Did it ever occur to anyone that is why Superman #1 is quite possible so rare? Forced the Comic's Code down our throat - we just tossed that out the window in the early 90s - are we going to be forced into watering everything down again!?

Will they come after me, because I study everything I can get my hands on, all legal books? Or will the MIBs think I am planning on becoming a serial killer?

When a nation becomes afraid of it's own shadow - what can we do, to preserve our individual freedoms?

Freedom is NOT free.

Wow.... Freedom is for everyone.

And what is the rationale behind still keeping the cat? Do the FBI think its a walking bomb or what?

Closed cases in the States, no defense?

I don't know, this sounds a little 'out there' to be real - but it's been a pretty weird couple of years, hasn't it?


Freedom is for thinking, responsible people, not self-absorbed bozos!

So his wife "just dies in the middle of the night"?!!

how did she get a heart attack - Was she very old or what? sounds pretty wierd.

That being siad there is no way that any citizen should have a closed door hearing and not be properly defended - US civil rights are trashed, and no one seems to really care.

Hi Joi,

I just saw your blog featured on Yahoo. I had to check it out. I've read most of the posts you've made and love 'em. This is a great blog. I'll be reading yours everyday.


Donna from Massachusetts/USA

I wonder if we can call this art. I' ve also seen pics for Alba the Luminiscent rabbit. It seems to me that such manupulations of nature can not be classified as art. I sympethyze with Mr.Kuntz situation and it is sarcastic that he should be arrested for bio-terrorism. It seems his a victim of the 9/11 syndrome.

Maybe the cat was a spy, working for the FBI? Since 9/11 we can't even trust our own pets.

Or the cat was infected with whatever killed the wife, if you think like the FBI.

And by the way, at a Grand Jury hearing you can have a lawyer. They just have to be outside the hearing room. At a grand jury hearing you have 5th amendment protection AND you can leave the room to consult with your lawyer about answering or not answering a question, unlike a "regular" trial where you are on the witness stand with no consultation during questionning.

Free the Kurtz Cat!

I hope someone in the government is feeding that cat. Funny thing is, there's probably going to be more of a grassroots effort to free the cat than to free Mr. Kurtz!


(When a kind word just isn't enough)

That's sad..ugh, God Bless America. ^_-


(found you through yahoo^_^ my, aren't you popular;) )


From what I've heard, the FBI has already tested for ricin, etc, and all tests have come back negative. No threat whatsoever.

As to why the FBI is pursing this, perhaps it has to do with the artwork itself, which would allow everyday consumers to test food for genetic modifications.

For more info, see


It is understandable that the FBI may overreact to something they don't understand, but how long will it take them to rectify this. I bet it takes a long time, and they will put this artist through a lot of crap. Then when it is finished they won't make any effort at restitution.

Found you on the cnn page today. Lucky you. You can say anything you want about the war, the soldiers, and America without being called unAmerican or unpatriotic and worrying about being ostracized or being put in Guantonamo Bay or being "rendered" to Egypt depending where you are. Please for us Americans speak out loud and strong. We no longer have true freedom, as hostile right-wing neoconservatives now control the country and approach those that disagree with hostile, hateful vengeful treatment. Signed, Looking forward to November elections

Kudos to David for hitting the nail on the head. The question is not "Is it art?" The CAE have long persued the imbalance that Monsanto can scatter potential genetic timebombs to the winds with impunity, while bio-exploration is taboo for the rest of us.

Discourse around Gentically Modified Organisms is stifled because most of the research is proprietary and under lock-and-key. Kurtz was trying to address that.

Found You On CNN Page this is an awesome idea

as for Steve it looks like the federal bureau of intimidation nazis have claimed another victim

Steve not only should be left alone by the govt his property ought to be returned forwith and the government agents that are harassing him and stole his property shoulded be fined several million dollars for Steves inconvenience

I think this is going to take art in new directions!

Everybdy's got an opinion. I guess that's good, but we also need to be a bit objective.

After having read through all of the comments, I don't think any of you really know this guy, Steve, so, comments on his defense seem not to be very objective. On the other hand, you all know what a lieing, cheating, bullying, arogant bunch of guys the FBI is, right? I mean, you have to read no farther than the headlines to learn that. If you think for one minute that you are going to be well informed and objective from the media, then I think we are all in trouble.

If they err on the side of caution, then his civil rights have been violated; if on the other side, then they should have been more ruthless in their investigations and in protecting US aye.

