When Taste Politics Meet Terror

The Critical Art Ensemble on Trial

"And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all."

-- Antonin Artaud, "No More Masterpieces," 1938. [1]

Setting the Stage

In late September 2001, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus Ohio, announced that the performances of Charlie Victor Romeo scheduled for September 26-30 had been cancelled. "We hope you'll understand that this is not an appropriate time to present this award-winning Off-Broadway show," the letter accompanying my refund said. "We will continue to stay in contact with the Collective Unconscious company who created and perform Charlie Victor Romeo regarding the potential for rescheduling CVR at the Wexner Center at an appropriate time in the future."

Charlie Victor Romeo is a documentary play, based on transcripts taken from the black boxes of downed airplanes, the final communication between air personnel and the tower. A serious and sober look at the way people actually behave during a crisis, it won the 2000 Drama Desk Awards for Best Unique Theatrical Experience and Outstanding Sound Design, the 2000 New York Fringe Festival awards for Excellence in Drama and Outstanding Sound Design, and the Backstage West Garland Award for Best Sound Design. It was filmed by the U.S. Air Force to be used as a training video for pilots and "has been invited to be performed for groups of physicians and healthcare administrators studying the effects of human error and emergencies in a medical context" (www.charlievictorromeo.com). It also belongs to a group of experimental dramas -- the plays of Anna Devere Smith, The Laramie Project , etc -- which have been mixing ethnography, documentary (with the emphasis here on documents) and theater in provocative and compelling ways. Theater which has learned and borrowed from performance art, one could say.

In late September 2001, I was still badly shaken by the events of 9/11. I had cancelled my planned sabbatical trip to New York when the apartment I had sublet was needed to house a writer-friend who'd been evacuated from her flat, and nothing I heard from her about life in the City in the immediate aftermath of tragedy bore any resemblance to anything I was hearing on the mainstream news (with the exception of Democracy Now, U.S. news broadcasts were all about spin). Weary of platitudes and patriotic cant, I was looking forward to seeing the play, to hearing something real (in the street sense of that term) and to feeling some connection with the New York art scene that had been. I wanted to be challenged and I wanted to think, to be addressed as an adult rather than as a slightly addled child. I was disappointed when the play was cancelled. The box office staff member who took my call was surprised at my reaction. "Most people have been telling us they're happy we're rescheduling the show," she told me. "When has it been rescheduled for?" I asked. "We don't know yet," she said.

I've chosen to open this essay on the recent harassment of the Critical Art Ensemble with this older story because it seems to me to highlight some of the problems confronting the art world in this post 9/11, Patriot Act-hysterical, time. I understand some of the reasons the Wexner felt it had to postpone the performance. The Wexner Center for the Arts is small, and totally dependent on public funding and the support of its patrons and members for survival. It certainly cannot afford to bring a New York show to Columbus and play to a near-empty house. And it probably can't really afford the loss of community good will which such a move might entail.

But the cancellation also served to unmask the ambivalence with which we (even those of us in the art world) regard truly provocative, risk-taking art. Charlie Victor Romeo was rescheduled because of its content, because it wasn't "an appropriate time" to present the material.[2] As I indicated above, for me it was exactly the appropriate time. And my initial reaction of disappointment remains my final one. But I'm disappointed not only because I didn't get to see the show when I wanted, but because the cancellation seemed to trivialize (or at least to contain) the entire project of cutting-edge art. By cancelling the performance, the Wexner effectively communicated that provocative and radical theater can be mounted and tolerated only when nothing serious is at stake. That to mount provocative art -- especially art which deals with disaster -- when something real IS at stake is somehow in bad taste. And that to raise the question of the politics of taste -- the fact that the whole notion of bad taste is itself an ideologically inflected construct -- is also intolerable in the face of real crisis. This episode, then, seemed to signal that art and theory both are reduced, in times of crisis, "to an academic parlor game" -- something we do when there's nothing really on anyone's radar screen.[3] Something we do only when it's "appropriate."

The question of the appropriate role and function of art post 9/11 is one which has been framed largely in terms of taste. The removal of Eric Fischl's commemorative sculpture, Tumbling Woman, from Rockefeller Center, the elimination of three choruses from John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer from a November 2001 Boston Symphony program, and the quiet de-funding of work by performance artist William Pope (he lost an NEA grant for a series of works on racial and social injustice; the Andy Warhol Foundation magnanimously stepped in and funded the exhibition) all were done in the name of taste -- the fear of offending the public in its still-sensitive, post 9-11, traumatized state.

