"The future is to create a new a new aesthetic. Because nature is the best designer we can use this power and beauty in our daily lives." Pascal Labouq
With the G Summit right around the corner we can see the true scale of the problem that we pose to our environment and our world. However the reality is that the science is already here, offering us ways in which we can fix some of the problems that we have. Pascal Labouq with a team of collaborators built a bio diverse building from mycelium and hemp, Fiona Mcdonald has shown us the power of nano matter and Neri Oxman created the Silk Pavilion.
The growing pavilion by Pascal Labouq.
Feral Practise by Fiona McDonald
The Silk Pavilion by Neri Oxman
"Nature is demonstrably sustainable. It's challenges have been resolved over eons with enduring solutions with maximal performance using minimal resources. Unsurprisingly, natures inventions have for all time prompted human achievements and have led to the creation of exceedingly effective materials and structures, as well as methods, tools, mechanisms and systems by which to design them" Neri Oxman
Acting as artist, scientist and architect, she hopes to further establish the relationship between the built environment that exists today, with a more intimate, natural and biological environment that she envisions of the future.
Admittedly these are the pioneers of using bio materials in art and really seem as far away from the Mancunian Way as we actually are from MIT. The world is as always turning awfully fast and some of us cannot keep up with this bio diverse evolution that is going on around us, doing the recycling is plenty for some. However we are lucky enough to have Norton Finn Robinson, the founder of Mycolitos, who is simplifying this process and in such a DIY way that you can do this in your own bedroom with household things.
Here our full chat with Norton about his personal story and talk us through Mycolitos right here.
How to begin the idea of creating your own laboratory in your own bedroom is enough to burn anyones head so when interviewing Norton I really wanted to start with the basics and learn more about what materials we are working with first, never mind the theory behind the artwork that he is creating through creating these materials.
Norton Finn Robinson puts it in a beautiful way "There can never be an answer for everything, but mushrooms can help."
If you don't already know about Norton then go back and read our full story on him and understand the story of this individual who's story has gone from North Yorkshire, drug addiction, depression, a near death experience and travels across the world to come full circle to now creating new worlds at home. The best way I can describe him is as a lovely mushroom, beautiful and adaptable to any environment.
What is the difference between a mushroom and a fungi?
Ahh right, mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi, whereas mould doesn’t have a fruiting body but is still a fungi. How I like to explain it is in the same way as an apple tree. Mycelium is very vast and exists under the ground that we are fortunate enough to sit on out in the forest. If you imagine an apple on apple tree, the apple is the fruiting body of a much larger organism, if you pick that apple another apple will grown elsewhere, as will the mushroom. The mycelial network exists across the whole world underground, it spans and connects each tree. If one tree is in the shade of another, it will be getting food from the bigger through the mycelial network.
ES: So it is everywhere?
Artwork by Norton
Yep. It’s also called the ‘Wood Wide Web’. There are a few people that do works around it! Imagine this super highway with super connectivity in the digital world, this is the natural one that has been here since day one, it's the foundation of society. Soil, bacteria, fungi, everything exists because of it. Stones are broken down because of it as fungi releases enzymes. If you go back a certain amount of years before human interference, everything on this world would have been biodegradable and hopefully we can go full circle and now only make things that are going be like that again, with these new biomaterials. That is where we begin to have a bio revolution.
There are much smarter people working with biomaterials than me. People like Neri Oxman, who would be a really cool person to look at. She does amazing work within chitin (kite-in), which I'm really working towards. So chitin is found in the cell walls of fungi and it gives it its structure and gives biomaterials its strength, but it's also found everywhere from the shells on beetles to the beaks of octopus’ and squids and stuff like that. It is hard and tensile, it’s also found in butterflies, which also inspires one of my other projects. It is the second most abundant polymer after cellulose. So this is something that is so easy to produce and has so much potential.
Fungi is such a good material that it will adapt to its environment very quickly. If you look at the artists Donna J Haraway she describes working with nature as sympoiesis, which is a much better way of describing working with nature rather than symbiosis.
Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing … Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company. Sympoiesis enfolds autopoiesis and generatively unfurls and extends it.
How do you harvest Mycelium?
