…CRITICAL ART ENSEMBLE…
Txt: Annamaria Monteverdi
Recombinant Theatre is the definition the US collective Critical Art Ensemble gave to his performing work . Founded in 1987 in Talahasse , Florida , by Hope and Steve Kurtz, Steve Barnes, Dorian Burr, Beverly Schlee , with the long-lasting cooperation of Beatriz da Costa , the Critical Art Ensamble defines itself as a collective of artists who explore the relations between art, technology, radical political activism and critical theory.
CAE ‘s actions and installations are linked to tactical media, with plagiarizing, boycotting and the creative and subversive re-appropriation of communication media ; recombinant is an adjective loved by the generation of media activists . Their texts, among which Electronic Civil Disobedience (with its famous motto Cyber rights now!) underlines the idea that an alternative tecno-culture can be created by an organized movement ( tactical media movement ) and by a real process of socialization of technological knowledge and “interventionism” (a word which the collective prefers to “commitment”), of “digital resistence”. But what does CAE mean by recombinant theatre ? A technoactivist theatre which combines the characteristics of guerrilla theatre and of social theatre to the most updated technologies of information transmission and electronic sabotage, net strike and virtual sit in. Their latest performances deals with biotechnologies and for that reason they set up real movable laboratories to question the ways current biology carries out its researches and the excesses of recombinant human, vegetable and animal DNA experimentation.
They denounce the economic speculations of pharmaceutical multinational companies and big food distribution chains. With this form of “science-theatre” the audience can listen to scientific conferences and witness real tests on in vitro fertilization and genetically modified organisms. Those are the topics of the book Molecular Invasion, pubished in copyleft by Autonomedia, which can be downloaded free (recently translated and published in Italy too).
In Free Range Grains an open lab is set up to verify if some food products distributed by supermarkets and brought by the audience to the performance contain GMOs. Because “scientific process has never been shown in public, just its miracle products. We want to bring routine scientific process to the public so that people can watch and touch.”
Cae has recently given its attention to the devastating effects of bacteriological experiments carried out in war programmes by Great Britain and the USA . In Germs of Deception (2005) CAE reproduces (in ways which are not harmful both for the environment and the audience) the conditions of a bacteriological experiment carried out by the USA in 1949 when a group of trained soldiers let in the air a bacterium Serratia marcescens to contaminate completely the surrounding environment. Same simulation for Marching plague , repeating the British experiments to test the plague as bacteriological weapon in the Isle of Lewis in 1952-1953.
In GenTerra Critical Art Ensemble stimulates the audience to create new forms of genetically modified bacteria “e-coli”, which are absolutely harmless and can be set free in the air or be brought home. The aim is to “demystify the whole genetic engineering procedure, to make the weight of the fear for transgenic science lighter and to draw the attention back to the political implications of research.
Because of a research on non-toxic bacteria culture which had been found in his home after his young wife’s Hope death for heart attack, Steve Kurtz was accused of bioterrorism first and of mail fraud. The well-known instance has been explained in this interview by the collective: because of the federal measure against terrorism (the notorious Patriot Act promoted after 11 th September 2001 which forbids the possession of “any kind of biological agent or toxin in a quantity which is not justified by preventive or protective research or for other peaceful objectives”) Kurtz now risks 20 years in jail. The international artistic community has now mobilized and a web site has been set up where one can join the international solidarity campaign.
Anna Maria Monteverdi: Critical Art Ensemble members call themselves tactical media practitioners. Can you explain what you mean by that term, and how you began using this model of cultural production?
Critical Art Ensemble: Tactical media is a term that originated in Holland in the mid-90s. The “tactical” part of the term is partly derived from de Certeau’s theories of every day life. Tactical media is anti-monumental, deterritorialized, and self-terminating. It does not attempt to colonize sites of meaning. It is ephemeral, rapidly emerging to create riots of semeosis and ideological subversions, and then melting away just as quickly.
