The networks of life
Not long after the initial legal proceedings began in May 2004 to indict Steve Kurtz, a member of the art collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), for alleged possession of biological materials with the intention of using these for the production of bio-weapons, a web banner appeared on the independent site set up to support and fund a defense of the case.1 ‘Art is not Terrorism: Stop Legal Proceedings Against Critical Art Ensemble’, it read. Similar web banners and slogans used in street protests supporting Kurtz and other subpoenaed CAE members and associates have drawn attention to the entanglement of contemporary artists and art practices with the fall-out politics of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’s’ war on terror. At the same time, these slogans aim to extricate the art from becoming unintentionally caught up in the atmosphere of pervasive panic and fear. In seeking to defend Kurtz against the hyperbolic accusations of the FBI and to secure freedom of expression for artistic practice in an increasingly anxious and surveyed post-9/11 context an entire rhetoric and history of civil libertarianism has been galvanized. Mainstream news reportage on the Kurtz case, extending from New York State’s Buffalo Times to London’s Guardian, carried quotes from artists and associates of CAE, suggesting that art itself would be on trial in the pending case.2 Independent media outlets long associated with the support of civil rights, such as Counterpunch, ran satirical commentary on the somewhat extreme measures of the FBI prosecutorial circus conducting the investigation, while The Progressive filed its report under its ‘McCarthyism Watch’ section.3
When Steve Kurtz, co-founder of CAE and an art professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo, called emergency services to his home on May 11 2004, it was in response to an ordinary but sad domestic event — his wife had died. Amid a heightened state of alert that has permeated these services in the States since 9/11, emergency services workers discovered what they considered to be suspicious materials in Kurtz’ home. They called the FBI, who, invoking the expanded powers of a 1989 bioterrorism act provided by the passing of the US Patriot Act in 2001, searched Kurtz’ home and office over the following two days. They seized, ‘. . . his wife’s body, his house, car, equipment, computer hard drive, books, writing, correspondence, art projects and other items, even his cat’ (Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund, 2005). The FBI were especially interested in the presence of bacterial cultures and materials Kurtz was using for CAE projects. Initially the bureau deemed that these provided evidence of Kurtz’ possible involvement in bio-terrorist weapons production. After failing to show any other evidence in front of a Grand Jury hearing that these charges could be brought against him, Kurtz was subsequently charged in a Federal District Court for mail and wire fraud. These charges were laid on the basis of analysis of email correspondence between Kurtz and a scientific collaborator, Robert Ferrell. As I write this article the date for the hearing of the Kurtz case has been delayed and will now take place on March 2, 2005.
Not long after 9/11, an FBI agent contacted the Whitney Museum, New York in reference to an art work by Marc Lombardi titled, BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972-91 (4th Version).4 The piece is a large drawing with three separate horizontal timelines beginning in 1972 and ending in 1991. As with all of Lombardi’s works, key points along the timelines are marked by a circle and these then sprout a series of interconnected people and events – circled, dated and named – which are connected by lines spiraling outwards and forming complex overlapping loops with other players and occurrences. Each of his diagrams traces the financial and political dealings of global members in government and financial institutions, arms and money laundering deals, tax avoidance schemes, drug trafficking, gangster, terrorist and military alliances, to name but a few. The particular piece that had caught the eye of the FBI dealt with the financial dealings between the Al Qaeda network, Saudi bankers and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). For the FBI, Lombardi’s piece must have appeared as a kind of map through a database, which, by their later admissions, had been little understood in the immediate aftermath of the trade tower attacks.5
Very little formally connects the art work of Lombardi to that of CAE, although both are concerned with aspects of the politics and finance of corporate globalization. Even less empirically connects the FBI’s interest in Lombardi’s investigations with their interest in pursuing Kurtz on suspicion of bioterrorism. If anything links these two events at all, it is simply that in the broader sphere of public culture in the US (rather than in its more insulated art world), the political status of art is no longer determined by recourse to the politics of the artist or to the platform promoted by the work’s content. Art now becomes ‘political’ when it catches the attention of a policing agency. It does this by either becoming information – ‘data’ that can be assimilated to a broader network of information ‘bits’ mapped out by policing operations, as happened with Lombardi’s networks connecting previous US backed financing of the Taliban to later participants in the Al Qaeda organization – or by becoming part of the infrastructure of information through being incorporated into its substrate. Steve Kurtz is a body whose fate it was to become part of this material substrate that supports a speculative information economy, along with those other bodies who have surfaced in the wake of 9/11, deemed to be violating immigration laws or becoming material witnesses in an atmosphere that seeks out the slightest suspicion of ‘terrorist activity’.
