"Yeah, I’m a human. And that is why I’m clearly anthropocentric." Interview with Steve Kurtz/Critical Art Ensemble
Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is an historical artist collective from USA. Being among the pioneers of tactical media art, since the Eighties it explores the boundaries in art, critical theory, technology and radical political activism. Formed in 1987 in Tallahassee, Florida, by Hope and Steve Kurtz, Steve Barnes, Dorian Burr, Beverly Schlee, Critcal Art Ensemble was investigated and accused of bio-terrorism because of U.S. Patriot Act (the federal order against terrorism created after 9/11) after the the death of Steve Kurtz's wife Hope for cardiac arrest and after the finding in Kurtz's house of non-toxic bacterial cultures.
CAE operates through performance, molecular investigation processes, recombinant theatre, non-violent hijacking, net strike, virtual sit-in, sabotage tactic and creative and subversive reappropriation of communication means, using visual media, installations, exhibitions and conferences, as well as publishing. Already in 2014, in the context of the show "Vegetation as a Political Agent" at PAV Turin curated by Marco Scotini, Critical Art Ensemble created a Sterile Field, i.e. a sampling of sterilising soil, treated with a chemical anti-germinal herbicide called "exterminator", commercialised by powerful biotech agricultural factories. The latter consents only to GMO to grow and destroys biodiversity. Again at PAV, in occasion of the exhibition "The God-Trick" in 2018, we interviewed Steve Kurtz, founder of Critical Art Ensemble. He took part to the international conference on Anthropocene coincident to the opening of the show and he also directed a workshop.
CAE started a research on Necropolitics theme, death administration, focusing on triage applied to environment. Triage is a procedure that decides who will have to be helped first: who presents worst urgency, as in hospitals, or who has more chances to live, as in the army. The Collective questionates how ecosystems regeneration and remediation will be organised. CAE installation "Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics" consists of a public vote about water samples taken near the city of Turin and then analysed. At the end of the exhibition, the public will decide which "water" will be saved.
MARCO ANTELMI: In "Marching Plague" you criticised Bush's germ warfare. Why did you shift from germ warfare analysis to necropolitics? Did something change since the passage from Bush to Obama to Trump?
STEVE KURTZ: Necropolitics is something that already existed and will always exist, because it is extremely bound to politic administration. Politics will always have something in common with death administration. Presidents have to organise society, so their way to organise it mirrors in necropolitics. In Bush's case, he was neo-conservative. Neo-conservatives want the executive government to be on a superior level than other governative branches. They believe in military action as solution to all problems. What makes them fascists is that they believe the President to be an economy authority. This is the reason why now Trump is President. He is not a typical fascist, he is authoritarian. He is not a traditional fascist, he is convinced that government has to step aside and that it is economy that has to impose rules. Anyway, when there are neo-conservatives, deaths grow, because in their minds the more the deaths the more they win.
MA: Does this approach mirror on environment too?
SK: It is true in some Countries, as in Middle East, where ecological zones are totally ruined by Bush work. But not on American front, because the way American politics evolved doesn't point the fascists to be the greatest danger, but the libertarians, i.e. Trump's group. They believe all the resources have to be exploited and that all factories waste hase to be spilled in public space.
MA: Did you notice improvements during Obama's charge?
SK: There weren't improvements on what USA did overseas, but there were at home. Obama is interested in environment and believes it should be regulated. Maybe not with democracy, but with bureaucracy, at least. To answer your question, if we shifted from germ warfare to necropolitics for a specific reason, we started working on germ warfare on 2005, so a long time ago. What made us change for necropolitics was that in 2007 we started to realised projects about ecology and we arrived to a point where, studying theory and being frustrated from our tactic behaviour, we realised we had to start thinking strategically.
MA: So, in order to fight the problem at its roots, you had to go backwards and find what was the real problem
SK: Yes, we were making actions even before we understood what we were doing. And we weren't understanding the weight of necropolitics in the debate.
MA: In your new project you talk about triage and military model, but also about evolutionism and environmentalism contrast. Is it right to associate triage to environmentalism and military model to evolutionism? Do you think that the military model applied to nature is an eugenetic equivalent? When we talk about these models I immediately think about the trolley problem.