But as I have written elsewhere [4], questions of taste are never ideologically neutral, and almost immediately the issue of taste in post 9/11 cultural production began to overlap with heavy-handed manifestations of political corporate and state power. Bill Maher's television show, Politically Incorrect, was taken off the air by several ABC affiliates after Maher called the U.S violent response to the 9/11 attacks "cowardly." John Lennon's song Imagine and all music by Rage Against the Machine were placed on a "don't play" list by the corporate giant Clear Channel. The woefully misnamed group "Students for Academic Freedom" launched a number of websites, inviting students to turn in professors who had made "anti-patriotic" remarks in class and the U.S Legislature introduced a bill that would tie the continued funding of area studies programs in American universities (American Studies, Near Eastern Studies etc.) to governmental "curriculum oversight." In the bill, renowned scholar Edward Said was specifically named as the kind of thinker we have to guard against in these troubled post 9/11 times. Finally, Steve Kurtz, founding member of the Critical Art Ensemble, was arrested for bio-terrorism.

The Case

On May 11, 2004 Steve Kurtz, a filmmaker, performance artist and founding member of the Buffalo-based Critical Art Ensemble, phoned 911 after waking to find his wife, Hope Kurtz, unconscious in bed beside him. Apparently, Ms. Kurtz had died in her sleep. But it was not only her death that worried the emergency aid team that came in response to Kurtz's call, but also the laboratory equipment and inert biological compounds which Mr. Kurtz uses as part of his art work and which he had stored in his home. The 911 team phoned the FBI (this is where things get murky -- because the group that actually came was the Joint Terrorist Task Force). Steve Kurtz was arrested on suspicion of bio-terrorism. Hope Kurtz's body was impounded (which meant that it couldn't be released for a funeral). Kurtz's equipment, computer, art supplies, books, films and biological material were confiscated. The Joint Terrorist Task Force Agents also took Mr. Kurtz's car, his house, and his cat.

Authorities searched Kurtz's home and tested the biological material for two days, before declaring that there was no public health risk in Kurtz's work and that no toxic material had been found. Kurtz was allowed to return to his home on May 17, his car and cat were released, and his wife's death was attributed to heart failure. But while the case should have ended there, it was only beginning. In June, Kurtz and other members of the Critical Art Ensemble were brought before the Grand Jury and again investigated on the charge of bio-terrorism. Again it was found that there was no evidence that any members of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) had been involved in bio-terrorism. Nonetheless, their case was referred to a Federal District Court and on July 8, 2004 the Federal District Court in Buffalo charged the Defendants with four counts of mail and wire fraud, charges connected with the purchase of the inert biological material used in their installation work. Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, the researcher who helped the CAE procure the biological material, has similarly been indicted. They were enjoined from performance, travel, or even speaking about the case. In addition, Mr. Kurtz has been subject to random visits from a probation officer and to periodic drug tests.

On March 17, 2005, Steven Barnes, also a founding member of the CAE, was served a subpoena to appear before a Federal Grand Jury in Buffalo. According to the subpoena, the FBI is once again "seeking charges under section 175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 as expanded by the USA PATRIOT ACT -- charges which a previous Grand Jury appeared to reject when they handed down indictments of mail and wire fraud last summer."[5] Autonomedia, the independent book company which publishes and distributes books written by the Critical Art Ensemble, as well as books by theorists like Foucault and Deleuze, has also been under investigation. Records of mail orders, purchases, editorial reports and the press's correspondence have all been subpoenaed.

Kurtz's hearing was originally set for January 11, 2005, and was postponed to give the Defense an opportunity to review the Prosecution's case. It was postponed a second time at the Prosecution's request. As I mentioned earlier, Kurtz and Ferrell have been charged with four counts of mail and wire fraud (US Criminal Code Title 18; US Code Sections 1341 and 1343), which each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Charges of mail and wire fraud are normally brought against those defrauding others of money and property, like telemarketers who try to sell unwitting consumers swamp land in Florida or Web scams that try to persuade respondents to authorize fictive bank transactions by giving them real bank account information. As the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) Defense website (www.caedefensefund.org) points out, historically these laws have been used when the government could not prove other criminal charges (Marcus Garvey, for example, was indicted under similar charges).

It is clear from both the indictment and the statutes, however, that what Ferrell and Kurtz did WAS, strictly speaking, a breach of contract. Prof Ferrell identified himself as the "primary researcher" to be using the compounds on the application form which he submitted when purchasing the materials. And he signed a document acknowledging that the material could be used in his laboratory only. Such breaches of contract with a seller, however, are usually matters of civil suits, not federal cases; and while they may involve a fine, there is no risk of a lengthy prison term.

At the time of this writing, there is cause for cautious optimism. On May 17, 2005 in Buffalo, Judge Kenneth Schroeder heard motions to dismiss the federal charges against Kurtz. Defense Attorney Paul Cambria argued that "a dangerous precedent would be set by 'exalting' into a federal criminal case of wire and mail fraud what is at best a minor civil contract issue -- the purchase of the bacterium Serratia marcescens by scientist Robert Ferrell for use by Kurtz in his artwork. Judge Schroeder seemed to agree, asking Federal District Attorney Wiliam Hochul whether an underage youth who uses the internet to purchase alcohol across state lines, for example, should be subject to federal wire fraud charges. 'Yes,' Hochul answered after some hedging, and Schroeder chuckled. 'Wow, that really opens up a Pandora's Box, wouldn't you say?' he asked.

