Film Review: “Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis” Peter Sasowsky’s new documentary looks at the unconventional pioneer of transgenic art
There’s a fine line between genius and madness and artist Joe Davis, the subject of Peter Sasowsky’s documentary Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis (2011), is walking it. The film screened this weekend at the 14th Annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival (IndieFest), at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater and is an absorbing and inspiring but frustrating portrait of the artist Joe Davis whose unconventional melding of science, technology, and art have helped popularize the field of transgenic art (manipulating living things for artistic ends). It’s very easy to get drawn into Joe Davis and his world. Davis a peg-legged, wild-haired, scraggly-looking guy from Mississippi who is brilliant, eclectic, and radically non-conformist. In 1982, after being expelled from several schools for counterculture activities like writing about atheism, running for student body president on a free marijuana platform, running an antiwar newspaper, and rarely completing what he started, he walked into M.I.T.’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, where he had been denied admission to their program for artists and demanded face to face meeting with the chairman. The secretary called the cops. Forty-five minutes later, Davis walked out as a research fellow, an unpaid but prestigious appointment. Since then, he has used his charisma and zany innate curiosity about the way things work to foster impressive connections at other M.I.T. departments, Harvard Medical School, UC Berkeley and to collaborate with a number of global biotechnology scientists. And he’s literally been around the world─Amsterdam, Ljubliana, Puerto Rico─championing fascinating ideas and projects that neither the official worlds of art nor science are entirely comfortable with but have gotten him profiled in Scientific American and on ABC’s Nightline (July 6, 2001) as a pioneer of transgenic art.
Davis is a natural subject for a film. He applies himself to esoteric artistic endeavors at the nexus of art and science, often coaxing very improbable connections. He’s the first man to record women’s vaginal contractions and translate these into text, music, phonetic speech and reduce these into radio signals, which were beamed from M.I.T.’s Millstone radar to Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti and two other nearby star systems. His million-watt Poetica Vaginal 20 minute broadcast was ultimately shut down by the U.S. Air Force but the project’s driving concept was to say hello to extraterrestrials and to convey vital information to them about how humans reproduce, putting his own stamp on the message that Carl Sagan and Frank Drake had transmitted from the giant dish in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, 26 years ago and improving upon the first sanitized visual images of humans, with no facial hair and no female sex organs, that NASA had beamed into space on the Pioneer and Voyager space probes. Conceptually, Davis was correcting what he perceived was an act of censorship that led to misinformation about our species.
Sasowsky takes us along on an unforgettable ride into Davis’ world, producing a film a notch above Danish director Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s humorous documentary, The Invention of Dr. Nakamats (2009), which I reviewed for the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival in 2010. Several of Davis’ expansive art projects are introduced with very little contextualization from the filmmaker. In the end, the viewer is left with a highly creative but dizzying portrait of Davis and some gaping holes. How credible and unique are Davis’ ideas? Given that the official worlds of Art and Science both essentially rejected him, and his positions at the venerable MIT and Harvard have all been long-term unpaid internships that allow him to experiment but leave him dependent on donations of equipment and expertise from fellow scientists, what is the impact of his work for science and art? There’s no question that Davis has done extensive research in molecular biology and bio-informatics for the production of genetic databases and new biological art forms. So far though, he’s creatively applied the existing tools of science to artistic ends which leads me to suspect that most scientists would say that they like having him around but he’s not furthering serious science. Art is another matter, lacking the rigorous standards of science. Given that transgenic art is a relatively new area of art, how should we evaluate it? What is its cultural impact? What is Davis’ legacy and who are his artist peers? The puzzlement about how it all adds up is annoying.
“The most absurd things are connected in very absurd ways,” Davis says. “I like to take the least connected things and try to build connections between them.” Davis’ innate curiosity is seductive and poetic and the film captures him jumping from one immersive project to the next while navigating his chaotic daily life. He is captured conversing with a scientist from Clondiage Industries in Jena Germany who will assist him in genetically modifying an apple that will “tempt the Devil.” In another sequence, he and assistants slather honey over the body of a naked and quite buxom young woman and then sprinkle her with gold dust for a project that tested his audio microscope and allowed him to investigate different types of bacteria by turning their natural movements into unique audio patterns. He’s also shown amputating and then using electrically stimulated frog legs to power an aircraft, basically applying something we’ve all seen in high school biology labs—the nervous system reacting after death–on a grander scale. Not your cup of tea? His Microvenusproject (1990) encoded a simple symbol—a Y and an I superimposed—that is both a Germanic rune representing life and an outline of the external female genitalia into the E. coli genome. It promptly reproduced into billions of cells and Davis declared himself the “most successful publisher” in history.
Any scientist watching the film might well say… “I could do any of that but I’m just not interested because I’m applying my time to something more important.” Davis knows that art has no boundaries and is out there passionately probing all sorts of connections, some of which have an amazing hidden logic. Sasowsky offers a portrait of a man who explores the outer reaches of the cosmos, picks through Cambridge’s trash for materials and constantly battles the forces of eviction from apartments, labs and part-time gigs. The film alternates between Davis’ daily life, footage of some of his early and most famous projects, family movies from his childhood, and conversations with his mother, sister, ex-wife and adult daughter. His sister is frustrated and keeps hoping that something he does will lead to income and a means of supporting himself. But Davis can’t be bothered with these practical concerns—he’s got bigger and more existential fish to fry. As Davis discusses a number of complicated ideas that he’s got his own creative spin on, the film meanders along without a clear arch—an abstract poetic portrait that ebbs and flows like a kaleidoscope. If you want substantive details about his processes and contributions, you’ll need to do your own research.
Director, Producer, Director of Photography, Editing: Peter Sasowsky. Co-producer: Amy Grumbling. Additional photography: Cecile Bouchier, Andrew Neumann, Stephan Baumgardner
Details: Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis screens Saturday, February 18, 2012, at 2:45 p.m. and Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 2:45 p.m. at Roxie Cinemas, 3117 16th Street (at Valencia) in San Francisco. Tickets are $11.
General Information about IndieFest: All screenings take place at the Roxie Cinemas, 3117 16th Street (at Valencia) in San Francisco. Film tickets are $11 for each regular screening and $20 for Opening Night (includes the film plus the after-party). 5-film vouchers are $50, 10-film vouchers are $90; $160 for FilmFestPass good for all films and parties. The parties are $10 each or free with ANY festival ticket stub. Remember, passholders are always admitted first. To purchase tickets in advance, or for more information, call 1-800-838-3006 or click on www.sfindie.com.