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To amuse, enlighten and save the world

It’s two days before Joe Davis’ 60th birthday, and while we agreed to visit his lab, most of our time is spent going door-to-door, distributing invitations throughout his workplace to his party.

It’s two days before Joe Davis’ 60th birthday, and while we agreed to visit his lab, most of our time is spent going door-to-door, distributing invitations throughout his workplace to his party.

“There will be dancing girls, miniature elephants and a fleet of blimps,” he says to each of his colleagues. Sure, it may be a joke — but knowing Davis, one or more of those things might actually be true.

With the sensibility of a poet, the strategic wit of a prankster and the demeanor of a pirate (peg-leg and all), Davis is best-known for blurring the boundaries between art and science. A Research Affiliate at M.I.T. since 1982, and recently appointed as an artist/researcher in residency at Harvard, Davis is known as the father of BioArt, an artistic movement defined by scientific-minded artists using living matter as their medium.

“In many ways, art and science share the same aspirations,” says Davis. “But I think the scaffolding that supports the creativity is vastly different. I try to provide an example to expand the definitions of art and what artists can be.”

While Davis has no degree in biology, he has earned the respect of world-renowned scientists. His work is legendary among his colleagues and described in-depth in scientific journals. A documentary entitled “Heaven+Earth+Joe Davis” is in post-production; you can count as part of his intrigued audience the FBI’s director of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Stephen Colbert. The former recently questioned Davis about the implications of BioArt, while Colbert brought Davis on “The Colbert Report” to, as he says, “talk about vaginas and aliens.” The show, which Davis says is scheduled to air in two parts next month on Comedy Central, refers to Davis’ “Vaginal Poetica,” an experiment protesting the first transmission of the human form to space in 1974.

“The messages that went out were of man and Barbie doll with no external genitalia,” says Davis. “So I transmitted vaginal contractions. It worked for a while and the Air Force shut us down.”

But to Davis, this is old news: “That was 25 years ago,” he notes. “What took everyone so long?”

Some of Davis’ current projects include rebuilding an audio microscope to differentiate between stem cells, collaborating on the construction of artificial uteruses, attempting to get genetically engineered silkworms to make glass cocoons and the first laser powered by lightning.

“I’m from the Mississippi coast. My prom date died in Hurricane Camille. My father died in a hurricane. Mother Nature is not always sweet and tender. Mother Nature is the beast; she’s Moby Dick,”?he says. “The Gulf Coast has the highest lightning incidents in the United States, and I plan to use some of that lightning to hurl energy back at the sky to rage against nature.”
So what is the inspiration behind Davis’ projects?

“To make the world a better place,” he says with a smirk. “Isn’t everybody’s? It’s to amuse, to enlighten and to amuse myself. Why else would you save the world?”

 
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