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3.1 The Pavilion for Listening to Electric Mushrooms

Ontogenetic Resilience through Myco-voltage

Published onJul 10, 2022
3.1 The Pavilion for Listening to Electric Mushrooms

"Relationship among all things appears to be complex and reciprocal, always at least two-way, back and forth. It seems that nothing is single in this universe, and nothing goes one way."
- Ursula K. LeGuin, Deep in Admiration

Today we are talking about ontogenetic resilience: acknowledging increasingly tumultuous systems and the fragility of individual identity. We propose an identity that embraces the in-between spaces: becoming who we are, rather than being what we are. We have spoken about ontogenetic resilience as a sustained state of becoming, an acceptance of the in-between. 

I want to introduce a project I’ve been working on alongside Claudia and colleagues, involving oyster mushrooms and the production of electronic music. It is my hope that this project can be a vessel to explore the concept of our position within systems. I have approached this project with cybernetic concepts in mind, and I hope you will bear with me as I reconnect some of these dots in the next few minutes. 

Mushrooms first appeared about 715 million years ago. This places them about 300 million years before the first fish transitioned its gills into ears. But the silence of a mushroom is not a human silence. Just as mushrooms digest the indigestible, such as oil and plastics, they accept vibration in their own way. A mushroom exists outside of sound, but also as a full-bodied ear drum. A mushroom comprehends its relationship to the world through vibrations, gathered through exploratory hyphae which navigate their way through grass, soil, and wood bark. 

DT Suzuki has described Zen as a silence:

“the silence of an eternal abyss in which all contrasts and conditions are buried, the silence of thunder obtained in the midst of a flash and uproar of opposing electric currents.” 

This brings us to electricity. It’s been long known that life operates within an electric field. In the 1920s, Jagadish Chandra Bose measured and published the electric pulses of plants in his book, Plant Autographs and their Revelations. In it, he used carefully constructed receptors to track electrical charges from a variety of living and non-living things. The research was our first glimpse into the world of the electric field as one directed and shaped by the relationships between living and non-living objects in shared space. 

Nearly 100 years after these plant autographs, Dr. Adam Adamatsky, a computer scientist at the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of West of England, put forward a research paper that suggests spikes of electrical activity in mushrooms reveal a series of patterns akin to language. The pulses are consistent in response to outside events, such as exposure to salt or a wound. 

“Mathematical analysis of the electrical signals fungi seemingly send to one another has identified patterns that bear a striking structural similarity to human speech.” - Adam Adamatsky, Language of fungi derived from their electrical spiking activity.

The comparison to language is notable. Music is a variation of language, a response to the tonality of the spoken voice. 

Yesterday, William Rees quoted Stafford Beer in his keynote: “We cannot regulate our interaction with any aspect of our reality that our model of reality does not include.” As an artist I am invested in ways of rethinking our models of reality in ways that decenter the human perspective. 

I have been pursuing a literal form of experimental music, one that emerges from the resonance between electricity and mushrooms. 

Oyster mushroom and synthesizer.

The thread that connects them is voltage. An analogue synthesizer is a series of paths through which voltage moves and is transformed. As the speed and intensity of voltage changes, so do the resulting sounds. Typically, we adjust the speed and intensity through a series of knobs. The knobs extend or shorten the pathways through which these electrical signals travel. Doing so stretches sounds, or shortens them, or cuts them at varying tempos to create rhythms. Everything a hand does to a knob on an electronic synthesizer is simply to manipulate voltage.

A so-called silent mushroom is a cacophony of voltage signals. By linking those voltage signals to a synthesizer, we can listen in. So that’s what I’ve done. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation cables are designed to send electric pulses from a machine to human tissue to aid in various muscle therapies. We can run these in reverse, and transmit voltage spikes from a mushroom into what is called control voltage, to literally control our synthesizer. The components of the synthesizer treat this voltage just like any other electrical information. 

What you're hearing is the full spectrum of electrical activity within a mushroom divided into four segments. Each spike triggers a change in the synthesizer depending on its intensity, triggering a feedback loop within the synthesizer until new voltage information comes through. I set up the structure and step back. I’m not touching anything. The sound you’re hearing here is raw signal output. 

When this project began, I would sit and listen to the output, which sustained itself in a predictable way. But one day, something surprised me. The pulses began to grow stronger - distorting the volume. I turned it down, but the level kept rising. What happened was, I turned on a lamp. 

I recorded the audio signal — you can see the voltage spikes represented as audio here. I recorded for two minutes with no lamp, then turned the lamp on. This triggered the mushroom’s voltage spikes. I turned the lamp off two minutes later. The mushroom continued to show voltage spikes for 7 minutes. The mushroom then set a series of spikes in something of a sequence, and immediately went back to rest. I stopped the recording and ran the experiment again. 

The same thing happened at the exact same time intervals. And at the conclusion of both cycles, voltage spiked in a similar sequence. Adamatsky says there are at least 50 sequences of pulses that correspond to specific states of the mushroom, therefore constituting a kind of language. But I can’t honestly tell you what my experiment means. I’m offering it today as a way of thinking about position

The resonance between things is a useful frame for recentering our view of a system, moving from, in the words of Annetta Pedretti, “objects to rhythms.” In the Chinese gardens Claudia mentioned, and in the Zen gardens I visited across Japan, we see the reverberations that radiate from objects raked into sand. In this project, the radiance is not raked into sand, but by vibrating air into sound waves. The sound is what emerges from the relationship between the mushroom, my lamp, the synthesizer, and my observation. 

Curiously, all of this is happening in silence. Unplug the headset, turn down the speakers, and the activity of these exchanges disappears. The avant garde composer John Cage, famous for creating a piece of music which consisted only of silence, was also a passionate mycologist. Cage described silence as an “all-encompassing receptivity, an openness of mind to the things which, from a neutral point of view, are outside it, but from a Zen point of view are part of it, are in flux with it, or it is in flux with them.” 

As I have listened to many of the sessions at this conference I am reminded of the importance of looking at a system and then stepping back, to see what emerges between parts and pieces. And here, we step back to see what resonates. Music and sound are resonances, and it is useful to think of them as a way of exploring the spaces we imagine as silent. What we often call mushrooms are just the visible emergence of a larger organism, rising from a wider network beneath the soil. To envision sound as the silence between spikes is a helpful mindset for observing a system’s behavior as resonance. 

Claudia mentioned that Chinese gardens would be designed to encourage its users to focus on a particular sensation. Some of these were sounds, for example, “The Pavilion to Listen to Small Rain.” I aimed to create a kind of Chinese Garden on my office desk — perhaps we might call it “The Pavilion for Listening to Electric Mushrooms.”

The response of a mushroom to heat is nothing shocking. But sound allows us to enter into that resonance, to feel it as something more than our beloved systems diagrams. Music creates a space for connection across my ears and a being that emerged millions of years before ears had ever formed. I enter into a 715-million year old mushroom with my 400-million year old ears, evolved from gills, and I remember that music remains a sea for us to swim in.

So today we want to open a conversation to all of you, with the aim of arriving at some new kinds of questions together. 

What might we produce if we oriented technologies, tools, rituals or practices, around the creation of ‘radiant circles’?

How might we design “technologies for floating” — for the focused experience of a particular sensation, in a way which fosters a sense of openness to the permutations of the systems we are embedded in? 

Questions which emerged from the session:

  1. How do we make novelty timeless?

  2. What are strategies for an aesthetics of transition?

  3. Where is the threshold between understanding nature and experiencing it?

— Eryk Salvaggio, July 7 2022

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