Fungi Cosmology – Chapter 1: The Amazon Experience. An Imagination Space of the Unknown
Published 23 May 2023 by Maya Minder & Juli Simon
Fungi Cosmology Brazil is an art & science dissemination initiative on fungi research. It was created by CAB Patagonia and LabVerde following an invitation from Pro Helvetia to encourage an international dialogue between South American institutions in 2020, collaborating with artists and scientists from Brazil, Switzerland and Chile. Mixing the disciplines of visual arts, mycology, anthropology and linguistics, transdisciplinarity is the main focus and starting point of this three-year exchange. Report on the first trip in Amazonia last March.
“We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival. It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking.” – Anna L.Tsing
“Every year from anew, starts the dispute on which of the rivers on planet Earth is the longest. The Nile and the Amazon rivers concurrence each other by continuously changing their length about essential 10-40 km per season or year. For an indisputable fact it is, that the Amazon river carries 10,000 times more water than the Nile.” – Rafael Estrela
With Netflix’s distribution of Louie Schwartzberg’s Fantastic Fungi documentary film, people have increasingly become aware of fungi – not for their psychedelic active substances or as wild foraged condiments, but for their important ecological role as a symbiont with trees and other plants, regenerators of devastated land or as symbols of vast networks, embodying Guattari/Deleuze’s rhizome theories. Fungi have long been underestimated in taxonomy, as it wasn’t until 1969 that fungi became a distinct kingdom alongside plants, animals, bacteria and protists. So far, only around 148,000 species of fungi have been identified, out of an estimated total of up to 3.8 million species.
The Fungi Cosmology art and science project was initiated in 2021 by Lilian Fraiji, curator for Labverde in Manaus, Brazil, and Maria Luisa Murillo, curator for CAB in Patagonia, Chile. It resulted from a deeper reflection on the potential of transdisciplinary collaboration based on the strong pillars of South American mycology research and the belief in existing networks between Brazil’s INPA and UFAM and the Chile Mycology Society. It was also a critical reflection on the predominance of Western science and how knowledge is mainly produced in rigidly hierarchical top-down structures within academia. Through their common initiative, Pro Helvetia connected them to Irène Hedinger, director of Artists-in-Labs, ZhdK, a program for artistic research and long-term residencies on art and science, and Margaux Schwab, curator of Food Culture Days, a platform for sharing knowledge and know-how about food sovereignty, art and community processes and practices.
The goal of this residency program was to conduct three field trips: two in South America, in the middle of the Amazon in Brazil, and one in the south of Patagonia in Chile. A third dissemination and final residency will be held in Switzerland in 2024. This collaboration relies on research, documentation, creation, imagination and mindful approaches within a process-oriented outcome.
For this first journey to Manaus and São Paulo, a team comprising around 15 artists, scientists, curators, a tour guide, and an entire boat crew went on a boat trip traveling up the Rio Negro to visit various stations of interest. We visited floating forests, observed different ecosystems in the Amazon, like the white sand forests, searched for edible fungi in the jungle, learned about the seasons and changing landscapes, and finally met indigenous people.
Traveling on a river cruise boat into the depths of the Amazon jungle recalled the wild landscapes of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo. Finally after three days, we arrived at the Museu na Floresta (Museum in the Forest), a multilateral initiative to create awareness of Amazonia ecology. The Museu na Floresta is located in the Cuieiras River, a tributary of Rio Negro and is a protected area held by INPA. The museum lies in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by river, jungle, frogs, fungi and snakes, all depleted as a result of human civilization. Accompanied by mycologists, ethnographers and linguists from the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) and Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM), we spent several days and nights on site, sleeping in hammocks and going on field trips into the jungle.
Rather than focusing on a single scientific research goal, an additional layer of ethnographic and linguistic studies provided insight on the practices and belief systems of indigenous people, who to this day consider themselves as the protectors of the Amazon forest. Considering that Western scientific methods have exploited people and extracted resources over centuries of South America’s history and have oppressed indigenous people while causing ecological problems, giving a voice to the suppressed and unheard is long overdue. A community gathering with indigenous people was held to mutually celebrate and share food and stories. The group was welcomed by a rich table of indigenous food culture and shared a meal with chanterelle fungi foraged in the fields and prepared by the team.