Schroeder also asked Hochul whether there are any federal regulations concerning Serratia. Hochul admitted that there aren't. ("The alleged danger of Serratia forms the basis of the government's argument for making this a federal case, rather that simply allowing the bacterium's provider to pursue civil remedies"). In the course of the hearing, Cambria further argued that "FBI intentionally misled a judge into issuing the original search warrant. That judge was never told of Kurtz's lengthy, credible and complete explanation of what the seized bacterial substances were being used for, nor of the fact that Kurtz tasted Serratia in front of an officer to prove it was harmless. Also the judge was told of Kurtz's possession of a photograph of an exploded car with Arabic writing beside it, but not of the photograph's context: an invitation to an important museum art show. The photograph, by artists the Atlas Group, was one of several exhibited pieces pictured on the invitation."

As the CAE website is quick to point out, however, "the apparent courtroom victory" for the Defense does not necessarily mean that Judge Schroeder will grant any of the defense motions. And if he does, it is likely that the Prosecution will appeal the case. Whatever the outcome of the May 17 hearing, "it will not come quickly: rulings in such hearings typically take two or three months." In the meantime, Steven Barnes is still under indictment for bio-terrorism, and the cost of the case is rising at a ruinous rate. The defense so far has cost the Critical Art Ensemble $60,000. (http://www.caedefensefund.org/releases/051705_Release.html)

The Scientific Community has been alarmed by the case. Despite the fact that scientists are enjoined, by the letter of law, from sending compounds through the mail to other unauthorized labs, they do it on a regular basis. "I am absolutely astonished," said Donald A. Henderson, Dean Emeritus of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and resident scholar at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "Based on what I have read and understand, Professor Kurtz has been working with totally innocuous organisms...to discuss something of the risks and threats of biological weapons -- more power to him as those of us in the field are likewise concerned about their potential use and the threat of bio-terrorism." Henderson noted that the organisms involved in the case -- Serratia marcescens and Bacillus atrophaeus do not appear on lists of substances that could be used in biological terrorism.

Natalie Jeremijenko, a University of California San Diego Professor of Design Engineering, noted that scientists ship material to each other all the time. "I do it. My lab students do it. It's a basis of academic collaboration. They're going to have to indict the entire scientific community" (quoted at www.caedefensefund.org).

Some believe the entire case is a face-saving tactic of the FBI. Others see the intent as a much more insidious attack on the art world. "It's really going to have a chilling effect on the type of work people are going to do in this arena and other arenas as well," noted Steven Halpern, a SUNY Buffalo law professor who specializes in constitutional law. Clearly the Arts community agrees. Since June 2004, the art community has mounted public events in support of the CAE Defense Fund. On April 17, 2005, the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York hosted a benefit auction which attracted donations from some of the biggest names in the contemporary art world--including Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman, Martha Rossler, Sol LeWitt, Kiki Smith, Chris Burden and many others. Even fairly conservative organizations, like the College Art Association have come out in favor of Kurtz in what appears to be a clear case of artistic and academic freedom. CAA has been running updates about the case on its website since May, 2004. And for awhile it provided links to the CAE Defense Website.

The Critical Art Ensemble

The Critical Art Ensemble is a collective of 5 artists of various specializations dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics and critical theory. Drawing on feminist theory, as well as the theoretical writings of Hardt and Negri, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Adorno, Stuart Hall, and Walter Benjamin, The Critical Art Ensemble has consistently seen its mission as one of education and provocation. Seeking alternately to inform audiences about the corporate influences that affect our lives and to inspire people to what it calls "electronic disobedience," The CAE is one of the latest practitioners of an avant-garde art tradition that has extended from the early work of the Dadas and Surrealists to contemporary performance art. They are also indebted in no small measure to both the cinematic and political work of Jean-Luc Godard.

They formed in 1987; originally from Tallahassee, they soon moved into the Eastern urban scene and became participants in a fin-de-siècle cultural formation that elsewhere I have called "Downtown art."[6] They have made films, done theater, produced installations and written books. Along with other downtown artists like Kathy Acker, Amos Poe, Patti Smith, David Wojnarowicz and others, they share a commitment to formal and narrative experimentation, a view of the human body as a site of social and political struggle, an intense interest in radical identity politics, and a mistrust of institutionalized mechanisms of wealth and power. And while they have not participated in the taste-transgressive productions that people like Nick Zedd favor (where art cinema meets true in-your-face, gross-out aesthetics), they have consistently challenged the normatization of middle class taste-culture and the politics of affect which usually accompanies it.

