Bio-Art Is Not A Crime, Movie Director Tells io9Charlie Jane Anders4/02/08 9:30amFiled to: InterviewLynn Hershman LeesonSteve KurtzStrange CultureThomas Jay Ryanbio artbiopunkbioterrorDepartment of Justiceoverzealous prosectionsTilda Swinton9EditPromoteShare to KinjaToggle Conversation toolsGo to permalinkArt professor Steve Kurtz's wife, Hope, died in her sleep in May 2004. When Kurtz called 911, however, the police saw petri dishes and a mobile DNA-extraction machine and called in the feds. Kurtz tried to explain that the high-school-level lab equipment was part of an art project he and Hope had been doing about genetically modified foods, but the FBI decided he was a bioterrorist. This case still continues nearly four years later, and a new direct-to-DVD movie, Strange Culture, uses Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan and other actors to unravel one of the scariest cases of science fiction dictating legal actions in recent history. We talked to the director, Lynn Hershman Leeson.AdvertisementThe prosecution of Kurtz continued, even after it was clear his wife died of natural causes and he proved the bacteria were harmless. Another cause for the paranoia was an flier in his house for an art show, which had Arabic lettering on it. Once all of these misunderstandings were cleared up, however, the Justice Department prosecuted Kurtz for mail and wire fraud, based on the fact that he ordered the harmless bacteria via a Web site.Hershman Leeson's first two movies are Conceiving Ada, about Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter who created the first computer language, and Teknolust, about a woman who creates cyborg copies of herself. Here's what Hershman Leeson had to say about the case, and her newest film.Advertisement Strange Culture uses a mixture of documentary, actors re-enacting the scenes, and cartoons, because Steve Kurtz was advised by a lawyer not to comment on the case. Were you influenced by the film American Splendor, which uses similar techniques?It's a coinicidence. I liked American Splendor. My brother knew Harvey Pekar, and he used to come to our house all the time... I think this really had to be a hybrid, there was no other way to make it... The cartoons had actually already been made and I just had to integrate them... I used cartoons in other work, in the 1970s.Did Steve Kurtz object to any of the ways Thomas Jay Ryan played him, or Tilda Swinton played his late wife?SponsoredNot at all. [We had] a lot of leeway with his character, because he likes Thomas a lot. He said the only person who could play Hope was Tilda, so he was happy.Strange Culture includes a lot of information about the prevelance of genetically modified foods in America. Do you think many people are unaware of how widespread genetically modified foods are in this country?AdvertisementYes. I think people are unaware of the erasure of habeas corpus as well, and they are unaware that this case is so important because it would [allow the federal government] to criminalize a civil charge.The government's case is now entirely based on the idea that it can press criminal charges for a civil statute. Someone says in your movie that this would double the number of laws the Justice Dept could use for criminal prosecution.It just gives people more control. If someone accidentally makes a mistake on a form on the internet, is it wire fraud?AdvertisementOne of the most chilling scenes in the film is when a professor friend of Steve Kurtz's tries to convince some students to sign the petition for his release. And all but one of the students refuse to sign, because they don't want to jeopardize their futures by getting on the government's radar.That actually happened to me, word for word. I was at UC Davis and I was trying to get my students to be aware, one, that there was a petition and two, about his case, and they were just afraid, they didn't want to sign anything.We're huge fans of your previous movie, Teknolust, which also features Tilda Swinton. Is it just a coincidence that both movies are about artists who experiment with science and become accused of being a public menace?