Talk Mycohuman Relationships. Fungi as Interspecies Connectors, Companion Species and Human Symbionts was part of interdisciplinary conference Nonhuman Agents in Art, Culture and Theory at Art Laboratory Berlin in November 2017.
Mycohuman relationships are based on the entanglement of mycorrhizal extensions that transgress both fungi and humans as species, thus forming an extensive rhizomatic network so vast that it encompasses several planes of existence: material, immaterial, organic, technological, social and planetary. On this planet of interspecies love, symbiotic bonds are implemented through mycorrhizal technology. Humans are relearning how to relate to nonhuman agents, while their bodies are immersed into the interconnected planetary system, observing and feeling the fresh pulse of intra-action. Multidimensional immersion dissolves the boundaries of the individual, dispersing social identity. What is exposed is a multitude of human microbiomes, a soup manifesting human bodies in the time-space of here-and-now. With fungi, archaea and bacteria of the human microbiome human being is becoming the environment, becoming the environment through a biofeedback looping protocol. The ecological cycle in the network is known. Will humans learn the ethics of intra-action?
Good afternoon! Thank you, Regine and Chris, for inviting me to this wonderful event of sharing and connecting.
Today, I would like to talk to you about what I learned from loving mushrooms, more precisely fungi, which is a broader term including not only the lovely fruiting bodies that we are all very familiar with, but also mycelia, the undergrowth of the mushroom, and various microscopic fungal subjectivities, such as yeast and molds, except slime molds – they are a particular kind and they have their own kingdom.
Actually, a certain quality can already be perceived in the description of fungi. They have an ability to help us understand space and time scales, and connections between these scales that we as humans have difficulty grasping. They can take us on a journey from microscopic to macroscopic and let us see what we can learn.
So, how come we have trouble understanding scales? It is quite simple: how can you grasp the space-time of a growing oyster mushroom, while you are rushing by on a bike? It is hard, you are too big and too fast. However, it would be wise to learn how to develop a different kind of coexistence with nonhuman agents. A coexistence of equals, if humans are to survive on this planet. To accomplish this, certain processes of human existence need to be reflected and observed, and this is what I try to do in my artistic practice with variable collective of coworkers that functions a bit like a human microbiome, a collective that emerges when there is a need or an urge to do something. When the conditions are right: we gather and think, test, experiment and build.
Me and my dear coworkers Mirjan Švagelj and Anil Podgornik started our artistic research with a bio-hacked music box called Mycophone_unison, and we asked ourselves how to navigate the world where human microbiome constitutes a part of the human body that carries a particular identity? Once the scale is small enough, the vastness of human microbiome is revealed and human identity loses its accompanying body as a solid entity. As you may know, the human microbiome includes fungi besides bacteria and archaea, and we share it with the human and nonhuman beings that we touch and love, as well as the places we visit.
By entering this spacetime of multiplicities, we realized that a tool will be needed, a navigation tool. Therefore we developed Mycophone_unison, a sound map of intra-action between three microbiomes of us as the artists, and the microbiome of a viewer. By leaving their fingerprint, the viewer sends a signal to the map that processes it through the central celestial plate to the microbiomes that modulate it as a sound of unison. For a brief moment in the here-and-now, when the light beams through the hole, the microbiomes of us, artists, in the petri dishes are heard as one. The bodies of three become one sound.
Mycophone_unison explores human bodies as floating, spectral entities, as Timothy Morton names them, bodies with blurred boundaries on a microscopic scale. The notion of human body as a closed bundle is released and the concept of species set free. Human and nonhuman critters are now spectral beings with moving and permeated boundaries.
Once the specter of boundaries was opened to me and my coworkers, we wanted to explore it further and looked for a connection to the nonhuman entities that do not have big eyes and soft hair and that are seldom recognized as companion species. We wanted to make a bond, a connection. We choose the mushroom and its underground network, the mycelium.
The vast planetary organism, a model organism for symbiosis and, as some call it, a wood-wide-web. Intrigued by symbiosis, we found the incredible mycorrhizae, fungi’s very own symbiotic connector to the plants and trees around them, a symbiotic association that enables an exchange of nutrients between a fungus and the roots of vascular plants.
With this knowledge, it was time to build the Myconnect, a technological interspecies connector, a mycosynaps or even technological mycorrhizae, as we also called it in the process of building it. A connector that plugs you into the network, into the bio-feedback loop, and lets you feel the impulses of symbiotic interdependence. The wonderful thing about this loop is that we are living it every day and everywhere, and we are able to notice it simply by stopping and observing what happens to our body as a reaction to the surrounding phenomena. The loop seems to be part of any intra-action or an ecological relation.
Luckily, in the capsule of Myconnect, we managed to isolate the loop. In the capsule, the nervous system of a person is integrated into human-interface-mycelium feedback loop via the visitor’s heartbeat. The mycelium’s oscillations of electrical resistance generate temporal offset of the incoming heartbeat, which is transferred back to the human body via sound, light and haptic sensory impulses. The overwhelming stimuli of the body cause a slight change of the heartbeat that goes back into the loop. Thus, the circle is closed and the cycle of symbiosis begins.
Myconnect hopefully enables the visitor to make a physical bond, a sort of upgrade to the connections that we make with the environment while we are foraging mushrooms in the forest. We can finally perceive the flow that is beneath our feet while we are looking for fruiting bodies, and of course we can agree with Anna Tsing that we are perceiving a companion species, namely mycelium that got closer and closer with each exchange of impulses in the Myconnect.