SK: It is right what triage is: a utilitarian model. Military model is born with lack of resources, it is not a fascist model, it's a model that makes what is possible in the worst condition. If you have limited resources, you don't want to waste them for someone that will inevitably die, you want to try to save as much people as possible for the most time possible.
MA: Then, what can be told about solutionism? Is it a tecnocratic model?
SK: Exactly. It's for this reason that I don't appreciate solutionism. It refuses to see death management as a political problem, but as a technical problem. As for the rest. For solutionism, the problem is not capitalism, the problem is not the plundering of Earth resources. The problem is that we don't have the necessary technology in order to continue with the plundering: sometimes technology has to come before plundering, this is the solution for everything. But we now it's not like that. It doesn't help Earth, worst, it creates the upside-down social structure we live in, where there is this small group of people, the richest ones, the 1%, and all others limp.
MA: Can solutionism be applied in parallel to one of the triage choices? In other words, we need to be technocratic but we have to be more responsible under the political aspect.
SK: The point is that we have to revise engineering formation. We shifted to a solutionist culture. When I give classes at MIT it is clear that students are used to problem-solving teaching, without having to think what really imply for society their decisions. This kind of engineering is the true problem. All responsibility is left to politicians. We need compassionate engineers, especially in the USA, where they don't want engineers to think more than the proposed problem. At the same time, I don't agree with who says that solution is in the end of technology objects, this is not the right answer, but again what worries me is politics of engineering.
MA: So, what can be an alternative to evolutionism and to environmentalism?
SK: Alternative is anthropocentrism. For instance, it is correct to say "Biodiversity is a good thing..for humans!". This is a provable sentence, that can be true or false. But if you only say that biodiversity is positive, it is only a decontextualised senteced without value. If we look at evolution from a scientific point of view, it is a non-sense and absurd process. If we want to give it value we have to point out that biodiversity is positive for humans. As well as I think that anthropomorphism is positive, not in science, but in the rest of things, because it is what creates sympathy in humans. When we see ourselves in others, we are likely to bring out our best. When I listen to a bird singing I don't translate it as an animal noise to communicate with its fellows, but I say it's singing a song, and I am happy to call it a "song", even though it isn't.
MA: During the conference you said that there's no sense in talking about anthropocentrism. Maybe it would help to clear what do you think about notions like Anthropocene and antropocentrism, if they are useful terms or not.
SK: Anthropocene never catched my imagination, as it did for other artists or humanists: ok, now the process is complete, the world is managed by humans for its totality since a lot. And maybe in a while we will reach the totality with which, wherever we will go, there will be causal effects because of Man. This doesn't change my calculations and my way of approaching environmental issue. Anthropocentrism consists in a bunch of academics that consider their fantasy as reality.
MA: Do you consider the link betwen necropolitics and environment immediate?
SK: Yes, and it is for this reason that we should start talking about it instead of living inside it as it was implied. Both at left and at right it is implied a much deeper kind of necropolitics. This mode can be traced back by looking at Arne Ness and at his deep green manifesto. Deep ecology does the same. They have this very poetic style, but if you read what is written, it implies terrifying necropolitics, as if environment defence authorises mass extermination. Cruelty of judgement included in those texts is something unspeakable. And nobody underlines that. We have a New Age attitude when we state that it would be beautiful to save all animal species, pretending to consider them at the same level as humans, when in reality this doesn't happen. The consequences from the "necro" point of view are terrible. This is the reason why humanity is committing suicide. There's no more public sensibility.
MA: Is it because of this that in CAE's works you use high school lab materials and you make your messages very clear and easy to understand?
SK: This aspect was subject of debate at CAE origins. After our first book, "The electronic disturbance", which had an exoteric language and tried to be as more obscure as possible, my wife Hope had the opinion that we had to be more clear, because if there's no clarity you don't even know what you are talking about. In the end, Hope was right.
MA: Your skills too are not specialised but you often rely on external consultants during performances. You sump up this practice in the role of the amateur. What is for you an amateur?
SK: I don't have a precise definition for amateur. In order to be one, you can't be an idiot, you can't be ignorant about the subject matter, you have to be passionate and curious, but not so committed to be a specialist, not an academic. An individual that actively explores the interested field. This is the problem we face with Trump: it is great to have idiots in your office, because they will never have a political behaviour. I consider the amateur as a category of respect.
