That same year, Davis and a Harvard collaborator synthesized a DNA molecule, encoding a sketch of the naked female form, that was later transferred to the DNA of live bacteria. This tied into Davis’s broader vision for storing information about humanity, and life on Earth, in bacterial spores that might someday be distributed throughout the cosmos.
That’s partly why he was motivated to secure a second launch agreement with NASA in the late 1990s to go “fishing” from the space shuttle for “unidentified biology” in the so-called “Norton Rings”—a presumed stream of urine and feces dumped from spacecraft and now orbiting Earth. (It’s named after sewage worker Ed Norton from The Honeymooners.) Davis’s interest was not scatological but rather an investigation into the hardiness of life in deep-space environments. (A funding shortfall, once again, kept the fishing trip grounded.)
In a 2009 foray into extraterrestrial communications, Davis commandeered the world’s largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to transmit the genetic code of Earth’s most abundant protein, which is essential to photosynthesis, to three nearby stars.
The message basically said, “Here’s a list of amino acids that can tell you a lot about life on our planet.” It ties in with the more general idea he hopes to convey through his various efforts. Simply put, he’s attempting to lay bare the essence of what it means to be human and explain what our world is really like. “The celebratory messages that we concoct are mostly lies,” he says. “They’re about what we want to be, not what we are.”
Davis is trying to redress that shortcoming with his version of artistic straight talk. And he’s struck a chord. His accomplishments have earned him the acclaim of numerous art critics, artists, and scientists. Art historian James Elkins has called Davis “the most interesting living artist.”
Harvard biologist Jay Lee considers Davis “much more insightful and wise than many scientists. I see Joe as a scientist ahead of his time, unconstrained by the traditional baggage of science, rather than as an artist who merely enlightens or entertains.”
Davis has lectured all over the world, taught at MIT and the Rhode Island School of Design, and held visiting appointments at the University of Washington, the University of Toronto, the Athens School of Fine Arts in Greece, and Bauhaus University in Germany.
He’s been featured on Nightline and The Colbert Report and written up in international science journals. He won the gold prize (“golden nica”) in the 2012 Ars Electronica international cyberarts competition for his work on “bacterial radio,” and he was a 2012 finalist for a World Technology Award in the Arts.
He’s also the subject of a full-length film, Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis, which was named best feature documentary at the 2012 San Francisco Independent Film Festival. One San Francisco viewer called the movie “a fantastic story about a fantastical character who is so real and totally surreal all at once. It’s a glimpse into a madness of brilliance—or is it a brilliance of madness. Either way … I am in awe.”
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
None of this recognition has afforded Davis anything resembling a comfortable life in the usual sense. Despite his affiliation with two of the world’s premier research centers, where he has access to fantastic
technological resources and is surrounded by immense wealth, Davis, himself, is destitute.
Unlike his scientific peers, he doesn’t receive a salary from MIT and Harvard, and he is forced to cover much of the material costs for his sometimes-grandiose projects. On a more mundane level, he struggles to pay the rent or buy gas and food, barely scraping by with some grant money, fees for lectures and teaching, and occasional art sales (tough given the conceptual nature of his work), along with a weekly dishwashing stint at his favorite Cambridge pub, the Plough and Stars (where he’s also called upon to recite his poetry).
He’s been evicted from several apartments, forcing him, at times, to sleep in his car, truck, or on other people’s couches. Last year he came close to giving up his apartment and moving in with relatives in Mississippi (who weren’t apprised of his fallback plans). On different occasions, he’s lost his personal lab and studio space at MIT—all without appreciably deterring him from his agenda. “Yes, I live close to the edge,” Davis admits, “and maybe that’s the only way because what I do is on the edge.”
Yet he refuses to let small details like money hold him back. “If I waited for the money to come in, I’d never get anything done,” Davis says. So he doesn’t wait and doesn’t stop but, instead, keeps forging ahead, pursuing his dreams and, in the process, redefining what it means to be an artist. “The system wasn’t designed to support someone like me,” he says. “I exist in spite of it. That I can pull this off, that I can find a way to keep following through on my ideas, that’s got to be considered kind of hopeful, don’t you think?”
Meanwhile, the ideas keep pouring in. “I have a great to-do list that grows every day,” he adds, exuberantly. “I think I know how to make photographs with pond water!”
See a sampling of Davis's many projects on the following page and in the gallery below.