Their earliest productions were what might be called "traditional" avant-garde art. That is to say they were made for people with a certain kind of cultural capital, who could easily get the references and enjoy the joke. The film "Excremental Culture" (1988), for example, references Duchamp's famous urinal, as well as Freud's notion that feces frequently equal money in the neurotic imaginary. "Godard Revisted" (1987) is a 5 minute pastiche of the Eve Democracy segment in Godard's edgy 1968 film "Sympathy for the Devil" (a.k.a "One Plus One"). "Speed and Violence" (1987) is a nod to the theory of Paul Virilio and to the experimental collage film technique of Bruce Conner.

In the 1990s, CAE's work took an interventionist turn. Following Godard's famous dictum, elaborated inTout va bien (1972),[7] they moved away from making political art towards making art politically. That is, they stopped making films which merely had overt political content and started making cultural products which directly intervene in the Spectacle. In one famous project, for example, they procured a number of GameBoys, which they reprogrammed along more Reichian lines. Here, the end goal for the player is to reach a brothel. She receives information that will help her, as well as game points, by running the numbers, selling crack and so on.[8] The CAE placed these "improved" games, which they call "Super Kid Fighter" back on store shelves in time for the Christmas shopping season. Similarly, they built a series of contestational robots, which distribute pamphlets on street corners, spray graffiti slogans, and perform other political acts for which human agents are frequently arrested.[9] In 1994 they updated Debord's notion of the spectacle and elaborated a plan for digital civil disobedience, a move which led participants at the Terminal Futures conference in London to accuse them of "terrorism."[10]

While CAE advocates denying corporate and political agencies access to data and information (through hacking and online political intervention), they have increasingly seen their mission as one of increasing the public's access to data and information (information which, they believe, the power structure would like to deny consumer-citizens). In service of this educational mission, CAE's recent installation work, computer websites, and theater pieces have taken both their art and the very concept of "artistic production" in radical directions. And this has provided something of a challenge to the affect-ive politics usually embraced by cultural institutions like museums and theaters. For one thing, members of the CAE don't call themselves "artists," but rather "tactical media practitioners."[11] And it's clear that they see their role more in terms of political engagement than they do in terms of formal experimentation.

If CAE has to pick a label, we prefer 'tactical media practitioners.' However, in keeping with this tendency we use labels in a tactical manner. If the situation is easier to negotiate using the label 'artist,' then we will use it; if it's better to use 'activist' or 'theorist' or 'cultural worker,' then we will use those labels. Regardless of the label, our activities stay the same...

The label that best taps the knowledge resources of the audience is the one we try to choose. A lot of this problem has to do with the social constructions of the roles of artist and activist. For the most part, these roles are placed within a specialized division of labor, where one role, segment or territory is clearly separated from the other. We view ourselves as hybrids in terms of role. To CAE, the categories of artist and activist are not fixed, but liquid, and can be mixed into a variety of becomings. To construct these categories as static is a great drawback because it prevents those who use them from being able to transform themselves to meet particularized needs."[12]

The five principles of tactical media as outlined by the CAE are as follows:

Clearly these tactics put the CAE at odds with the traditional politics of theaters and art museums, which generally rely on notions of expertise, the sacralization of space, and the assurety that certain forms of knowledge are appropriate to specific historic situations (putting Surrealist techniques in historical context makes them seem like a necessary response to an admittedly grim historical situation, for example). They also, however, dictate a different affect-ive relationship between viewer and cultural object than the ones that museums routinely favor -- and highly different notions of both the viewer and the object itself.

If you've been to any large museum shows in the U.S. lately, you will probably have encountered the study area that is usually spatially situated at the end of the exhibit, just before the room where you're invited to buy mugs, mousepads and notecards. Generally there is a table or bench that has copies of the exhibit catalogue and other books by and about the artists whose work you've just seen. There may be some art history texts or a copy of Aperture magazine. In more explicitly political shows, there may be books of political theory as well. At a recent exhibit at the Smart Museum on the University of Chicago campus, for example, I ran across Hardt and Negri's Empire, Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, some works by Foucault and Derrida's book on Marx in the study area -- and people were indeed reading this selection of continental political theory.

It is the geographic placement of the study area that interests me. In most museum shows, it comes as I've said, at the end of the exhibit. And while throughout the exhibit itself, there may be placards or notes guiding you to read a work of art in a certain way, or there may be historical contextualization provided, for the most part the pure "aesthetic" experience of the work is privileged over academic discourse, and over intellectualization of the art. In this way, I would argue that museum culture -- and to some degree mainstream theater, as well -- privileges affect and sets the intellectual aspects of the work apart -- in the study area, or in notes included in your program or out in the lobby. I should say here, though, that avant-garde theater and some experimental exhibition culture does have a tradition of directly instructing the audience.