A number of people have argued that the information economy of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly its investment in info- and biotech companies, was underwritten by the emergence of a mode of capital which can be termed ‘speculative’ (Lovink, 2003, Cooper, 2004). Speculative capital operates as much at the level of affect as it does economically. After the speculative bubble burst with the crash of NASDAQ stocks in March 2000, the affective dimensions of speculation needed somewhere to ‘land’. Speculative capital, as Melinda Cooper has suggested, has shifted from supporting an economy of permanent growth, prior to the 2000 crash, to financing economies of permanent war (Cooper, 2003: 14). We are now witnessing a peculiar intermix of speculation and suspicion. On the one hand, an ongoing ‘hope’ continues to invest in making good the promise to locate biological and chemical weapons, to capture Osama, to imprison potential terrorists. On the other hand, a descent into rumor, misgiving and tension prevails in what Lovink insists is – beyond any specific deployments of information technologies — a widespread state of global ‘information warfare’ (Lovink, 2003: 21). Bodies, biological materials and chemical weapons have been varyingly absent from and present in media reportage, weapons inspection and intelligence reports and in official attempts to legitimize the war on terror and in Iraq.
But speculative frenzy either bursts or lands somewhere, if only in order to generate further grounds from which it can continue to be produced. These grounds are provided incrementally by cases such as Kurtz’. The ongoing logic of production of informatic economies requires the organization of the diverse elements that accumulate and then comprise these grounds into a territory and/or potential interconnections between territories. The territory must be one that is recognizable in terms that are comprehensible within an information society: elements must be linked, interconnected, data-based and charted as data. This allows an informatic mode of production to continue generating new fields for gathering, securing, filtering and spreading further information and hence further speculative affect. In fact, as I will argue in this article, mapping information has become an indispensable feature of not only generating informatic life but of waging information warfare. And the terms of this mapping that currently make sense of informatic life gravitate towards generalized concepts of the network. Mapping under these conditions is therefore not a retrospective process, providing diagrammatic visualizations of known spaces. Instead it is a means of producing new information territories by mapping network phenomena: potential relations and interactions between ‘nodes’, the operations of secondary networks that are ‘regulatory’, the visualization of the ‘clustering’ of ‘hubs’ towards which information flows will gravitate.6 Although these territories ‘make sense’ of their data once they have been mapped, the initial capture of the data comprising these territories may be contingent. By this, I mean to suggest both the accidental operations that are entailed by the flows of information through networked societies and the ways in which elements come to touch on and butt up on one another in unforeseen ways, once captured by the logic of networked information. In order to make sense of the politics that support and surround, first, the contingent capture of the work of CAE and the designation of this work as a potential bioterrorist threat, and, second, the ongoing State pursuit of Kurtz, we need to understand something of the logic that subtends this informatic life. We also need to look to critical cultural theory and to the art work of groups such as CAE in order to continue arguing that informatic life – and especially its technologies and software – is produced in relation to a particular socio-political ensemble.
Informatic networks and their phenomena are at once virtual and actual. Virtually, they comprise the potential topologies of relations between informatic nodes and can be modulated, tweaked and rearranged as further information comes to hand. The field of functional or post-genomics within mathematical molecular biology is peppered with visualizations and models of these virtual networks. Following the surprising quantitative findings of the sequencing of the human genome, in which it was revealed that humans possessed considerably less genes than had been anticipated, focus has shifted in molecular biology to the diversity of interactions and processes that take place in a cell or microorganism (Venter et. al., 2001: 1345). Yet as Evelyn Fox Keller has demonstrated, the shift towards modeling developmental pathways, interactions and networks in cellular processes was already taking place by the mid-1990s (Fox Keller, 2002: 248). I want to suggest that at least two separate approaches to the understanding of networks and their phenomena characterize mathematical or systems (molecular) biology. These cannot always be distinguished and it is in the slippage between the two that life becomes increasingly informatic. The earlier work of modeling gene networks in computational environments emphasized the robustness of the topology of the networks themselves (Fox Keller, 2002: 252). In one such example of this modeling, biologists demonstrated that individual parameter values were not themselves responsible for the phenotypical expression of segmentation in insects. Rather the links of information transfer at intra- and extra-cellular levels were what counted (Von Dassow et al., 2000:189). Primarily this approach is concerned with the immanent topologies of networks and their ability to both generate diverse actual outcomes and withstand the variability of actual data incorporated:
[T]he model often performs equivalently despite 100- or 1,000-fold variation in the value of some of the parameters. Thus, not only does the network topology embody many different solutions, but most solutions are highly robust to variation in individual parameter values. (Von Dassow et al., 2000:189)
Importantly, as Fox Keller has suggested, the use of a gene network model here focuses attention on under-researched problems within developmental biology, such as ‘robustness’ (Fox Keller, 2002: 253-4). Rather than promising computational solutions through the application of informatics, network models reveal and foreground practical and discursive problems for biology itself.