The “media” part of the term refers to the fact that CAE does not work in a medium specific manner. We will use whatever medium or combination of media that will best communicate in a given situation. This is one reason why we work collectively, so that we will have numerous skill-sets to draw upon for our projects. CAE always worked this way even before we had a term to describe it. We use the method because it appears to us as the most democratic means of producing culture.
Anna Maria Monteverdi: Much of your early work and number of your books address electronic or digital resistance. Net strikes, online and virtual activism are new forms of communications and performitivity. What is the philosophy behind your performances, and what are the goals of such actions?
Critical Art Ensemble: One common thread in CAE’s work has been to show how the tools of oppression can be used for liberation. In the late 80s through the mid90s we were very interested in demonstrating how new information and communication technologies could be appropriated by resistant culture and used in ways for which they were never designed or intended. Currently, we are trying to show how the life sciences can be used for resistant purpose. This task is far more difficult as the level of alienation of people from these tools of production is much higher. People tend to be more skeptical and fearful of biotechnology, because unlike a computer, they are not very likely to interact with these technologies. At the same time, they see how much damage some of this technology is doing to the environment and to the social sphere. Many of our recent writings and projects have been designed to lower this level of alienation, and give people knowledge about and experience with the technology. We cannot let these powerful tools become the sole property of militaries and corporations.
Anna Maria Monteverdi: Are there previous theatrical and aesthetic models that influence the collective?
Critical Art Ensemble: There are no early models that are exactly like us because we have had to adapt to a very different newly emerging technosphere, but there are a some with which we share some cultural DNA and that were influential on our way of thinking such as the San Francisco Diggers, Augusto Boal and Theater of the Oppressed, elements of the Living Theater, and some of the performance that emerged out of the Feminist Art Movement in the 70s. In general, the Diggers, the Situationists, and Provos were of great influence on us because they were among the first to realize that cultural action had causal value, and that no resistant (or they thought revolutionary) political movement could succeed without a cultural parallel. Certainly one of the historical high points of this type of modeling was in Italy in the late 70s, and hopefully we are at point where such a model can fully bloom for a global movement against neoliberal culture and economy.
Anna Maria Monteverdi: Your latest works are real examples of Science Theater (such as GenTerra or Free Range Grains) as well as your performances linked to contestational biology. The socio-political debate about genetic manipulation is maturing. But how can performance show specific aspects of the scientific research? Could you give some example from your work?
Critical Art Ensemble: That is the beauty of quality web design. You can have a tremendous amount of information put into a digestible, entertaining package. The trick is to get participants to want to look at it. That means we have to convince them quickly they have a stake in the issue we are presenting. In projects like Free Range Grains or Molecular Invasion we can bring people into a larger discussion fairly easily because it has to do with food, and everyone has to eat. With a project like GenTerra, in which CAE is trying to discuss methods of risk assessment of genetically modified organisms the problem is more difficult. Here we had to create a minor “threat” by asking people to release genetically modified bacteria that we had engineered. The bacteria is completely harmless to the environment and to living things, but it sounds very frightening. People became very interested in risk assessment when they were faced with the decision of whether or not to release the bacteria.
Anna Maria Monteverdi: CAE’s mobile labs are supposedly designed to raise consciousness about the social problems regarding the environment, transgenics, reproductive technology and biological warfare. What do you hope people will come away with when they see one of your projects?
Critical Art Ensemble: We hope for a few things: First, that the technology will be demystified; second, that a participant will have a more reasoned (rather than emotive) relationship to critical social issues regarding biotechnology; third, that through participatory experience, they will see the stake they have in a given issue both individually and socially; and finally, the experience will encourage them to become politically active in regard to given issue.
Anna Maria Monteverdi: What is the reaction of the public when you ask members to perform as “biologists” or as “human testers?” Do you use particular strategies of participation for these actions?
