By Noel Douglas
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 305

The New McCarthyism

This article is over 15 years, 9 months old
On the morning of 21 May 2004, artist Steven Kurtz awoke to find his wife Hope lying dead beside him.
Issue 305

Kurtz immediately called paramedics. On arrival, the response team noticed assorted laboratory equipment in the home – petri dishes, microscopes and test tubes. Nervously, they alerted the FBI. The Joint Terrorism Task Force soon descended on the Kurtz home and agents and confiscated Hope’s body, and gathered a variety of materials for scientific analysis. They also impounded the artist’s passport, lesson plans, books, car, computers, and even his cat.

The next day the Commissioner of Public Health officially reported that nothing hazardous was discovered in the home. At the time, Kurtz and his Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) were finishing work on a project entitled Free Range Grains. This involved a do-it-yourself DNA extraction laboratory for testing for the presence of genetically altered genes in your food. It was the presence of these laboratory materials – together with various harmless bacteria, procured for the group’s next project about the history of US bio-warfare programs – which led to the investigation.

Eventually, Hope’s body was returned for burial. Up to this point, the incident appeared to be a case of jittery officials who reacted to the discovery of a premature death and the presence of unexpected lab equipment with an indiscriminate response. That was until several CAE members were ordered to appear before a Federal Grand Jury on charges that related to the manufacture of biological weapons. Unsurprisingly the Grand Jury rejected all charges of bio-terrorism and Kurtz anticipated a public apology. However, his optimism was short-lived. Before long, Kurtz found himself facing up to 20 years in prison on charges of mail fraud for the alleged mishandling of bacterial samples purchased from a scientific supply house.

For several years, the CAE has focused attention on the misuse of biotechnology and their tactical response has been what they call “Fuzzy Biological Sabotage” (FBS). This is a type of sophisticated prank that uses harmless biological agents to operate in the grey areas as yet unregulated by governments or corporations. In 2002, the group demonstrated one form of FBS in a project called Contestational Biology. This consisted of an “amateur” scientific experiment that “reverse engineered” samples of the Monsanto Corporation’s Round-Up Ready corn. The ultimate goal of the project was to raise public awareness about the sweeping privatisation of food by contesting Monsanto’s right to create and patent customised life forms for corporate profit.

Maybe it’s because of this demystifying of underhand corporate practices that Steve and the CAE are being targeted. But whatever the reason, it shows that the war on terror is not only attacking the Arab and Muslim population in the US, but producing a new cultural McCarthyism where critical expression is under attack and even art can be labelled “terrorism”.

To see CAE’s work go to

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