Art 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.
The 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.
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?
Not 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?
Yes. 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?
One 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?
Usually I deal with technology or science and art. I didn't see that relationship before you mentioned it, but it's true.
Do you think part of the reason for the fear of artists using science is the fact that people think only "experts" or specially qualified people should be allowed to do science?
I'm not sure. it's just such a bizarre case that one can't pinpoint why. It had to do with the subject of his work, and he was criticizing the government. And then his wife died and there were strange materials [in his house.]
And there hasn't been any movement on the case since Nov. 2006, when your documentary ends?
There's going to be a trial sometime this year. We don't have a date yet.
Are you ever going to make another fictional movie, like Conceiving Ada and Teknolust?
I just finished a script on Sunday about a vampire. It's really kind of an essay about aging, so it's kind of part three of my trilogy, with Conceiving Ada and Teknolust.
Do you think there are a lot of restrictions on artists using technology and science?
All the time, and they also don't think it's art because it's not painting. so there are all kinds of criticisms... There was criticism of photography when it first happened. It took years before it was taken seriously or considered art. Any time you want to use something new and that people aren't familiar with, they think it's not art and you're a charlatan.
What sort of restrictions on your work as a science artist have you faced?
Not being able to show my work, for as long as 30 years. And then the work was shown, and people got really interested in it.
Does feminism affect how you portray subjects such as creativity or technology?
It absolutely does. The major inventions in tech, the computer language, [came from] Ada Lovelace, artificial intelligence was invented by Mary Shelley. Cellular phone technology was invented by Hedy Lamarr. The major influences have all been women, but people continue to say that women have no aptitude for science or technology.
Do you think you've had a harder time making movies and dealing with technology because you're a woman?
I think it's very difficult for women filmmakers, or maybe it's me because I don't do traditional films. It's amazing I've had as much success as I've had. When I started out, I was paired with Todd Haynes, and then I was paired with Darren Aronofsky. [In both cases], we both won awards, Haynes and I at the London Film Festival for the work we had done and the same with Darren, because he did a film called Pi just when I did Conceiving Ada, and people compared them because they dealt with science. I've just had it much more difficult than my male counterparts. [Strange Culture, from Docurama]