Creating Art from Microbes and Molecules

Maverick Joe Davis creates art—and controversy—out of bacteria, deep space transmissions, and lightning.

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Joe Davis depresses the clutch and puts his truck in gear. The first stops on today’s tour are MIT and Harvard Medical School—the two institutions at which Davis has held research positions (mostly unpaid), serving as an unofficial artist-in-residence, free spirit, and mad scientist all rolled into one. 

Although his ’79 GMC pickup is a bit sluggish, Davis’s brain runs at one speed only and that’s overdrive. Ideas pour out of him at a breathtaking pace, and if you ask him what he’s been up to these days (as I did), you’re likely to get an earful. He tells me about experiments he’s doing at MIT with highly tempered glass that can withstand bullets and sledgehammers, yet, with subtler prodding, “explodes catastrophically.” 

He launches into a discourse about “polytractors”—plastic disks with engraved markings, modeled after familiar protractors, that he invented for drawing regular polygons. Without stopping to catch his breath, he talks about the “optical theremin” he built for an upcoming performance at MIT, based on the work of artists Elizabeth Goldring and Otto Piene. 

The theremin, an electrical instrument featured in science fiction movies, is typically operated by hand movements, but Davis’s version can also translate light signals into musical tones. “I’ll get paid for this project, but not in money I can use to buy gas or food or pay rent—just electronic equipment,” Davis notes. “It’s the same old rigmarole, but at least I get a bunch of transistors and capacitors out of the deal.” 

His mind operates on multiple tracks, at a pace that many find dizzying, but the GMC holds to its lane. The faded yellow pickup—with its old-fashioned sidewalls and antique plates—stands out from the usual crowd of Priuses, Accords, and Smart cars found in Cambridge. 

Davis does too: As a result of a motorcycle crash three decades ago, he’s got a peg leg that he sculpted himself out of an aluminum baseball bat, parts of two lamps, and a synthetic rubber stopper normally used to seal laboratory flasks. But he also stands apart in his chosen field as a scientifically driven artist whose work has never fit the confines of either art or science.

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