Foraging along forking paths

Hyper-linked is an exhibition for the digital realm, presenting new projects by contemporary Australian artists Heath Franco, Brian Fuata, Matthew Griffin, Amrita Hepi, Kate Mitchell, JD Reforma and Justene Williams.

 

Each artist is alert to the almost paradoxical fact that we are experiencing mass disconnect in an age of hyper-connectivity. They examine the role the internet plays in shaping our lives and the various ways we communicate. This essay sits in dialogue with the artworks and elaborates upon the curatorial premise of the exhibition.

The most valuable mushroom in the world, the matsutake, flourishes in damaged landscapes. I’ve been reading about its resilience.

In her book The mushroom at the end of the world: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing maps the complex ecology of the mushroom trade and unravels a densely layered story of multi-species collaboration. Everything is connected and co-dependent. From the trees to the fungal filaments to the foragers and the commodity chain itself.

It is a history of post-industrial ruin re-told through observations of continued renewal and resurgence. A tale of constant transformation.

I’m not entirely sure why the book moved me so much. Maybe it’s the promise of post-industrial survival, or the suggestion of inter-species dependency. It’s reassuring to be reminded of all the ways in which we’re connected. Reassuring after months of barely seeing our loved ones in person; after months of the absence of touch; after months of shielding ourselves from surfaces. Caught, as we are, in a prolonged period of collective catastrophe, we may feel somewhat dissociated from the world around us. Cut off and isolated and defenceless.

Maybe mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi, have things to teach us? They are, after all, inherently collaborative creatures.

Fungi, according to Tsing, are ‘world builders’. They transform the environments in which they live. It’s a rather generous form of habitation.

Their status as agents of change relates to extra-cellular digestion. Fungi excrete digestive acid to break down food into nutrients that are then absorbed back into their cells. But the plants and animals in proximity also feed off this process. It is fungi (along with bacteria) that decompose dead wood and turn rocks into soil, allowing plants to grow. They’re the unsung heroes of terrestrial evolution.

In a forest, fungi form networks between and across plants. Some flora would not exist without their fungal counterparts and it is often the interaction between a plant-host and the fungus that produces mushrooms we eat – porcini, chanterelles, truffles (if we’re lucky).

The thread-like filaments of a fungus’ root system, the hyphae, spread through the soil. It’s an infrastructure that carries both nutrients and information, sometimes helping an ecosystem respond to threats and filter out pollutants. This infrastructure behaves like an underground city. Or the internet.

There’s something here. Something in the relationship between the fungal networks that propagate and transform the natural world and the virtual networks we’re tethered to. In alluding to the echo between these different systems, Tsing notes that some commentators refer to mycorrhizal networks as the ‘woodwide web’.

We often think of mushrooms as independent organisms. They are found intact, as distinct ‘fruits’, when foraged. But beneath the surface, they’re enmeshed; their mycelium (their roots) spread far and wide. They spawn other specimens and create a dense web. Sitting all alone in front of our screens, aren’t we also individual organisms bound by invisible filaments? Aren’t we entangled in our own web? Metaphorical mushrooms, mainlining memes.

I don’t know about you, but recently I’ve found myself stuck between two different, almost opposing, states. I feel both withdrawn and emotionally overstimulated. Alone but also in so. much. contact. with people. Exhausted from having to constantly re-write and re-wire how I socialise. The dispiriting swill of a FaceTime Wine? The short-lived thrill of a shared GIF? I’ve forgotten how to hold myself in a group. Forgotten how to make small talk.

It’s the cliché of our time, but we are experiencing mass disconnect in an age of hyper-connectivity. Think pieces have been pushing this point for years, but it’s finally hit home (precisely because we’re stuck there).

In Alice in Wonderland, there’s a mushroom that, when consumed, makes you taller or smaller depending on which side you ingest. The battle of the binaries. Feels rather apt; I too find myself jostled between two different modes. Two distinct realities – dis/connect. My world has contracted but also expanded. I – and I say this as someone acutely conscious of my privilege; of my status as a non-essential worker and my relative security – have been learning to navigate space differently.

I’ve barely left the confines of my domestic environment, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been participating in social spaces.

It’s little wonder the video game Animal Crossing has become a collective fixation during the COVID-19 crisis. Cultural crazes are always context specific. In Animal Crossing, you get to make your own society. As the lone human on an island peopled by anthropomorphic animals, the player – a self-styled avatar – gets to build from the ground up while interacting with other participants. The unbridled friendliness – the cuteness – of this virtual realm overrides any suggestion of colonial re-enactment (an otherwise unoccupied island, free for you to lay claim to? Sure). It’s world-building as pure (problematic?) idealism.

What does this tell us about how we’re currently navigating the world? Or rather, what kind of worlds we’re building?

Gold Gelber Zetterling-Tremella mesenterica. Photo: Reinhold Möller, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Non-Commercial 4.0 International license

The internet, and social media, have long shaped behavioural patterns. The virtual has been bleeding into the ‘real’ since the web was invented, yet the distinction between online and IRL is ever-harder to discern. We know social media affects our lived reality in very real (and terrifying) ways. Our fears and hopes and anger and attention are monetised against us and weaponised within the echo chamber. The algorithm has the agency. It’s a chain reaction that is out of our hands. We are conditioned by this system, and we moderate our behaviour accordingly.

Whether we’re seeking the serotonin boost of a solipsistic selfie, or broadcasting our lives in bite-sized chunks over Zoom, we are performing. We are propagating personas whether we like it or not – we’re both collaborating with, and changed by, our surrounds.

In the space of a few hours, I alternate between calls with my colleagues, my therapist, my mother, my boss, my partner, and my friends without once moving seats. Sometimes I’m not even wearing proper pants. My language, gestures and intonation change with each encounter. It’s like I’m opening and closing different tabs of my life in rapid succession.

