Perhaps you have an idea in your head about Steve Kurtz.
In 2004, when the University at Buffalo professor and artist was brought up on federal mail fraud charges – ultimately dismissed – by prosecutors who suspected him of conspiring to commit bioterorrism, Kurtz's picture was all over the local and international press.
Those images depicted a hazmat team assembled outside Kurtz's home in Allentown in a scene reminiscent of “E.T.,” and a grainy shot of the long-haired artist in a black shirt that seemed to fit some people's ideas about what an experimental bioterrorist might look like. The Steve Kurtz most of us think we know remains in some ways the one his overzealous prosecutors continually tried to show us: a strange dude with stranger ideas whose work and life falls too far outside the norm.
Anyone who's ever actually met him knows better.
On Tuesday night, Kurtz – now chairman of UB's department of visual studies – gave a captivating presentation about what he's been up to during the last couple of years with his internationally lauded collaborators. What the sold-out crowd in the Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center cinema saw that night was not a bizarre, inaccessible artist prattling on about some esoteric project involving biochemical samples.
Instead, we saw a magnetic and humorous man giving what Hallwalls curator John Massier described as a set worthy of a stand-up comedian. Across an hour-and-a-half or so, Kurtz walked us through the projects he's been working on over the past two years.
The first was an installation he and his fellow Critical Art Ensemble members did for the exclusive European invitational art event Documenta, about the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. The project involved an enormous banner representing the world's population and its income, the top of which could only be reached by a hugely disruptive helicopter – and only by those who could afford it.
Another project, also for Documenta, critiqued the wide practice of asking artists to perform or make work for free by inviting 100 or so artists to do just that over the course of the event.
Another project, typical of the sort of clever and provocative work the CAE performs, involved transplanting legally protected plant species onto abandoned land to prevent its purchase and development.
The evening was a bravura demonstration of Kurtz's gifted mind and those of his collaborators in the CAE. But it was also, true to form, a great big middle finger extended in the direction of the federal government and its local representatives, who put Kurtz through four years of prosecutorial hell and ultimately failed in their attempt to make an example out of the weird artist on College Street.
The truth about Kurtz is that his work is threatening to the way we live. But not remotely in the way his accusers argued in court. Kurtz and his colleagues have dedicated their lives to railing against the attempts of governments and corporations to exploit society's weakest members and to unmasking the growing and cyclical disparity between powerful and weak, rich and poor.
Their work, as collected in their remarkable recent book “Disturbances,” is all about throwing wrenches into the gears of a system that otherwise might grind on in perpetuity.
He and his CAE colleagues deserve great credit for their attempts to shock us out of our apathy. That work, far from being stifled by the turn Kurtz's life took in 2004, has only grown more ambitious, and more dangerous, since then.