Friday, October 12, 2007

Federal Government Persecuting Science-Art Team


Steve Kurtz is the founder of Critical Art Ensemble, a renown art and critical inquiry group whose installations have been in museums, galleries, and classrooms worldwide. A few years ago Steve's wife, Hope, died in her sleep. When the police showed up they found Steve's research materials and after quickly dismissing the possibility that these played any role in Hope's demise, the police brought in the FBI and began an inane bio-terrorism investigation. This eventually led them to an equally silly mail fraud charge against a research scientist, and, in the midst of his struggle against non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the scientist has just agreed to plead guilty to an even lesser charge, still not disclosed. The press release quoted in its entirety below is from the Critical Art Ensemble defense fund, and many links to further information are contained there.

After participating together in an evening of presentations on genetic research and art at a community center in Los Angeles around 2001, where Steve educated the audience on the uses and abuses of genetically modified crops, I spent some time talking with Steve at a friend's home in Silverlake. He is a super-smart, community-minded guy who wants people to think and take control over genetic discourse and genetic material, and all other thought and matter corporate giants want to make their exclusive domain. Rather than the passive, inert matter of Dupont's chemical Zeitgeist, Steve was inspiring people to consciously shape their political and biological worlds.

The thought police do not appreciate such gestures. Use the mail to ship guns? No problem. Use the mail to ship cigarettes? Great! Use the mail to ship something to help educate people beyond the DNA illiteracy? Call the FBI bio-terrorist team and criminalize learning. I'm writing about this on the "states without nations" blog because it's the nationalist paranoia of the Patriot Act that led to Steve's arrest. Here are the details:

October 11, 2007
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACTS:
Email: mailto:media@caedefensefund.org
Claire Pentecost: 773-383-9771
Gregory Sholette: 212-865-3076
Edmund Cardoni: 716-854-1694
Igor Vamos: 917-209-3282
Lucia Sommer: 716-359-3061
Dianne Raeke Ferrell: 412-352-2704

SICKNESS, "ABSURD" DOJ PROSECUTION FORCE SCIENTIST TO PLEAD IN
PRECEDENT-SETTING CASE
Scientist's Wife and Daughter Comment on Case

Buffalo, NY - Today in Federal District Court, Dr. Robert Ferrell,
Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate
School of Public Health, under tremendous pressure, pled guilty to
lesser charges rather than facing a prolonged trial for federal
charges of "mail fraud" and "wire fraud" in a surreal post-PATRIOT
Act legal case that has attracted worldwide attention.

"From the beginning, this has been a persecution, not a prosecution.
Although I have not seen the final agreement, the initial versions
contained incorrect and irrelevant information," said Dr. Dianne
Raeke Ferrell, Dr. Ferrell's wife and an Associate Professor of
Special Education and Clinical Services at Indiana University of
Pennsylvania. "Bob is a 27 year survivor of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
which has reoccurred numerous times. He has also had malignant
melanoma. Since this whole nightmare began, Bob has had two minor
strokes and a major stroke which required months of rehabilitation."

Dr. Ferrell added that her husband was indicted just as he was
preparing to undergo a painful and dangerous autologous stem cell
transplant, the second in 7 years.

The Ferrells' daughter, Gentry Chandler Ferrell, added: "Our family
has struggled with an intense uncertainty about physical, emotional
and financial health for a long time. Agreeing to a plea deal is a
small way for dad to try to eliminate one of those uncertainties and
hold on a little longer to the career he worked so hard to develop...
Sadly, while institutions merely are tarnished from needless
litigation, individuals are torn apart. I remain unable to wrap my
mind around the absurdity of the government's pursuit of this case
and I am saddened that it has been dragged out to the point where my
dad opted to settle from pure exhaustion." (To read Gentry Ferrell's
full statement, please visit:
http://caedefensefund.org/press/ferrellplea.html)

Dr. Ferrell's colleague Dr. Steven Kurtz, founder of the
internationally acclaimed art and theater group Critical Art
Ensemble, was illegally detained and accused of "bioterrorism" by the
U.S. government in 2004 stemming from his acquisition from Dr.
Ferrell of harmless bacteria used in several of Critical Art
Ensemble's educational art projects. After a costly investigation
lasting several months and failing to provide any evidence of
"bioterrorism," the Department of Justice instead brought charges of
"mail fraud" and "wire fraud" against Kurtz and Ferrell. Under the
USA PATRIOT Act, the maximum penalty for these charges has increased
from 5 years to 20. (For more information about the case, please see
"Background to the Case" below or http://caedefensefund.org)

JURIDICAL ART CRITICISM?

