+Commissioned by Rhizome.org+
Review of Critical Art Ensemble's Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and
Global Public Health (Autonomedia, 2006), by Randall Packer
In May of 2004, Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) member Steve Kurtz was
arrested for possession of alleged illegal bio-medical materials.
This event, coupled with the tragic death of his wife Hope, triggered
a response of outrage from the arts community when it was determined
that accusations made by the FBI suggested the artist was engaging in
terrorist activity. Like many at the time, I wrote a letter of
support for Steve. The following is an excerpt:
"Steve's commitment to social inquiry, particularly in the area of
bio-technology, is internationally renowned. Steve is an artist and
scholar of extraordinary depth of knowledge and perspective. Behind
the actions and projects of CAE is a profound understanding of 20th
century avant-garde practice and its impact on contemporary thought.
If in fact it is the role of the artist to shed new light and vision
on the issues that confront us today… the defense of Steve Kurtz is
vital to the defense of the artist, whose role is to function as a
mediator between our strange hostile world and the human spirit."
Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health, Critical Art
Ensemble's latest book, functions as a profound account of the
artistic struggle to challenge the political status quo in times of
crisis. The task of writing the book was indeed a heroic one. After
the original material was confiscated by the FBI, CAE went through
the painstaking task of reconstructing the research, a slow and
tedious process made more difficult with Kurtz's defense of his legal
Nevertheless, Marching Plague was completed, albeit in a revised
form, documenting the CAE argument that the government's use of funds
for germ warfare research is suspect, and is based primarily on
deceptive reports and scare tactics. They contend that the military's
research in bio-terrorism is a tremendous waste of public funds that
diverts money from the more urgent need to "defeat diseases such as
malaria and HIV that prematurely end of the lives of millions of
people each year."
CAE carefully builds its argument as to the limited military
effectiveness of harmful germs such as smallpox, anthrax, plague,
etc. They cite the history of their use, the relatively small number
of fatalities, and the few incidents of successful implementation.
They provide abundant evidence that collateral damage and the
complexity of discharging the toxins into the environment underscores
their claim that germ warfare is a "a burning excess that in the end
does little more than terrorize a nation's own citizenry."
Bolstering their case against the false threat of germs as a
biological weapon, CAE makes the interesting point that the
terrorists are not the "Legion of Doom" or "deranged humans," as the
government would have us believe, but rather, they are highly
tactical in their political agenda. So why would they employ
biological materials given the extreme difficulty of implementation?
The reasons are contradictory. While the government maintains its
position that bio-weapons in the hands of terrorists would cause
millions of deaths, CAE maintains that the extreme difficulty of
implementation would primarily result in the death of those who
attempt to use them, which they refer to as the "boomerang effect."
CAE then takes on the larger ramifications of the politics of fear,
discussing the government's propaganda campaign to promote
unnecessary, costly defense and security systems in the so-called
"war on terror." They equate the Bush Administration's declaration,
"we are winning the war on terror," with the Orwellian reversal of
its meaning: that is, we, "the state," are winning as declaration
that they are seizing authoritarian control over their citizenry.
They give as an example the US Government's Department of Homeland
Security threat advisory system, a wildly inaccurate and manipulative
system that was "religiously reported by the news media whenever the
government gave the call."
They go on to say that the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans
was the result of the government's obsession with the war on terror.
After the misguided appointment of Michael Brown, "FEMA developed a
new 'all hazards' plan suitable only for the many types of terrorist
attacks that the agency could dream up." They point out the political
crisis inherent in this misguided policy, such that when civilian
interests must compete with the military, the military always takes
What is particularly prescient about the timing of Germ Warfare and
its critique on the war on terrorism is how it dramatically makes
light of the fact that the US Government's obsession with the threat
of terrorism has overshadowed more pressing problems, such as global
warming, world hunger, AIDS, etc, that in the end are killing
millions of people. CAE offers as a rationale the Bush
Administration's consistent yielding to the needs of corporate
America. Just as energy policy is based on the oil industry's need to
maximize its profits, so too, the vast bio-medical industry has
capitalized on the fear of germ warfare as a weapon of mass
destruction, resulting in costly research to defend the nation
against a largely hypothetical attack. In the public health sector,
funds to fight disease have been redirected to fight the war on
terror due to the Pentagon's nightmare scenario of germ warfare - a
tragic waste of public tax dollars.
Overall, CAE's argument against the viability of germ warfare is a
timely critique of the war on terror and the government's effort to
perpetuate the crisis for reasons that are suspect, thus draining
precious resources from the public good. This critique becomes all
the more poignant in light of Kurtz's own personal predicament. The
big question CAE asks is, "couldn't they see that Critical Art
Ensemble's work is art?" Is it really possible that the government
can't distinguish between an artist and a terrorist? In the US, there
is very little understanding among the general public, let alone the
government, that a critical role of the artist in society is to
examine and dissect contemporary cultural conditions. We can only
stand in horror that Steve Kurtz, an internationally renowned
political artist and university professor, could have his work
confiscated and be treated as a dangerous threat.
But like the case of Joe Wilson, whose controversial investigation of
nuclear activity in Niger sent shock waves through the US government
all the way up the top, we see echoes of this in the prosecution of
Steve Kurtz. Marching Plague is a powerful critique exposing the
Government's use of germ warfare as a false scare tactic, and for
this reason, we can understand why they have taken Kurtz to task. It
is a frightening scenario, one that could happen to any artist or
citizen who challenges the government in times of crisis. This book
is an important testament to the fragility of free expression in a
nation gripped by fear and uncertainty.