The second approach to networked phenomena within post-genomics that I want to single out for attention occurs through the increasing adoption of a model known as a ‘scale-free network’. This approach differs significantly from the first in that its implicit goal is to link biological networks with a more generalized theory and analysis of the functioning of ‘the network’ (Barabasi & Albert, 1999: 509-12). This understanding of the network has been imported from the mathematical analysis of links between nodes in studies of the structure of the Internet, the World Wide Web and the social and organizational networks of corporations. In a scale-free network, some nodes are shown to be more connected than others and become ‘hubs’ to which new links ‘prefer’ to be attached:
[U]nderstanding the large scale structure of cellular networks can not only provide valuable and perhaps universal structural information, but could also lead to a better understanding of the dynamical processes that generated these networks. In this respect the emergence of power-law distribution is intimately linked to the growth of the network in which new nodes are preferentially attached to already established nodes, a property that is also thought to characterize the evolution of biological systems. (Barabasi & Albert, 1999: 509)
There are two dominant features in this use of networked thinking in the biological domain: the focus upon uncovering a universal design principle governing the structure and function of the cell and the attention given to hubs or clusters of nodes in the network. In any ‘map’ generated by applying scale-free network models then, one is apparently guaranteed the charting of both the growth of the network and of its most importantly weighted nodes. It is not difficult to imagine how this type of modeling might appeal to the pharmaceutical industries and, additionally, the burgeoning field of genetic therapies. Hubs can be identified as phenomena to be targeted by either supportive or aggressive biological and chemical agents – that will enhance or render them inoperable – or by genetic therapeutic techniques.
Scale-free networks are also used to map, identify and target quite different kinds of non-biological phenomena, as biologists using them readily admit. In the aftermath of 9/11, the FBI undertook a complete reorganization of their data-management processes and technologies by centralizing all their data for criminal investigations into one system — the Investigative Data Warehouse — and by implementing new analytical tools for ‘visualization, geomapping, link-charting and reporting’ this data:
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, we saw the need to provide counterterrorism investigators and analysts with quick, easy access to the full breadth of information relating to terrorism. We developed a three-step plan that would provide immediate support to counterterrorism investigators and analysts, and then incrementally increase the range and effectiveness of that support for other criminal investigations. This plan transitions us away from separate systems containing separate data (ACS, TelApps) towards an Investigative Database Warehouse (IDW) that contains all data that can legally be stored together. The IDW provides the Bureau with a single access point to several data sources that were previously available only through separate, stove-piped systems. By providing consolidated access to the data, for the first time analytical tools can be used across data sources to provide a more complete view of the information possessed by the Bureau. (Mueller, 2004: 58-9)
Although the FBI has not revealed the exact software it now uses to conduct investigations into terrorist networks, the report submitted by Robert Mueller to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States contains hypothetical ‘maps’ generated using data analysis conducted by examples of the use of scale-free network modeling (Mueller, 2004: 60-1). These models of networks therefore belong both to the mapping of life/growth at a cellular level and to the arsenal and conduct of information warfare at the political level. Furthermore, the exchange of similar kinds of networked modeling across the biological and the political spheres suggests that mapping of networks is being used to facilitate the simultaneous production of life – by indicating how growth occurs – and of war – by visualizing the areas of density or clustering to be targeted and ‘taken down’ in the network.
The hubs of war
It is not surprising that the rhetoric and history of a different era of warfare has been invoked with respect to the charges sought against Kurtz. Through the latter part of the twentieth century, North America’s various artistic communities have been subjected to both targeting and censorship for the political beliefs they have personally espoused and for the subject matter of their artwork. From the deliberate targeting of members of the film, television and radio industries through the compiling of blacklists indicting those named as communists or sympathizers under McCarthy’s directives, the NEA pornography and censorship debates of the late 1980s to the more recent controversy surrounding the exhibition of the show Sensation: Young British Artists of the Saatchi Collection in 1999, US artists have felt their very livelihood threatened by government surveillance and sanctions. The zealousness of the FBI investigation into Kurtz’s art practices – involving the use of biological material and techniques for the purposes of questioning the current directions, data and outcomes of the mainstream biotech industries — and particularly the Bureau’s commitment to pursuing other charges after Kurtz and CAE members and associates were cleared of suspected bioterrorism, reeks of a familiar fanatical odor.7 But I want to suggest that we pause here for a moment and seek to demarcate these events from any apparent neo-McCarthyist resurgence or from a blanket censoring of political art in a social climate engendering fear and paranoia. McCarthyism and even censorship of artwork are forms of what we might call ‘ideological warfare’. This type of ‘warfare’ comprises campaigns conducted on behalf of some clearly proclaimed political or moral position — anti-communism, family or community values — against the allegedly offending piece of art or artist. This kind of warfare, rightly or wrongly, surmises the art and artist to likewise be waging ‘warfare’ on behalf of a position often characterized as extreme and one perceived to be at odds with the majority interests of the State and/or the community.
There may be some mileage to be gained by loudly proclaiming that ‘art is not terrorism’, yet we do little to advance critical cultural theory and politics if we collapse the specificity of the contemporary reach of power into a shared history of political persecution and censorship of twentieth century art. It is essential to continue to support the cultural work of CAE’s projects such as ‘Free Range Grains’ and the work-in-progress on US germ warfare being carried out by Kurtz and others at the time of his arraignment.8 Part of this support perhaps lies in separating, at least within the American mediascape – so bereft of serious and careful debate over terrorism and the war in Iraq – the work of art from the operations of terror. But at the same time we need to look for the broader cultural and political conditions today under which bioart might come to be considered as potential bioterrorism. We need to understand how a biopolitical logic modulates the politics of cultural and artistic production.
Bioart is a relatively new nomenclature and describes an area of aesthetic practice that takes in a number of approaches ranging from the selective breeding of irises to the production of transgenic organisms in art work.9 A growing number of bioartists use techniques, living material and equipment that are now standard practice, if at the lower technical end, of the biotech industries. Although these are not readily within the public’s grasp, there is also no mystery as to how artists might obtain them. Laboratory supplies, some cell lines, nonpathogenic cultures, kits and assays and culture media, for example, can be bought online; some through resellers and online auction sites, others via initial customer registration. Buying much of this biotech ‘stuff’ comes with compliance on the part of the purchaser that it will be used for research purposes alone. Purchasing biotech equipment and materials also assumes the knowledge and skill to use them. Some bioartists are content or find themselves forced to collaborate with scientists – geneticists, molecular biologists, horticulturalists and so on – in order to realize a particular work. Others, like Kurtz, are interested in skilling-up as much as possible because the acquisition of scientific knowledge through the combination of hands-on and theoretical inquiry, are as much a part of the CAE cultural and political project as the finished art work:
The perception that science is too difficult for anyone other than a specialist to understand is socially ingrained in those separated from the discipline on an everyday life basis. The walls of the division of technical labor seem unbreachable… . However, while such perceptions have a serious degree of truth to them, they are also over-exaggerated. Within a very brief period of time, anyone who is modestly literate can learn the fundamentals of scientific study and ethics. (Critical Art Ensemble, 2002a)
If we want to insist that bioart is not bioterrorism, then we need to ask how it might nevertheless come to seem so in the current climate. The conditions under which CAE’s art practices become suspects in the war on terror are not the same conditions under which McCarthyism operated. Blacklisting during the 1950s was a carefully honed strategy that involved the targeting of individuals via a dedicated FBI taskforce and the secondary endorsement and securing of this operation through an economically threatened private sector film industry (Schrecker, 1994). Kurtz and CAE were not targeted ahead by surveillance agencies because of their political practices and positions but contingently became part of a diffuse and modulated logic of control (Deleuze, 1990: 177-82). This logic, as Hardt and Negri argue, may be exercised by a government or government agency but is not at the discretion of an individual political regime like the Bush government (Hardt and Negri, 2001: 33–38). Rather this is a biopolitical logic in which power asserts and strengthens itself by extending its reach over all aspects of social and cultural life (Hardt and Negri, 2004: 18–24, 93–6).
Hence the CAE case shares less in common with a history of deliberately targeting, censoring and sanctioning political artists and more with the recent ‘chance’ harvesting of illegal mainly Middle Eastern, Indian and Pakistani immigrants from various Western nations in the post-9/11 climate. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that prior racial sorting, profiling and targeting is taking place (Lyon, 2003: 97-100). But the contingency of many of the arrests, imprisonment and deportation orders that have befallen those swept up by the war on terror is also significant. Furthermore, in pursuing terrorists, the FBI and similar agencies operating in England and Australia have netted far more profit for an increasingly privatized prison and detention system via arrests for matters such as minor visa violations than they have in securing terrorism charges. Twelve hundred people were initially detained in the US as enforcement agencies pursued terrorist suspicions and many were then held for violating immigration laws or as material witnesses (Freie, 2002). Few of these faced terrorism charges and many were initially arrested because they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is important to remember that the FBI does not hold investigative jurisdiction in the US over immigration issues. But in the wake of 9/11 and the formation of the National Joint Terrorism Task Force, it now shares information and resources with representatives from the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Customs Service, Secret Service, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Although the switch from bioterrorism to fraud charges in the Kurtz case may seem a stretch of the public imagination, it should be remembered that fraud also falls squarely within the FBI’s areas of investigation. Expert training on fraud detection methods through compiling information-based and related resources such as email correspondence no doubt aided the investigation against Kurtz and Ferrell.
