Disciplining The Avant-Garde, The United States versus The Critical Art Ensemble
by Gregory Sholette
It has been three and one half years since President George W. Bush proclaimed, “you’re either with us or against us.” Since that time the neo-liberal ‘revolution’ has undergone a re-Balkanization in the United States. Gone is the ideology of fluidity and openness that presided over the post-Cold War years and in its place comes a new nationalist spirit complete with rising trade tariffs and a variety of seemingly expedient security measures that have evolved into a new way of life. From no-fly lists to ubiquitous public surveillance, from severe visa and immigration restrictions to the fingerprinting of tourists, ‘bunker America’ is replacing the fantasy of globalization. Even unilateral military action is justified as a preemptive defense of the homeland. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is offered Pax Americana, a sanctimonious sop revealing perhaps what was at stake all along, nothing less than global supremacy. Less well known at home, however, thanks to guilt-free ‘happy’ news and embedded reporting, is the targeted suspension of habeas corpus and mass cataloging of thousands of Islamic, Middle Eastern, or North African people inside the country. Thousands of individuals have been detained without trial, others deported, and some have been sent abroad into ‘extra-juridical’ zones within Pakistan and Syria where human rights do not stand in the way of extreme interrogation methods.
It comes as no surprise therefore that those who publicly question aspects of the new, homeland-security state apparatus also find themselves victims of government investigation and intimidation. While certainly not on par with disappearances and torture, scores of artists, journalists and academics, including several high school students, have been questioned recently about alleged anti-American activities by a variety of Federal and local law-enforcement officials. In at least one case, the one that concerns this essay, the U.S. government is aggressively seeking to portray a group of contemporary artists known for their politically provocative, yet legal and Constitutionally protected art, as a full-blown terrorist threat to the national security.
Since 11 September 2001, the FBI and the Secret Service have interrogated gallery curators in Chicago and Dallas for displaying images they deemed suspicious; accused a Nevada man of “borderline terrorism” because he had a bumper sticker that read “KING GEORGE – Off With His Head”; detained and questioned a Colorado highschool principle for permitting students to sing the Bob Dylan tune Masters of war during a public performance; and the culture-jamming group AdBusters were questioned by government agents over a flag-like billboard they installed in Times Square. Secret Service agents even prevented two teachers from attending a Bush rally because they wore t-shirts printed with the words “Protect our civil liberties.” The atmosphere of enhanced public security has apparently also emboldened some local law enforcement to disregard this very advice. Police in Albany arrested a man for wearing a peace sign on his T-Shirt; a young man was arrested outside an Armed Forces Career Center in Boston for dressing up as a U.S. torture victim in Iraq; six men were arrested in Pennsylvania for creating an Abu Ghraib-style human pyramid as the President’s motorcade drove past; and in August 2004 during the Republican National Convention the New York Police Department went so far as to take thousands of people into custody, holding them long past the legal twenty-four-hour limit in appalling conditions at a concrete and steel pier on the Hudson River.
Probing callsfrom Federal agents to university administrators have added to a chilling climate of suspicion within academia already apprehensive over Congressional debates about alleged anti-American curricula and over student groups like the ultra-conservative Campus Watch, who openly stake out ‘liberal’ instructors in order to document their so-called Left bias. Professors at universities in New Mexico, Houston, Urbana-Champaign, South Florida, Upstate New York and even Columbia University in New York City have discovered that raising questions about U.S. policy, about Israel, about 911 and homeland security inside the classroom can bring on disciplinary action and even dismissal. Regrettably, several university museum directors at Arizona State University, the City Museum of Washington, and Ohio University have gone so far as to actively self-censor their own exhibitions by removing socially critical work or by adding art that reflects a ‘conservative ‘ point of view. Meanwhile, the firing of several prize-winning journalists effectively demonstrates that challenging Bush administration policy even from within mainstream media can have considerable consequences.
Incomplete Installation by Critical Art Ensemble in The Interventionists exhibition at MASS MoCA, June 2004: note that most of the work was already in the custody of the FBI.The most alarming of these cases so far is certainly the U.S. Attorney General William Hochel’s unrelenting investigation of artist Steven Kurtz and his former colleague, Professor Robert Ferrell. Kurtz is a professor of art at the University of Buffalo in New York. He is also a co-founder of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), an artists’ collective that dates from 1986 which has become known for its multi-media projects splicing Brechtian pedagogy onto the comedic diligence of a Mr. Wizard. Donning white lab coats and assuming the personae of amateur scientists, they arm themselves with highschool lab equipment as well as common household supplies and groceries in order to demystify, or more to the point, democratize the increasingly privatized worlds of science, technology and information networks. These often-playful routines contrast with the serious intent and analytical approach of the group’s numerous books and manifestos. In Electronic Civil Disturbance, CAE celebrates anti-corporate, ‘slacker’ Ludditism and in Digital Resistance they provide plans for making graffiti-writing robots and reprogramming Nintendo games so that children will gain “the means to bring about a situation in which a process of broad spectrum invention, discovery, and criticality can occur” (page 139). Whether in a museum, an international conference, on the street or in print, the CAE’s work unvaryingly aims to inform, entertain and demonstrate the value of public knowledge.
For the past several years the group has focused attention on what they see as the misuse of biotechnology by private corporations operating outside the realm of democratic, public debate. CAE’s tactical response is what they term, ‘Fuzzy Biological Sabotage’ or FBS, a type of sophisticated, prank that uses harmless biological agents including plants, insects, reptiles and even microorganisms to operate in the gray, in-between spaces as yet unregulated by institutional regimes. In 2002 the group demonstrated one form of FBS in the project Contestational Biology, which was developed in conjunction with artists Beatriz de Costa and Claire Pentecost and installed at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington DC. Contestational Biology consisted of an ‘amateur’ scientific experiment that ‘reverse engineered’ samples of the Monsanto Corporation’s Round-Up Ready corn, canola and soy products, three of the many genetically modified organisms rapidly being integrated into modern agriculture industry. The ultimate goal of the installation, however, was to raise public awareness about the sweeping privatization of the human food supply by directly contesting Monsanto’s right to create and patent customized life forms for corporate profit.
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