Joe Davis has led a rather unbelievable career. His work in both art and science makes up a resume that could easily suggest he’s had a hand in every frontier related to our existence.
At times, following his career path feels more like a daydream in which someone—provided that they are both competent and able enough—theorizes all of the pursuits available to them, and then decides to pursue all of them rather than choose one.
At Harvard Medical School, Joe Davis carries the official designation of “Artist Scientist.” In his more straightforward academic pursuits, he’s been a research affiliate in the biology department at MIT, and a teacher in the MIT graduate architect program as well as at the Rhode Island School of Design for painting and mixed media undergraduate classes. His less academic pathways from his earlier years, although, include being a motorcycle mechanic and a sculptor.
Ultimately, Davis’ life would lead him to more remarkable pursuits like artificially creating an aurora, or more specifically, transmitting radio signals containing the vaginal contractions of ballerinas from the Boston Ballet into space. This bizarre and fascinating endeavor is what spearheaded him to be featured as a keynote speaker during Moogfest 2017, a talk that focused on his life and legacy in art, science, biology and space exploration.
Some of Davis’ most groundbreaking work started in 1986, with the help of molecular geneticist Dana Boyd at Jon Beckwith’s laboratory at Harvard Medical School and at Hatch Echol’s laboratory at University of California, Berkeley. The project was called Microvenus—the first genetically engineered molecular work of art.
Davis endeavored to synthetically add a coded visual icon representing the external female genitalia into the DNA of E. coli. “For his message, he [chose] a simple symbol—like a Y and an I superimposed—that is both a Germanic rune representing life and an outline of the external female genitalia,” says W. Wayt Gibbs, a science writer and editor. “E. coli was chosen as the host because it can hold up against the extreme cold and radiation of deep space.”
Encoding a message in a form that can hold up in the rigors of space was the basis for Dr. Frank Drake and Carl Sagan’s Arecibo Message of 1974. The scientists fired a binary message into the global star cluster M13 via a radio telescope. This binary message contained all types of information about humanity, with the hope that it would be received by intelligent life in the cosmos. This is the same hope shared for Microvenus.
Simply put, the Mircovenus project was geared towards storing “additional information within actual functioning DNA of an organism, but without changing the genes (of this organism)”.  The graphic image of the Germanic rune was digitized and translated into a string of 28 DNA nucleotides where it was eventually slipped between the genes of E. coli in 1990. The bacteria quickly multiplied in its beakers into billions of cells, each carrying a separate instance of the icon.
An additional function of Microvenus comes as a form of protest towards NASA’s censorship of the female genitalia on the Pioneer Plaques, which accompanied the 1972-1973 launches into space of both the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts. It represents the anatomical detail that was left out of the female figure on the Pioneer Plaque, a decision that was made out of fear that NASA would block the plaque if a more accurate image were portrayed.
Microvenus signifies an uncensored message-board where humans may one day express not only our “best” or most idealized representations of humanity but also elements of our actual nature. Such a thing is as important for a potential extraterrestrial recipient, as it is for future iterations of humanity.
Microvenus was finally put on public display in a positive-pressure biological containment facility erected at the Ars Electronica exhibition in Linz, Austria. Visitors saw cultures of the transgenic bacteria along with posters of the icon and explanations of how and why the image was encoded into the E. coli genome.
To this day, people don’t quite know what to make of the mad scientist known as Joe Davis, but his art, impact on science and overall reputation will endure long after he is gone.
“I’m probably the most successful publisher in history,” says Davis. “There are more copies of my work than of Salvador Dali’s, Escher’s, and all the rest of them put together.”
Photo by Ryan Bell, courtesy of Moogfest.