“Do you know who owns this house,” I texted a friend with a picture of the house and its metallic alien giants. “No clue,” he replied, “it’s … absurd.” I disagreed. I loved the two Transformers. Absurd, yes. But also bold, exciting, techno-utopian and optimistic. An embodiment of industrial advancement and technological grandeur, as American in their symbolism as the sewn flags in Georgetown’s doorways. Their presence pitted a futuristic aura against the historic character of the town, cultural preservationists against progressives, old brick against lustrous metal, past against future.
And, more dramatically, they pitted their patron, Georgetown research professor of computational neurology Newton Howard, against the federal authority in charge of the town’s appearance, the Old Georgetown Board (which, despite its name, is only 71 years old, younger than our current president and his predecessor).
One disgruntled local complained that the sculptures would diminish home values and attract “random groups of people who are not practicing social distancing.” Another questioned, “What’s to stop someone from putting up a statue of Joseph Stalin and saying, well, this is provocative, it’s art, it speaks to me.”
Though it’s not clear how people taking pictures in front of sculptures is diminishing the home values of posh Georgetown, the Stalin argument is even more interesting — and brings to question the purpose of public art. For Howard, the sculptures symbolize the coalescing of humans and machines, a sci-fi concept that has become a present-time goal for many researchers and entrepreneurs such as Howard or Elon Musk. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” he told me on a phone call, quoting Albert Einstein.
After serving in the military and getting a doctoral degree in medicine at Oxford University, Howard began work on the KIWI chip, “a 1.2 by 2.2 millimeter implant prosthetic that interfaces with the brain in various regions you implant it in,” aiming to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. “The work is focused on restoring human dignity.”
The two Transformers, according to Howard, embody this optimistic vision of technology being further integrated into our bodies. “And they also make children happy!”
Public art connects us to the far depths of the past or expands our sense of the future. From the Olmec stone heads from 1500 B.C. and Pharaoh Ramesses’s 36-foot statues, to Lady Liberty of New York and the Slavic Spomeniks, monuments and sculptures have served to prime populations to old ideals or futuristic visions. Georgetown itself is a monument of old historical ideals, yet that doesn’t mean that it cannot contain futuristic artifacts within its borders.
For Howard, a scientist who is dedicating his life to solving some of the most complex neurodegenerative diseases through technology, the two Transformers are a way of expressing his passion for the coexistence of humans and machines. And because his lab is in Georgetown, so should his art be.
It is through this lens of public art as a social priming device that the sculpture of Stalin, a totalitarian dictator, would not add the same value to Georgetown as the two Transformers. The statue of a communist dictator would symbolize the antithesis of Georgetown’s historical spirit, but the two Transformers are an embodiment of the typical American industrious extravagance — and the endless life-changing possibilities through which technology can help us “restore human dignity.”