Mycorrhizal Insurrection allows viewers to communicate with mycelia through the interface of a bio-digital AI—an exchange that marks a beginning and remains open and in some ways incomplete. Viewers of the installation can interact with a mushroom colony using the messaging app WhatsApp. Mycorrhiza, the fungal networks that grow in association with root systems and soil, are recognized as the communicators of forests. Through symbiotic associations with the roots of trees and plants, fungi establish a mycorrhizal relationship, with the mycorrhiza capable of connecting large swathes of land, at times crossing geopolitical boundaries and connecting biomes. By engaging directly with mycelial communications through texts pertaining to climate change, this project asks broad questions:
What if we could ask mushroom colonies about climate issues? What if our conception of social (and social media) included nonhuman communities? How can we cross the boundaries of human (species-specific) thinking?
How can the contemplation of cross-species communication shift our understanding of ourselves and of humanity? If technology crystallizes ways of thinking, can we design networks that contemplate nonhuman existence in the ecosystem? How can we create technologies that connect us to the environment (without extraction and isolation)?
The installation consists of a cocoon housing a tree branch colonized by a fungal network. The cocoon stands head high, with legs like roots that touch down to the ground. The tree and mushrooms float, suspended in the enclosure, where water accumulates at the bottom. “Do you want to join the Mycorrhizal Insurrection?” a message (in Portuguese) on a glowing screen asks. Viewers can choose to join the bio-digital network, becoming one node in the insurrection to rewrite the present moment and place climate change in a nonhuman context.
The first artwork in which viewers communicate with a mushroom colony by interfacing with a bio-digital AI, Mycorrhizal Insurrection suggests a new direction for thinking about intelligence and social communications, where both are linked to nonhuman existences. The intelligence inherent in hyphae is of course quite different from that of human beings; fungal intelligence is oriented to inputs and outputs that tend to fall outside of human concerns. For those of us dependent on technology for exchange, our bodies have eroded our sensitivities to climate signals and to those of other species so that, as in this artwork, we must rely on highly tuned electronics to sense much of the world. Mushroom intelligence takes into account an array of environmental indicators, reflecting a knowledge set that technologically-dependent human societies have lost. The technologies those societies rely on for much of our advanced decision-making likewise do not access this knowledge set.
This artwork is also about breaking down old understandings. While mushrooms play a role in the communication systems of ecosystems, they also contribute to the cyclical production of life. These organisms metabolize all kinds of materials into small molecules that fertilize the soil and make it possible for new life to emerge. In this artwork, we apply this metabolic potential to our humanness, asking, How can we metabolize human thinking to produce new connections within ecosystems? In the artwork, when one person has a concrete exchange about climate with an entity that is so radically different, the exchange starts a metabolic processing. What is broken down is the boundary marking where our humanness begins and ends. The communication may begin with human words, but the message chain ends in something like this:
Mycorrhizal Insurrection allows viewers to chat with fungi. The texts that viewers receive reflect a nonhuman logic.
The mushroom signals sensed in the installation are readings of the electronic pulsing that moves along mycelial conduits and which, along with chemical signaling, can connect trees across swathes of forest. In observing the live readings of the mycelial signaling, we discovered the extraordinary sensitivity of the mushrooms to changes in their environment, with the mycelial signals changing accordingly. We call these electronic pulses within the mushroom colony “electromyceliograms.” The electronic pulsing or signaling can be considered a form of communication; the pulsing arises from contact with the fungal body as well as contact with the external world. As artists, we ponder this communication, and we consider the points of intersection between human and fungal responses to climate change.
When viewers message the system via a messaging app, the enclosure’s environment changes as the light shifts and a burst of humidity enters the chamber. The AI adds a node to the bio-digital grid, positioning this human in the growing mycelial network. On WhatsApp, the individual is asked to send information about climate change to the network. The viewers’ messages cause changes in the habitat, and the mycelial signaling responds to these changes. Screens deliver the bio-digital networks’ status: The viewers’ messages about the planet’s climate are changed by bio-digital processing, with mycelial signals imposing a new order over the human logic. The bio-digital system replies to the human messaging with texts that insert mycelial signals.
Can you understand the mycelial system’s communications? Do you want to try? The first step is to turn the device receiving the messages sideways, so that the signaling (the electric pulses of the mycelia) can be perceived.
In an unprecedented time of climate change, human beings can choose to join nonhuman entities, to rethink our thoughts with another logic, to reconsider what we know about the planet.
Mycorrhizal Insurrection is based on research into the science of mushroom signaling as well as studies on the nature of intelligence. As artists, we ponder mycorrhizal communication networks, and we consider the points of intersection between human and fungal responses to climate change.
In the development of Mycorrhizal Insurrection, Cesar & Lois worked in parallel with material exploration, digital coding, scientific research and immersion into fungal growth and ecosystems. Commissioned by the Mercosul Biennial, the work materializes research that the artists were doing on different fronts. At Coalesce Center for Biological Arts we peered closely at mycelia and cross-sections of the fruiting bodies of local mushrooms. In the forests of Finland under the umbrella of the FeLT project, we examined Arctic fungi. As an extension of this research and during a residency at Yes We Cannibal in Baton Rouge, LA, Cesar & Lois began to contemplate a mycelial AI. Coding and foraging, in conversation with scholars and community at Yes We Cannibal, fed the early sketches that grew into Mycorrhizal Insurrection.
We created this artwork in earnest in the southern city of Porto Alegre in Brazil. Our modeling of the cocoon moved across media and materials, as we sought to achieve an organic form to support the mushroom colony. Parallel to the physical building of the mushroom’s enclosure was the pondering of the mycelial conduits and the logic that we observed in the signaling.
So, how should we think with forests? How should we allow the thoughts in and of the nonhuman world to liberate our thinking?
– Eduardo Kohn, in How Forests Think (Univ of CA Press, 2013)
Cesar & Lois acknowledges
13th Mercosul Biennial and biennial curator Marcello Dantas and adjunct curators Laura Cattani and Munir Klamt for their selection of and input into this project; biennial producer Taís Cardoso and coordinator Daniele Barbosa for their project management and nurturing of our mushroom colonies; Pam Magpali and the Respiro habitat for fostering the mushroom colonies for the installation; Yes We Cannibal for the residency that spread the first spores; Fulbright for bringing Lois to Brazil during research and development. We would also like to acknowledge the programming assistance of Wesley Ferreira and production by welders Thiago and Diogo and Brascril.
Mycorrhizal Insurrection was supported by the 13th Mercosul Biennial, Fulbright, CSUSM and UNICAMP.