There are a few ways. One way is liquid culture, imagine a Petri dish with fungi on it, it will naturally grow and spread across the Petri dish, this becomes a vertical plain of bacteria. So instead, distill some water, add some natural sugars like honey or natural yeast extract, these are foods for the fungi, sterilise this liquid broth inside a glass jar or container. You also need to consider air exchange or how to put your culture inside. You inoculate this liquid broth and then fungi begins to grow inside it, initially it will look like a jar of dirty water and inside of this jar as it begins to grow. Pressure cooking creates a sterile environment that culture begins to grow quickly inside free from bacteria. If you leave it to it’s own devices you’ll get a mycelial layer that forms along the top that creates a mycelium, similar to a kombucha scoby.
Another, more simpler way is to get a hemp substrate, inoculate that with mycelium and pack that into moulds, that is stripped down quite basic, but that is the real basic idea. It is quite simple but you do need some specialised equipment, alternatively you can buy pre-made mixes online but I’m very much about the process, which requires quite a lot of equipment.
This is a video that shows this in a super easy way. Also the first video of the 'Growing Pavilion' shows this on a larger, industrial scale.
Did you start experimenting without equipment and then build what you needed out of necessity?
NFR: Every step forward I found that I needed something to do something else. So I built a stir plate and a still air box.
ES: Can you talk us through some of the final outcomes you have already made?
NFR: So of course I’ve done a lot of poetry that really came around in my first year of university. I created a SCOBY leather that I stretched out onto wooden frames and clamped it down so it would stay in place.
Let’s take a step back, what is SCOBY leather?
So SCOBY is grown adding, quite conveniently, a whole bag of sugar and a whole box of tesco’s tea bags, there’s 1000 grams in a bag of sugar and 100 tea bags in a box, which is the perfect amount for these leathers.
So SCOBY stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. I will get water in a big pan, throw my tea bags in there, essentially the biggest brew ever, throw in pelicle and a SCOBY. A SCOBY is something that comes from a batch or you can just get off Etsy, like a starter for a sourdough. Essentially it’s Kombucha, super healthy for your belly and good for your diet. I’ve not made anything that tastes too great but.
One of the problems with growing it in plastic is that it can creating some harmful toxins, really it should be in glass, you don’t know if it is stripping some of stuff the plastic is treated in. I have tried some of the Kombucha I’ve made, it wasn’t offensive but my house mates weren’t a fan.
So you’ve got the pot of tea, let that cool down to about 36oC and then throw in your liquid culture and SCOBY and put it into your flat plastic container. I then cover that in cloth and put the lid on so you’ve got some air exchange and then leave it alone. It has its limitations because it is made to biodegrade but it can have a strong tensile property. So I’m interested in making some lamps and light pieces out of this material.
At first I found the SCOBY leathers a bit naive but the more I have worked with them I have fallen in love with them and the things that they can do. Its translucent quality means light looks amazing through it, it's way more pretty than any mycelium materials I've made. So as an artist rather than a scientist making these materials for say corporate use in packaging or insulation it's certainly a lot more fun to work with. I do love the possibilities of working with mycelium and chitin because they are the future. chitin I believe is going to be the key polymer that we use to create a new bio world.
Let's have a look at some of the contraptions you have made!
So this is the humidifier, this helps to control humidity mimicking environments.
This is an induction steriliser where I can sterilise smaller tools that I use throughout my practice. It is simply made from a plastic container and the necessary electronics inside.
This is stir plate made from a computer fan with some magnets attached that inside spin, liquid culture jar sit on top with magnetic stir bars that create whirlpools inside of the liquid broth. Made from a wooden box the necessary electronics.
This is an incubation chamber, the home for most of my work's initial growth. Where I keep my plastic containers to grow the SCOBY and Kombucha and again it is made out DIY materials like a ping pong table with some more specialist items like ghost blankets and aluminum tape.
This is the start of my water distiller, it's a work in progress but it'll be finished shortly im sure! It uses heating elements, these evaporate the water in a smaller paint tin on the inside that is buried in earthly materials.
So now you have laid the foundations, you’ve built the machines and understand what is going on, what is next for Mycolitos?
I’ve had some amazing fun building all these contraptions, the DIY processes, the electrics involved and now I’m working at creating these mycelium materials. I’ve grown mushroom forms and leather and it’s about getting these contraptions made out of them too, so it will be mushrooms growing mushrooms. I like that, I feel that is quite poetic and it’s just something I’m really keen on doing. It’s the real levelling up of what I have been doing.
ES: How do you even do that?
NFR: Quite simply. I now know all the interior electronics, the science behind it and I just have to create molds that will be filled with a mycelium composite before they get grown out and cooked off. So for the stir plate, I will use a mycelium box instead of a wooden box. It’s all about reimagining these products sustainably.
