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On the morning of May 11, 2004, Steve Kurtz woke to find his wife dead of a heart attack. Hope Kurtz was a healthy woman in her mid-forties and, like her husband, a founding member of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), “a collective of five artists of various specializations,” per their website, “dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory.” Steve practiced Bio Art, a form of installation art based on physically harmless, if politically volatile biotechnology experiments. Arriving at the Kurtz residence, local police panicked at the sight of studio paraphernalia more commonly associated with the cultivation of chemical weapons than cultural critique, and rang up the FBI. Soon thereafter, the mild-mannered professor of art and grief-stricken widower was detained on suspicion of bioterrorism and came face to face with the very subject of his art: the brave new world of ideological science, corporate capitulation, and Patriot Act paranoia.
Strange Culture, an impishly intelligent documentary by Lynn Hershman-Leeson, proposes that overzealous authorities seized on the Kurtz case as an opportunity for political intimidation—persecution as propaganda. As Kurtz still awaits trial (for the possession of biological materials freely available over the Internet), and is thus forbidden to discuss details on camera, Leeson blends his cautious testimony with performances by Thomas Jay Ryan (Kurtz) and Tilda Swinton (Hope). Slipping in and out of character, variously embodying, studying, and commenting on their counterparts, the actors manage both dramatic reenactment and its deconstruction with aplomb.