Critical Art Ensemble

Critical Art Ensemble
Critical Art Ensemble in Halle/Saale, Germany performing "Radiation Burn: A Temporary Monument to Public Safety", October 15th 2010.

Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is an award-winning collective of five tactical media practitioners of various specializations including computer graphics and web design, film/video, photography, text art, book art, and performance. For CAE, tactical media is situational, ephemeral, and self-terminating. It encourages the use of any media that will engage a particular socio-political context in order to create molecular interventions and semiotic shocks that collectively could diminish the rising intensity of authoritarian culture.[1]


A history of Critical Art Ensemble


Formed in 1987, CAE's focus has been on the exploration of the intersections between art, critical theory, technology, and political activism. In 1986, Steve Kurtz and Steve Barnes began a collaboration to make low-tech videos with students. They credited each person who contributed to the productions under the signature of Critical Art Ensemble. During the summer of 1987, the group transformed into a broad-based artist and activist collective with six core members: Steve Kurtz, Steve Barnes, Dorian Burr, Beverly Schlee and Hope Kurtz. In 1987, the group’s first multimedia exhibitions were held at Club Nu in Miami and Pappy’s Lounge in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1988, the group’s first events are produced: Political Art In Florida? in collaboration with Group Material, and Frontier Production in collaboration with Thomas Lawson. In 1988-98, CAE begin to release their books of plagiarist text poetry (of which there are six in all). In 1989, the group collaborate with Gran Fury to release Cultural Vaccines, a multimedia event in Tallahassee, Florida, which critiques U.S. policy on HIV. In 1990, the group collaborated with Prostitutes of New York to create Peep Show which premiered at Window on Gaines in Tallahassee, Florida.


In 1991, a body of work titled Fiesta Critica was developed in Indiantown, Florida, with local migrant workers; addressing Floridian agricultural labour relations. CAE produces an Easter fiesta platform to show the works. In 1992, the group produces Exit Culture as a series of works developed for Highway Culture. They also propose The Electronic Disturbance to Autonomedia publishers. In 1993, the group is invited to perform their first appearance in Europe at the Audio/Visual Experimental festival in the Netherlands. They complete the associational documentary series Apocalypse and Utopia. In 1994, Autonomedia publishes The Electronic Disturbance and construction begins to create CAE’s website [3]. CAE projects begin to appear in both real and virtual forms as the Useless Technology project is performed as street action and launched online. The concept of electronic civil disobedience is introduced at the Terminal Futures conference in London. In 1995, the concept of the data body is introduced in lectures at the Ars Electronica. The group tours around Europe with the performance of Body Count.


In 1996, Autonomedia publishes Electronic Civil Disobedience (the companion text to The Electronic Disturbance), and research begins for the book Flesh Machine. In 1997, the group tours Flesh Frontiers and Shareholder’s Briefing. Castelvecchi publishes the Italian translation of The Electronic Disturbance. The group goes to Documenta X in Kassel, Germany to begin the editing and conceptualizing process for the book README: Ascii Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge at Hybrid Workspace. The performance of Flesh Machine is toured, premiering in Vienna and closing in Helsinki at Klasma Museum of Contemporary Art in summer 1998. L’Eclat publishes the French anthology of CAE’s writings titled La Resistance Electronique. In 1998, Autonomedia publishes Flesh Machine and the German translation is published by Passagen. The group’s street action occurs in Sheffield, UK, with the performance of The International Campaign for Free Alcohol and Tobacco for the Unemployed. Castelvecchi publishes the Italian translation of Electronic Civil Disobedience. In 1999, The Society for Reproductive Anachronisms is premiered at Rutgers University in the student cafeteria. Work begins on Cult of the New Eve (CoNE) and is premiered at St. Clara Hospital in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. A new book project is begun, entitled Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media. In 2000, Autonomedia publishes Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media and the German anthology of CAE’s writings on electronic media is published by Passagen.[2].