So far, me and my coworkers learned about spectral bodies with no clear boundaries and a symbiotic bio-feedback loop. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that the loop, the circle was not closed, it was open somehow. Therefore, me and Mirjan looked further, of course starting with the most astonishing symbiotic agency in the rhizosphere: fungi. However, we found that there were plenty other tentacles there in the soil, very accustomed to symbiotic ways.
Between mycelium, various roots, earthworms and alike, we found a home-builder Red clover Trifolium Pratense with long roots full of lovely nodules, saturated with the bacteria Rhizobium. In search of a whisper, an echo or ripples in the network of symbiotic loops, we went on to build Symbiome – Economy of Symbiosis. A biological prototype for a complex set of social relationships among species, which establish mutual symbiotic relationships according to favorable conditions and common needs.
Symbiome – Economy of Symbiosis is a miniature ecosystem inhabited by two biological species that nurture a symbiotic relationship: a plant of a red clover and a bacteria rhizobia. Favorable environmental conditions in the system, in which both species have mutual benefits, are generated by lighting and blowing air into the hydroponic liquid. A symbiotic relationship leads to the exchange of key nutrients: the plant supplies the bacteria with carbon compounds, while the bacteria supply the plant with nitrogen compounds.
Rhisobia fixes nitrogen from air, which causes the acidity of the liquid – or with other words, a drop in the pH level in the vicinity of the plant’s roots. Plants need fixed nitrogen for growth and basic life processes, such as the production of amino acids, proteins and DNA. Furthermore, fixed nitrogen is quite difficult to find in the environment. The symbiosis between the plant and bacteria thus allows their survival and consequently the development of larger and wider ecological connections. The relationship is, of course, defined by a biological feedback loop, within which both species are provided with the means for survival. The more acidic the liquid nutrients, the better the conditions for growth and symbiosis.
Indirect measurements of the level of fixed nitrogen in the hydroponic liquid in the Symbiome affect the speed of dripping water. The greater the degree of symbiosis, the greater the flow of water drops, and the more intense the ripples on water surface.
The ripples on water surface are detected by a light sensor that translates them into sound via interface. The sound is generated in real time and filtered through phase modulation, which depends on the specific spacetime. It maps the situation of matching and differences in the process of symbiosis.
Thus, symbiosis is not percived as an idealized relationship, but a situation in which the species are continuously negotiating the mutual use of natural resources. The environment is not something external, but is instead generated in relationships and is part of these relationships. Thus, the visitors in the Symbiome installation, who exhale carbon dioxide, become actors in the symbiotic relationship.
Clover and rhizobia are also part of human symbiotic relationships in the process of food production. For example, agronomists value clover as a beneficial plant in the crop rotation, which is able to enrich depleted soil with nitrogen. In this way, symbiotic ripples in the planetary network are made.
Now, me and my coworkers knew that open spectral bodies connected in symbiotic bio-feedback loops make ripple effects in the lives of other spectral beings. So it was time that I returned to fungi. I observed them as a global, planetary organism and thought about their amazing ability to cross several scales, making ripples in the network extending from microscopic to planetary. In this respect, they are much like us, spectral beings, existing on several scales at once, and in the same way as fungi, we also became a planetary force with geological superpowers. Together with a dear colleague Ida Hiršenfelder, we thought it was time to experience this planetary perspective, and with the help of several people with a vast array of knowledge, we built Sonoseismic Earth.
The responsive kinetic installation Sonoseismic Earth presents Earth in the age of the Anthropocene, the geological epoch of industrial societies. As you probably know, it is an age that has witnessed disruptions in the Earth’s systems on a planetary scale. The crisis of the planet is marked by climate change; loss of biodiversity; pollution of the sea, land and air; exploitation of natural resources; and heavy depletion of soil.
Sonoseismic Earth enables a possible entry into a planetary perspective, into the sensual and haptic relationship between the visitor and the planet. The depletion of fossil fuels in the Earth’s crust causes tectonic cracks; hence, in the installation, the globe is gradually polluted. The rendering of seismographic shifts intensifies with the proximity of the visitors, detected by sensors. The planet emits the infrasonic sound of earthquakes; it submerges the human in the ubiquitous acoustic space with no identifiable origin. The infrasonic sound is a warning frequency, recognized by the more sensitive beings as a sign of danger. With the acoustic environment of the Sonoseismic Earth, visitors are actively and experientially caught in the drama of the endless circulation of capital.
I would say that violence emerges from the idea of any kind of human privilege, and that is why we are witnessing disruptions in the Earth’s systems on a planetary scale. The things humans consume are not rejuvenated or replenished through the metabolic processes of the Earth. Products are discarded as toxic waste and end up in the bodies of organic creatures, including humans, and are moreover amassing in landfills and polluting the oceans. During the research, me and Ida Hiršenfelder realized that the metabolic rift may only be overcome in millions of years. Sonoseismic Earth tries to condense the effect of the fossil fuel industry into an experience of a carbon war waged against all life forms on the planet. Such violence makes itself visible in an abrupt and unpredictable way.
At the forefront of this war is the global distribution of water, which has been profoundly influenced by climate changes, global warming and invasive and toxic fossil fuel extractions such as fracking. Equal disruption of water is further violated by the privatization of water resources and deprivation of a large number of living organisms from having access to their basic needs. One of the candidates for replenishment of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves is a living product, an industrial chicken. Due to mass production, it is predicted that the industrial chicken will be the model fossilized organism of the Anthropocene. Hence, chicken bones are included in this work to start the first phase of decomposition.
Finally, let me just add that what I have reported to you is not exclusively mine. I owe my thoughts to numerous entities, human and nonhuman. I am simply part of the network, looping and making symbiotic ripples, materializing fruiting bodies in the form of artworks. I do not matter as much as the planet and its network do. I hope we will be able to stop the metabolic rift we have created. Thank you.