He’s the unstable isotope that you can’t quite predict. Brilliant, extreme, eccentric, genius, gifted, demented—call him any or all. Each one applies to artist/scientist, Joe Davis, a research affiliate in the Department of Biology at MIT who has done extensive research in molecular biology and bio-informatics for the production of genetic databases and new biological art forms
Colleagues alternately fear and revere his unconventional ideas, such as pushing for a space shuttle experiment that would have shot a 100,000-watt electron gun into the magnetosphere to create the world’s first artificial aurora. It might not have advanced science in a conventional way, but it would have been striking to behold.
Here are six of our favorite Joe Davis weird-science brainstorms:
1. Audio Microscope -a microscope that translates light information into sound allowing you to "hear" living cells, each with its own "aucustic signature."
2. Experiments with how E. coli respond to jazz, and other sounds, with Andrew Zaretsky - "the project is not too far afield from the work of the Demain lab, which concerns itself more with microbiology and the production of secondary metabolites such as antibiotics by bacteria. If the sound waves prove stressful to the bacteria, the stress might result in increased production of antibiotics, according to Zaretsky."
3. Putting a map of the Milky Way into the ear of a transgenic mouse - "inspired in this project by a children’s story an ex-girlfriend wrote eight years ago. He has taken the map of the Milky Way and reduced that information to sequence of 3,867 DNA base pairs. He has an agreement with Millenium Pharmaceuticals to synthesize the DNA sequence in 100 base pair chunks."
4. "‘primordial’ clocks, his own test of theory that life spontaneously self-assembled. To Davis, if life could assemble from simple molecules, so could clocks, a much simpler system."
5. "...ways to make artistic use of high-voltage electricity and spacebound signals. In the early 1980s, he drew up plans for channeling lightning bolts into a pulsed laser of almost unparalleled energy and into towering sculptures that would change the bolts' color and emit incredibly loud tones..."
6. "recorded the vaginal contractions of ballerinas with the Boston Ballet and other women, then translated this impetus of human conception into text, music, phonetic speech and ultimately into radio signals, which were beamed from MIT's Millstone radar to Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti, and two other nearby star systems.
In a sense, all of Davis’ scientific projects are driven by his desire to experience sensory oddities. His unique embrace of both art and science makes it hard to categorize what he’s doing, and wonder if it even if it can or should be categorized. To get a feel for Davis’ inability to assimilate, in life and art; here’s a brief sampling of Davis’ reality.
• Expelled from three high schools and two colleges: for writing about atheism, refusing a haircut, making a still (which exploded), being elected student body president on a "free marijuana" platform and working on an underground anti-war newspaper. In other words, he was a very naughty boy.
• Walked into the M.I.T. Center for Advanced Visual Studies uninvited in 1982. Secretary called the cops. Forty-five minutes later, Davis walked out with an appointment as a research fellow.
• Latest project is to build a biomechanical ornithopter powered by electrically stimulated frogs legs and to fly it across the Charles river.
• Uses his self-made hollow steel peg leg to open beer bottles, to accompany the band (bugle-style) at his local bar.
While celebrated for his unique take on “art”, some of his projects are so potentially dangerous that museums are afraid to expose the public to his creations.
It was 15 years ago that Davis first decided that genes, the make up of life itself, were a rich new medium for art. After having this revelation, his first order of business was to convince molecular biologists at Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Berkeley to teach him how to synthesize DNA and insert it into the genomes of living bacteria.
"In the beginning scientists were not comfortable talking to me," Davis recalls. "It took a while for them to trust me with their secrets." That is probably a good thing, he admits. "I still come up with ideas that are dangerous and don't realize that they are dangerous. For example there is a 200-mer [a sequence of 200 amino acids] that folds into a highly geometric capsule. I had this idea of creating Kepler's nested polyhedra [once thought to define the planetary orbits] in these viral capsids." Fortunately, Davis ran the idea by one of his genetics mentors first. "He pointed out that I could inadvertently create a supervirus."
Fortunately Davis did not inadvertently create a supervirus, but ended up instead creating what he calls "an infogene, a gene to be translated by the machinery of human beings into meaning, and not by the machinery of cells into protein." His aim was to send a message in a bottle to extraterrestrials: to genetically engineer a sign of human intelligence into the genome of bacteria, grow them up by the trillions and fling them out across the galaxy at random. The real message would really be directed towards human beings, who have yet to fully grasp the fact that DNA can encode any information, not just genetic sequences.
Davis chose E. coli for his proposed experiment, a bacterium on which humans depend for proper digestion and one that, in NASA experiments, has survived more than five years of exposure to the intense cold and radiation of deep space. For his message, he selected Microvenus, a Germanic rune representing life and an outline of the external female genitalia. Formed elegantly and simply like an “I” superimposed over a “Y”.
Digitized and translated into a string of 28 DNA nucleotides, Microvenus was then imbedded into genes of E. coli. The bacteria quickly multiplied in its beakers into billions of cells, each carrying it’s own genetic image of the icon.
"I'm probably the most successful publisher in history," Davis says with a laugh. "There are more copies of my work than of Salvador Dali's, Escher's and all the rest of them put together."
Microvenus became the most highly reproduced graphic to ever exist, but no gallery was willing to risk the public display of genetically engineered bacteria in the U.S. Finally last year Microvenus was put on public display in a positive-pressure biological containment facility erected at the Ars Electronica exhibition in Linz, Austria. Visitors could see the actual cultures of the transgenic bacteria along with posters of the icon with explanations of how and why the image was encoded into the E. coli genome.
So, are our tax dollars paying for this madness? I wish they were. If only the government would support truly innovative, fascinating art, rather than the vaguely imaginative, mostly placid already-been-done disappointments currently sucking up the allotments.
Despite the fact that Davis is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of transgenic art, giving 14 invited lectures last year at universities and conferences across the nation, he still remains utterly dependent on donations of equipment and expertise from fellow scientists.
"They are increasingly skittish about getting too close for fear of the wrong kind of publicity," says David Gessel, an engineer with Nebucon who has aided Davis on several projects. "Fortunately, Joe's always been a good Tom Sawyer of people," He observes. "It helps that he is consistently rigorous in his intellectual approach."
Davis obviously pursues his work as a passion rather than for money, as the majority of scientists (and the rest of us) do. He sells his conventional sculptures to friends at cost and cannot sell his transgenic art at all.
In spite of being a brilliant scientist and artist, Davis flirts on the verge of homelessness, with no fixed address. When he returned from the European exhibit last fall, there was an eviction notice on his door. Much of what he rescued from the sheriff's auction is now jammed into a decrepit Volvo station wagon that he obtained in trade for a self-assembling clock (another strange project).
Like many great artists, perhaps Davis will be doomed to a life of poverty and relative obscurity until his true genius is celebrated long after he is around to hear the praises. I hope not.
Posted by Rebecca Sato with Casey Kazan.
Science as Art: http://www-tech.mit.edu/V120/N26/bioartists.26f.html
Science as Art: http://www-tech.mit.edu/V120/N26/bioartists.26f.html