Geneva Anderson digs into art

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.

Joe Davis, the subject of Peter Sasowsky's "Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis," poses for painter Michael Costello in his Cambridge, Massachusetts studio. Production Still, courtesy Serious Motion Pictures.

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.

Joe Davis returns to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, a trip that served as inspiration for his project, "Call Me Ishmael." Production Still: courtesy Serious Motion Pictures.

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

DetailsHeaven + 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

February 21, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great Danes! SF IndieFest 14 opens Thursday at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre, 14 days of brilliant, weird, and doggie! independent films, February 9-14, 2012

The 14th Annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival  (IndieFest)  starts Thursday, February 9th, 2012 bringing two weeks of the very best of category-defying independent film on the planet to San Francisco’s Roxie Theater.  This year’s line-up includes 30 features, nine documentaries, six locally produced films, six shorts programs, and a host of special events.  And there are more inspired wild theme parties than ever before, all over San Francisco, including an opening night Spinal Tap Tribute, the (9th Annual!) Big Lebowski Party, a Roller Disco (half-price if you show up in costume), and a special Valentine’s Day Love Bites: 80’s Power Ballad Sing-a-long.   But the program that most captured ARThound’s attention is Everything Is Terrible!, which includes the film DOGGIEWOGGIEZ! POOCHIEWOOCHIEZ! which is composed entirely of found VHS dog footage and an accompanying “live in the fur show” program.  The film promises to be a diamond in the Ruff and its creators, the Chicago –based collective Everything Is Terrible!, will be in full body mascot delivering a psychedelic show which they promise will pick up where Cirque Du Soleil and The Rock-A-Fire Explosion took off.  

But wait—there is a serious component to DOGGIEWOGGIEZ! POOCHIEWOOCHIEZ! and the zany group behind it.  Everything Is Terrible! is a collective of seven furry, lovable internet monsters who are first order archivists and artists─they take forgotten VHS tapes of all kinds and edit them down into easily digestible videos that go viral.  They trolled old VHS footage for over a year to produce this feature-length film.  

DOGGIEWOGGIEZ! POOCHIEWOOCHIEZ!  is a zany remake of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s brilliantly weird 1973 psychedelic cult classic The Holy Mountain (La Montaña Sagrada).  This epic─screened at Cannes in 1973, honored as a Cannes Classic in 2006, and released on Blue-ray last year─is the journey of a Christ-like vagabond and thief who encounters a spiritual guru who introduces him to six wealthy individuals who each symbolize a planet in the solar system.  Together, they embark on a spiritual pilgrimage to the holy mountain, to unseat the gods and become immortal themselves.  Lots of drugs were consumer in its making.   As much as The Holy Mountain was a product of its time, so is DOGGIEWOGGIEZ! POOCHIEWOOCHIEZ! 

Sergio Caballero’s feature debut Finisterrae is another film that seems destined for cult status and cleverly uses humor and absurdity to deflect from its metaphysically hefty theme.  Two Russian –speaking ghosts, in white sheets (evoking large trick-or-treaters) embark on a fantastical pilgrimage to the Spanish holy city of Santiago de Compostela in search of new bodies to inhabit.  One of them occasionally rides a dappled gray horse or a wheelchair and the other carries around a colourful wind flag as they travel through rich landscapes that are the stuff of dreams and home to some fantastical oddities.  There’s a forest of trees wearing plastic ears and whispering in Catalan, a vivid flashback to Catalan video art of the 1980’s, and a singing hippie.  All this, cased in lush and languid cinematography, is a container for a philosophical discussion on the meaning of life and dreams.  As weird as it all sounds, the film is mesmerizing and comes together as a powerful surreal odyssey.  Finisterrae grabbed the top award at the 40th International Film Festival Rotterdam.  Finisterrae’s director, Caballero, a multidisciplinary musician and artist, is also the co-director of Bacelona’s acclaimed Sónar, the International Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art.

Stay-tuned to ARThound for more IndieFest coverage.  And if you missed last year’s IndieFest coverage, you likely missed another doggie classic, “Worst In Show,” a riveting behind-the-scenes documentary by filmmakers Don Lewis of Petaluma and John Beck of Benecia that covered the entrants in Petaluma’s 2010 World’s Ugliest Dog Contest.  Click here to ARThound’s coverage.    

Details:  “Everything is Terrible 2012” is Friday, February 17, 2012 at 9:30 p.m. at Roxie Cinemas, 3117 16th Street (at Valencia) in San Francisco.  Tickets are $15.00; buy them here.

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. For advance tickets or more information, call 1-800-838-3006 or click on

Same day tickets are only available at the venue. The box office opens 30 minutes before the first show of the day. For all screenings, please arrive at least 15 minutes before show time to assure seating.)

February 5, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Worst In Show premieres tonight at IndieFest–a humorous documentary about Petaluma’s annual world’s ugliest dog contest

Every dog has its day, but tonight is reserved for the ugly dog.  Tonight, local filmmakers Don Lewis of Petaluma and John Beck of Benecia and a few of the contestants in Petaluma’s World’s Ugliest Dog Contest will appear at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre at IndieFest for the world premiere of Worst in Show, a riveting hour long documentary on the contest that put them all on the map.

Unlike the very popular 2000 mockumentary Best in Show by filmmaker Christopher Guest, Worst in Show follows real contestants—both human and canine—behinds the scenes on the 2009 and 2010 ugly dog circuit that culminates in Petaluma’s annual “Worlds Ugliest Dog Contest.”  While there are many ugly dog contests, this one, the most popular event at Petaluma’s Sonoma Marin Fair, has been around for 22 years and has a global following.    

In Worst in Show, the dogs steal the scenes as their owners interact under completely self-imposed pressure for a very small prize $1600 and the chance to be in the limelight until displaced.  Some competitors are relentless in their pursuit of the limelight. 

Dane Andrews, an actor from Sunnyvale, has been on the ugly circuit since he was 11 and has shown 3 generations of Chinese cresteds, a hairless breed which some people consider naturally ugly.  Rascal won in the contest in 2002 and Dane appears throughout the film pimping the dog with a gusto and compteitiveness that puts many people off.   John Adler, sporting a mohawk that seems to math his crested’s sparse tufts has the fire in him to be the next Dane.  When both are upstaged by Miles, a Boxer-mix rescue dog with a major underbite, owned by low-key Miles Egstad from Citrus Heights, CA, egos are bruised.   

Pabst quickly won the hearts of the audience who chanted “Pabst, Pabst, Pabst” creating an enthusiastic ruccous and the celebrity judges followed suit giving him wins in all three rounds of the competition. This was the first time in seven years a mutt won the competition, upstaging the long-run of Crested wins.  

The film screens tonight February 9th at 9:15 p.m. and February 13th at 2:30 p.m as part of the 13th Annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival (IndieFest).  The festival features 85 absolutely independent films and videos and unspools February 3-17, 2011 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th Street in San Francisco.   For tickets or more information, telephone (415) 820-3907 or

February 9, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment