Monday, March 12, 2007

Steve Kurtz and Strange Culture

The White House press corps made an event of President Bush's reading of Camus's The Stranger; too bad the President didn't sample Franz Kafka instead. His administration have fully implemented that universe in spades.

Which leads me to --

* Strange Culture (2007) -- A challenging, engaging and rigorously intelligent film wedding of reality and fictionalized reality, imaginatively synthesized as in the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor (2003). Strange Culture is a far more disturbing and chilling political animal, a carefully orchestrated integration of documentary material and dramatized docudrama that touches upon subversive activist art, genetically-modified foods, the collusion of government and corporate cultures, and the post-9/11 police state’s curtailment of civil rights, freedom of speech and personal liberties.

On May 11, 2004, the life of Buffalo, NY-based artist and professor Steve Kurtz was irrevocably derailed by the unexpected death in bed (of heart failure) of his wife Hope. Calling 911 for an ambulence, Kurtz quickly found himself under arrest as a suspected bioterrorist when medics became alarmed at the scientific equipment in Kurtz’s home essential to the couple’s upcoming Mass MoCa art exhibition (including petri dishes, bacteria cultures, etc.). Within hours, Hope’s body was impounded and their home quarentined by FBI agents in Hazmat suits, confiscating anything (including computers, files, books, and equipment) considered suspicious. He has been plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare existence ever since, compliments of the FBI and US Justice Department. Kurtz and his collaborators in the Critical Art Ensemble target the ongoing corporate proliferation of genetically-modified crops and food, in which the American populace are reduced to consumer/experimental subjects, with no concern for public safety or the potential consequences; CAE’s exhibitions invite and involve the viewer/participant in active educational as well as aesthetic processes, and inherently cultivates ongoing relations between artists and scientists. Presently, both Kurtz and the couple’s frequent scientific collaborator Dr. Robert Ferrell (former Chair of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health’s Genetics Department) are awaiting trial on charges of mail fraud -- per the Bush Administration’s modus operandi, the initial charges of bioterrorism were dropped, though prosecution is preceding, sans trial date, on lesser fraud charges (in which, incredibly, no entity was defrauded!).

This cinematic tapestry was most likely initiated by filmmaker Lynn Hershman-Leeson (Conceiving Ada, Teknolust) to cover narrative essentials Kurtz isn’t legally permitted to discuss publicly, given the U.S. Government’s pending trial. But the technique -- in which actor Thomas Jay Ryan (of Henry Fool, Michel Moyse’s Cowards, etc.) plays Kurtz, Tilda Swinton plays his now-deceased wife Hope, Peter Coyote stands in for Ferrell, etc., and the actors subsequently appear as themselves, discussing the case -- is of a piece with Kurtz’s art (note this technique was initiated in the ‘60s by, I think, Jean-Luc Godard, and by Ingmar Bergman in En Passion/The Passion of Anna, 1969). As Kurtz himself notes at one point, the extraordinary circumstances that he was immediately plunged into in the wake of Hope’s death have manifested as various hyper-realities that are “performative” in nature. Hershman-Leeson’s film is just one of those hyper-realities, and perhaps among the most useful, therapeutic and potentially redemptive of them -- especially if Strange Culture succeeds in bringing wider attention to this gross abuse of post 9/11 government power and prosecution, which rocks to the core our presumption of living in a democracy. Still, there is nothing ‘performative’ about Kurtz’s real-life situation -- or his ongoing grief for Hope’s death, which gently frames this extraordinary, adventurous documentary. Essential viewing!

  • For more info, visit the film's official site.
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