As far as paying him "milions", I for one would like to see my tax money spent a bit more wisely than that.

With regards to using animals for the actual Bio-art, it seems to me that animals fall into two catorgories; those that can be turned into light fittings, and those who can't.For example the glow-in-the-dark-bunny hasn't caused mass piblic outrage, but what if it had been a panda? Or a horse? Strangly enough I do not beleave the public would accept illuminous monkeys either, which is ironic because if I was a monkey in a Laboratory I would rather glow in the dark then have my brain taken out and rolled across the Lab floor - again. So there is definately an art world hypocrasy when it comes to the use of animals as and in art...Panthers and otters would not be used as strip lighting, frogs quite possibly would.

There's a story about Kurtz in the L.A. Weekly today. The reporter talked to the FBI.

What are the checks and balances set up to prevent any FBI abusive practices?

I mean... if they go after the wrong person and ruin his life, does someone lose their job; does the FBI get its hand slapped in any way? And does the victim have any recourse? If not, then the FBI has no reason to shy away from going after any science teacher, hobbyist, or artist who owns chemicals. In that case they're as much of a threat to freedom as are the criminals.

The folks who are complaining about "closed door hearings in the US" need to understand that this is a grand jury hearing, which is performed to see if there is enough evidence to bring charges. It is not a petit, or trial, jury. While it is true that grand juries usually give prosecutors what they want (in fact, a grand jury who is too assertive about exercising the powers granted to it is known as a "runaway grand jury" in the trade).

The requirement for indictment by a grand jury before being prosecuted for a "capital, or otherwise infamous crime" is set by the fifth amendment to the US Constitution (for federal cases, which this appears to be - the Supreme Court has held that states are not bound by this requirement; they often substitute a preliminary hearing, which serves the same purpose but is open to the public). Grand juries are supposed to be a protection against prosecutorial harassment, but are generally these days a rubber stamp for the prosecution. See for some information about grand jury reform.

Not only is the defendant not present, no defense counsel present, and the grand jury closed-door by tradition, but usual evidentiary rules (such as the hearsay rule) are not applicable there.

None of this stuff is new with the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act. Been that way for centuries.

That said, I certainly hope the truth comes out, and if Mr Kurtz' actions were benign, that he promptly has all his stuff returned to him. If he was indeed cooking up something bad in his house (and non-human-pathogenic types of e.coli do NOT count), he should be prosecuted under appropriate non-terrorism-tainted statutes that are reflective of whatever risk he posed to the public by doing so. If the FBI has a non-trumped-up case for intended bioterrorism, by all means they should prosecute as fully as possible. While our judicial system is not perfect, it's a heck of a lot better than some people would lead you to believe, and a heck of a lot better than certain people (Ashcroft, for instance, as well as every elected representative who voted for P.A.T.R.I.O.T.) are trying to make it.

I am very familiar with CAE's work and know several of the people that have been called to testify in front of the grand jury personally. I can say with certainty that their work is in no way dangerous. Steven Kurtz and CAE's work has been shown in major museums around the USA and the world without incident in the past, and in fact is being shown right now at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. I believe that he is being pursued because the FBI does not understand contemporary art and probably can't see why an artist would have a lab in his basement. They are so determined to catch terrorists (remember, the Buffalo FBI office also was responsible for catching the "Lackawanna 6")that it is hard for them to separate people that are critical of their own society from terrorists that want to destroy society. The case should already be shut- the medical examiner determined that his wife died of natural causes, nothing in his house was illegal, and all of his work is very well documented.

I read another story that indicated Professor Kurtz also had cultures of Bacillus Globigii and Serratia. I think that might have set some people off. From what I've read in the open literature, BG is a very common simulant for Anthrax, and I think I once read that Serratia was one of the agents disseminated by the U.S. government in transport studies.

I don't for a second support the growing criminalization of science tools. This is a disturbing trend. There are lawsuits alleging that smart card writers are only useful for fraud (and evidence of same), which is ridiculous at best and unjust at worst. Neither Thomas Edison nor Sir Hiram Maxim (thanks RS) would be in a position today to advance technology as they did, between the overregulation of private pursuits and the paranoia about "evil science."

That having been said, finding a shop with a selection of BW simulants, even if not particularly pathogenic, could logically lead law enforcement to believe that someone was working on weaponization (is that a word?) processes for the real thing.

I wonder what they'll do when I buy my gas chromatograph for home use?

When asked if he believed in God, Carl Sagan was always famous for answering, "Well, I don't know, but look around you. The artist's signature is everywhere."