It is this quality of contingency in which the Kurtz case also participates, an indication not of the aleatory nature of contemporary policing but rather of its spread into the minutiae of all aspects of life. Kurtz remained indicted, as have many others; not on charges related to terrorism but on something entirely different, fraud. On the one hand, there is neither rhyme nor reason as to why the charges suddenly moved from suspected bioterrorism to fraud. On the other hand, bioterrorism and fraud exist contingently in a supra-individual relationship with each other through the jurisdiction arrangements of contemporary American policing. After the grand jury hearing found no evidence to bring an indictment against him, Kurtz, and human genetics professor from the University of Pittsburgh Robert Ferrell, were subsequently charged with obtaining various bacterial cultures under false pretenses. In the context of what can be seen as a much broader diffusion of social and political control modulating the very conduct of living a life — the charge of illegal conduct, for example, befalling those whose actions and movements fall even minutely outside the tightly circumscribed bounds of visa-bound migration — the charges of fraud against Kurtz and his scientific ‘collaborator’ Ferrell can be understood similarly in terms of violating expectations pertaining to the conduct of intellectual and cultural work.
It is clear that the policing of America means the confinement of people, knowledge, resources and cultural production to their proper spheres. Artists using materials that are authorized for scientific research cannot possibly be conducting research as well. They are clearly defrauding the public and this should be regarded suspiciously. As the American scientific community has been quick to note, bringing the fraud allegations against a scientist also has implications here for the ongoing conduct of scientific research (Park, 2004). The routine sharing of resources (materials) among laboratory researchers will be subjected to stricter regulation with the threat of fraud hanging over collaborative scientific research and hence this will see an increasing privatization of both research processes and outcomes.
Protocol surrounding the procurement of bacterial cultures in the US involves the signing of Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs) by researchers in which subsequent research involving these materials must be conducted solely by the researcher within their laboratory (Park, 2004). The alleged violation, then, involves the obtaining of materials by Ferrell on behalf of someone else, the transfer of the materials to Kurtz and his use of these materials in circumstances which the MTA did not cover. Typically, MTAs function to secure intellectual property rights over scientific research but many academic scientific researchers find the current climate, in which ownership prevails over collaboration, a bureaucratic nightmare and an impediment to the production of knowledge (Park, 2004). Subsequently the transfer forms are either intentionally ignored or unintentionally forgotten. Yet as biological material, from bacterial cultures to genes and even the potential for genetic expression, become increasingly proprietorialized, it is unsurprising that a regime aimed at enforcing precise conduct in research is mobilized to secure intellectual covenants over materiality.
Under present conditions, then, the obvious absurdity of attempting to bring what may have amounted to a treason charge against an artist appears both unfathomable insofar as it was generated out of such contingent circumstances and sinister insofar as it connects with more widespread methods of regulating, via mapping, the movement of peoples and biological matter. By associating the Kurtz case with McCarthyism, a connection is established to the conduct of ideological warfare on behalf of the State. That a bioart project might come to be seen as the material evidence supporting practices of bioterrorism speaks not of ideological but instead of information warfare (Der Derian, 2001). It is not my intent here to chart the rise of this kind of warfare via techniques of surveillance, policies of national and global security and the development of various software/hardware applications contributing to its perpetuation. Nor do I wish to demonstrate how in any specific ways CAE’s art work came to be caught up within its conduct. Rather, I am interested in thinking through one material aspect in the production and conduct of current information warfare and how this material flow of information might give rise to a logic in which bioart becomes bioterror and in which bioterror cedes to fraud.
We might concede that the ’empire’ model provides us with a kind of general schemata for the unfolding of this bio-logic in which the juridical and social are in-mixed and coextensive (rather than ‘state’ against economic/social relations), in which communications and information technologies are immanent to its power (rather than ideological apparatuses) and in which it develops by producing and reproducing the entirety of culture (rather than via the globalization of one culture) (Hardt and Negri, 2001: 22-41). But likewise, as artists and cultural theorists dipping in and out of bio- and information technologies we may well want to know how this informatic immanence operates in more or less concrete ways to sweep us into its creep.
As I suggested, the first type of networked model for mapping pathways and interactions in the biological sphere concentrates on the virtual topological qualities of networks. The second approach is primarily interested in foregrounding one feature of network topologies — its hubs or clusters — and in mapping empirical data on the basis of the presumed importance of this feature. This approach actualizes the topology of networks into generalized and applicable network principles in order to analyze phenomena such as terrorist networks or the social networks of influence and power within corporations. In fact the network is generated by the flow and routing of material ‘packets’ of information — times, names, places – which have been entered into the mapping process and which are then in turn concretely affected by the maps drawn of this information. I have no concrete evidence to indicate that Kurtz, CAE and its associates have been ‘mapped’ in such a way. But drawing on the FBI’s announcement of a centralized database covering all its investigations and its acknowledgement of the use of network models to visualize pathways through this database, it is fair enough to presume that once captured within the logic of the network, a new CAE ‘hub’ has indeed been ‘attached’ to the overall networked mapping of ‘terrorist’ activities. The hub becomes the object to be targeted and the focus of ongoing investigation; ‘knocking out’ the hub, in this model of the network, means weakening or taking down the information flow through the entire network: ‘. . .; if a small number of these critical nodes can be identified and “clipped” from the network, then command signals will not be able to propagate through the system’ (Fellman & Wright, 2004: 9).
Once CAE had been entered into the FBI’s managed information
territories and mapped them as a hub, their practices automatically
figure as nodes to be linked in the informatic conduct of the war
on terror. It becomes necessary to continue to pursue Kurtz and not
simply to ‘face-save’ in the rather embarrassing event of having
little to accuse him of on bioterrorism charges. The fraud charges
become a way of weakening the links that CAE hold with the
scientific community, as they implicate a collaborative relation
between Kurtz and a geneticist. They also function to ‘knock out’
the operability of CAE’s artistic networks by increasing panic and
a fear of surveillance among those associated artistically and
culturally with CAE. Furthermore, with pending fraud charges
hanging over him, Steve Kurtz is literally regulated by a juridical
network in which he is subjected to travel restrictions, random and
scheduled visits from a probation officer, and periodic drug tests
(Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund: 2004). As it turns out, the
protocol developed for processing bodies through techniques of
information mapping and for continuing to regulate those bodies in
the war on terror bears less resemblance to ideological State
warfare and more to broader ‘lifestyle’ campaigns conducted for
decades in the US such as the war on drugs.
The nodes of contestational biology
In their text Molecular Invasion, CAE propose a critique of corporate biotechnology by advocating a ‘contestational biology’ (Critical Art Ensemble, 2002a). This must be conducted, according to them, by directly engaging biology itself in order to disrupt the course of profit back to biotech corporations: ‘The development of tactical models and organic tools for direct action is the subject matter of contestational biology’ (Critical Art Ensemble, 2002b). A number of tactics are suggested, ranging from direct protest and disruption of regional and rural biotech facilities through pranks such as releasing mutant flies in biotech research laboratories to questioning the results of biological data supplied by the biotech industries. Collectively, CAE refer to these tactics as ‘fuzzy biological sabotage’, a form of direct intervention that deploys actual biological agents or matter and operates in a kind of grey zone between legal and illegal interventions (Critical Art Ensemble, 2002a).
It should be noted that these tactics are only suggestions and do not constitute CAE art pieces themselves, the politics of which take place in the performative, aesthetic and representational arenas mostly through direct engagement with audience members. Increasingly CAE’s projects have moved from the realm of representations of the biological — the hype surrounding the visual presentation of biotechnologies, in particular – to the life sciences’ techniques and practices as a terrain of contested representation. For example, in their 2002 art project ‘Molecular Invasion’, a large-scale installation of living canola, corn and soy seedlings was exhibited in The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.10 Working with students from The Corcoran School of Art and Design, CAE created a public experiment attempting to reverse-engineer the genetic modifications made to Monsanto’s genetically modified crops, which has made them resistant to the weed-killer Roundup. The actual viability of this project as a ‘biological agent’ that could in fact ‘undo’ the effects of biotechnical modifications already carried out by one of the giants of the biotech industries is not the overall objective of such a performance work. Rather the issues here lie with contesting, on the one hand, the actual claims and rhetorical hype propounded by corporate biotech culture for dominion over the food chain supply, and, on the other hand, the fear experienced in the public domain concerning the inevitability of such corporate domination. By demonstrating that reverse-engineering genetic modifications are possible, and that these can be undertaken by a practice of amateur and under-funded science expands the public domain of engagement with contemporary science and technology. But this shift in art practice from work about biotechnologies (a ‘representational’ approach) to biotechnical work that contests the current status, function and political operations of the biotech industries is only possible because biology is not simply wet ‘stuff’ anymore (if it ever has been). As I have suggested throughout this article, there is at least one branch of contemporary biology that is more indebted to a hybridized paradigm of complexity theory, network design principles and analysis and information technologies than it is to the ‘meat’ of biology.
Contesting biology also means contesting the topologies used to map out biological processes. Many of those topologies flow into the life sciences originally from information theory; they are now arriving from general network theory.
A number of bioartists are also working with contestations of the processes, methodologies, corporate collaborations and outcomes of contemporary biotechnologies. These include works such as Heath Bunting’s Superweed 1.0: Natural Reality, Natalie Jeremijenko’s Touch and OneTreeprojects and The Tissue Culture and Art’s Pigs Wings Project.11 Of particular relevance here is Bunting’s Superweed kit as it complements CAE’s ‘Molecular Invasion’ project in both its methods and political aims. Quite simply the kit is a packet of seeds, some of which are non-modified, others of which have been genetically modified with some resistance to Roundup. When planted and allowed to cross-pollinate, the plants may develop into a ‘super weed’ capable of spreading through a crop that had been genetically modified by companies such as Monsanto to resist a weed killer. The super weed, likewise resistant, would then threaten to compete with the GM crop for water and nutrients. Bunting, researching via resources available to him in the public domain and in consultation with a horticulturalist, developed genetically modified organisms that threaten to outperform those created by corporations such as Monsanto. Although works such as these have activist potential, their power also lies in the effort of their realization, suggesting that nonscientists can contest the social and political directions of biotechnologies by working on and through biology and technology.
As Eugene Thacker has argued, the invasion of biology by information technologies has not lead to a situation in which ‘the body’ disappears, although fears surrounding potential posthuman dematerializations predicted it would through the 1990s (Thacker, 2004: 34-41). Instead information has itself been materialized by becoming constitutively incorporated into the very core of what constitutes the biological:
‘Information’ no longer comes from the outside (disciplinarily speaking) to describe a biological entity such as DNA. Rather information is seen as constitutive of the very development of our understanding of ‘life’ at the molecular level — not the external appropriation of the metaphor but the epistemological internalization and the technical autonomization of information as constitutive of DNA. (Thacker, 2004: 40)
But information, as I have also been suggesting, is itself no longer simply an entity to be accumulated, encoded, stored and decoded. Information in contemporary culture is as much about the territories unfolded, captured and mapped by its links and interconnections and the morphogenic forms of growth, development and decay now deemed immanent to it. Linked information is now how information is being understood and managed. Linked information operates through a double movement of materialization. It travels initially from a paradigm of the informatic network into new models of genetic networks then back into a more generalized conception of life, in which the latter becomes a continually expanding network. This generalized network is then claimed to be the functioning and underlying principle of every sphere of activity:
The connectors of society, the stars of Hollywood, and the keystone species of an ecosystem are suddenly only manifestations of a single reality, their perceived importance within their environment attributable to their status as hubs within their respective networks. (Barabasi, 2001: 222)
The linking of life through the nodes of the network materializes information in such a way that it becomes the giant regulating principle of a properly organized, databased and policed info-sociality. Contestational biology must therefore also dispute this application of a generalized network as the fundamental and overriding design principle organizing social, cultural, economic and biological life. In Biomedia, Thacker has suggested that a critical approach to the materialization of information design through the theory and practice of contemporary biologies could begin to operate by deploying a rather different idea of ‘metadesign’ (Thacker, 2004: 191–3). Rather than a principle of (linked) design accounting for the interactions and connections that constitute living systems, the living system might be reconceived as one that is structurally open to the variability and contingency of whatever interactions, nodes and links it sustains. This conception of structure or design does not, therefore, function as a principle. Instead it is an engineered design ‘feature’, indicative of the system’s ongoing participation in processes of restructuring. These restructures occur throughout the course of its encounters with elements (accidents, symbiotic and parasitic relations with other systems, adaptations) outside of itself. In other words, the structure of life can only be encountered in the contingent, particular and unpredictable unfolding of living systems themselves. What Thacker seems to be suggesting is the possibility of a systems approach in biology that is specific, historical and non-generalizable yet linked in its very systematicity to other variables, and indeed to other systems: informatic, inorganic and so on.
I would also suggest that Thacker’s critical evaluation of the materialization of information through the practices and operations of biotechnics (what he calls biomedia) must be accompanied by a critical theorization of networks. Networks are not simply links between information, computers, databases or even people. Nor can their underlying connectivity be mined, visualized and mapped according to a law of preferential attachment. The ‘science of networks’ espoused by Barabasi and deployed in the analysis of phenomena as diverse as terrorism and genes, is initially drawn from the data and analysis of specific kinds of networks — organizational and corporate networks of social actors engaged in sets of social relations that indeed give structure to the very ‘life’ of the organization.12 The principle drawn from these analyses, that hubs form because new links in the network preferentially attach to pre-existing links, affirms nothing other than the operation of hierarchical power relations in so-called flat-management corporate structures.
How should this analysis be transposed to other kinds of very specific networks, such as those which facilitate specific interactions between intra- and extra-cellular components in order to express segmentation in an organism or those religious, historical, cultural and tribal interrelations that sustain a ‘network’ such as Al Qaeda? As Lovink has suggested, the sociality of a network is not a spin-off of network design or technology but arises in the event of producing the network itself (Lovink, 2003: 9-19, 23). The social nature of networks is specific to the historical events — the technical, discursive, social and political elements — shaping that network. In other words, a network’s social dimensions are not an epiphenomenon of the lateral and hierarchical links between an organization’s members. One cannot get to the bottom of the Al Qaeda ‘network’ by analyzing how many people were linked directly and then indirectly to the pilots who flew into the twin towers. A network — in all its social, technical and political aspects – is not ‘designed’ in this way but arises through a series of connected, discontinuous, contingent and purposeful events over time. This is not to say that networks cannot be plotted. Mark Lombardi’s spiraling and cascading lines of global growth, corruption and power demonstrate a careful sifting through of the relations and spheres of influence of groups of people, corporations, information and money on each other within specified historical parameters. If biological networks are to be useful ways of thinking through the interconnections, disruptions and pathways that are sketched out by the making of life (both naturally and artificially), they may likewise need to be temporally and spatially specific.
A critical node of network analysis resides in continuing to contest ‘the science of linking’ and the simplistic application of complexity theory across life. Everything is not connected to everything else by design or fact. With some sense of urgency, a rollback of the creeping networked connectivity of informatic life is needed in order to be able to confidently affirm the specificity of critical aesthetic practice. Otherwise, we will end up affirming a generalized understanding of life in all its social, aesthetic, political and biotechnical dimensions. If this linked design of life takes hold, it will become increasingly easy to use a bio-logic to forge spurious connections between, on the one hand, politically insightful artistic practice and artists’ networks and, on the other, bioterrorism.
1 This site no longer hosts any of these web banners but extensive information relating to the events surrounding the arraignment and charges against Steve Kurtz can be found at: ‘Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund’, http://www.caedefensefund.org/. An example of the original banner can be viewed on Ivan Pope’s weblog ‘Absent Without Leave’, http://blog.ivanpope.com/awol/2004/06/art_is_not_terr.html
2 Greg Sholette quoted in ‘Art becomes the next suspect in America’s 9/11 paranoia’, The Guardian Unlimited, June 11, 2004,
3 S. Cox ‘Ashcroft’s War on Art’, Counterpunch, June 29, 2004,
‘PEN, NYCLU, Artists Protest Investigation of Steve Kurtz’, McCarthyism Watch, The Progressive June 26, 2004,
4 The FBI’s interest in Lombardi’s work is documented in a catalogue essay ‘Global Networks’ by Robert Hobbs (2003) in the catalogue accompanying the show of the same name, Global Networks, New York: Independent Curators International: 11.
5 This lack of knowledge was clearly acknowledged by the FBI in the report submitted in 2004 to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States by its then director Robert Mueller, titled ‘The FBI’s CounterTerrorism Program Since September 2001’. The report is available in pdf format from the Commission’s website,
6 The language of networks is now deployed across a range of fields and disciplines, including mathematical biology, developmental biology, functional genomics, social and organizational network analysis, and counter-terrorism. For examples of its use in the life sciences, see G. Von Dassow, E. Meir, E. H. Munro & G. M. Odell (2000) ‘The Segment Polarity Network is a Robust Developmental Model’, Nature, 406: 188–92; H. Jeong, B. Tombor, R. Albert, Z. N. Oltvai & A-L. Barabási (2000);’The large-scale organization of metabolic networks’, Nature 407: 651–654. For examples in the area of social network analysis, see V. Krebs, ‘InFlow 3.0 Network Mapping Software’,
7 See the section of the FBI’s own website titled ‘What we Investigate’,
8 The exact nature of the work being undertaken by Kurtz on this project is unknown.
9 See, on the one hand, the work of George Gessert, who breeds, names and exhibits hybrid irises. For an overview of Gessert’s projects, see the following url:
On the other hand, Eduardo Kac is an artist who uses a number of bio techniques. His most notorious work ‘GFP Bunny’, involved the modification of the genome of a rabbit embryo to accept genetic material from a jellyfish. The embryo was then gestated to a rabbit with the capacity to glow a fluorescent green under ultra-violet lighting conditions. For documentation of the project, see ‘GFP Bunny’,
10 For information about this project in the gallery space, see documentation on the Corcoran website:
11 For documentation and purchase of Heath Bunting’s ‘Superweed’, see his website
Natalie Jeremijenko’s work is documented at her ‘projects archive’ website with links out to individual project websites
The Tissue Culture and Art Project’s documentation of ‘Pigs Wings’ can be accessed at
12 Mathematicians and network analysts such as Barabasi (2001) and Krebs (2000–4) explicitly draw on corporate data in order to map a generalized notion of the network. But what they fail to take into account is how this model does or does not translate across other forms of network analysis and visualization.
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Critical Art Ensemble (2002b) ‘What is Contestational Biology?’, http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/conbio/index.html
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