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The Political Problem of Luck

Julia Bryan-Wilson talks to Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble, the artist pursued by the US government as a suspected terrorist.

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Public disasters spawn stories about luck, both good and bad. In the aftermath of the July 7 bombings in London in 2005, I heard about a woman who stopped to pick up her dry cleaning and missed her regular train (she lived). Then there was the man who walked quicker than usual to work and just happened to catch an earlier one (he died). Again and again, we are reminded of the fateful consequences of our arbitrary decisions. We rely upon “chance” to narrate the fact that so much cannot be controlled, that often we must give ourselves up to the contingencies and ongoing collisions between the felicities and infelicities that rule our lives. What, then, is the difference between chance and luck? How do we make sense of accidental circumstance in a time when we are told relentlessly of the paradoxical nature of terrorism, which is at once “random” (in terms of the victims it claims) yet is also assuredly and rigorously planned?

These questions seemed particularly apt for Steve Kurtz, a member of the Critical Art Ensemble and associate professor of art at SUNY Buffalo. Kurtz’s work with CAE has explored the intertwining of corporate and state interests in fields such as biotechnology and digital surveillance.

In preparation for an exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004, Kurtz was working in his home studio with harmless bacteria for the CAE project on genetically modified foods, “Free Range Grains.” On May 11, Kurtz woke up to find that his wife Hope had died of a heart attack. He called 911. When the police arrived, they noticed the lab equipment and petri dishes and called in the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The FBI promptly detained Kurtz; confiscated his computer, art materials, books, car, and cat; and quarantined his house.

The US Justice Department has aggressively pursued Kurtz—first as a suspected bioterrorist, now on several counts of wire and mail fraud—despite a wave of international outrage that has called for the state to admit its mistake and drop the case. Kurtz is currently standing trial for four charges of wire fraud; each carries a maximum sentence of twenty years.

I conducted this interview with Kurtz via email.


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