What the CAE has done in its most recent installation work has been to move the study area front and center, to make it an integral part of the art exhibit itself. What you see when you enter a CAE exhibit is something that looks like an open science classroom. There's art on the walls, and video installations and digital displays, but there are also computer terminals and science experiments set up for you to do, and a group of artists dressed like lab assistants who are there to help you.[14]

A major part of the CAE's current project is to demystify science, "to provide a tactile relationship to the material" which goes beyond reproduction. To that end, the artists guide you to do hands-on work that will give you the tools you/ we/all of us need in order to understand the political and social economy of science/technology in our present age. Not only is the object itself different here -- since the CAE makes no distinction between the traditional art on the wall of the exhibit and the science lesson you the viewer complete on the computer terminal -- but clearly the notion of audience is radicalized. "Viewers" of a CAE exhibit are more like participants, and in the sense that the finished "work" of art -- the finished product -- is the sum of all the contributions viewers have made via experiments and computer screens, they can be seen as co-producers as well.

The use of biological compounds in these installations is key to helping participants understand the risks and dangers of biologically-engineered food, to cite the example of one show, or of true bio-terrorism, the show they were preparing when Steve Kurtz was arrested.[15] Here, participants really do perform chemistry experiments, with the guidance of the CAE cultural workers. Mixing materials and looking through microscopes, museum visitors can see first-hand what happens when you mutate or "modify" certain cells, can see first hand what the basic structure of that apple you've just given your child actually resembles. In a sense this is "autopsy" art. It depends -- as Stan Brakhage's famously disturbing avant-garde film of an autopsy does -- on "the act of seeing with one's own eyes" (the literal meaning of the term "autopsy"). But as in Brakhage's film, the act of visual examination in CAE pieces encroaches radically on what is normally considered the proper bounds of art and of taste.

As I've hinted above, the CAE's engagement with the affect-ive politics of space and product frequently tips over into the realm of taste politics. Their play, Flesh Machine, which is about eugenics, opens with a biology lecture -- delivered without irony -- to the audience. As Rebecca Schneider points out, "CAE finds the lecture to be both the gentlest and most reliable entry into what quickly becomes a more complexly challenging event." In the second act, the audience becomes more involved -- this is the lab part of the production, where spectators participate in actual laboratory processes and encounter various models of artificial reproduction. For this section, CAE builds its own "cryolab" to house living human tissue for potential cloning, so that audience members become hands-on genetic engineers.[16] Also during Act 2, audience members sit at monitors and take a standardized test to assess their individual suitability to be further reproduced through donor DNA, cytoplasm, and/or surrogacy. If they "pass" the test, they are given a certificate of genetic merit. They can even donate cell samples and tissue to lab technicians there at the site, if they wish their DNA to be stored for some real (non-theatrical) eugenics project. "The artists have been collecting photos of audience members who 'pass' this standardized test, and they claim that the similarities among those deemed fit for reproduction is astounding. By now they can predict 'passes' just by looking at them: straight-looking white white-collars, usually male."[17]

"After this hands-on cell-sharing experience, the audience re-assembles as a group for the close of the performance. This final section of Flesh Machine is intended to underscore the class politics, economics, and logic of human commodification implicated in eugenics," writes Rebecca Schneider in a passage which is worth quoting at length.

At this point, CAE presents a frozen embryo to their audience -- an embryo that CAE inherited from a couple who no longer needed their eggs. A live image of the embryo is projected through a video beam onto a screen. The image has a clock marking the time the embryo has until it is 'evicted' from its clinical cryotank. If enough money is raised to pay the rent (approximately $60) on the cryotank through the performance, the embryo will live. If not, it will be 'terminated.'

Put another way, if no one buys the embryo, it dies.

CAE then takes donations from the audience. To date, every performance has ended with the death-by-melting of the embryo. This part of the performance, CAE claims, speaks for itself -- though on more than one occasion CAE has had to speak in the wake of their actions. In Vienna, for instance, they found themselves on national TV debating the ethical implications of 'embryo murder' with the Archbishop of Salzburg live via satellite."[18]

What Schneider calls the "death-by-melting" of a live embryo as part and parcel of a live theater performance clearly pushes the envelope on the norms of good taste, even those that have already been stretched by theatrical representations of similarly controversial actions. And it is precisely because the CAE has been so spectacularly willing to violate the norms of artistic good taste that their work has been so controversial (this more than the political content gets them into trouble with the art world). Encroaching vigorously on low culture (not in a playful safe way, the way someone like Jeff Koons encroaches on porn, but in a profoundly disturbing way), the CAE's work is frequently criticized as not being art at all.[19]

Final Acts

The title of this article is "When Taste Politics Meet Terror." I have put the two terms "taste politics" and "terror" together, not in order to suggest a causal link (implying that the CAE was specifically targeted because of the radical content of their work, as some commentators have claimed) -- but I do believe that the content of their work and their entire demystification project has made them vulnerable to the law -- particularly in these post 9/11 times.

