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When techie puts the 'A' into DNA, it's art we've got
By Nathan Welton
The Boston Globe

December 8, 2002

Just a few weekends ago, Cambridge artist Joe Davis presented a zoo unlike any other at Greece’s renowned Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Instead of observing lions and tigers and bears, zoo goers both watched and listened to videos of one-celled organisms that were eating, bumping into each other and swimming through pond water.

Davis’ zoo an example of a growing field of contemporary art called bioart, which uses the tools of biology to comment on science and make it more understandable to the lay audience.

“Whether scientists know it or not, I’m on the front lines between science and the public,” said Davis, artist-in-residence at MIT Biology and unpaid research affiliate in the lab of biophysics professor Alexander Rich.

The zoo, which lets participants point-and-click their way through an interactive video collection of one-celled critters, is a modern version of an Alexander Graham Bell invention called a photophone.

While normal microphones convert incoming sound into electrical impulses that stereos translate back to sound, the photophone converts light into electrical impulses and then into sound. So by shining a laser at microbes, Davis could both see and ‘hear’ the organisms.

The zoo presentation led to a series of invitations for Davis to lecture on and participate in additional bioart projects throughout Greece, according to Dimitris Skoufis, an organizer at the Festival.

“We consider (Davis’) work as one of the most illustrative examples of interdisciplinary and innovative contemporary approaches to art,” said Skoufis.

Along with Greek artists and scientists, Davis plans to encode a sentence from an ancient Greek philosopher into a gene of a fruitfly. This stemmed from a previous project where he worked on encoding a Goethe poem on death into a plasmid, which is a small circular DNA molecule that usually instructs bacteria to make proteins necessary for their survival.

It’s this unusual perspective that caused MIT’s Rich to appoint Davis a research affiliate in 1992.

“Joe struck me as an imaginative person who sees the world differently,” said Rich. “He’s interested in artistic and novel ways of using biological motifs that most scientists aren’t involved in.”

Some of the intellectual contributions Davis offers to biologists are projects that, like his self-assembling clock, poke fun at the absolutism of science and remind scientists to never stop asking questions. Strewn throughout MIT’s biology building are glass jars filled with disassembled clocks; the parts represent the building blocks of life mixed up in the planet’s primordial ooze.

Because some scientists have hypothesized that life spontaneously arose, Davis took apart the clocks and wondered – tongue in cheek – why his weren’t putting themselves back together.

“A clock is a lot simpler than an organism,” said Davis, “so it would be a lot easier to assemble a clock than an animal.”

While Davis said he hopes scientists can learn from his exhibit, he also used the clocks for pragmatic reasons: he once traded one for a car.

Before touring Greece, Davis was removed from his lab and relocated to the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at the MIT’s School of Architecture. Although Davis retains his appointment at the Rich lab and has access to the laboratory equipment, the visual studies center has only guaranteed him space until March.

“I was ejected from my lab in Biology because I am told that science needs the space,” said Davis. “It has been made clear to me that it would be unethical to devote funds to art that were intended for scientific research, and I’m in agreement with that.”

Joe Loureiro, an MIT post-doctoral fellow and collaborator with Davis on bioart projects, said that the presence of an artist like Davis encourages people to think creatively.

“It’s nice having him around. He offers intellectual and spiritual contributions and I want people from as many walks as life as possible in the lab,” he said.