My name is Shannon Mattern. I am a, I would say a media design scholar, even though I am housed in a department of anthropology right now. I am joining you today from Hudson New York, about two hours north of New York City.
I’d love for you to talk about your practice. Your practice is really wide-ranging, and I think people see you as a media theorist, design scholar, writer, geographer, anthropologist, cartographer, advocate for libraries and open public access to knowledge. What occupies your time these days?
Well, I just want to, first of all, thank you and say how much I appreciate that really capacious and generous and inclusive list of titles. It has really been an honor for me, and I’ve been really pleasantly surprised throughout my career to be introduced at different talks or to have a preface when we enter a conversation when somebody will offer an appended label to my name that I never would have thought of myself. So I’ve been really kind of kindly invited and welcomed in by geographers and librarians and archivists and anthropologists and folks in media and design studies and architecture and urban planning. So that’s been a really gratifying part of my career. I have worked across a lot of different fields and tried to be respectful and do justice to the work in those different fields. And I think one testament that again is very satisfying that I think I’m apparently doing a pretty good job, is that folks welcome me into those fields then to share my work. So that’s a really nice source of validation.
In terms of what’s occupying my thinking these days? I’ll just preface it by saying that a lot of kind of systems management things, to be honest, institutional management things, I am directing an undergraduate program in Anthropology and a graduate minor in Anthropology and Design. So just navigating the whole ecology, or actually competing ecologies of two different divisions of the university with their own ecosystems, their own kind of protocols, their own rules for operation. So that is a good portion of my time these days, and then teaching, teaching some new classes. And those are project-based classes, just because they’re not only about delivering content to students and managing a conversation, it’s also simultaneously managing a large group project. That requires a good amount of administrative and systems thinking labor.
02:26 On My Mind These Days
But when I do have the rare opportunity, and I hope to have more in the future, opportunities to think about kind of intellectual and creative things, I have been thinking primarily about how the pandemic has changed the way we think about cities and ecologies.
The book that I published in August is called A City Is Not A Computer [Princeton Press 2021]. It’s a mashup, a mix up, an extending, kind of an elaboration of maybe eight or nine different articles I’ve written over the past decade or so for Places journal, which is an open access journal for architecture, urbanism, and landscape. I was invited to turn them into a short-form book. But really rather than just taking four articles, I really kind of wove together or grafted together, to use a metaphor from the book, maybe eight or nine different pieces. And one of the themes that emerged—in part because it’s driven by the titular article, “A City Is Not A Computer”—is what metaphors are actually useful in thinking about this moment, this era of rebuilding, of worldmaking to use a central theme for your project.
So is it helpful to think of a city as a computational kind of—I wouldn’t even say ecology because ecology is a separate metaphor itself—as a computational object or system? Is it a biophysical body? Is it an ecology? Is it a machine? And I think that different policymakers and reformers and other folks who kind of build worlds use different metaphors in maybe productive ways and sometimes in kind of competing ways. And those really shape the discourse around these practices and the actual practical things that get done and how they’re then administered and maintained. So just these large questions of metaphors in this moment of rebuilding and repair are something that I think a lot about.
More concretely, I had been giving some talks about the book which again is about kind of data and information and the different types of knowledge that are embedded in our urban environments. I really draw on Christopher Alexander’s idea of the city not being a tree. And I actually wondered like, how is it actually like a tree and where are arboreal models useful for thinking about place and social networks, etc.
So a couple months ago I published a piece called “Tree Thinking,” wondering how trees model, not only the way we think about computation in terms of algorithms called decision trees and random forests, but also how trees have been a fundamental part of intellectual history. We use trees as almost flowcharts for decision-making. Trees have also been a physical site in our landscape where people have congregated and done kind of community building type activities, made important decisions. So drawing out some metaphors from the book to think about the central role that trees play in shaping our thoughts, which is I know something that you’ve thought a lot about in your own work as well.
And then also drawing in something from my personal life, my own family is going through some challenges right now. My mom is declining into stage 6 Alzheimer’s. So that’s something I’ve been dealing with on a practical level with my family. And then also I wanted to do some research on it just to prepare myself for what’s coming and to think about, again, more metaphors about, what does the world look like to somebody whose map is shrinking.