As Stephanie Kane has argued, the current political regime of the U.S depends on a certain illusory performance art of its own -- a mimesis of control, if you will -- to gain legitimacy for its post 9/11 policies. Central to that performance of control is the demonstration of containment. That is, people have to believe that biological compounds can be policed, regulated and contained, that their circulation can be controlled -- if only we're vigilant enough and give up enough of our civil liberties -- in order for the system to work. If organisms can travel outside the bounds that are policed, then the metaphors that organize the discourse of bioterrorism and public safety -- at least in the U.S. -- are challenged. (The links to the control of other substances-like recreational drugs- are interesting here -- as I mentioned earlier, as part of his current status, Steve Kurtz is subject to random drug tests, presumably because he is a substance offender).

In that sense this case is more about the system than it is about the people critiquing the system. The FBI didn't set out to bust the Critical Art Ensemble, but once the compounds were found they weren't able to drop the case. In the most blatant and simple way, what the CAE has done through the very materiality of its art is challenge the illusion of government control -- "you can't control the commerce of this stuff; through our art, we make it obvious you can't." As Stephanie Kane has noted, this case is really about the battle for and over the political unconscious of the U.S., and the ways in which art can tap into (or at least temporarily intersect with) that unconscious.

But there's more here that needs to be unpacked here. Progressives have been arguing against the Bush Administration and fighting it within a territorialized flow of logic. Our attention is continually drawn to artifacts (the pictures from Abu Ghraib, the testimony of human rights organizations, and in this case, the results of chemical tests) and to outcomes/results (the pathetically tiny number of actual terrorists caught) to prove the moral and political bankruptcy of the current political machine. Oppositional political discourse -- in the States anyway -- seems frozen in a concomitant territorialized zone of disbelief. We don't understand how the Bush Administration could start the Iraq war in the face of so much global opposition (our attention drawn by even mainstream news broadcasts to the marchers in London, in Paris, in Rome, in New York), we don't understand why it continues to pursue a strategy that is financially and politically (in the international arena anyway) ruinous, we don't understand why it can't simply admit a mistake and let the CAE continue their activities in peace.

But that's because we're not taking the nature of the political machine as machine seriously. In her article "Reflection on the Case," Claire Pentecost writes:

One can imagine that investigative agencies and U.S. attorneys are under enormous economic pressure to produce results in the "War Against Terror." To put it crudely, in the last three and a half years, probably nothing has influenced promotions and funding more.[20]

But she moves from this observation back into a territorialized discourse which critiques the Administration's actions on the basis of logical outcomes -- the racist nature of the incarceration process, the incompetence (in terms of procedures and convictions) of the military and the police, the "shame of ... [the U.S. Justice Dept's] waste."

If you've read much Deleuze and Guattari you probably see where I'm going with this. Ironically I myself didn't until I read a news article the other night. Journalist Ted Rall reported on the terrifying case of 2 teenaged girls from Queens who have been arrested -- one for rebelling against parental authority and the other for an essay she wrote as part of a school assignment. According to reliable news sources, "'the FBI says both girls are an imminent threat to the security of the United States based upon evidence that they plan to become suicide bombers.'" The feds admit that they have no hard evidence to back their suspicions. Nothing. Just an essay written for a school assignment and parental claims that one girl was defiant of authority. "'There are doubts about these claims, and no evidence has been found that... a plot was in the works,' one Bush administration official admitted to the [New York] Times . 'The arrests took place after authorities decided it would be better to lock up the girls than wait and see if they decided to become terrorists.'"

Rall writes that he himself defied his mother's authority when he was a teenager and wrote school essays which betrayed his fascination with "morbid, violent subjects." During the calmer days of his youth, however, nothing much happened -- a few quarrels with his mother, a trip to the school principal's office. But for these girls the case is much different. They are both facing possible deportation to countries they have never seen (their parents are immigrants), because "this is post-9/11 America and post 9/11 America is out of its mind."[21]

Out of its mind. Crazy. Schizophrenia. Schizoanalysis. That was more or less the thought chain that brought me back to Deleuze and Guattari.

In terms of political analysis, we need to return to the notion of desiring machines, to Deleuze and Guattari's idea of deterritorialized flows of desire. Put in terms that some of my political friends would find more congenial, we need to focus our analytical attention more on processes than on products, but in such a way that logic is not taken to be the defining feature of process (so that if you show something doesn't make logical sense, you expect that everyone will just say "oh all right then, release the prisoners and bring the soldiers home"). One thing that the Vietnam war should have taught us about political activism is that these policies are not about logic. And they are not sold to the American people on the basis of logic. Instead they belong to that economy of flows by which political economy and libidinal economy are seen as inextricably linked. That economy whereby "the rule of continually producing production" (be it the production of terror or terrorists or criminals) is the dominant mode.[22] This is production for its own sake, production without a "logical" goal. That is what we're up against under the current regime -- the desiring machine of the State, what Foucault might call "governmentality" -- with a particular schizo-twist.