MA: What differences do you find in Italy and at PAV since your last intervention, "New Alliances", in 2011? Do you think you are using a different method?
SK: They are both projects we designed knowing our work space. They are projects with a more informational and educational weight. The surprising side was the level of volunteering for this last project: it needed one year to be realised to become what is today, and the fantastic thing is that it's been realised thanks to volunteers.
MA: Is it this what you meant when you were talking about little star clusters, during the conference? You said you are optimist towards art power but pessimist generally towards the way History is moving, yet you don't forget to remember people not to surrender, and that besides all the dark space there are positive sparkles. But what can we do in the short term in order to let this sparkles, this little events, spread and to really make a change?
SK: As individuals of little groups we can re-create territories, as in Reclaim the Streets, convert streets in autonomous and livable zones. We can work on subjectivites, as I guess it happened during the workshop: every person that went out of the room should have a personal vision about the topic now. We can create instruments, tools, and what if some of them will have a revolutionary molecular effect, a sudden effect. As for the invention of contraceptive pill, used in the beginning to control poor women births, it flamed sexual revolution and started a feminist movement of workplace. This is what happens when you have many creative people instead of solutionists. In the end, we can act symbolical interventions, we can make the world say what it wasn't supposed to say. We can subvert the semiotic flow and transform it into resistance power. We can well say that this project for PAV won't save the world. It is obvious, but there is no individual project that can do that, maybe a tool can. Most of the times it won't have evident effects, as a protest cannot stop a war. It is the continuity of events in time that make changes. Time is needed to see changes and we have to talk in aggregate terms. In the last years, I changed my opinion about tactical action, probably a more strategic organization has to walk with the tactical one.
MA: Did you think, as CAE or as Steve Kurtz, to the creation of an international community or a think tank?
SK: It would be a great idea, but if I had to start a think tank, I think I should be younger, I think it is beyond me in this moment of my life, because there is real need of young and full-of-energy people. [SK laughs]
MA: I don't really agree with you. Anyway, in your projects you often talk about Resistance. Usually, it is thought to be a safeguard of pre-existing elements, but if we want to act in a creative manner, I think that Resistance should be used to create an alternative. What is Resistance for you?
SK: Resistance is anything challenges status quo, at different depths and scales. It is a wide category, that can mean to destroy status quo or to create an alternative or both. Is is to say "It can't keep going the way things are going".
MA: As you stated in your project "Cult of the New Eve": "Dna bounds people and animals and differentiates us from them for a minimum percentage". Do you think that Internet can do the same if used in the same way?
SK: As of today, Internet evolved considerably, but it offered much more autonomous potential in the beginning. With this I don't want to say that today it is no more useful. It can be used for organizational purposes and to build critical mass. If you live in small town, there couldn't be present a political movement where you feel comfortable, but I can find it online and participate through virtual means. In any case, this is not enough. Everything works when Internet meets activism in real life and viceversa. I have to say I am much more depressed now about Internet than I was in the Nineties. What we predicted in "The Electronic Disturbance", that it would subdue corporativization and privatization, is happening now.
MA: In your projects you talked about utopias, too. Contemporary theories are about post-human, trans-human, accelerationism. Inside them, utopia is often present. What do you think about utopias? Is Huxley's dystopia the only way to escape reality?
SK: Utopias can be positive of "micro" level, in small groups, with a kind of drop-out utopia that takes to interesting and surprising ways of seeing. But I'm not convinced about them because, when you enter conflict and controversy fields, utopia cannot exist, because one's utopia is someone else's dystopia. Furthermore, right wing likes to talk of utopia They like to predict market trends, how we will live when we'll have prohibited immigrants to access our land. They have many great utopian ideas on how things should go. This grants them votes. We have to revise utopias, utopian visions are exclusive, rather than inclusive. I am really torn about the introduction of utopias in macropolitics. For instance, you can talk about possible future without being utopian.
MA: How do you think you will carry on this project about necropolitics?
SK: The aim is to replicate it and take it in different places. The next version will be a Corean one.