Critical Art Ensemble’s Biotech Initiative and
Rachel Mayeri, Stories of the Genome: An Animated History of Reproduction

March 1 – April 9, 2005

Thursday, March 10, 7:00 p.m., Chaffey College Theatre Followed by Opening Reception, Wignall Museum

Monday-Friday, 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and Saturday, noon – 4:00 p.m. Closed Sundays and Holidays.


Rancho Cucamonga, CA – An exhibition of computer-mediated art, performance artifacts, and experimental video examining the culturally challenging and ethically controversial theme of human genome research, and the potential impact of genetics on our daily lives, opens to the public March 1 at the Wignall Museum at Chaffey College.

Critical Art Ensemble’s Biotech Initiative and Rachel Mayeri’s Stories from the Genome: An Animated History of Reproduction will be on exhibition from March 1 through April 9. Artists Rachel Mayeri and long-term Critical Art Ensemble collaborator Beatriz da Costa will present a free public lecture about their work on Thursday, March 10 at 7pm in the Chaffey College Theatre. A reception for the artists will immediately follow the lectures. The exhibition, lecture and reception are free and open to the public.

Critical Art Ensemble’s Biotech Initiative installation and Rachel Mayeri’s experimental video Stories from the Genome investigate the ways in which our understanding of science -- including recent genomic developments -- are inextricably bound with our understanding of language, art, and new technologies, as well as with our cultural beliefs. “I have always been curious about how science creates stories out of facts, conjecture, and the imagination in a way that is very similar to art practice,” says Rachel Mayeri, who teaches media studies and digital media at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA. Mayeri’s fascination with the process of scientific discovery and its likeness to artistic exploration has long informed her work in engaging ways. Stories from the Genome weaves together narratives from the history of the science of reproduction, starting with the philosophy of the 17th century up to the publication of the human genome in February 2001. Utilizing several motion-graphics applications, Mayeri manipulates woodcuts, engravings, photography, painting, sculpture, X-ray crystallography, websites imagery, video, electron microscopy, and music to produce the avant-garde, computer-generated work. “Historical fears of miscegenation, hybridity, and sexual ambiguity are becoming realities again as genetic modification and cloning continue in the laboratory,” observes Mayeri. “I’m hoping that Stories from the Genome will be able to cross the divide between art and science, and encourage a dialogue on new concepts of identity.”

The Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a collective of artists dedicated to investigating the intersections of art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory. Since the group’s formation in 1986, CAE has created collaborative works ranging from books to Web projects to participatory performances. For the last six years, the self-described “tactical media practioners” have produced powerful work in consultation with experts from genetic medicine, plant biology and robotics that critiques representations, products, and policies related to emerging biotechnologies and probes the potential ethical and social implications of genetics research. The group calls these performances its “biotech initiative.”

“In the realm of biotech, CAE is just trying to make a specialized discourse a public (non-specialist) one. CAE is worried that non-specialists in general may or may not understand the significance of the biological revolution.

So many elements are hidden, and there is so much misinformation (generally from marketing directives and science fiction) that it is difficult just to create a reasonable discussion,” says Steven Kurtz, a founding member of CAE and art professor at the University of Buffalo. He continues, “Since the public has almost no direct experience with biotech, it seems abstract and too difficult for a non-specialist to understand. CAE’s intervention in this is to give people direct experience and reliable information so that individuals can come to understand that biotech is within our power to think about and actively effect.” CAE’s Biotech Initiative at the Wignall Museum presents artifacts such as banners, leaflets, uniforms and scientific equipment along with video and CD-ROM documentation from four of CAE’s major performances, amounting to a mini-retrospective of CAE’s critical exploration of the genetic “revolution.”

In the last several months, CAE has gained worldwide attention, and raised crucial concerns about freedom of _expression, academic freedom, and freedom of interdisciplinary investigation, due to the FBI’s highly publicized investigation of CAE’s Steven Kurtz on bioterrorism-related charges; and the subpoenaing of artists, scientists, and publishers associated with the group.

The investigation began on May 11, 2004. Kurtz awoke to find his wife dead of cardiac arrest. After emergency workers arrived, they discovered what they considered to be suspicious items (Kurtz’s art supplies and scientific equipment) and called in the FBI. Invoking a 1989 bioterrorism law and the USA Patriot Act, which grants the federal government unprecedented search and seizure powers, federal agents detained Kurtz for twenty-two hours. They also cordoned off his block, and searched his home (as well as his university office) for two days. The agents confiscated his wife’s body, his house, car, equipment, computer hard drive, books, writings, correspondence, art projects and even his cat. His house, cat and car were returned to him after one week, once it was determined that the death of his wife was unrelated to Kurtz’s art work and there was not a public safety issue. Yet the FBI would not release the impounded materials, which included artwork for an upcoming exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

There has been an outpouring of support from artists, scientists, academics and the general public for Kurtz and Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, who is also under investigation for helping Kurtz to obtain the $256 worth of harmless bacteria for one of Kurtz's art projects. The highly respected scientific journal, Nature, called for support of Kurtz in an editorial published in the June 17, 2004 issue. “Kurtz’s work” it reads, “is at times critical of science, but researchers should nevertheless be willing to support him. Art and science are forms of human enquiry that can be illuminating and controversial, and the freedoms of both must be preserved as part of a healthy democracy – as must a sense of proportion.”

In July 2004, Kurtz was arraigned and charged in a Federal District Court not for bioterrorism as listed on the original search warrant and subpoenas, but on four counts of mail and wire fraud, which each carry a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison. Kurtz’s grand jury hearing has been scheduled for March 2, 2005. For more information about the FBI’s investigation of CAE see:

The Wignall Museum and the Chaffey College Theatre are located on the Rancho Cucamonga campus of Chaffey College at 5885 Haven Avenue, Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91737-3002. Admission is free.