IT WILL be strange enough in Dupont Circle, but really weird in a place like Borneo. Imagine: It is evening in the jungle, the sky is black and the drums are beating and the villagers sit around the campfire safe in their assumption that the savage gods have been placated for the night, when suddenly a screen comes across the sky: A tricolor sheet of light stretches out over the heavens, yellow, magenta and blue-green, lingering there for hours. Omens and portents are spawned, legends are planted, visions of God invoked, and all of it will be the work of a 31-year-old artist with a fever in his voice, who loves art science and Harley Davidsons, not necessarily in that order.
"We're humanizing technology," Joe Davis says of his latest work in progress. "We're doing something meaningful for all the cultures in the world. Nothing can be more meaningful than to put a star in the sky for all humanity. The Greek gods used to do that to reward their heroes. I want to reward the whole human race for putting up with an insane technology, for surviving, for hopes and dreams and imagination, for whatever it's all about."
Davis plans to do all this by way of the space shuttle--some time within the next year and a half, he hopes to have a piece of conceptual art he calls "New Wave Ruby Falls" included as the first artistic payload sent into orbit. It would be, he says, "a curtain of color in the sky," composed of inert gases shot with an electron beam that causes them to glow. After five years of persuasion, fund raising and world-class hustling, Davis has managed to convince NASA to approve the concept and by the time his project is launched it will cost him close to $50,000. He has had to sacrifice much in its cause--"hocking my Harley really put it on the line," he says sadly.
Davis' project would be included on a shuttle flight as part of the Small Self-Contained Payload Program, the Get Away Special, as NASA officials like to call it. "Since the shuttle is a national resource, they want it to fly as full as possible," said James Barrowman, the project manager who serves as the travel agent for this sort of thing.
And then there's Joe Davis, of Gulfport, Miss., whipping around the planet on the peg leg he's used since a motorcycle accident, talking technology as if it were his mother tongue, a parabola of a man, zooming way, way out there as he talks of sun mills and holographic wave detectors, and way back in again as he recites an erotic poem about eating avocados.
He's got everything he needs, he's an artist, he doesn't look back: "New Wave Ruby Falls" is only the beginning--there's the war monument on Mars he'd like to erect, a Trojan horse from an adobe made of Martian soil and liquid carbon dioxide, the inflatable Stonehenge he wants to send into orbit, the giant glyphs he'd like to see marched out onto the lunar seas by two-pound robot artists.
Last week, Davis took the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT by storm, giving a presentation one afternoon to the fellows there, and finding himself invited to become a fellow himself the next morning. "He's very much an artist that personifies our intentions, that is, the combination of imagination, creative energy and competence," says Otto Piene, director of the center. "I was instantly impressed by his exuberant way of expressing himself, the merit of the projects themselves--they are very good, very strong projects."
Still, his ideas tend to send the eyebrows of the less imaginative skyward; Davis, however, is used to skepticism by now. "When I first talked to the people at NASA, they said I only wanted to do this so I could be the first artist on a space shuttle; they didn't see the relationship between art and science. I said, 'Look at Morse, look at Fulton, look at Louis Daguerre!' They were all artists. Daguerre said when he invented the process that made daguerrotypes, 'At last, at last, the sun itself will paint my pictures!' "
Davis' mentors include the pre-historic cave painters. "They painted clear pictures, windows on their own world, using their own technology to do it. The sense of technology overwhelms my existence," he says. "I want to integrate art and science so they can't be separated. If I use a technology two or three hundred years old, I can't tell the truth, the future won't get a clear view of my vision of the world."
Whether the present will get a clear view of Davis' vision is now up to the safety review types within NASA, an understandably conservative bunch who must decide whether "New Wave Ruby Falls" poses any threat to the shuttle or the astronauts. "You can imagine them running into someone like Davis," says Barrowman. "It should be a more exciting display than the actual visuals."
Barrowman, however, has a healthy respect for Davis' tenacity after watching him convince a battery of scientists and technocrats that his project has the kind of research and development potential that qualified it for the shuttle in the first place. "He's a hard man to knock down," Barrowman says. "He's a bulldog."