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The Artists Building a Future out of Mushrooms

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Can fungus help us better understand what it means to be human?

We are living in the era of the mushroom. Recent studies of mycelium – the web-like, vegetative structure from which mushrooms flower – have confirmed its ability to send and receive communication between fungi, trees and other plants, a decentralized form of thinking without the use of a central brain. Correspondingly, fungi have become the metaphor of choice for technologists to encapsulate new modes of thinking, collaboration and communication. The pseudonymous inventor of bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, was allegedly a mycologist, and the decentralized design of the digital currency resembles mycelium in code. Science fiction has also taken note: Star Trek: Discovery (2017–ongoing)
has imagined a ‘spore drive’ which enabled the USS Discovery to travel across the universe and other quantum realities through a mycelial network. The ship was led by Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets, his name a knowing reference to the eponymous mycologist and author of Mycelium Running (2005).

Seana Gavin, Untitled, Mushroom Chimney, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Somerset House, London

The biological futurism of contemporary mycology has replaced its metallic predecessor, best captured in technologically dystopian sci-fi novels such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and films like Blade Runner (1982). In recent years, supernatural sci-fi novels such as Liz Ziemska’s The Mushroom Queen (2015) and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland (2017) have centred narratives around parasitic or humanoid fungi. In turn, contemporary artists including Philippe Parreno, Jenna Sutela and Anicka Yi have used bacteria and other organisms in their projects as active collaborators. Last year saw the publication of Merlin Sheldrake’s expansive Entangled Life (2020) and the first issue of The
Mushroom magazine, both of which explore the many scientific, philosophical, material, physiological and design questions raised by fungi. On social media, fungi intermingle freely with technology: on Instagram, the Mushrooms Everywhere filter by artist Francis Carmody (@ittsfrancis) projects small fruiting bodies onto the surface of your selfies, while on TikTok @mycolyco has amassed 200,000 followers, as of this writing, by hooking up oyster mushrooms and cordyceps to modular synths, which turn electrical impulses into sound.

Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life, 2020. Courtesy: Penguin Random House

In July 2020, I curated ‘Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi’ at Somerset House in London, which featured work by established names known for their love of fungi, such as John Cage, Beatrix Potter and Cy Twombly, as well as a central focus on contemporary artists and designers who were inspired by the philosophical possibility of fungi or mycelium as a material for everything from bricks to clothing. For the exhibition, Jody Hudson-Powell and Luke Powell of the design studio Pentagram and Rosie Emery of Counterpoint Studio developed a generative typeface, Hypha, using algorithms based on mycelial growth. Now available as an online interactive tool, these digital letterforms can be viewed as they expand and deflate. Like mushrooms themselves, the font changes unpredictably, illustrating how fungi can be both an aesthetic and a methodology for rethinking how images and objects
can form and grow. 

Mushrooms are not just beyond the gender binary: they have 36,000 sexes. All fungi need to do to reproduce and mix genes is bump into each other and fuse. Adham Faramawy uses fungi as a motif in their work to rethink the boundaries of the human. Their recent film Skin Flick (2020) depicts enoki mushrooms and other organisms growing out of the artist’s distorted face, while semi-nude men rub shaving foam and shower gel over their bodies. As Faramawy voices their awareness of ‘feeling increasingly ill at ease with [their] body’, fungi echo the porous interface of human skin. 

Adham Faramawy, My fingers distended as honey dripped from your lips and we danced in a circular motion, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Collusion, Cambridge UK

An average human body is covered, inside and out, with more than 100 species of fungi. Our digestive system, and thus our emotional and physiological well-being, could not function without this fungal microbiome. It was only in 2001 that genetic research revealed mushrooms to be neither plant nor animal, but rather members of their own natural kingdom, one that shares ancestors with humans. They offer us a view of our past and the possibility of a more symbiotic future, in which human and non-human animals, plants and fungi co-exist in thriving ecosystems. If techno-futurism followed a straight, teleological line of increasing acceleration, fungal-futurism offers a more sprawling and complex vision – perhaps even an ecological alternative to capitalism. Yet, despite the utopian human desire for fungi to save us from ourselves, mushrooms are unpredictable and self-serving, as Sheldrake argues in Entangled Life. They did very well before humans appeared on the planet, and will thrive long after we’re gone. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 218 with the headline ‘Future Fungi'.

Main image: Seana Gavin, Mushroomscape, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Somerset House, London

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