So I published a piece just this past week, actually, about compassion and concealment. What are the worlds, what are the worlds that are built for folks whose mental, whose conceptual and cognitive world is shrinking? And how can we design physical spaces that foster the richest possible experience for those final years of life? So those are some things that have been immediately concerning me.
What I love about your work is you really help us to think about complexity. You don’t essentialize relationships that are highly complex.
You’ve written about Microsoft technologists who are trying to build a planetary computer—one that and I’m quoting, that “could tell us exactly what we needed to do to protect Planet Earth, a system that was capable of providing us with information about every tree, every species, all of our natural resources.” So you critique that, of course. And you write, and I’ll quote a few sentences of yours, if I may: “As trees become data points, they are all too readily cast as easy fixes for profound problems, trees as tools of carbon capture, tall timber as an instrument for sustainable construction, green barriers as sound buffers along roadways, sylvan solutions to systemic snafus. The media scholar, Jennifer Gabrys argues that such approaches are efforts to frame and tame hard problems, wicked problems, in computational terms. In other words, these technological tools promote technosolutionist responses to problems that are simultaneously ecological, cultural, social, economic, and political.” So can you talk more about that?
I arrived at thinking about trees in part because I think this mode of thinking of technosolutionism applies both in the previous work I was doing on cities where you have these systemic deeply, historically rooted problems of social injustice, of disrepair that are highly systemic and complex in both the causes and then their potential solutions. And then you have service providers coming in and offering a computational model that will not only diagnose all of the problems, but pinpoint exactly where solutions are to be deployed in kind of precision ways or precision methods. We have a similar mentality applied then to ecological challenges. The tree was a really nice, not only metaphor, but also kind of instrument or a rhetorical hinge to go between thinking about cities and thinking about ecology, because, you know, you have the decision tree as a type of algorithm. It’s a mode of thinking. It’s a step-by-step way of moving through a problem-solution process. Especially when we algorithmisize these operations, it often black boxes the operations, or precludes the inclusion of variables that don’t lend themselves to datafication. And this is a problem, a challenge, both when we apply it in the urban terrain and in an ecological terrain.
So not only do I think of the tree as a decision model, which has historically played a key role in determining everything from lineage to belonging, to helping make legal decisions. There’s something very helpful about it as a heuristic, but also there’s something reductive about it because a tree can’t encompass all possible variables. It doesn’t really deal very well with entanglements.
Similarly in the ecological or kind of climate change remediation realm, a tree can be a relatively simplistic and also a very charismatic solution to complex problems. Who doesn’t love trees? Planting a new tree is like a celebratory occasion on a block or in a park. But they too, like so many other technosolutionist approaches lend themselves to kind of a quantitative measure of progress. We have planted in our city a hundred thousand new trees, or the world will plant one trillion new trees. A tree again is a very charismatic and beloved potential part of a solution to an ecological or systemic problem. But in some way, kind of diverts our attention to these larger systemic and really much more complex and messy things. If we want to get into things like colonial histories and legacies of environmental and racial and social injustice, I’m not sure that planting a tree on a block is going to solve these much longer, messier, more complicated issues.
10:18 WHY THINK WITH TREES?
How did you start thinking with trees or about trees?
I wrote an article for Places journal called “A City Is Not A Computer” maybe four or five years ago. And then someone reminded me that Christopher Alexander, who is an architect whose work has been very influential for programmers as well, also a very interdisciplinary thinker, a systems thinker, someone who thinks in terms of transferable or generalizable models. Alexander had written a book called “A City Is Not A Tree.” So I revisited that and wondered how he was using the tree as a model, as an intellectual kind of construct.
But also because I grew up on the side of a ridge, in a rural area, surrounded by trees. My dad is a furniture maker. So I grew up with a barn in the back of our house where every time there was a farm sale or somebody was clearing a lot for development, sadly, my dad would often go to the sale and take whatever interesting tree species that were there and have them timbered or turned into lumber for him to make furniture with.