Whether life and the universe that contains it was the result of a concious, creative act is not a matter I can really debate with fortitude. Yet, to me, life itself is quite obviously a sublime fusion of art and engineering. It is a kind of creative engineering that is so impressive that I often have to pick my jaw up off the floor when I consider it deeply.

Whether we like it or not, we have brains that can comprehend and even contribute to this grand form of art.

Comment from Michael on June 3, 2004 05:55 AM

We no longer have true freedom, as hostile right-wing neoconservatives now control the country and approach those that disagree with hostile, hateful vengeful treatment. Signed, Looking forward to November elections


Please come down from where ever you are.

Its because of freedom in this country that you can express yourself as a hostile left-wing, extreme liberal.

Make sure you register and vote this November and not be one of the 65% that sit on their duff and only complain.

Art Professor Indicted for Illegal Medium


The Associated Press

Tuesday, June 29, 2004; 6:08 PM

BUFFALO, N.Y. - An art professor whose use of biological materials made him the target of a federal terrorism investigation - which sparked an outcry in the world art community - was indicted Tuesday on charges he obtained the materials illegally.

Steven Kurtz, a University at Buffalo professor, was charged along with Robert Ferrell, chairman of the University of Pittsburgh's Human Genetics Department, in a four-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury seated earlier this month.

Prosecutors said Ferrell used his University at Pittsburgh account with a biological supply company to order potentially harmful organisms for Kurtz, which colleagues said Kurtz intended to use in an art project.

"The charges do not relate to bioterrorism," U.S. Attorney Michael Battle said. "Very simply, this is a case about fraud."

Kurtz is a founding member of the Critical Art Ensemble, which has used human DNA and other biological materials to draw attention to social issues, such as genetically altered foods.

As a private individual, Kurtz was not eligible to order the materials allegedly obtained for him by Ferrell, authorities said.

A call to Kurtz's attorney was not immediately returned.

Outraged by the investigation of Kurtz, artists and academics earlier this month held simultaneous rallies in Buffalo; Vienna, Austria; Amsterdam, Netherlands; and Berkeley, Calif.

A colleague of Kurtz's who was among several people subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, called the indictment "a total joke."

"It sounds like they're trying to keep face because they overreacted and made fools of themselves," the colleague, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

The investigation began in May after Kurtz called 911 to report the death of his wife, Hope, in their home. Firefighters who responded noticed the biological materials and notified Buffalo police, who then contacted the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The JTTF spent two days removing materials from the home.

The University at Buffalo, in a statement, said it would review the charges before considering any action, while stressing its commitment to the academic freedom of faculty members to pursue research.

As for Ferrell, "He is still a faculty member at the university and a distinguished scientist," spokesman Robert Hill said. "We do hope for a swift and positive outcome."

Both men face 20 years in prison if convicted.

From Kurtz recent book, you decide if you are being played.

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


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.

What "potentially harmful organisms" did Kurtz order?

Is it illegal for individuals to order E. Coli now? Schools?

Back in the 70's, a bunch of homebrew computer people got together and changed the world of technology with the Apple computer.

I suppose in the 00's, a bunch of people WONT get together in the US and do homebrew genetic manipulation. Leave it for the Chinese!

i know steve as a respectful student and friend. I find it difficult to beleive that he is guilty of any of the suspected crimes. many heralded post-renaissance artists permitted the obsrver to better identify and contemplate critical areas within their current cultures. steve's work does this. he illustrates the strong influence that technology privides in the search for power, but questions our society's ability wield such power. his art is genius, but poorly understood.

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Joi Ito has more from | Michael Boyle's weblog
June 3, 2004 12:53 AM

on Steve Kurtz in the form of an email from Steve to Joi, reprinted with permission: Email from Steven Kurtz. Read the comments on Joi's site as well.... Read More

Local Investigation Into Ub Artist ContinuesBuffalo police were called to 60 College Street on Tuesday after the owner, Steve Kurtz, came home to find his wife dead. It's believed she died of natural causes, but while officers were in the... Read More

The FBI and the US Government are charging Steve Kurtz, of Critical Art Ensemble. The charge is apparently BioTerrorism. CAE presented at the conference on Art and BioTechnology at the Natural Histroy Museum last year ( Read More

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September 26, 2004 7:43 AM

Unless you have been living under a rock with John Ashcroft, or simply not reading this site and others like this one, this one, or this one (shame on you), you are aware of the Steven Kurtz Debacle (as... Read More