This doesn't mean that no action is possible. At the conclusion of his preface to Anti-Oedipus, Michel Foucault writes:

...if I were to make this great book into a manual or guide to everyday life:

What we need to begin doing under this set of guidelines is to turn our analytical attention away from logic (especially as it relates to social and political outcomes) and to begin thinking instead about desire. We have to begin analyzing the function of desire, both within our own political organizations and within the State-controlled agencies whose legitimacy we question.

This is a much more radical project than the one that most political organizations on the left are currently undertaking. And it is one which will bring us closer to both the affective and political projects of the Critical Art Ensemble -- whose art can be read in Deleuzian terms as a combination of artistic machine, revolutionary machine, and analytical machine.

I began this article with an epigram. A quote by Artaud. Artaud -- who later in life went mad, went as far as he could go toward dissolving his own sense of ego -- is the schiz who here provides the point of departure and the point of destination. In 1938, Artaud called for a theatre that would be like the plague. Not a nice theatre. Not a theatre that respects boundaries and limits. Not a theatre that waits for the appropriate time to mount its dark myths. A theatre, an art, that is truly radical and which can, therefore, make a difference. He called such theater the theater of cruelty. The current political regime of the U.S. sometimes calls it a theater of terror.

Support the CAE

In very material terms, we need to try to help the CAE. Whatever judicially happens to Steve Kurtz, Professor Ferrell and the members of the CAE, they may never recover financially from this case (this is true despite the incredible generosity shown by the art world). The defense cost at the time of this writing is over $60,000. The additional cost in cancelled appearances and lost work is staggering. Even if the group is acquitted, it is highly unlikely that the kinds of institutions who can afford to bear some of the costs of mounting their shows (like Universities and grant-receiving public art agencies) will be willing to book them and hence possibly come under scrutiny themselves, unless we put pressure on them to do so. And in material political terms, this is a place to start. In recent months Kurtz and members of the CAE have begun making limited fundraising appearances. If you are connected with an organization that might be able to arrange a fundraiser or visit, log on to the CAE defense fund website (www.caedefensefund.org), and when you are casting about for something interesting to read, take a look at the Autonomedia catalogue (www.autonomedia.org), and remember that this radically theoretical press is itself still under threat.


An earlier version of this article was presented as part of the "Politics of Affect/Politics of Terror" American Studies Series at Indiana University, Bloomington, Feb. 17, 2005. A revised version was presented at the annual meeting of Society for Cinema and Media Studies, London, March 31-April 3, 2005. I would like to thank Andrew Allred, Chris Dumas, Skip Hawkins, Jonathan Haynes, Stephanie Kane, Lin Tian and the students of my G604 class for their help and suggestions.

[1] Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double. Trans Mary Caroline Richards. (New York: Grove Press, 1958) 79. Originally published in French by Galliomard, 1938.

[2] Charlie Victor Romeo finally came to Columbus in 2002 (May 29-June 2).

[3] Joan Hawkins. "When Bad Girls Do French Theory," in Life in the Wires: The CTheory Reader, Arthur & Marilouise Kroker, eds. Victoria (Canada): NWP, 2004. p. 202

[4] Joan Hawkins. Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

[5] See "Auction to Support Indicted Artist" (April 13,2005) www.caedefensefund.org/auction.html. Accessed April 13,2005.

[6] Joan Hawkins. "Dark, Disturbing, Intelligent, Provocative and Quirky: Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1980s and 1990s," in Contemporary American Independent Film, Christine Holmlund & Justin Wyatt, eds. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

[7] In Tout va bien, a filmmaker played by Yves Montand, explains the difference between making political films and making films politically. Political films are films which have leftist content and pretensions but are made within the system they mean to critique. Making films politically is a more radical gesture, one which calls traditional modes of production into question and which attempt to intervene directly in the spectacle.

[8] For more information on this and for instructions for turning any GameBoy into what CAE calls "Super Kid Fighter," see Critical Art Ensemble, Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media, New York: Autonomedia, 2001. p.144, 146.

[9] See Critical Art Ensemble, README:ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge, New York: Autonomedia, 1999.

[10] Critical Art Ensemble. "Mythology of Terrorism on the Net." www.t0.or.at/cae/mnterror.htm, 1995.

[11] It is interesting to note that while the CAE still views itself as a media group, they have received very little academic or critical attention from media scholars. To date, the best and most complete analysis of their work has appeared in drama journals. See particularly Rebecca Scheider's articles in The Drama Review . The Drama Review articles are archived at muse.jhu.edu/journals/tdr

[12] Ryan Griffis. "Tandom Surfing the Third Wave," Lumpen #81. p. 2.

[13] Jon McKenzie and Rebecca Schneider. "Tactical Media Practitioners," The Drama Review, Winter 2000, Vol 44, issue 4.