Some way down the line I’d like to start doing workshops and showing other people how to do this themselves. All of this I can’t teach in a day but I'd like to show people the easiest and most convenient ways to start doing these things. Online it is an endless chamber of opinions and sometimes you don’t know where to start. Ideally I'd get a group of people together and show them the materials you need and the recipes you need. Sometimes it’s better to learn first hand and away from the internet. Then I can show people how to make the moulds, how to grow within the moulds, Blue Peter it.
Other people are doing similar things with the mixture of biomaterials and art and I know you’ve got some things planned together or things might even be coming together?
So a proposed plan I've been working on is the ‘Community Culture Share’ this is a project with another artist Caitlin Bell.
"The Community Culture Share is a fridge containing the cultures of algae, mushrooms and kombucha to be located outside the gallery within community settings, I now propose for it to be placed in the Levenshulme community market space. The work hopes to be aligned with socially-engaged food projects such as Time/Food started by Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle, Public Fruit Jam by Fallen Fruit and Lexie Smith’s Bread on Earth."
I'm part of an art and ecology group and we are applying for some exhibition spaces. All of us in the group are working ecologically but our work is all very different. Fred Sanders is working with the virtual, bringing the ecological world to the digital, myself and Caitlin Bell and working more with the science, then Simon Elwood is working with foraged woods and giving it a second life through mummification. Then Louis Neale creates beautiful sculptures out of things that he has foraged like jelly ear fungus.
We came together and said we need to get artists doing similar things together and I saw Louis had put up something on the fungal materials and bio fabrication page that I’m on and I said, ‘I know a guy, I know a guy’ and he was sat next to me. Me and Simon are also hoping to collaborate. He creates these things out of foraged wood and wraps them up, so I’d like to wrap them up in my Kombucha leather, so it’s really exciting.
A lot of people think that this area is really inaccessible but the reality is that it is not, you just need dedication. There are so many people out there that are passionate about making the world a better space or a greener place and they don’t really know how to do it or are put off by it. Some do their recycling but it’s outside of your hands. We cannot be the sole solution, it’s going to take loads of people doing loads of different things and mushrooms aren’t going to be the solution but they might help. That might make one sector much more green and that can carry over. There can never be one answer for everything, but mushrooms can be an answer.
Are there any other writers or artists we should know about that work in these areas that you enjoy?
Anna Tsing has wrote a great book called ‘The Mushroom At The End Of The World’ and it talks from the view of the mushroom in a neutral sort of perspective looking at capitalist rule and the ruins of it. It explains the abstract idea of capitalism which is incomprehensible from one perspective or if you’ve not heard of it before. So what Tsing does is she takes capitalism and looks at it from the view of the Matsutake mushroom and this mushroom is one of the most expensive mushrooms in the world, seen as a gift but also the living embodiment of capitalism. It reflects on how we share these devastated landscapes and the capitalist ruin. So this mushroom represents us in some way.
When the grounds of this world are decimated by elemental destruction, either fires or more relatively, human destruction. What comes out of the ground first will be this Matsutake mushroom which will encourage other life to grow but we will pick it before it’s full potential can be met. In that is a metaphor for humans, we are a victim to our own selfish attitudes. These mushrooms specifically only grown in areas that the nature has been massively changed, like areas of deforestation or most notably it was the first thing to grow in the area of Hiroshima after the atom bomb.
That is why it is such a nice thing to point out because of the title and how capitalism has been a necessity, its benefits, but ultimately it has caused us to now think about how to avert the end of the world. Like fungi we adapt to the world and to the situation around us.
ES: That to me is the story of you Norton. Wherever you have been, whatever head space and consciousness you been in you have survived, even surviving a near death experience, yet here you are, growing a new and interesting way of communicating with such a beautiful form. Embarking on a journey of invention and discovery.
As always, can you recommend us 3 things MUKA readers should know about?
NFR: Can I mention you?
Okay, Levenshulme Bakery is fucking amazing, Waka Waka Noodles and The Levenshulme Pub, a class place to go for a drink.
There is also Andrey Lantsov, who is working on these self sufficient mushrooms containers. He’s been given some funding to make self contained mushroom containers inside shipping containers inside a bunker. These will be able to make masses of food in a super quick way that will be full of densely packed nutrients and it will be more environmentally aware than growing a cow. All the people he’s working with are hopefully going to be making the world a better place.
I am also going to go with Obeka, he does the Me Gusta nights. We’ve known each other for ages and I had a nice chat with him the other week.