Steve Kurtz is a professor of art at the SUNY Buffalo, former professor of art history at Carnegie Mellon University and a founding member of the performance art group, Critical Art Ensemble. The FBI knows him for his work in BioArt, and Electronic Civil Disobedience, and because of his arrest in May 2004. His work often deals with social criticism. Kurtz is a founding member of the award-winning art and theater collective, Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Since its formation in 1987 in Tallahassee, Florida, CAE has been frequently invited to exhibit and perform projects examining issues surrounding information, communications and biotechnologies by museums and other cultural institutions. These include The Whitney Museum and The New Museum in NYC; The Corcoran Museum in Washington D.C.; The ICA, London; The MCA, Chicago; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; and The London Museum of Natural History; and the Kunsthalle Luzern. The collective has written six books, and its writings have been translated into 18 languages. Its work has been covered by art journals, including Artforum, Kunstforum, and The Drama Review. Critical Art Ensemble is the recipient of awards, including the 2007 Andy Warhol Foundation Wynn Kramarsky Freedom of Artistic Expression Grant, the 2004 John Lansdown Award for Multimedia, and the 2004 Leonardo New Horizons Award for Innovation.
In May 2004, Kurtz called 911 to report the death of his wife, Hope Kurtz, by congenital heart failure. In order to create their art installations the Kurtzes sometimes worked with biological equipment and had a small home lab and petri dishes containing biological specimens. At the time of Hope Kurtz's death they were working on an exhibit about genetically modified agriculture for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Buffalo police deemed these materials suspicious and notified the FBI, who detained Kurtz for 22 hours without charge on suspicion of "bioterrorism." Meanwhile, dozens of federal agents in hazardous material suits raided the Kurtz home, seizing books, computers, manuscripts, and art materials, and removing Hope Kurtz's body from the county coroner for further analysis. Kurtz was allowed to return to his home one week later, after the Commissioner of Public Health for New York State had determined that nothing in the home posed any sort of public or environmental health or safety threat, and that Hope Kurtz had died of natural causes.
In July 2004 a grand jury refused to bring any "bioterrorism" charges, but did indict Kurtz on federal criminal mail fraud and wire fraud charges. Also indicted was Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, who served as a scientific consultant on Critical Art Ensemble's projects. The charges concern the way Kurtz and Ferrell allegedly ordered and mailed the non-pathogenic bacteria used in several museum installations. Under the USA PATRIOT Act the maximum possible sentence for these charges has increased from five to twenty years in prison. The charges related to how Ferrell allegedly helped Kurtz obtain $256 worth of harmless bacteria. "This the first time in the history of the federal courts that the U.S. Department of Justice is intervening in the alleged breach of a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) of no hazardous materials in order to redefine it as a criminal offense." In October 2007, Ferrell pleaded "guilty" to misdemeanor charges. Ferrell's wife and daughter subsequently issued public statements saying the plea deal was due to the stress of the case and severe illness (Ferrell is a 27 year survivor of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and suffered a series of strokes following his indictment in 2004). Ferrell was later sentenced to a year of unsupervised release and fined $500. Kurtz has received much of his legal representation from Paul Cambria, a Buffalo-based attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues.