Filmed on location on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, Critical Art Ensemble’s film Marching Plague presents a powerful critique of UK-US bioweapons research and addresses the paranoia surrounding bioterrorism. It centres on the recreation of secret sea trials conducted by the UK government in the 1950s.
In May 2004, FBI agents and the Joint Terrorism Task Force raided Critical Art Ensemble founder Steve Kurtz’s home, seizing art works and research materials for the Marching Plague project. The US government has yet to produce evidence that Kurtz is a bioterrorist, but they refuse to return the seized materials. Despite this, Kurtz was able to reconstruct the research and produce Marching Plague, commissioned by Arts Catalyst, and an accompanying publication, published by Autonomedia (2006).
In the early 1950s, plague research trials took place off the Isle of Lewis at Stornoway Bay when, having already decided that germ warfare was of no use on land, the British military began to explore whether germs could be used as a naval weapon for ship-to-ship combat. Their tests found that germs were unreliable and unmanageable on the sea as they were on the land.
The film's ultimate aim is to address and dispel some of the public's fear of "bioterrorism", which has been greatly exaggerated since 9/11 (even though that attack had nothing to do with the use of biological agents). This exaggerated fear is based on incomplete awareness of the facts. Moreover, this type of fear has been exploited by governments over the past eight decades to initiate biological warfare programmes at enormous cost.
As the United States returned to an astronomically expensive policy of offensive and expanded germ warfare research, the film revisited the lessons already experienced in regard to the development and use of this technology. It tries to convey a more reasoned perspective about the level of risk to the public as well as the desirability of germ warfare weapons (even within the logic of the military) than is usually presented in more "sensational" fiction or even in television docu-dramas. Finally, the film aims to show how such programmes compete for the limited resources necessary for research in global public health, and emergent infectious disease.
Bioweapons experts and artists, including Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon, join Steve Kurtz, Steve Barnes and Lucia Sommer of Critical Art Ensemble to discuss bioterrorism, the culture of fear and artistic censorship.
4 Mar 2006 AV Festival, Newcastle, UK
Mar - May 2006 Whitney Biennial, New York, USA
28 Apr 2006 Taigh Chearsabhagh Arts Centre, Lochmaddy, Isle of North Uist,
Outer Hebrides, Scotland
28 Apr – 1 Oct 2006 The Culture of Fear, Halle 14, Leipzig, Germany
24 May 2006 Eyebeam, New York, USA
30 May 2006 Lewis Film Society, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, UK
29 July 2006 ICA, The Mall, London, UK (event, film screening, talk)
29 Jul - 5 Aug 2006 ICA, The Mall, London, UK (installation)
Sep 2006 AFI, Seoul, South Korea
Lens Political. Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland
The Royal Danish Art Academy, Copenhagen, Denmark
The Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon, Israel
Days of Bioart 07. Espacio de Consulta_Centre d'Art, Santa Mònica, Bacelona, Spain
NEGATEC. Espacio Fundación Telefónica, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Stavanger Biennial, Norway
Free Party. Moscow Art Center, Moscow.
Public Moment. Art Forum International, Seoul, South Korea.
On the Edge. Aarhus Kunstbygning.
Biennial of Electronic Art, Perth, Australia
Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a collective of five tactical media practitioners of various specialisations including computer graphics and web design, film/video, photography, text art, book art and performance. Formed in 1987, CAE's focus has been on the exploration of the intersections between art, critical theory, technology and political activism. 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, Corcoran Museum in Washington D.C., ICA in London, MCA in Chicago, Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and the Natural History Museum in London.
The collective has written seven books, with writings translated into 18 languages. Titles 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), Marching Plague (2006) and Disturbances (2012).
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.
In 2015, CAE was involved in Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone alongside YoHa and Art's Catalyst.