Before our departure, Labverde and Swissnex organized introductions and presentations. Professor Charles R. Clement gave a presentation titled “The Domestication of the Amazon” about the alteration of landscapes and the history of human settlement in the Amazon. Instead of referencing the history of Spanish and Portuguese colonization, he described how the Amazon has been occupied since ancient times with a plentitude of people inhabiting the forest and using the benefits of its water paths for transportation and migration. Researchers discovered that by analyzing soil to reveal “dark soil”, archeologists could examine the traces of human existence and settlement. The emblem of the niche structure and the dump-pits created by human “waste” such as compost or ceramics create dark soil burned into the earth as a traceable landmark. Indigenous people had horticulture and created agroforestry, they took soil with them to populate new territory, symbolically as a ritual, but also in order to practically modify the soil’s holobiome. In conclusion, indigenous people populated the Amazon an estimated 5-12 thousand years before the arrival of Europeans, only to then witness a demographic collapse as a result of imported diseases and enslavement. Held by promising mycologist Phd Tiara Crabal, I regard this as a promising approach of how science combined with anthropology can result in promising results by including linguistic and comparative studies into field research. Different research using this methods have been previously applied to show the connection between indigenous human activity and fungal biodiversity.
Mycologist Noemia Kazue Ishikawa offered an insight on how to augment knowledge of fungi by integrating indigenous knowledge of the Yanomami people into scientific research on mycology. Ishikawa has written numerous articles on newly discovered fungi, together with her students, some of whom also participated in the Fungi Cosmology project, along with a specialist who followed the expedition. Ishikawa used the metaphor of the vessel of knowledge, comparing it with the imaginary space of the unknown by meeting and thinking together midway between science and indigenous wisdom – a mutual exchange in order to examine how modern science could be thought and learned in a more humanistic and holistic way.
Among the mycologists on the team, there was a strong collaboration between the Chilean scientist Patricia Silva-Flores, who is also part of the Micofilos Society from Chile, Juli Simon Cardoso, a graduate of INPA who was formerly part of the discovery of the Brazilian bioluminescent fungi species with Noemia Ishikawa in 2020, and Swiss scientist Dr. Martina Peter from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL). This multilateral collaboration also seems to have ended in friendship, with many new insights and discoveries.
Included within the current art discourse was Anna L. Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. Of Possible Life in Late Capitalism, which was translated into Portuguese by participating artist Jorge Menna Barreto. Anna L. Tsing’s book is a key text in the research conducted at Fungi Cosmology. The book has made famous queer feminist approaches to commodity history, shifting views away from anthropocentrism toward a more-than-human and object-oriented understanding of the world and how to create contemporary grand narrative. The investigation of her book projects Matsutake fungus as the main heroine, a delicacy in Japan that demands rocket-high prices at Japanese wholesale markets, and serves as a symbol of deeply rooted gift-giving culture in Japan. Her book tells the intertwined stories of a commodity that shifts from the soiled hands of migrants to become a luxurious gift commodity for upper class society, describing paths and custody within the capitalist system in which we are currently living. Anna L. Tsing’s views on narrating history by taking the fungi as the center of its story offers a more entangled view, queer feminist views are encompassing bold approach daring to include the submerged and underground facets of life to unveil what all is preliminary to our worlds existing.
Author and philosopher Walter Benjamin described the work of translation in his 1923 book The Task of the Translator, where he advances that translation is an act that bears poetry. In order to create understanding from meaning, one must reveal associations and facts that before were dormant inside the text itself, and which only can be uncovered by the work of translation itself. Fungi Cosmology, with its ambitious aim of fostering transdisciplinary research, might also help to create potential new meaning.
The first residency finally culminated in São Paulo with a dinner hosted and organized by Swissnex Brazil for related people and artists. We anticipate the second field trip in Spring 2024 in Patagonia, Chile at the CAB residency to see the continuation of this exciting project.
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