The government is vigorously attempting to prosecute two defendants
in a case where no one has been injured, and no one has been
defrauded. The materials found in Dr. Kurtz's house were obtained
legally and used safely by the artist. After three and a half years
of investigation and prosecution, the case still revolves around
$256 worth of common science research materials that were used in
art works by a highly visible and respected group of artists. These
art works were commissioned and hosted by cultural institutions
worldwide where they had been safely displayed in museums and
galleries with absolutely no risk to the public.

The Government has consistently framed this case as an issue of
public safety, but the materials used by Critical Art Ensemble are
widely available, can be purchased by anyone from High School science
supply catalogues, and are regularly mailed.

PROFESSORS OF ART & SCIENCE EXPRESS ALARM

"The government's prosecution is an ill-conceived and misguided
attack on the scientific and artistic communities," said Dr. Richard
Gronostajski, Professor of Biochemistry at SUNY Buffalo, where
Professor Kurtz also teaches. "It could have a chilling effect on
future scientific research collaborations, and harm teaching efforts
and interactions between scientists, educators and artists."

"It's deeply alarming that the government could pressure someone of
Dr. Ferrell's stature into agreeing to something like this. The case
threatens all Americans' Constitutionally guaranteed right to
question the actions of their government," said Igor Vamos, Professor
of Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

PLEA COMES AMIDST OVERWHELMING PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR DEFENDANTS

The plea bargain agreement comes at a time of overwhelming public
support for the two defendants. A film about the case, Strange
Culture - directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson and featuring Tilda
Swinton (Chronicles of Narnia, Michael Clayton), Thomas Jay Ryan
(Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin
Brockovich) - has drawn widespread critical praise and public
interest, with screenings in dozens of U.S. cities after its
selection to open both the 2007 Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival documentary
section. An October 1 screening of the film at the Museum of Modern
Art in New York City drew a crowd of 400 who stayed for an hour
afterward for a discussion with Professor Kurtz, director Hershman
Leeson, and actress Tilda Swinton. Special benefit screenings of the
film in numerous cities have raised thousands of dollars to offset
the two defendants' escalating legal costs.

BACKGROUND TO THE CASE

The legal nightmare of renowned scientist Dr. Robert Ferrell and
artist and professor Dr. Steven Kurtz began in May 2004. Professor
Kurtz and his late wife Hope were founding members of the
internationally exhibited art and theater collective Critical Art
Ensemble. Over the past decade cultural institutions worldwide have
commissioned and hosted Critical Art Ensemble's participatory theater
projects that help the general public understand biotechnology and
the many issues surrounding it. In May 2004 the Kurtzes were
preparing a project examining genetically modified agriculture for
the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, when Hope Kurtz died of
heart failure. Detectives who responded to Professor Kurtz's 911 call
deemed the couple's art suspicious, and called the FBI. Within hours
the artist was illegally detained as a suspected "bioterrorist" as
dozens of federal agents in Hazmat suits sifted through his work and
impounded his computers, manuscripts, books, his cat, and even his
wife's body.

CASE DEPLETES PUBLIC AND PRIVATE RESOURCES

The government has pursued this case relentlessly for three and a
half years, spending enormous amounts of public resources. Most
significantly, the legal battle has exhausted the financial,
emotional, and physical resources of Ferrell and Kurtz; as well as
their families and supporters. The professional and personal lives of
both defendants have suffered tremendously. A trial date has not yet
been established.


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