In the bacterial colony

‘Strange Culture,’ is a perfect storm of cautionary tales for a post-Sept. 11 America.

by Sara Nicole Miller

Artist and college professor Steve Kurtz awoke one morning in May 2004 to find his wife, Hope Kurtz, dead of heart failure. He immediately called 911. Upon arrival, the paramedics noticed bacteria cultures, scientific equipment and an art flier decorated in Arabic writing strewn about his house. They dispatched the FBI. Within a day, the Kurtz household in a sleepy neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y. was transformed into a biohazard crime scene – and Steve was smack in the middle of the hysteria.

“Strange Culture”

DIRECTED BY: Lynn Hershman Leeson
STARRING: Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan, Steve Kurtz
PLAYING AT: Bell Auditorium, 10 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis
WHEN: 7 and 8:45 p.m., Sept. 21 through 23, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 5:30 p.m.

“They scrambled the entire alphabet soup of the government to come and invade my house. They were all here,” Kurtz said. Everyone from the DEA to the ATF to the Department of Homeland Security arrived at his residence, sending his wife’s body to Quantico, Va. for further testing and hauling Kurtz away for questioning.

And that was just the beginning of what would be a hellish, frenzied journey through the post-Sept. 11 American legal system. Three years later, Kurtz’s life has been ransacked, his artistic freedom under fire, and he still has federal charges of mail and wire fraud looming over him (for very questionable reasons). His cautionary (or perhaps revel-rousing) tale of an artist/activist-turned-government boogeyman is now the subject of the probing new documentary “Strange Culture.”

“Strange Culture,” in a Petri dish, documents the above-mentioned charades that became artist Steven Kurtz’s life after his wife’s death, a true testament to the fact that, in societies flirting with fascism, the artists are always the usual suspects.

“Strange Culture” reads much like a science fiction, Patriot Act-style noir, employing the use of both famous actors and “Maus”-inspired black and white comic strip stills to depict the moments of drama and contention – the death, the arrest, the interrogation and so forth. But it also uses interviews of the Kurtz’s friends and colleagues as the building blocks of the narrative, a narrative which draws disturbing conclusions about the war on terror, civil rights and government paranoia.

At first, the film’s progression seems cluttered, strewn about the chronological landscape and haphazard employment of actor reinterpretations. But it’s all part of the strategy. Director Lynn Hershman Leeson seems intent on weaving together chaotic threads of the narrative, abruptly stopping the actor vignettes and replacing them with firsthand candid interviews.

And what makes “Strange Culture” most captivatingly strange on film is its timing, both in life and art. It trumps generic conventions i.e., the necessity of finality and retrospective in subject matter, instead choosing to capture an ongoing, live case that hasn’t yet been resolved. Very subversive, very anti-Classical style, very appropriate for its subject matter.

And since Kurtz’s trial date hasn’t yet been set, he has been advised by his attorneys not to speak on certain events. Actors, such as Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan and Peter Coyote, step in to recreate scenes about which Kurtz is legally prohibited from talking. Instead, Kurtz comes on camera to comment on their re-enactments, a subtle subversive jab.

Even before the Patriot Act horse and donkey show, Steve Kurtz has always been working within the cultural trenches. Together with Hope and a few others, they in 1987 cofounded a group called the Critical Art Ensemble, a collective of bio-artists and scientists that work with “tactical media” to illuminate issues of ethics and biotechnology.

A point of particular concern to Kurtz and his colleagues was the American government’s attempts to construe military interests as civilian interests, a.k.a., the emergence of capitalist fascism vis-à-vis the proliferation of scare tactics.

“We were very involved in anti-war activities and were covering germ warfare. Germ warfare is not a good weapon; it’s certainly not a weapon of mass destruction,” Kurtz pauses, “maybe one of mass distraction.”

The CAE, on top of their “Free Range Grains” project, were also conducting safer versions of government germ warfare tests, tests that were proven bogus years ago.

“It’s just classic theater of the absurd,” Kurtz said of the collective’s theatrical performances and projects, referring to the relatively harmless yet critical nature of the work, in particular an experiment they conducted off the coast of Scotland involving a bay and a cluster of guinea pigs.

But the FBI apparently had other opinions concerning Kurtz and his socially conscious crew, as the film implies throughout its duration.

At the time of Hope’s death, the CAE was preparing for their upcoming exhibit “Free Range Grains” at the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art, an exhibit in which visitors could test common foods for genetically modified properties. In “Strange Culture,” actors Swinton and Ryan reinterpret Hope and Steve’s last days together in their home as they prepare for the “Free Range Grains” launch. The acting seems off-the-cuff, realist in execution, endearing.

Perhaps the only glaring weakness of the film is its staunch disdain and suspicion of its own antagonist, in this case, the U.S. government. But its revel-rousing quality makes the film all the more interesting, especially when the stakes are this high. And above all else, “Strange Culture” might take on somewhat of a pessimistic function: Gone are the nostalgic days when the misty-forested revolutions of Che Guevara’s days seemed plausible.

Globalization, and the subsequent swelling of government power, signals nothing less than an ugly new American reality. And if that is the case, “Strange Culture” might just be the celluloid messenger, foreshadowing our entrance into the dismal period of Foucaultian surveillance with a little local folklore.

Luckily, not everyone is that pessimistic – not even Steve Kurtz.

“I just have to hold on to the fantasy that this will one day be over and I can put all this behind me. I have to believe that,” Kurtz said. “Rights only come through struggle.”