Tactics Inside and Out: Gregg Bordowitz on Critical Art Ensemble

By Bordowitz, Gregg | Artforum International, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Tactics Inside and Out: Gregg Bordowitz on Critical Art Ensemble


Bordowitz, Gregg, Artforum International


To the Research Labs, Sirs: You may be proud
As peacocks. You've endowed
Us from the start with freedoms that entrap.
We are the red-eyed mice on whom your maze
Is printed. At its heart a little cloud
Thins and dwindles--zap!--
To nothing in one blink of rays.
--James Merrill, from
The Changing Light at Sandover

"In the 1990s, many artists used the term 'intervention' to describe their interdisciplinary approaches. While intervention specifically means to stand between things, or to bridge a situation, in the case of the arts, it points to practices that use the strategies of art to engage a larger public." So wrote Nato Thompson in his curator's statement accompanying "The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere," a show currently on view at Mass MOCA that includes work by such artists and artists' collectives as the Atlas Group, William Pope.L, the Yes Men, subRosa, and Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). An exhibition that embraces overtly political art is an anomaly at this moment, purposely curated against the grain of contemporary trends, but "The Interventionists" ended up becoming political in a way that couldn't have been anticipated by its organizers or participants. Weeks before the opening, CAE founding member Steven Kurtz became the target of an FBI investigation that led to his detention. His house was searched and condemned as a biohazard. This was followed by a flurry of grand-jury subpoenas to Kurtz's colleagues under the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act. The FBI impounded Kurtz's personal property, including lab equipment and materials to be included in Free Range Grains, 2004, CAE's project for the Mass MOCA show. [See opposite page, "The United States of America v. Steven Kurtz."] When "The Interventionists" opened on May 30, it did so without CAE's contribution being fully realized. Their half-finished installation stands eerily in place, with statements explaining the circumstances posted around an empty refrigeration unit. Prevented from participating in a major museum show and advised by legal counsel to remain silent, CAE were effectively gagged by the government's wildly incommensurate response to the discovery of bacteria-laden petri dishes in an artist's home. But the group's tactical politics, on the other hand, proved itself irrepressible, as a network of activists operating both within and outside the art world mounted almost spontaneously an impressive, immediate, and highly effective publicity campaign on behalf of Kurtz and CAE: No one could deny that these "interventionists" had successfully penetrated the social sphere, and in a way not encountered in more than a decade.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

CAE make experimental art. Formed by Kurtz and Steven Barnes in 1986, CAE was from the start intended to be, in their own words, "a collective of five artists of various specializations dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory." The job of the contemporary artist is too large for any single individual, they reasoned. The labor entailed--theorizing, writing, planning, funding, executing the work, travel--could be competently handled only by a team. (After all, the proper nouns under which so many artists' oeuvres appear are merely brand names, backed by office workers, assistants, and sponsors.) So the five original members of CAE--though membership is no secret, they prefer anonymity--organized into one entity.

Like many groups that formed in the late '80s, CAE is a descendant of the leftist political struggles that ran aground in the '70s. Those of us left searching amid that wreckage tried to formulate novel, pragmatic, and effective approaches to activism. Co-arising with the emergence of the term "tactical media," CAE defined their precepts largely through their practice: "Tactical Media is situational, ephemeral and self-terminating." Tacticians address short-term goals and achievable aims. …

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