June 18, 2007
Strange Culture, 2007
During the Q&A for Strange Culture, filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson explained that the unorthodox, mixed format approach to the film evolved organically as a result of the Department of Justice's ongoing prosecution of the film's primary subject, SUNY Buffalo arts professor and experimental artist, Steve Kurtz, that continues to limit his ability to fully participate in the film project by rendering him unable to discuss certain matters associated with the case. Ironically, this imbalancing, oddly structured, interweaving patchwork of real-life footage and actor-improvised sequences, documentation and deconstruction, appropriately complements the film's provocative exploration of the uneasy and disturbing broader social implications that have been raised by the federal government's zealous prosecution of Kurtz and co-defendant, University of Pittsburgh genetics professor, Robert Ferrell. Kurtz's neverending nightmare began on May 11, 2004 with a personal tragedy: the sudden death of his wife and creative collaborator Hope from heart failure. Summoning 911 for help after discovering that his wife had stopped breathing, the police conduct a routine survey of their home and immediately find the collection of Petri dishes, bio-organic cultures, assorted unregulated (and non-hazardous) chemicals, and lab ovens that they had been using to create a bio-themed, interactive installation that had been commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, along with an invitation advertisement postcard for their art collective, the Critical Arts Ensemble that had been designed with calligraphic images that appeared to be Arabic writing. Alarmed by the unusual paraphernalia that had been discovered inside the home, the police call in federal agents, seal off the house, and impound Hope's body under suspicion of bioterrorism. However, despite concluding that the suspicious substances were innocuous and not used to build weapons of mass destruction, the government has refused to drop charges and instead, continues to pursue the case against Kurtz and technical adviser, Robert Ferrell, spearheaded in part by assistant district attorney, William Hochul, whose own career was, not surprisingly, fast tracked as a result of his successful prosecution of the Lackawanna Six. Combining elements of documentary, re-enactment, serial comics, and even metafilm, Strange Culture poses the integral question of artistic freedom in an age of aggressive and increasingly emboldened federal government prosecution. At the heart of Kurtz and Ferrell's legal quagmire is the implicit assault on free speech that the case represents, an attempt to intimidate and suppress work deemed critical of government policies (and by extension, policies within its alliances of special interest groups). Having collectively surrendered a measure of individual freedom under a demoralized and vulnerable climate of post 9/11 paranoia and an untenable war on terror, the compounding tragedy of Kurtz and Ferrell's case is a potent and harrowing reminder of the price exacted by our illusive search, not for a sense of security, but for an impossible return to innocence.