This feels fungal. It’s a form of world-building. I spread myself across otherwise insurmountable physical distances by interacting with others. This is a collaborative ecology. The networked encounters we experience on the internet can be a form of sustenance. They are transformative; they sustain and shape us. We’re back to foraging, figuratively. Remember, it is the interaction between fungi and its ecosystem that determines what grows there (and how). The fungi changes the landscape and determines what survives there. So does the internet.

To think of social media as sustenance is not to say it’s good for you. Remember, not all mushrooms are okay to eat. We have to carefully identify the species – calculate the risk – before we consume it. Perhaps we should pay heed and follow the same due diligence when foraging for facts on the web?

Beyond a moral tale about vigilance in the virtual sphere (fake news!), what’s useful in this analogy is the way it allows us to think about our online identities as being conditioned by a ‘sprawl state’. We are, ourselves, networked. We leap between different personas, different performative modes, with the same agility – and the same jolt – that we move between a news update and a video of Britney Spears parading a bunch of flowers for fans on TikTok (hypnotic at first watch, but heartbreaking in context).

We navigate our social life the way we navigate a click-bait spiral. As a series of lived jump-cuts. This is itself a fungal-like form of dispersal. Fungi grow in clusters, sprawling throughout their surrounds, but they also propagate via spores that travel far from their initial origin source. That’s why you’re meant to use a woven basket when foraging – so spores from the collected mushrooms can be released as you walk through the site, propagating for posterity.

The way we engage with the internet – the way we collide with, and draw connections between, seemingly unrelated subjects; the way we erratically modulate our personas – follows the same inherently haphazard patterns as spore-based germination. It’s random at the outset but coheres to form a structure that’s intricate and all-consuming, even if it’s invisible to the naked eye.

In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, mushrooms appear during the autumn. If you find them, you can transform them into useful items, like a ‘mush wall’, a ‘mush partition’, a ‘mush table’ or a ‘mush low stool’. They become interior design objects. Never mind the fact that a ‘mush’ is meant to mean a wet pulpy mass, these shrooms are structural. It’s an ad-hoc architecture, but an architecture nonetheless.

Fungi are evolutionary building blocks, so it seems fitting that mushrooms could be transformed into architecture.

We might dismiss a toadstool as diminutive – fairy furniture! – but fungi are spatially assertive. The largest living organism on earth is a single honey fungus that stretches over 5.5 kms of the Blue Mountains in Oregon. It weighs an estimated 35,000 tons. Wild, right?

And then there’s ‘Mushrooms’, Sylvia Plath’s piercing poem in which an extended mushroom metaphor conjures an account of a quiet invasion.

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek
We are edible

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves
Our kind multiplies

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth
Our foot’s in the door

Notice (again) the architectural analogy? Plath’s mushrooms don’t simply plot pathways as they encroach, they forge and fabricate new structures. They are shelves and they are tables.

But his should come as no surprise. A fungus – as we know – is a world-builder.

There’s a menacing intonation in Plath’s mushroom poem. Naturally – it’s a tribute to silent revolutions. But is there room to think of the internet in similar terms? As an invasion of sorts? Feels about right.

Hyper-linked considers how the internet has infiltrated and transformed our lives. How it has shaped the present moment. How it has built new worlds.

These artists are attentive to the ways in which our experience has become (increasingly) networked. They wrestle with the almost surreal intersection between our lived realities – delineated by the domestic – and our online identities; they storyboard the sprawl of our virtual selves.

The artists included in this online exhibition are all alert to the networked complexities of our contemporary lives. They ask questions about the way we interact and the way we communicate; the way we witness, perform, reach out, and cry for help. For, ultimately, isn’t this how we build new worlds? Through contact?

These born-digital works are set against, and made in response to, a global pandemic. They are the product of an era of uncertainty in which the mundane is laced with fear – where we scroll through death tolls while eating our breakfast. But, befitting a crisis, this is a context in which the pressure points keep changing. What felt urgent one week feels insignificant the next. This project, and these artworks, were conceived before the recent protests against systemic racism and police brutality, before the foregrounding of the Black Lives Matter movement, before the renewed media attention given to Indigenous deaths in custody, before the Melbourne public housing tower lockdown. In some senses, these works feel anachronistic already. But then, we’re also confronting a COVID-19 comeback. The ground keeps shifting. Our attention is scattered. Our lived experience splintered.

Bamberg Hain Stockschwämmchen Kuehneromyces mutabilis. Photo: Reinhold Möller, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Non-Commercial 4.0 International license

Mushrooms have started popping up in the ads on my Instagram feed. I must have been talking about them a lot. Siri’s a sly one. The other day the algorithm offered up a promotional post for a mushroom jigsaw puzzle. If there’s anyone that’s profited from COVID-19 capitalism (you know, besides the tech oligarchs), it’s puzzle makers. What better way to calm the nerves and pass the time than a puzzle. It lets us pretend we can wrangle order from chaos; pretend that we can put the world back together again.

The image on the puzzle was a botanical illustration of different mushroom species. A taxonomic diagram of the kind you might find adorning a tea towel for sale in the gift shop at the Botanic Gardens. The individual mushrooms were floating – free of their filaments – on a white background, untethered from their ecosystems.

I found this slightly perverse. Violent, even. This type of mushroom representation overlooks the complex and collaborative relationships that formed the fruiting bodies in the first place. Mushrooms aren’t isolated or independent organisms. And neither are we. Maybe that was the affront. Not the distortion of biological veracity but the loneliness the image implied. A mushroom without mycelium is a mushroom without a mate.

I didn’t buy the puzzle, but I did take a screenshot and send it to a friend.