The group has exhibited and performed at diverse venues internationally, ranging from the street, to the museum, to the internet. Museum exhibitions include the Whitney Museum and The New Museum in NYC; The Corcoran Museum in Washington D.C.; The ICA, London; The MCA, Chicago; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; and The London Museum of Natural History. [4]


Free Range Grain was a performance-based project which tested foods to contest the global food trade system. The project used basic molecular biology techniques over a 72-hour period to test foods that others deemed suspicious of "contamination" even when the authorities were guarding against them.[3] This performance sought to explore biotechnology and the science behind it, as the artists felt it was "one of the most misunderstood areas of production in the cultural landscape."[4]

Steve Kurtz's Trial

In 2004, one of its founders, Steve Kurtz, was arrested on suspicion of bioterrorism.[5] On the morning of 11 May 2004, he woke to find that his wife Hope had died in her sleep. After calling 911, police became suspicious after noticing his biology lab which he kept in his own home. They contacted the FBI and Kurtz was detained for 24 hours before being interrogated and his house searched for biohazardous materials. The house was given the all clear, yet a week later, Kurtz’s CAE collaborators were ordered to appear before a grand jury to investigate possible violations of the law regarding biological weapons. The jury met in July 2004 and cleared Kurtz of all “bioterrorism” charges, however the FBI continued to press charges against the artist and the case dragged on for four years.[6] The case was widely covered in the US and international press, and sparked outrage among artists and scientists worldwide. A website was created for people to donate money to help Kurtz pay his mounting legal fees. The case was dismissed in 2008. [5] According to Nicola Triscott, the FBI ‘thought they had a situation out of which they could manufacture a terrorism case, which potentially brought great personal rewards’, based upon the ‘Lackawanna Six Sleeper Cell’ case where six Yemeni Americans were convicted of supporting al-Qaeda[7]


Critical Art Ensemble is the recipient of awards, including the 2007 Andy Warhol Foundation Wynn Kramarsky Freedom of Artistic Expression Grant [6], the 2004 John Lansdown Award for Multimedia [7], and the 2004 Leonardo New Horizons Award for Innovation. [8]

CAE's work has been covered by art journals, including Artforum, Kunstforum, and The Drama Review. [9]

Performance style

  • To create the façade of a group of scientists, the CAE wear lab coats and assume characters of amateur scientists. Instead of using fancy, high-tech machinery they use ‘high school lab equipment as well as common household supplies and groceries’[8], which brings the scientific difficulty down to a level at which the public can understand and engage with because the worlds of science and technology in the modern world are ‘increasingly privatised’[9]. This playful style however contrasts with the groups numerous books and manifestos which have an analytical focus.[10]
  • Nicola Triscott is the founder of Arts Catalyst. In her writings of the CAE, she states that their participatory theatre ‘aims to involve the public in the processes of biotechnology in order to contribute to the development of an informed and critical public discourse on contemporary bioscience’[11]. This provides people with knowledge of how science can be interesting and that it can be misused if in the wrong hands. Their works have ranged from genetically modified food, the human genome project (CoNE), reproductive technologies, genetic screening and transgenics. The way they approach this style is through directly engaging with the science and presenting techniques generally unknown to the public in a performative way[12].
  • The work of the CAE continues to entertain, inform and show the public how biotechnology can be demonstrated via performance[13] As part of their critical objectives, they target their attention on private corporations unknown in the public sector who misuse biotechnology. This tactical response is what the CAE have termed ‘Fuzzy Biological Sabotage’ (or FBS if abbreviated).[14] Using harmless biological species including plants, insects and reptiles, they make sophisticated pranks ‘to operate in the grey, in-between spaces as yet unregulated by institutional regimes’[15]

Works and Views

The collective has written 6 books, and its writings have been translated into 18 languages. Its book projects include: The Electronic Disturbance (1994), Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas (1996), Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, & New Eugenic Consciousness (1998), Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media (2001), Molecular Invasion (2002), and Marching Plague (2006).

