• Report: Joe Davis & The Art of Alchemy 

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    Posted: 18 September 2016

    Joe Davis is known as the 'godfather of bio art'

    Report by Olga Mink

    This summer Joe Davis from Boston (US) aka the ‘godfather’ of Bio art, stopped by for a short visit to the Netherlands. Baltan Laboratories together with Mediamatic hosted a workshop, a talk and film-screening.

    In his talk Astrobiological Horticulture, Davis presented his ideas on creating organisms that can survive in cold and extreme atmospheric circumstances such as on Mars. According to Davis, they have been preserved within the structure of crystals of mineral salts and are examples of by far the oldest organisms to date. His ongoing research has been conducted on salt minerals collected from different parts of the world. Davis also explains about related research areas such as regenerative biology, paleogeomicrobiology and metagenomic investigations hosted by MIT Nuclear Reactor as well as an upcoming expedition to the Antarctic Deep Lake.

    The following day, Joe Davis gave his workshop on Bombyx Chrysopoeia and the alchemy of silk. For this he brought his genetically modified silk fibers made from silk moths, that can incorporate metals like gold or platinum. A project Davis developed in collaboration with Tara Gianoulis and Mariko Kasuya at Harvard Genetics and Hideki Sezutsu at the Japanese National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan. In their silk moths, the gene for silicatein is fused with a gene for fibroin, the principal protein in silk. Here, they take advantage of the fact that silicatein is a promiscuous protein, and will isolate other metals if there is no silica in surrounding media, according to Davis.

    During the workshop the silk was carefully sifted into tiny strings of hair after which the process of transformation started. With liquids and lab tools such as ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, eppendorf tubes, laboratory gloves, a vortexer, degumming solution, sodium dodecyl sulfate, pipettes and a lot of patience, the delicate silk samples were carefully prepared and cleaned for their final ‘golden bath’. The secret to this recipe? Time…! After 48 hours or ideally a bit longer, participants could take their own biomineralised fabric home.

    Joe Davis, as one of the pioneers in bridging the arts and the sciences in the field of bio art, knows very well how to combine the scientific discourse and the lab practice with a contemporary artistic viewpoint. He sheds new light by showing unprecedented material properties for both art and science. As such he depicts a new understanding of the world we live in and how artists can contribute to a society in which the scientific paradigm is still dominant. With his metallic-gold-spinning-silkworms, Davis touches upon the world of legends and fantasy, while simultaneously raising questions whether or not we can rely on art and its experimental role to bring dreams to light.

    To conclude, a bold statement of the artist himself: “If Rumplestiltskin actually manages to somehow convert straw into gold, the fire rumplestiltskin dances around in the story would very likely have to be a terrible nuclear fire. Any alchemist who successfully transmutes base metals into gold would obviously have to be blowing up the world at the same time.”

    We would like to thank Mediamatic (Willem, Rosa, Rosalie) for their hospitality and Joe Davis for sharing his wonderful stories with us.


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