A Discussion About Critical Art Ensemble

Originally published by The Erie Reader on March 29, 2014.

In 1987, amidst the AIDS crisis and the constant advancement of computer technology, Steve Kurtz and the other founding members of the Critical Art Ensemble, saw an opportunity to bring art, science and political activism into the same spotlight. Twenty-seven years later, Critical Art Ensemble is still shouting political messages through art, and they are still wildly successful.

With work in museums around the world, a number of respected papers, and hundreds of easy to understand videos, CAE has found artistic ways to spread ideas, send messages, and make a difference in scientific and political communities. In these typically untouched crossroads of art and science, Steve Kurtz has made a worldwide name for himself and for his organization, and now he is here in Erie to talk about what exactly it means to mess with such an unconventional combination.

Ellie Hartleb: What is Critical Art Ensemble?

Steve Kurtz: Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a collective of tactical media practitioners of various specialization, including computer graphics and web design, film/video, photography, text art, book art, wetware, and performance. Since 1987, CAE’s focus has been on the exploration of the intersections between art, critical theory, technology, and political activism. We have performed and produced a wide variety of projects for an international audience at diverse venues ranging from the street, to the museum, to the Internet.

EH: How did you become involved in projects that combine art and activism?

SK: We came of age during the zenith of the AIDS crisis in the US. Watching people die with no official response can have the effect of politicizing a person. Moreover, since we were always aware of the politics of culture, and were of the belief that no political movement can be successful without a parallel cultural movement, art bleeding into activism was an unavoidable necessity.

EH: How do you and your colleagues choose what issues to cover and what medium they should be covered in?

SK: As for issues, I think they choose us. We look to big themes, like cyberspace, transgenics, or postmodern warfare, although we pick underrepresented issues within these grand narratives. Then we try to devise a way that the materials, processes, knowledge systems, and technologies connected to those issues could be used in the cause of social justice. The issues we choose are the ones shouting at everyone, and we try to answer. As for media, they are determined by the project, the process, and the social context. Each project has a unique configuration of media that we believe best serves the given situation. Two fundamental levels exist: one is practical and the other is communicative. On the practical side, the medium must be able to survive the social and atmospheric conditions. On the communicative side, the medium must be familiar to the audience—one that they are comfortable communicating through. The medium must contribute to minimizing alienation, so people are willing to stop and listen to and perhaps expand on the message.

EH: What is unique about Critical Art Ensemble compared to other organizations that use multimedia to express important information?

SK: At one time, we may have been a part of a fairly small cultural demographic, but now there are a lot of guerilla artists, culture jammers, tactical media practitioners, interventionists, hacktivists, artivists—whatever you want to call them. They are very nimble with their skill base, and interdisciplinary in their thinking. We would like to think that we contributed to growing this model for producing culture.

EH: Why do you use art to convey a political message?

SK: This is a sticky question because it gets into definitions of art. When we are working outside of a traditional art space like a museum or gallery, we doubt that anyone looks at what we do as art. So we jump back to grander generality to describe our practice, and just say we are producing culture. Culture always has a political dimension. Our work seems particularly political because we present minoritarian messages. Once we choose to produce cultural objects that are not for the rich, or by extension, the commercial markets they profit from, we are in the realm of overt politics because the works are immediately interpreted as oppositional. Where we have positioned ourselves makes a seemingly apolitical commentary impossible.

EH: What message do you hope to send to the general public through your work?

SK: We hope to show that we do not have to live in an economically predatory society dominated by authoritarian politics.

EH: Critical Art Ensemble has been around for over 25 years. How do you keep your field relevant for that length of time?

SK: Because we are always of our time. Our mission is not to make work that will “stand the test of time.” Those who do that, either by fantasy or by misguided intention, tend to make authoritarian work, because it is only by promoting the interests of the status quo that something will be inscribed as eternal. We want our work to be of the moment in which it exists in the most immediate way. The shelf life is very short, but in that fleeting moment the work can be very powerful.

EH: Art and science are often seen as opposites, but you have made your career in their crossroads. How do you think the two subjects interest?

SK: They intersect to the extent that they both require a great deal of imagination to do them well, and they are both interested in generating knowledge through experimentation. However, for the most part, they are separate, although we wouldn’t call them opposites. CAE appropriates materials, processes, and knowledge systems from science to help clarify or contribute to solving some social or political problem. While a number of our projects look like science, most are not.

EH: Why is it important for high school and college age students to attend your upcoming lecture?

SK: The audience will hear a set of opinions and values that are generally not given voice. Students should want to place themselves in a sphere of contrast, where differing opinions force each other into greater articulation. Learning in an environment of consensus isn’t learning at all. Learning processes cannot advance without challenges.

EH: How do you see Critical Art Ensemble continuing to adapt in the coming years?

SK: By staying in the moment.


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