Editors' Notes

Maria Damon and Michelle Greenblatt
Jim Leftwich and Michelle Greenblatt
Sheila E. Murphy and Michelle Greenblatt

A Visual Conversation on Michelle Greenblatt's ASHES AND SEEDS with Stephen Harrison, Monika Mori | MOO, Jonathan Penton and Michelle Greenblatt

Letters for Michelle: with work by Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, Jeffrey Side, Larry Goodell, mark hartenbach, Charles J. Butler, Alexandria Bryan and Brian Kovich

Visual Poetry by Reed Altemus
Poetry by Glen Armstrong
Poetry by Lana Bella
A Eulogic Poem by John M. Bennett
Elegic Poetry by John M. Bennett
Poetry by Wendy Taylor Carlisle
A Eulogy by Vincent A. Cellucci
Poetry by Vincent A. Cellucci
Poetry by Joel Chace
A Spoken Word Poem and Visual Art by K.R. Copeland
A Eulogy by Alan Fyfe
Poetry by Win Harms
Poetry by Carolyn Hembree
Poetry by Cindy Hochman
A Eulogy by Steffen Horstmann
A Eulogic Poem by Dylan Krieger
An Elegic Poem by Dylan Krieger
Visual Art by Donna Kuhn
Poetry by Louise Landes Levi
Poetry by Jim Lineberger
Poetry by Dennis Mahagin
Poetry by Peter Marra
A Eulogy by Frankie Metro
A Song by Alexis Moon and Jonathan Penton
Poetry by Jay Passer
A Eulogy by Jonathan Penton
Visual Poetry by Anne Elezabeth Pluto and Bryson Dean-Gauthier
Visual Art by Marthe Reed
A Eulogy by Gabriel Ricard
Poetry by Alison Ross
A Short Movie by Bernd Sauermann
Poetry by Christopher Shipman
A Spoken Word Poem by Larissa Shmailo
A Eulogic Poem by Jay Sizemore
Elegic Poetry by Jay Sizemore
Poetry by Felino A. Soriano
Visual Art by Jamie Stoneman
Poetry by Ray Succre
Poetry by Yuriy Tarnawsky
A Song by Marc Vincenz

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An Interview with Joe Davis
by Jeremy Hight

Jeremy Hight: Who are some of your influences?

Joe Davis: Although I have come to admire quite a few artists in our own era, I have to admit that my most important influences come from the legends about Renaissance figures that we were all introduced to in grade school: the idea that great advances in art and science can be part of the same pursuit—that this is what an artist can become. Yet, in later years, this grand vision is systematically destroyed by "real world" structures of higher education and business that we now find ourselves attached to. I think we have been selling ourselves short.

In the lifetimes of characters like Brunelleschi and Leonardo, there were no Renaissance figures of course, because they were becoming the legends we look to now. So, we wonder who and what could have inspired the great minds of the Italian Quattrocento. Consider the namesake of Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man," Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman polymath who lived in the world of Caesar Augustus. Vitruvius wrote "De Architectura" which had been lost to the west since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and which, in the lifetime of Leonardo, had been retranslated back into Latin from the Arabic and reintroduced to the west from Byzantium. The first illustrated version was republished in Western Europe in 1511.

In this book, Vitruvius suggested that an artist should be both ingenious and "apt in the acquisition of knowledge" and that without either of these qualities, an artist would never be what he called a "perfect master." Vitruvius wrote that an artist should be "...a good writer, a skilful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the sciences both of law and physic, nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies." He went on to say that knowledge is the child of practice and theory. Likewise, the Vitruvian moto, "Mens et Manus" ("Mind and Hand") appears on the MIT seal, suggesting that craft must be accompanied by rigorous scholarship. Essentially, Vitruvius was saying that even art is subject to a kind of "scientific method."

But these ideas were not exclusive to Rome and Renaissance Italy. In fact, this dream of the grand fusion of knowledge has resonated throughout all of history. It was the dream of the Apollonian cult of Pythagoras and the academies of Aristotle and Plato at Athens. It was the dream of the Ptolemaic gnostics in Alexandria and the establishment their great library. These same aspirations led to the beacon of learning in Al-Andalus at the Caliphate of Cordoba and later, in the foundations of the mystical sects of Islam. Ideas about the consolidation of all knowledge inspired the first universities and centers of learning in medieval China and Japan and likewise, the founding of the Royal Societies and great academies of the European "Enlightenment," the so-called, "Age of Reason." It is an idea that has characterized every intellectual elite, every détente between art and science, every perestroika of the exact sciences and the liberal arts that the world has ever known.

