I can say with confidence that I have never heard a story like the one Steven Kurtz told in his lecture for the Nelson Speaker Series at Harvey Mudd this past Tuesday. Kurtz is an American artist and activist who’s bold integration of art, politics and biotechnology has brought attention, both positive and negative, to important issues of modern society in a very unique and powerful way. Activism has been a dominant theme in our class this semester and I think that Steve Kurtz perfectly exemplifies the difference between passive activism online and a very ‘active’ activism in the real world. Rather than use an online space, Kurtz used different physical spaces outside as a platform for his art and activism, using the Internet only to bolster his impact or facilitate the success or creation of particular projects.
I was particularly fascinated by his project regarding the ‘commoditization of reproduction’ where they explored the sperm bank selection processes as a form of eugenics. Learning that ‘homosexual tendencies’ was on the list of pathologies was shocking, and his project really did show how this form of biotechnology really does provide another basis for alienation at the genetic level in the near future. The way he chose to present this information really called the issue to the foreground, and I was struck by how whitewashed and generic our societal standard for what is or isn’t desirable really is. I am fascinated by the way he conceptualizes things such as genetics and bioterrorism in terms of art and political activism, that sort of vision is incredible and inspires me to always remind myself to remain constantly critical and questioning of society—things are often not what they first seem!
Other projects he conducted included staging a bio warfare launch from the top of German government building, testing genetically modified fruits and vegetables around the world, and creating illegal (he broke a patent law) art exhibit on Round Up in a prestigious museum, right next to an exhibit on Jackie O’s dresses. Steve Kurtz broke many boundaries I had previously imagined in the world of art, and I was awestruck by every one of his curious thoughts and ideas. His presentation and experience also shed light on levels of corruption and stupidity I wasn’t aware of concerning our government; I couldn’t believe the U.S. head of the bio terrorism claimed not to know what a centrifuge was! How is that possible? As an activist, Steve Kurtz exists in the physical space of the world only, even claiming that he will never use social media—a sentiment I was shocked to hear, but ultimately, do to the nature of his work, completely understand. While he is out in the world stimulating real change, I might tweet something about his actions or like a page on Facebook, which doesn’t accomplish anything. His perspective is unique, his story is heart wrenching, and his work is powerful.