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E17 Art Trail 2021 - A Thousand Invisible Chords

The first 3 weeks of July 2021 were a busy time at the Fat Fox Farm. The E17 Art Trail is a 3 week festival where walthamstow artists, makers and creators share their work with the public. Our Urban mushroom farm is located in Walthamstow’s Wyn Works Studios, home to artists and makers. Our Group show for the Art trail was 'A Thousand Invisible Cords', inspired by fungal connection. The need for this kind of connection - indeed, the importance of recognising that we are inextricably linked to each other and to the wider world - is reflected in our title. The words reference an oft-quoted phrase written by the famous Scottish-American naturalist John Muir in his journal for July 27, 1869:

'When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe'.

Merlin Sheldrake’s beautiful book Entangled Life, an ode to fungi and how they ‘make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures’, notes that this phrase could be used to describe the underground fungal connections that exist beneath the soil. Rather than passive cables in a Wood Wide Web, Sheldrake positions fungi ‘front and centre’.


For this exhibition we took a ‘myco-centric’ perspective as a point of departure. Given the increasing interest in the potential of fungi in the realms of medicine and healing, as a material for packaging, architecture and clothing and the insights we are gaining into ecology, plant communication and intelligence, it seems clear that in every possible future, fungi will play a bigger part in our lives. And what better metaphor for the heretofore hidden work of a connected group of growers, makers, artists and friends bursting out in a celebration of creativity?


Bio-sonification : Listening in on Plants and Fungi

For our contribution to the group show, we created an installation called A Thousand Invisible Chords.


Plants and fungi respond to and interact with their environments in complex and sophisticated ways we cannot see or hear. Is there a way to catch even a fleeting glimpse of their unseen lives? Can we listen in?


Bio-sonification helps us hear invisible processes by turning the electrical impulses of living organisms like plants and fungi into rhythms and notes.


Electrodes on a plant or mushroom measure tiny changes in electrical conductivity and feed this complex, real time sensor data into a microcontroller to produce MIDI notes. With the help of an open source schematic designed by Sam Cusumano of Electricity for Progress, and sound design by Lex Kosanke we can interpret these MIDI notes in a computer we can listen in on the invisible biological processes happening inside plants and fungi. ⁠⁠


This installation is an invitation to see our world anew -- to explore and interact with hidden lives that we rarely see, hear or imagine. Can we begin to find new pleasure and meaning through these experiences? Will they help us understand and care more deeply about the abundance of life with which we share this planet? Does connection and cooperation provide promising possibilities to better shape our possible futures?


How do plants and fungi react to and interact with the world around them? How do they communicate? What do they feel? Might they even be sentient?


People often think of plants and fungi as decorative, useful or something to be managed and controlled. They are beautiful additions to our homes and gardens and support us with delicious food. Some of them are dangerous or troublesome - they can cause an itchy rash, choke our carefully manicured gardens with unwanted weeds or even kill us.


We have many things in common with plants and fungi. Plants can recognise and share nutrients with their family, friends and community. Plants and fungi often work together in ‘mycorrhizal’ partnerships to exchange food and create a ‘wood wide web’ to communicate threats to the forest.


Plants and fungi can also do many things that humans can’t. Trees can clone themselves, creating giant superorganisms that can live for 80,000 years. Slime moulds can solve complex problems more efficiently than humans. Sweetcorn can summon wasps to attack caterpillars. Mushrooms can make their own wind to spread their spores.


But are they sentient?


In their 1973 book ‘The Secret Lives of Plants’, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird argued that plants respond to human care, can communicate, react to music, and can even recognise and predict human behaviour. Since then, thousands of studies have investigated the idea that plants may be sentient: that they are able to perceive, experience and feel.


It has been estimated that the study of fungi is around 100 years behind that of plants. With much of the research in this field focused on plants, what may fungi be able to convey to us through their interconnectedness with the other organisms that surround them?


Biologists, ecologists, foresters, and naturalists increasingly argue that plants and fungi speak a language of their own. They communicate through smell, taste, and electrical impulses -- creating a complex language unheard by and unintelligible to the human ear.


Can we learn their language? When we listen in, what messages might we hear in these invisible chords?



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