CAE is noted for having written the article Nomadic Power and Cultural Resistance, in which CAE argues that with the creation of the internet the power of the elite has become mobile to the extent that it is difficult for a dissident to directly confront the authority, comparing the untrackable, elusive mobility to that of the Scythians[16]. They demolished the idea that power cannot corrupt and co-opt network and hypertext technologies, that such technologies have a predetermined and manifest destiny of freedom.[17] CAE goes on to observe that occupation theory itself is challenged by cyberspace and the difficulties it presents in terms of focusing a group effort against one authority as opposed to a singular hacker, fiddling with code. An important distinction is made that when rebellious acts are carried out by an individual as opposed to a group in singularity, that the dissenter is seen as a vandal instead of a protester. The article mentions that resistance in the form posters, pamphleteering, street theater and public art have been useful in the past but now that the public is electronically engaged one must bring their resistance methods online. [18]

In correlation to the CAE's work "Molecular Invasion (2002)" they hosted an exhibit about genetically modified crops. They planted Monsanto's genetically modified seeds that were designed to be immune to Monsanto's commercial pesticide roundup (Glyphosate). They successfully grew these crops in their exhibit however once the plants were fully grown they applied an enzyme inhibitor that was reverse engineered to the plants that eradicated the protection that these crops had against the pesticide. The plants quickly died. This exhibit was a statement against genetically modified foods.

Cult of the New Eve

In 1999, the CAE began a new project that explored how scientific technology in genetics could be combined with religious attitudes, such as those of Christian communion where someone can eat bread and drink wine as a metaphor of eating Christ to celebrate him. This performance project was titled Cult of the New Eve (or CoNE when abbreviated). The way in which the CAE interpreted this idea of communion was by using a human genome of a female donor taken from a blood sample. They spliced the genome and inserted it into yeast, which was then placed into a host and a small cup of beer given to audience members who were willing to participate. The genome from the donor is intended to represent a ‘New Eve… a sacrosant Messiah’[19] who is literally consumed unlike Christian communion where Christ is only metaphorically consumed. The project also offers public and online preaching, baptisms, communion, sacred theological and cosmological texts and prophecies. It has been based upon the Human Genome project at Roswell Park medical complex in Buffalo, New York.[20].


The CAE created a performance titled GenTerra which raised issues surrounding ethics and safety in performative science. This was done through an investigation into creating transgenic life forms and seeing the consequences of potentially releasing them into the environment. It was the audience members who had to decide whether the bacteria was harmful or not in a game of ‘genetic Russian roulette’.[21] Triscott states through her own experience of participating in the performance that members of the audience were given the opportunity to grow and store their own bacteria, with full instructions and guidance. With the aid of a spinning machine, bacteria were spun with only one of ten chambers holding active bacteria. The purpose of GenTerrra is to ‘introduce bioproducts to the audience, and demonstrate the practical applications of such research, such as disease treatment and xenotransplantation’.[22] As the CAE wear lab-coats and appear as professional scientists, they simulate actual biotechnology corporations, emphasizing their intentions even further.[23].

CAE's success

  • The CAE have been successful due to their structure which has contributed to positive attitudes throughout the group. The number of members, ranging from three to eight and known as a ‘cellular structure’[24] has managed to be sustained without members feeling isolated. As each member has the opportunity to show off their individual strengths and weaknesses, the risk of conflict and mistrust is reduced. They do not believe in equality; rather that every member has ‘a voice in the production process [of a project] however the member with the greatest expertise in the area has authority over the final product’[25].
  • CAE have also stated that amateurs have the ability to see through dominant paradigms, are more free to recombine elements of paradigms thought long dead, and can apply everyday life experience to their deliberations. Most important, however, amateurs are not invested in institutional systems of knowledge production and policy construction, and hence do not have irresistible forces guiding the outcome of their process…'.[26]

Future of the CAE

‘Since 2006, CAE has changed the focus of its work towards a critique of US defense policy, and has moved away from its interrogation of biotechnology’.[27]. Their biotechnology projects can still be seen on their page.


Bunkers are privatized public spaces, which serve particular functions like political continuity or consumption frenzy. Bunkers are perceived as necessary by the public from fear tactics spread by corporate identities, political powers, and media. A nomadic bunker is both electronic and architectural forms of privatized spaces while, sedentary bunkers are the last traces of centralized power (White House), manufacture complicit cultural elite (university), or manufactured continuity (historical monuments). The introduction of electronics has the power to undermine sedentary bunkers by removing their power of fear mongering. Bunkers are important to the CAE because nomadic powers have created panic and produced the ideology of a need for bunkers and we as the free public must break this illusion of security, leaving no place to hide.[citation needed]