I have been strongly influenced by the notion that the arts have special abilities to reach out across all domains and I think this may actually be evidence that a kind of unification of them all already exists; that the human mind is already a kind of thousand-gated cathedral. I think that knowledge really is like a tree and that from each and every leaf, you can trace your way back to the root.

JH: What were some of your early interests?

JD: I remember having a dream as a very young child that I could draw a dinosaur. On waking, I found that I could indeed draw a dinosaur and soon, many other things. From that, we can assume that I had an early interest in paleontology and so, underlying curiosity about anatomy, zoology and natural history. I still have an avid recreational interest in paleontology. I have an extensive amateur fossil collection.

Fossil hunting is a lot like fishing, something else that I thoroughly enjoy. Both can be quiet, solitary and contemplative activities, rather like purely practical forms of meditation.

I was always an enthusiastic fan of science fiction, which fosters at least nominal familiarity with science fact and a kind of forward-looking attitude. I have had a biding interest in astronomy, planetary geology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The perspectives of great writers of science fiction have left me with the social and philosophical convictions of an Earthling. I think all of us—not only Americans—are born into this world with equal rights to the planet.

I came of age in the Deep South in the dark era of racial discrimination and segregation and lived through the early struggles for civil rights. As a sophomore in high school, I won a regional speech contest that allowed me to occupy the seat of my state senator in the legislature in Jackson, Mississippi for one, special day. I had memorized a speech by William Jennings Bryan, prosecutor at the famous Stokes trial over evolution. I knew that if I recited that speech well, I would win the seat and I did. Delegates to the annual Mississippi "Youth Congress" were allowed to introduce a single bill and if the bill carried, it would be considered by the actual legislature.

I was of required to author a bill and submit it in advance to my teachers at Biloxi High School. The year was 1965. At that time, interracial marriage was considered sodomy in Mississippi and so my bill would have legalized interracial marriage in that state. Before leaving for Jackson, I was called into the principal's office to discuss the matter with the principal and my speech teacher. I was not told that I could not introduce the bill. On the other hand, the principal told me he thought he understood what I was trying to do, but he stated very clearly that if I did actually introduce the bill, I would be suspended from school and receive "licks" (corporal punishment). I introduced the bill of course, which was soundly defeated. One vote (mine) was registered in favor. True to the principal's word, I was promptly suspended and I endured my "licks."

In those years I was suspended from school many times and expelled several times—never for academic reasons. I published underground newspapers in the 60s and ran into trouble with the now outlawed Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, State and local police, and the FBI. I was arrested and interrogated many times though I have never been convicted of any crime. I was expelled from Jefferson Davis Junior College in Biloxi and the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. I was elected student body president in Biloxi and expelled ("refused readmission") on the same day. I continued to publish newspapers and organized demonstrations against the Vietnam War in Hattiesburg and was again "refused readmission" at USM. Note that the "refused readmission" scenario has since been declared unconstitutional. The newspapers were called "Feathersword" and "Foundation Press," respectively.

I was drafted but did not serve, owing to earlier FBI investigations and my refusal (and my encouragement of other inductees to refuse) to fill out a since-banned "subversive organizations list" called a "DD198 questionnaire."

Owing to the intercession of Mississippi State Senator Ben Stone, who was outraged over events at USM, I was accepted into and eventually graduated from a small, experimental college in Oregon (B.A., Mt. Angel College, 1973). I took on farm work in the Willamette Valley and split cedar shingles in winter to cover costs beyond student loans, which I paid off in the late 1970s. In those years, I took advantage of a "college-without-walls" program to pursue laser art at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey and the University of Cincinnati Medical Center Laser Laboratory. I worked out means to use high power lasers to carry on internal carving of various transparent materials in my senior year at college. My first professional scientific publication appeared in Chemistry, a publication of the American Chemical Society in 1972, while I was still an undergraduate. Somewhat ironically, photographs of my laser-carved acrylic sculptures were published as a unit opener in a high school science text (Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1974).

In one final, ironic episode of my college years, the chair of my college art department decided that the laser work was not art, despite the fact that my actual professors had given me high grades and generally supported the work. Due to his philosophical objections, the department chair refused to submit his requisite signature for my diploma and I had to circumvent his decision by obtaining the signatures on my behalf from every other faculty member of the college.

