Seeing Strange Culture and Steve Kurtz at the Dryden

Ali and I headed to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Strange Culture. The movie is a haunting mid-process reenactment/documentary of what has been happening to Steven Kurtz.

Steve is an art professor at SUNY Buffalo (17 Capen Hall, Amherst, NY) and a member of a group called The Critical Art Ensemble. He was working on several projects with his wife, Hope when in May, 2004, she died in her sleep. Steve didn't know what to do so he called 911. When police arrived, they saw the petri dishes of bacteria cultures they were preparing for one of the art exhibits and called in the FBI. Steve was detained for 22 hours and questioned under suspicion of bioterrorism (but not actually arrested — just illegally detained). His wife's body was taken away and the local coroner ruled her death a heart attack caused by a rare congenital condition. The FBI then took her body and did another autopsy coming to the same conclusion.

So when they were unable to bring him up on charges of bioterrorism, the Department of Justice has filed mail fraud and wire fraud charges against him and a scientist (Robert Ferrell) he worked with to obtain the bacteria samples (which are harmless, by the way, and readily available through the Internet). Steve was not able to bring up details of the case but a woman he'd been working with (I can't seem to find her name anywhere) was able to fill in details Steve was not permitted to.

Basically mail and wire fraud is a civil case — one brought by one party against another when they feel defrauded. The Department of Justice is trying to expand their power by bring it to trial as a criminal case: although neither party involved with the transfer of the bacteria feels defrauded, the Department of Justice is charging both parties with willfully violating the implicit contract between them.

Oh yeah, so anyway: the movie. They used a mix of actors performing reenactments and actual participants discussing the facts of the case. Since the outcome isn't yet determined — Steve has not yet gone to trial — as a documentary, it has a, well, "special" feel to it. Ordinarily you'd expect a documentary to be released after the fact; to put a nice bow at the end of the story to say what happened. Well this one didn't. And as such it's rather unique to leave that huge story arc just dangling off the end of the film.

I asked about whether Steve knew that this particular art project would make people so upset — as an artist, I think there's some desire to have an impact, but rarely is it true that jack-booted thugs really do kick down your door. He said they were working on several projects not mentioned in the movie. One of them was about germ warfare (and what the samples were largely for) to help people understand just how ineffective it really is. I mean, if you look at the facts of the anthrax scare from 2001, 17 people got infected and 5 people died — and this was military-grade antrhax. It's a crappy weapon, yet we're conditioned by our government to cower from it — remember all about sealing up a room with plastic and duct tape in case of an attack?

I cannot begin to express how disappointed I am at the United States Government and the people who blindly support it. It's stupefying to me to believe that a few innocent people need to be used as scapegoats so that our laws are stronger??? It is beyond logic and beyond hope to me.

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