[14] For photos from the actual installations, go to www.gene-sis.net/artists_cae.html

[15] The importance of this work can hardly be over-stated. As I was working on this section of the essay, I took a break and went upstairs. My husband was watching the "Democracy Now" news program, and as my foot touched the top step I heard Amy Goodman announce that Monsanto had tried to suppress a report which shows biological and structural change and damage in chickens fed an exclusive diet of genetically engineered corn. The chickens developed misshapen organs and had irregularities in their blood. ("Democracy Now," May 23, 2005. www.democracynow.org)

[16] Rebecca Schneider. "Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble" The Drama Review, Winter 2000, vol 44 issue 4, p. 2.

[17] Rebecca Schneider. "Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble" The Drama Review, Winter 2000, vol 44 issue 4, p. 3.

[18] Rebecca Schneider. "Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble" The Drama Review, Winter 2000, vol 44 issue 4, p. 3.

[19] One thing I've found both interesting and disturbing is that while the CAE still uses media as an intrinsic part of its art and advocates media activism, critical writing on the group has moved outside the realm of media studies altogether. As far as I can tell, independent filmmaker Gregg Bordowitz and I are the only media people working on the group, even though many of my colleagues use CAE's essays on documentary and the net in their classes. And neither Bordowitz nor I are publishing our work on the CAE in the major film and media publications. In fact when I submitted an essay to a film and video journal, I was advised to send it to Performing Arts Journal instead. Most of the critical and scholarly work on the CAE has appeared in theory-forums like CTheory or performance journals like The Drama Review.

[20] Claire Pentecost. "Reflections on the Case," 2005. www.caedefesnefund.org/reflections.html. p. 1.

[21] Ted Rall. "Teen Terrorists." The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2005.

[22] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Robert Hurley, Mark Seem & Helen R. Lane, trans., Preface Michel Foucault. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. p. 7.

[23] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Robert Hurley, Mark Seem & Helen R. Lane, trans., Preface Michel Foucault. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. p. xiv. italics mine.


Artaud, Antonin. 1958.The Theater and Its Double. Trans. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Press. Originally published in French by Gallimard, 1938.

Critical Art Ensemble. 1995. "Mythology of Terrorism on the Net" (www.t0.or.at/cae/mnterror.htm) Accessed March 26, 2005.

-- 1999. README:ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge. New York: Autonomedia.

-- 2001. Digital Resistance:Explorations in Tactical Media. New York: Autonomedia

Debord, Guy. 1967. La société du spectacle. Paris: Editions Buchet-Chastel. English translation 1970, 1977.Society of the Spectacle. Translation Black and Red Publishing. Detroit: Black and Red

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1983 Anti-.Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. Preface Michel Foucault. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1991. "Governmentality" in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Eds. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 87-104.

Griffis, Ryan, 2001. "Tandom Surfing the Third Wave: Critical Art Ensemble and Tactical Media Production." Lumpen #81. Archived at www.lumpen.com/magazine/81/critical art ensemble.shtml. Accessed 8/12/04.

Hawkins, Joan. 2005. "Dark, Disturbing, Intelligent, Provocative and Quirky: Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1980s and 1990s." Contemporary American Independent Film, Eds. Christine Holmlund and Justin Wyatt. London and New York: Routledge.

-- 2004. "When Bad Girls Do French Theory." Life in the Wires: The CTheory Reader. Eds. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. Victoria, Canada. NWP Books. 192-206.

-- 2000. Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde . Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Kane, Stephanie. 2002. "Putting Public Health at the Center of Homeland Defense: A Semiotic Analysis of Bioterrorism." Unpublished ms. Presented at the annual meetings of the American Society of Criminology in Chicago and the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, New Orleans, November 2002.

McKenzie, Jon and Rebecca Schneider. 2000. "Tactical Media Practitioners," The Drama Review; Winter 2000, Vol 44 issue 4 p. 136, 15 p. Archived at web20.epnet.com/citation.asp?tb=1& ug=sid+67EFIBF%2D866752D41B5%2D. Accessed 8/122004.

Pentecost, Claire. 2005. "Reflections on the Case." www.caedefesnefund.org/reflections.html. Accessed 5/18/05.

Rall, Ted. "Teen Terrorists." The Progressive Populist (June 1, 2005) 19.

Schneider, Rebecca. 2000. "Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble" The Drama Review; Winter 2000, vol 44 issue 4, p 120, 12 p. Archived at web20.epnet.com/citation/asp?tb=1&_ug=sid+67EOF1BF%2D8667%2D41B5%2D Accessed 8/12/2004.

The United States of America v. Steven Kurtz and Robert Ferrell. May 2004 Grand Jury Indictment 04-CR-155E. Found at the Critical Art Ensemble Defense website. www.caedefensefund.org

Joan Hawkins is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University Bloomington. She is the author of Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde, (University of Minnesota Press, 2000) and is currently working on a book on Todd Haynes.

She is a frequent contributor to CTheory.