Final Essay: Critical Art Ensemble

Critical Art Ensemble

Critical Art Ensemble or CAE for short, is a media arts collective composed of five different artists/theorists/activists who produce projects that incorporate a wide variety of technological and artistic mediums including installation, photography, computer art, as well as books that espouse their theories on the interconnectedness between vision, technology, and, political control and power (Wilson 84). For the CAE, the developments in the biological technology have the inevitable potential of being dangerous in terms of being used within a capitalist society for mass control and invasion of individual privacy. The group’s projects often involve directly experimenting and dealing with biological materials, concepts, and related experiments in order to express their activist messages.

This use of biological matter (bacterial substances and lab equipment that is not legally purchasable for non-scientists) in part, lead to an intense, four year-long investigation of one of the group’s founding members named Steven Kurtz, by the FBI who charged him with “bioterrorism,” after his wife died suddenly due to a heart attack in 2004. Although later investigations proved that his wife’s heart attack had absolutely nothing to do with her exposure to the materials that they were working with at the time, the FBI raided the their home, confiscating a number of different materials and pieces of work for an upcoming exhibition about Genetically Modified food or, what the FBI ostensibly-and incorrectly- perceived as “biological weapons,” (Perry 35). This trial and its implications seem to directly parallel the precise institutional abuses of power that the group actively protests against and is an example of what CAE refer to as “pancapitalism,” (Perry 35). The work and ideals of Critical Art Ensemble address the ethical problematics with biology, technically, and science as a whole but they also indirectly question the role of the artist and its connection to these sciences, examining the ways in which both supposedly opposite disciplines are connected, similar, and co-dependent on one another. Furthermore, their work assesses the ethical implications of artists and scientists collaborating together and what problems or controversies such collaborations can induce. For instance, it was later revealed that Kurtz had obtained the bacterial matter and lab equipment that was found in his home and that he was tried for in court in 2004, from his friend and science professor who had let him use it without going through the formal and legal certification processes that necessary to handle such materials. This correspondence illustrates the ability and inherent connection that leads visual artists and scientists to collaborate with one another but it also raises the issues of why it is not okay for an artist to deal with this matter and further problematizes the idea that this “medium,” is deemed inappropriate for the presentation of visual art because it does not fit into the institutionalized conception of what art is in terms of its aesthetic presentation, its medium, its inability to place in the “white box,” gallery or museum space in a conventional manner, and in addition its controversial role of using something that is viewed as dangerous or living.

After the four year trial, Steven Kurtz and his fellow members made an exhibition called Disturbances which was an installation piece that dealt with the legal trial of Kurtz and demonstrated the seemingly unprofessional behavior and engagements that the FBI agents and police officers engaged in while raiding his home. This project visualized such violations of his privacy and dignity in an explicit and exploitative way that again, mirrors the same exploitation that Katz faced during this trial as well. Disturbances was composed of the trash left by the FBI members who raided his home looking for and confiscating his alleged weapons used for committing bioterror and the same materials that allegedly poisoned his wife. IN the trash, the law officials left several pizza boxes, sodas, and Gatorade bottles as if the agents had thrown a pizza party to celebrate. The irony is that, if it is suspected that individual is suspected of being a bioterrorist and using biological material that are deemed dangerous enough to kill his wife through poison (so they thought) than why would they feel so comfortable experiencing a casual dining experience here in his own home. In this exhibition, CAE questions a number of varied and yet, related issues including governmental control and policy through interrogation and lack of privacy and its relation to the sciences, bacteria, and what is deemed as safe versus dangerous, living versus inanimate (i.e. bacteria and whether it is to be considered live or not) and the role of political, racial, and religious discrimination (this incident began in 2004 in a post-911 culture).

GenTerra was another performative project by Critical Art Ensemble and performance artist Beatriz da Costa from 2001 to 2003. This project explored the idea transgenics in relation to the research currently being undergone in the field of recombinant DNA practices in science. In this project CAE and da Costa engaged the audience members by allowing them to collect, mix, and redistribute their own bacteria, urging them to consider the practices of scientific and genetic research and its ethical implications on both human health policy as well as the potentially harmful effects that such practices could have on the environment ( Environmentally, the project sought bring awareness to the public and help postulate new ideas for alternative methods and products of biological and ecological research that would not be as compromising and damaging as the existing scientific conventions. In their artist’s statement CAE cites that their main goal in creating this project was to explore and promote new ways of environmental resource management that would replace harmful methods so that natural “…disasters will not be repeated,” ( Furthermore, through using a performantive medium to involve the audience members, this project encouraged the participants (as opposed to mere viewers or museum-goers) to gain a better understanding of risk assessment in relation to the contemporary uses of these DNA processes and its effects that it is has on all biological life forms (Marstine 453). This project spurred controversy from the public as well due to its ethical nature, appropriateness to be placed within the museum context, and general concerns regarding the safety of the participants in the museum. The backlash was instigated by a medical ethicist named George Annas who wrote an article criticizing Steve Kurtz and the CAE’s project due to its misleading and potentially harmful implications on museum participants. He published his critique in the newspaper New England Journal of Medicine in 2006, suggesting that the project was misleading in terms of the simulations of live bacteria and alleging the artists did not fully disclose all of the parameters, mediums used, and further considerations to the museum curators and museum goers (Marstine 454).

However, this critique, along with the unjust allegations and exploitation of privacy experienced by CAE member Kurtz exemplifies the ways in which visual and technological arts and sciences are not viewed as connected and illustrates that many people in the disciplines maintain their binary perspective that two disciplines are inherently separate and should remain that way. Many of these critiques and binary perspectives that support the separation of art and science are based on conceptions of the museum context-politically, structurally, socially, and aesthetically. These ideas are maintained through power structures and all museums are reflections of the situations and institutional discourse that together, maintain a discourse that supports and reinforces the separation and binary thinking patterns that divide the arts and sciences and additionally, that render and classify people as either “artistic,” types or “mathematical types.” These ideas are maintained through such a structural discourse (along with the political and social ideologies and trajectory that capitalist societies promote and employ) and forms identities, social norms and constructed categories of identity that permeates within culture as early on as elementary school. Fortunately, through recent developments and promotions of bioart, ecological art, and funding of scientist/artist collaborations, these binary thinking patterns and coinciding labels/identities and beliefs are beginning to disintegrate.

Works Cited

“GenTerra.” ArtNet Magazine. ArtNet, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2015. <;.

Critical Art Ensemble. Critical Art Ensemble. Web. 18 Mar. 2015. <http://www.critical->.

Marstine, Janet C. Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-      First Century Museum. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Perry, Collin. “Critical Art Ensemble: Disturbances.” Art Monthly 363 (2012). EBSCOhost. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.

Wilson, Stephen. Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology.: MIT Press,       2003. Print.

-Mia Maguire


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