Circle of Hell
When people are living at a time of fear, they’re willing consent to the abolition and restriction of their rights. The real issue is: What do we fear? Why do we fear it? Is the fear justified? What’s happening today is nothing new. It is simply more dramatic and perhaps better publicized.
—Susan Leeson, Constitutional Law Scholar
“We need to find a broader audience,” urges Hope (Tilda Swinton). “So much is at stake now. People have to know what’s happening in this country. It’s too important to keep quiet.” At this point in Strange Culture, Lynn Hershman Leeson‘s sharp, innovative film about post-9/11 anxieties and oppressions, you already know Hope Kurtz is dead. You also know that when she dies, in May 2004, her husband Steve, an artist, came under suspicion by the cops and FBI, not because she died of heart failure in her mid 40s, but because of FBI “protocol post 9/11.”
Strange Culture presents Kurtz’s bizarre legal and political predicament within layers of context, having to do with fears of terrorism and art, the Patriot Act and U.S. prosecutorial zealousness. Swinton plays Hope in scenes depicting the days before her death, and Thomas Jay Ryan plays Steve, then and now: “Actors,” explains a title card, “have interpreted [Kurtz’s] story because he is unable to comment on particular events. The film also includes interviews with the real Steve Kurtz (about selected events), as well as interviews with his friends and colleagues, artists and academics who have come together in his defense (this means raising funds as well as providing expert and emotional support). As Kurtz recounts the terrible turmoil of his life since 2004, he is at once contemplative and cynical, rueful and resistant.
The film offers one way to “find a broader audience” for his case, not for its own sake, because of what it means for the rest of us. Perhaps appropriately, it begins with TV, a Countdown story read by Keith Olbermann: “Like many an unfortunate drama, this one begins with a death.” Police tape and officers, emergency vehicles pass through the handheld frame. Gregg Bordowitz, a friend of Steve’s and fellow artist, who recalls, “I got a call that Hope died and that Steve was being interrogated and the house had been closed down.” Steve Dietz, another friend and curator, sets a second layer of context: “The FBI comes in and you’re accused of possibly having foul play. You’re accused of doing things that are wrong, all on top of a very critical art practice. I think that the combination of bureaucratic and government coercion against his person, with the personal tragedy, is just a circle of hell.”
As Dietz suggests, this circle affects and stems from Kurtz’s person and his work. It happens that he’s a founding member of Critical Art Ensemble, a group Kurtz describes as identifying “things that we think are counter to the advancement of social justice and then we try to do something about it. And we try to do something about it on a cultural level.” In 2004, he was working with his wife (she was something of an editor for his projects) on a piece about genetically modified food. He was also consulting with a geneticist, Robert Ferrell, since charged along with Kurtz and also unable to speak, though Peter Coyote here reads a statement for him (about agribusiness bringing genetically modified foods into the food chain, without telling consumers and with government’s “tacit approval”).
The 2004 installation for Mass MoCA included physically harmless biotechnology experiments that Kurtz was assembling, with bacteria ordered over the internet, in his home. On entering the house to deal with Hope’s body, the police discovered, in Olbermann’s words, “Petri dishes and sophisticated scientific equipment.” Further investigation, reenacted in Strange Culture, provided agents with still more anxiety-making details, an invitation to an art show that featured “Arabic writing,” for instance (Kurtz notes the overreaction to this item, in legal terms at least). It wasn’t long before Kurtz was arrested. At that point, the problem changed shape. As Bordowitz puts it, “The FBI saw an opportunity to establish precedent in a way that they could extend the government’s powers into the university system, into academia, into the art world. They saw an opportunity and they ran with it.”
Specifically, the government assigned Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hochul to the case, the prosecutor whose “great case was putting away the Lackawanna Six.” Kurtz recalls being approached by strangers who first tried to buy drugs from him and then tried to get him to say he wanted to kill the president. A friend pulled Kurtz away, saying, “Those guys are so FBI.” Such absurdity would be funny—Kurtz smiles as he recounts it—except that the charges of bioterrorism soon transmutated into charges of fraud (because the bacteria were purchased by mail), still pending, with no trial date set.
The film includes debates among actors playing Kurtz’s former students, on being offered a chance to sign a petition in his support. Their own concerns color their decisions whether to sign, some feeling nervous about the government’s inclination and capacity to come after them as well. “I’ll say this out of fear,” says one young man. “But it’s a legitimate fear. I’m doing it because I’m scared for myself. You have a last name that sounds like Hussein, and you’re already a suspect.”
The arguments in Strange Culture are multiple and interconnected. Certainly, the question of what sorts of food you’re eating, the question Kurtz started with, remains crucial. Coyote, as himself, adds, “The fact that the government is watching an art group whose subject happens to be transgenic foods is the real point here.” And Ryan, as himself, observes, “The fact that the government can decide to take civil law conflicts and, at their discretion, make them into criminal charges when they so choose, is enormous.”
While you have likely heard of NSA’s warrantless surveillance and the secret “torture memo,” Kurtz’s story is less well publicized—at least outside the realms of academics and artists. Crossing conventional boundaries of dramatization and documentary, Hershman Leeson’s movie makes Kurtz’s case available to “broader audience,” showing the ways that various institutions—science, government, agriculture, and the military—work towards similar suspicious ends. If not conspiring, precisely, they do appear to have each others’ backs in ways that citizens can’t hope to counter—unless they have access to information.