Critical Art Ensemble: Most people don’t hesitate at all. The strategy is to perform in places where people go expecting to participate in an event. It can be a Natural History museum, a farmer’s market, or a local bar, just as long as people go to the place to do something and not just watch something.
Anna Maria Monteverdi: Do new developments in the life sciences offer positive potential or pose greater threats? And also, how do you combine artistic, political, and scientific gestures in a performance?
Critical Art Ensemble: Development in the life sciences cannot be stopped, but it can be guided. Whether a product or process is a threat or a blessing has to be examined on a case-by-case basis. There is no general position. The main problem is usually not knowledge or its product, but the way it is used within the current political-economy. Given the predatory nature of capitalism, almost anything can be a threat. The system is what needs to be changed, not the science.
ybridization is an easy process since it is the permanent state of becoming that we are all a part of. All objects and processes have elements of science, politics and art in or associated with them. We just call attention to all the elements in various proportions that make up these mixtures, rather than ignoring some categories and favoring others
Anna Maria Monteverdi: You usually do your performances in museums or at festivals with themes involving the life sciences or digital media. Have you also been invited to theatre festivals? Do you think traditional theater is a retrograde form because it resists any hybridizing with technology?
Critical Art Ensemble: We have been invited to theater festivals and conferences. Not many, but it has happened. At the events we have been at the presentations tend to be rather normalized, but I have found that event producers are willing to present just about anything we want once we have been invited. The theaters tend to have some of the best technology available for performance, it just that they don’t typically use it for radical ends and experiments. Theater in general is by no means technophobic.
Anna Maria Monteverdi: You have been accused of being a “bioterrorist”. Could you say something about that tragic event?
Critical Art Ensemble: Steve’s ordeal was one of many tragedies suffered as a result of the policies of the neoconservatives and the burgeoning US security state post-911, including the policy of “preventive justice” at the Department of Justice. On May 11, 2004, Steve’s wife of 20 years and CAE member, Hope, died of heart failure in their home in Buffalo. Steve called 911. Buffalo Police who responded along with emergency workers became alarmed by the presence of art materials in their home that had been displayed in museums and galleries throughout Europe and North America. Convinced that these materials -which consisted of several petri dishes containing harmless forms of bacteria, and scientific equipment for testing genetically altered food -were the work of a terrorist, the police called the FBI. The next day, as Steve was on his way to the funeral home, he was stopped and illegally detained for 22 hours by agents from the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force, who informed him he was being investigated for “bioterrorism”. Meanwhile, agents from numerous federal law enforcement agencies descended on Steve’s home in Hazmat suits. Cordoning off half a block around his home, they seized his cat, car, computers, manuscripts, books, equipment, and even his wife’s body from the county coroner.
A week later, only after the Commissioner of Public Health for New York State had tested samples from the home and announced there was no public safety threat, was he allowed to return to his home and to recover Hope’s body. Today he and long-time CAE collaborater Robert Ferrell (former Chair of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health) face trumped-up charges of “mail fraud” and “wire fraud” which, thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act, now carry a possible 20 year sentence the same as the original “bioterrorism” charges would have.
Anna Maria Monteverdi: What are other groups are working in a similar way to you in the USA and in Europe?
Critical Art Ensemble: There aren’t many groups working in science-theater that we know of. subRosa is one of the few. However, there are many groups working in tactical media world-wide-Institute for Applied Autonomy, The Yes Men, Carbon Defense League, Finishing School, Temporary Services, Preemptive Media Collective, My Dad’s Strip Club, Space Hijackers, Conglomco.org, irational.org, Bureau of Inverse technology, and on and on.
Anna Maria Monteverdi: Have you come to Italy to introduce your work, and have you received any invitations for the future?
Critical Art Ensemble: We are written about in Italian magazines, journals and other publications, and most of our books have been translated into Italian, but, unfortunately, CAE has never been asked to do a project in Italy.