So just realizing, growing up in an environment where I realized that tree species were like different personalities and that we as humans relate to them in different ways based on the way they respond to a table saw, or the type of tools you’d have to use with them or the smell that they emit when you kind of plane them or sand them. I started to realize that there are these very different sensory characteristics to different species of tree. And they lend themselves to different applications in furniture making.
So it kind of is an homage maybe to my parents. I wanted to maybe in this next phase of my career, move away a little bit from thinking so much about technology and data and get back to the material to things that were influential in shaping my thinking as a child and into my adulthood too. So trees are maybe a hinge, a model for me to think about how can I transition from thinking so much about technology to thinking more about ecology and material things again.
12:15 MATERIALITY OF LIBRARIES: COMPROMISED YET BEAUTIFUL EXCHANGES
Another thing that I know you care deeply about is public libraries. You’re really committed to public libraries. It’s been central to your work, you write, for the last 20 years. Now, we don’t think a lot about the importance of public libraries, and perhaps often prefer to think about smart cities and smart technologies. Would you like to talk a little bit about how do libraries play a revolutionary role? We don’t think about libraries as being, you know, really revolutionary apparatuses.
Well, I’m glad you asked. The fact that I’m a lifetime library goer I’m sure was one of my first kind of inspirations, but also being introduced in graduate school to the proliferating theories of the archive often used, again, in very metaphorical ways that we see across the arts, the humanities, to some degree, the social sciences. And that there was so much theoretical investment in the archive as a radical decolonizing institution. When meanwhile, I was visiting public libraries and ultimately writing my dissertation about them and realizing it’s not about people engaging with kind of romanticized documents. There is some of that in the library, but it’s also compromised bodies interacting with compromised bodies, often the most marginalized people in societies and also really beautiful exchanges of information happening where we’re validating community ways of understanding, where we’re kind of expanding our epistemological universe. I think there are just as much radical stuff happening in a public library as there is an archive, but there is such a dearth of theorization of the library compared to the archive.
Also, moving from a small town to New York City for graduate school, it just became really apparent of how much a public library is asked to do. You know, as a provider of information, as a kind of an epistemological check to help people understand in this new age of proliferating online information in the late 1990s and early 2000s in particular, libraries are really starting to play a critical role of helping people to develop critical information literacy in their everyday lives. They are spaces of intergenerational learning, they’re spaces of kind of civic engagement. And also where other social services fall short because of neglect and underfunding. Public libraries often have to pick up the slack there. That’s not something we’re typically going to ask an archive to do. So just the fact that there is so much that they’re expected to do and that they manage it for the most part. I don’t want to romanticize them. There are problems with the libraries and institutions as well, kind of still steeped in the same patriarchal, colonial and white supremacists legacies that the archive is. But still, it was amazing to me moving to New York City to see how much they’re being asked to do and how much they can actually handle on a shoestring budget—often, you know, dramatically understaffed and under maintained as well.
So I really wanted to lift them up as worthy of academic attention, of theorization, of recognition of the valuable political roles that they play in our society. And it was a challenge for me early in my career, coming out of Media Studies—I did most of my graduate work in Media Studies and Architectural and Urban History and Theory—trying to explain and justify to media scholars, why a library was an appropriate topic of study. And I was thinking, well, they are buildings full of books and media. If that is not enough, then I’m not sure what it is! But I also wanted to look at the design processes. Many libraries are designed through really robust programs of civic engagement because they’re a place that everybody in a community feels a sense of ownership over. And that really diverse local community is often invited into the design process. So I wanted to see how that process was mediated. Because not everybody’s a trained architect. They didn’t often know how to read blueprints or renderings in the public programs they went to. So how do architects and city leaders use different media forms to make it an intelligible process to the stakeholders so they can then shape the building and its programs that actually respond to their needs. So that’s in part why I originally became interested in libraries.
And then my research, going back to our conversation earlier on about the different communities I’ve been lucky to be involved in, librarians have really kind of warmly welcomed me. And I have been able to collaborate with librarians on public pedagogy projects. I’m the president of the Board of the New York Metropolitan Library Council, which serves several hundred libraries around the city, trying to find ways for them to share their efforts. So they’re not just all duplicating the same services, where can we network our efforts to serve the nine million people in New York City and its surrounding areas. And then I’ve kind of curated exhibitions with libraries. Those have been among the most fruitful collaborations with me that have both been inspired by my academic research and very much informed my more academic work also.