"Nomadism" is a way of life that exists outside of the organizational "State." The nomadic way of life is characterized by movement across space which exists in sharp contrast to the rigid and static boundaries of the State. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explain:

The nomad has a territory; he follows customary paths; he goes from one point to another; he is not ignorant of points (water points, dwelling points, assembly points, etc.). But the question is what in nomad life is a principle and what is only a consequence. To begin with, although the points determine paths, they are strictly subordinated to the paths they determine, the reverse happens with the sedentary. The water point is reached only in order to be left behind; every point is a relay and exists only as a relay. A path is always between two points, but the in-between has taken on all the consistency and enjoys both an autonomy and a direction of its own. The life of the nomad is the intermezzo.

The nomad, is thus, a way of being in the middle or between points. It is characterized by movement and change, and is unfettered by systems of organization. The goal of the nomad is only to continue to move within the "intermezzo." [28]

See also


  1. ^ Critical Art Ensemble
  2. ^ Critical Art Ensemble, ‘Timeline’, pp. 132-135.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ [2]
  5. ^ Kennedy, Randy (July 3, 2005). "The Artists in the Hazmat Suits". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-03-06. 
  6. ^ Triscott 2009, p.154.
  7. ^ Triscott 2009, p.165.
  8. ^ Sholette 2005, p.51.
  9. ^ Sholette 2005, p.51.
  10. ^ Sholette 2005, p.51.
  11. ^ Triscott 2009, p.151.
  12. ^ Triscott 2009, p.151.
  13. ^ Sholette 2005, p.51.
  14. ^ Sholette 2005, p.52.
  15. ^ Sholette 2005, p. 52. cited in Molecular Invasion
  16. ^ The Electronic Disturbance, 11-30. New York: Autonomoedia, 1994.
  17. ^ The New Media Reader. New York: The MIT, 2003
  18. ^ The New Media Reader. New York: The MIT, 2003
  19. ^ Critical Art Ensemble 2000, pp.167-173
  20. ^ Critical Art Ensemble, 'Performing a Cult', pp.167-173
  21. ^ Triscott 2009, p.164
  22. ^ Triscott 2009, p.164
  23. ^ Triscott 2009
  24. ^ Critical Art Ensemble 2001, pp.70-73
  25. ^ Critical Art Ensemble 2001, pp.70-73
  26. ^ Sholette 2005, p.52. cited in Critical Art Ensemble 2001, p.9.
  27. ^ Triscott 2009, p.166
  28. ^


  • Critical Art Ensemble, 2000 winter, ‘Timeline’, The Drama Review 1988-, vol. 44, No. 4, pp. 132–135 MIT Press.
  • Sholette, G., 2005 summer, ‘Disciplining the avant-garde: The United States versus the Critical Art Ensemble’, Circa, No. 112, pp. 50–59 Circa Art Magazine.
  • Triscott, N., (2009) Interfaces of Performance, Surrey, Ashgate Publishing Limited, Chatzichristodoulou, M., Jefferies, J., and Zerihan, R. (eds.), ‘Performative Science in an Age of Specialization: The Case of Critical Art Ensemble’, pp. 151–166.
  • Critical Art Ensemble, 'Fuzzy Biological Sabotage', Molecular Invasion, 2009, accessed 2010-02-17.
  • Critical Art Ensemble, (2001) Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media, New York, Autonomedia, pp. 9, 70-73.
  • Critical Art Ensemble, 2000 winter, ‘Performing a Cult’, The Drama Review 1988-, Vol. 44, No. 4, pp. 167–173 MIT Press.
  • Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Nick Montfort. "Nomadic Power and Cultural Resistance." The New Media Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2003. Print.

Further reading

  • Critical Art Ensemble, (1998), Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, and New Eugenic Consciousness, New York, Autonomedia.
  • Critical Art Ensemble, (2003), The Molecular Invasion, New York, Autonomedia.
  • Critical Art Ensemble, (2004), The Electronic Disturbance, U.S., Semiotext.
  • Critical Art Ensemble, (2004), Electronic Civil Disobedience: And Other Unpopular Ideas, New York, Autonomedia.
  • Critical Art Ensemble, (2006), Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health, New York, Autonomedia.

External links

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