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Keynote 2

Joe Davis

(MIT/Harvard Medical School) 

Title: "Forecast for a Vitruvian Age"


The arts and sciences are becoming ever more familiar, even indefensible companions in the quest to reveal the mysteries of life and summon the deepest sources of human spirit. The rise of Romanticism provoked a grand capitulation to powers of faith, superstition and revelation. Champions of Counter-Enlightenment preached submission to authority of monarchs and aristocracy that in turn fostered cruel social consequences and global environmental catastrophes of the industrial revolution. Revivals and evangelical movements marked a return to pious religious values. Artists represented a world subject to the hand of God, with human beings portrayed as tiny figures in vast panoramas, no longer the masters of their environment. Opposition to the awesome scale and monstrous power of nature was seen as human vanity, hopeless and futile. Yet creation and preservation of the rich legacy of civilization automatically imply running battles with harsh effects of radiation, thermal extremes, erosion and corrosion, vagaries of climate and terrible natural disasters. Like science, art is expected to describe the whole world, but artists simply cannot describe those things they choose not to understand. Marcus Vitruvius Polio, a polymath in the court of Caesar Augustus (ca. 1rst century BCE), wrote about the things he thought an artist should know. These included topics in mathematics, geometry, history, physics, philosophy, astronomy and physiology. Two thousand years on, Vitruvius might have added a few subjects to the list. The artistic search for qualities of vitality and function that distinguish life and death descends to us from Vitruvius' time. Yet, in the span of a few decades, once mythical tools to discover and implement these qualities have become tangible, widespread and enormously powerful. A new generation of explorers inhabit the overlapping metacosm that resides both within and around humankind.


While earning his Creative Arts degree (1973) from Mt Angel College in Oregon, Joe Davis pioneered sculptural methods in laser carving at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, University of Cincinnati Medical Center Laser Laboratory and other nationally renowned laboratories. He joined MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies in 1981 as a Research Fellow and in 1989 Davis joined the laboratory of Alexander Rich at MIT where he is widely regarded to have founded new fields in art and biology. In 2010, he joined the laboratory of George Church at Harvard where he is designated “Artist Scientist.” Davis is also currently affiliated with Thomas Schwartz Laboratory at MIT Biology. In 2011 Davis worked with collaborators to genetically modify silkworms to produce transgenic silks biomineralized with metallic gold turn silk into gold. Davis initiated Astrobiological Horticulture in 2016, a multifaceted project to create organisms suited for survival in extraterrestrial environments. 

Workshop: "The ABCs of DNA: Introduction to Art Making with DNA and Principles of Genetics"
October 22, 12 p.m.
Location: TBA
Contact: Peter Flemming
This workshop is free of charge, but registration required.

Is there an art to genetics? Ever wanted to include biological material in an artwork? MIT/Harvard artist-scientist Joe Davis leads an 'everything about DNA' workshop for artists and scientists, curious and initiated alike. In his words, this workshop covers:
Use of modular assemblies and visual compositions for hands-on instructive exercises about basic principles of DNA structure and operation of the genetic code. These activities will include details about the so-called "Central Dogma" of molecular biology which describes fundamental cellular machinery involved with transcription of DNA into RNA and the process of translation of RNA into protein. Workshop participants will be encouraged to create alternative structural models and will learn how to create artworks that code language and color into sequences of DNA and vise versa. 

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