17:05 LIBRARIES AS STATEMENTS ABOUT WHAT MATTERS
In the last 20 years, dissemination of knowledge has changed so much. I’m wondering how software, how networks, even the pandemic, how that might have changed some of the work that public libraries do. I know during the pandemic, New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, were doing book readings online that were hugely valuable in bringing people together. I wonder if you have any thoughts, how it’s changed in the last two decades?
Absolutely. And I think this is actually a process of worldbuilding too, not only kind of building an epistemological world, but also in sharing knowledge, in generating knowledge together, you’re actually making a statement about what values matter in a society. So that is a form of kind of ontological design as well. So I’m going back 20 or so years when I was writing my dissertation, I was looking at a lot of places, cities that were designing new libraries in the mid-1990s, into the early 2000s. And there, this was the rise of the consumer internet really, and new shifts in the physical form that computers were taking. We have these big CPUs with big monitors on people’s desks, but as you’re designing a building, you’re wondering, will these machines actually look the same way in six years when our building opens? So this was a big concern, how do you actually create a physical space to accommodate these really rapidly transforming forms of media? And then librarians taking on the role of critical information literacy, realizing that with the increase of people going online, that their role in not only the provision of information, but helping people to understand how to process it and filter through the data deluge, was not a new role—librarians have always played a role in helping people to sort the credible information—but the scale of it was exacerbated or ramped up with the sea of web-based materials.
And then in more recent years, we have seen the rise of Web 2.0, social media, user-generated content, how that too requires new types of curation and kind of pedagogical framing for the way people access information. And then, especially during the pandemic, libraries were often information brokers or clearing houses for reliable, credible public health information, for information about employment—because a lot of people were obviously losing their jobs. Under-resourced school systems, including in New York City, the libraries step in to provide library services for schools that don’t have their own libraries. And there are plenty of them. So just the role they played in keeping education going in whatever form it could continue during the pandemic.
But then it’s not only about disseminating information. Over the years, we’ve also seen libraries take on the role of disseminating the networks necessary to receive information. So the pandemic also demonstrated how many people are on the wrong side of the digital divide, how many kids could not get online for school. How many people could not apply for jobs because they don’t have the internet at home. And there’s still a vast proportion of people in New York do not have reliable internet outside of work and school. They have to go to a parking lot at McDonald’s and sit in a car. Or sit on the steps of the library to access the internet. So some libraries were extending their wifi networks. Some of them were also renting wifi hotspots for people to be able to like rent the internet to take it home. Which also generated further discussions about what type of an internet do we want to build? Another ontological worldbuilding question. And what politics does this embody? So a friend and colleague of mine,Greta Abiramwith whom I have on the board of the Metro Library Council. She works a lot in digital equity and community networks. She’s done some partnerships with the Brooklyn Library and others, places around the city and around the country, places that are underserved by digital infrastructure, to ask, do you want to just get commercial service providers to come into your neighborhood, or do you want to build your own network that might work a little bit differently, that actually embodies the politics of knowledge that you want to define your community? So these are, again, big worldbuilding types of questions.
And one additional thing, not only about disseminating information and building networks, but it’s also about creating knowledge as well. This is something that has happened increasingly or the realization increasingly over the past several years or a couple of decades, that libraries are not just about disseminating published material. It’s validating the knowledge that is inherent in and lives within communities themselves.
And one example is particularly germane to your podcast, Elaine, is the new Greenpoint Library Environmental Education Center. Greenpoint, as you might know, is the home to several Superfund sites. And in their settlement with one of the energy companies, they got a large settlement that the community then decided to put into a trust. And then they determined that they were going to build a library with that money. That’s part of what they chose to do with it. And this library really emphasizes—it’s a full service library—but it also really emphasizes environmental justice materials like published materials. They also are creating kind of an environmental oral history project, building what it would mean to have data sets, Indigenous data sets of Indigenous environmental knowledge. So really validating the knowledge about environmental justice and history that is actually lived in the community. And then how do you find a way to archive that, preserve it and make it shareable within a community? So that’s another example of the library being a more active information knowledge producer, rather than just a disseminator.