I learned welding and metalworking skills at college that have informed my work to the current day. A few years after my college graduation, yet another "this-is-not-art" controversy erupted over steel sculpture placed in the front and backyards of my house in Mississippi.

I have written poetry for many years and I like to play and write music. Although some of this has actually been recorded and published, I consider these to be more or less avocational activities.

It seems that I have always been working on cars and motorcycles. In my mind, it is something akin to washing the dishes. Working on engines teaches you about tools and systems, and how they integrate and correlate.

JH: How did these interests inspire some of your later works?

JD: On more than one occasion, my art has been compared with the predictions of science fiction.

The social and political struggles of my early years helped to solidify my worldview and to form my understandings of the impacts and sometimes, the futilities of art and social action. Principles of free expression guarantee everyone the right to be critical of government, industry, or given sets of social norms. But I don't think it is the right to be critical that is actually challenging artists now. What is at issue is more a matter of the social and political Immediacy of works of art. While there are probably more pressing reasons than ever before for everyone, including artists, to examine the strength of their convictions and in many cases, to take political action, it is nevertheless quite possible that the noisy public debates that many artists claim to inspire actually underlie more pretensive exchanges. For the sake of objectivity, it is important to recognize the fact that the significance of many artistic interventions is much too easily overstated and tends to be overstated much too often, like a "sky-is-falling" story on steroids.

There have been many episodes, even in relatively recent history, when artists' right to free expression has been something that was very important to fight for. The large-scale iconoclasms of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Nazi-perpetrated destruction of so-called "degenerate" art in wartime Europe are two examples. There have been moments in my own career when I have found myself in opposition to local governments or someone else's moral tenets and so, raised the flag of "free expression" to protect my own work and personal interests. The fight to keep my own sculptures in my own yard was just such an episode and many other artists have had to face similar dilemmas. Nevertheless, even I have to admit that city ordinances against accumulations of junk and refuse are not exactly sweeping social issues.

Some political art has indeed become historically important and is timeless in its implications. I think Picasso's Guernica (1937) is a good example. But this is art that can be distinguished from mere propaganda.

A successful propagandist has to pick a side to be on, to name an enemy, and not least, to be on the winning side. The significance of all forms of propaganda rarely outlives episodes of conflict that have sponsored it in the first place. As if we haven't learned by now, art created for purely political reasons is almost guaranteed premature obsolescence. Consider Ozymandias.

"Artistic Freedom!" may be the battle cry, but ironically, we may also lose touch with traditions of tolerance and respect for diversity that have fostered our principles about freedom of expression in the first place. Consider Piss Christ (Andres Serrano 1987). If it had instead been the Koran, we would call it "hate crime" and justifiably so.

While I have very strong political convictions of my own and when warranted, have not hesitated to take political action on my own, I also feel that there is something more ageless and transcendent about art. We depend on artists to predict the future and to answer deep and profound questions about the mysteries of life. Artists are expected to interpret the world for us, to gather multiple meanings into one, to grasp the inward or hidden nature of things, to fathom relationships of inscrutables and reveal unforeseen paradox. Artists are expected to summon the human spirit. Nothing less.

What would Vitruvius think artists need to know now? Thermodynamics? Electromagnetism? Knowledge of particle physics and the quantum world? Photography? Holography? Should artists know how to write computer code and understand operations of the genetic code and powerful tools of molecular biology? Yes. I think so.

My early background in laser art led me to pioneering work in laser stone carving and the creation of user-friendly, pre-internet, video teleoperator systems for laser carving in my first few years at MIT (which was reported on nationally broadcast television). That background also contributed to my design of the Call Me Ishmael lightning-pumed laser and its precursors, which may one day help to divert Earth-bound asteroids and propel light-sail spacecraft to the outer regions of the solar system and beyond. There are also implications for altering the electrodynamics of natural storms.

My fascination with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence inspired my significant contributions to that field (Poetica Vaginal, 1986-87; Rubisco Stars, 2009) and brought me face to face with questions in molecular biology. Microvenus (1986-87), now considered to be the first recombinant "genetic art," was first conceived of as a prototype for message-bearing biological spacecraft.

My interest in Renaissance relationships of art and mathematics inspired among other things, Polytractors, mathematical tools first exhibited last year at Ars Electronica. These are highly precise instruments that allow users to rapidly and intuitively draw many figures, including 7-sided, 11-sided and 13-sided equilateral polygons which cannot otherwise be created with conventional compass, rule and protractor.

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