Saturday, June 5, 2004

So what are laboratories and research, anyway?

Of course I have been following the all-too-real story of Steve Kurtz - member of the awesome Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) and Associate Professor in the Department of Art at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

On one hand, I am deeply saddened and concerned about the implications for artistic and academic freedom. On the other hand, I am completely fascinated by the challenge taken on by the American government: to define exactly what constitutes a laboratory and acceptable research.

The FBI is seeking charges [against Kurtz and others ] under Section 175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which has been expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act. As expanded, this law prohibits the possession of "any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system" without the justification of "prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose."

For their work in the CAE, the Kurtzes operated a home biotech lab with several strains of bacteria, chemicals and enzymes, a centrifuge and a PCR machine, the device scientists use to amplify genetic markers for visualization. Scientists in biotech labs every day operate centrifuges and PCR machines in their attempts to create new, genetically modified and transgenic organisms for the global food supply, and genetic therapies for treating devastating diseases.

The FBI agents asked Adele Henderson [chair of the art department at the University at Buffalo] why the Kurtzes were operating a lab in their home, and not at the university. "(The FBI agents) didn't seem to get it," said Henderson. "They're used to the science model, with scientists working in a lab with government funds. In an art department that's rarely the case."

So what's a lab then? Or research, for that matter? Is the only model a government-sponsored scientific one? And what kind of science is that anyway? Is there any way to critique that practice?

We know there are cultural expectations about how, where and by whom science is practiced - so what are the differences between Nexia Biotechnologies, extracting your own DNA at home and Steve Kurtz's research for the CAE? Is it really just a matter of location? Or is it intention? Who decides? And using what criteria?

**

Georges Braque: "Art upsets and science reassures."

Update

Washington Post June 2, 2004: The FBI's Art Attack

Wired News June 10, 2004: Food Makers Changing Genes, an article about BIO 2004. The Biojudiciary Project hosted a DNA isolation demo that you can do at home: "Demonstration attendees will have a chance to take home a DNA isolation recipe, perfect for fostering scientific interest in children." They forgot to mention that it may also foster bioterrorist desires in kids. Sigh.

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