22:25 INTER / TRANS / MULTIDISCIPLINARITY
Caring and compassion I think are very much present in your work and your interactions with different groups. So I wonder if we can shift to talking about methods. Methods I always think of as creating knowledge, but also creating care, creating modes of attunement, modes of belonging. Terms like interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity: What do those terms mean to you? What do they hold for you?
So I know there has been some theorization and discussion about what it means, these different prefixes in front of disciplinarity, what does it mean to be inter- or trans- or anti-. Some people even claim to be anti-disciplinary. And I have to say maybe on my more kind of rambunctious days, I would say I am anti-disciplinary just as much as I may be anti-academy or anti-institutional.
One of the takeaways is that “inter” in a way implies a space in-between. It recognizes the value that disciplinary training brings to the table. You realize that there is something very fruitful and necessary about being trained in a particular set of methods and then being able to transfer that to something else. Or, being trained in multiple fields, having that depth of knowledge in multiple terrains, and being able to reside comfortably. Where sometimes I imagine a lot of people who work in interdisciplinary spaces, institutions that don’t always make that a very comfortable place to reside. Being a permanent translator has a lot of extra labor and emotional burden that isn’t always recognized. So I think that the prefixes preceding “disciplinary” really call into question, what value do we see of having disciplinary rootedness? Is that a necessary precursor to one then being able to work in between them?
I think maybe my trajectory might’ve given me maybe not a distinctive perspective, but it was helpful for me. I started off in chemistry as an undergraduate, thinking I wanted to go to medical school. You know a lot of humanists talk about the lab in a more, it’s like an experimental learning space. I was in a lab where there are like Bunsen burners and beakers and titration equipment and gas chromatographers and mass spectrometer machines and things like that. So that’s a very different set of methods that are very tool-driven.
So being there for a few years and always taking a literature class as an escape from math and science and realizing ultimately that’s a lab in its own way, but its tools are very different. The role of people talking, discussion, played a very different role in these two different spaces, the chemistry lab versus the literature classroom. So I think that being exposed simultaneously to those and ultimately deciding to move more towards the humanities than the sciences, I am very grateful that I had that scientific exposure initially because it helped me to appreciate the distinctiveness of the spaces I am in now, of the value of triangulating, of the value of bringing together people from very different knowledge spaces or terrains into the same room to just address these wicked problems we were talking about before.
I’m not sure that I have a fixed position. I’m not really an advocate or an evangelist for any one of these positions. I know students really love thinking about working in interdisciplinary ways, and I always want to encourage that in my classes. And I know we’re going to talk about teaching in a bit, but I also always have to offer the caveat is that sometimes working in transdisciplinary ways isn’t legible to potential employers, especially if you want to stay working in the academy. So just reminding folks that the world needs to catch up to interdisciplinary work.
But also reminding people that disciplines are in a way, like a — they’re a fiction! If we look at the history of the academy, the way we have separated the epistemological world into disciplines has shifted dramatically over thousands of years. So the disciplines we have today are in part a historical accident. They are perpetuated through funding streams, through hiring processes, through various path dependencies within institutional structures. They do not have to be the way they are. That’s a liberating thought to a lot of students and to me too, but it’s hard to do anything with that realization because so much of the world requires you to work within those reified boxes.
26:56 ARTSCIENCE OF GRAFTING AND PATCHING
So you use the words “grafting,” also “patching” as poiesis, as method. In your introduction you write that the term graph derives from the Greek, graphein, which means to write. You’re such a prolific writer and wide-spanning thinker, I’m really really interested in how you think about critical inquiry, grafting and patching, what those methods might do in your practice.
That is a great question. And I owe a debt of gratitude to curators at the University of Toronto. They have an art gallery there, and they were doing an exhibition about kind of ecologically themed art. They produced these little newspapers, thematic newspapers, or broadsides that they then distributed through the gallery. And the theme of one of them, they had asked me to write about grafting, which honestly wasn’t something I’d written about before. So then I researched the process and realized what a fecund metaphor it is. It’s a method, not only in kind of botany and horticulture and industrialized agriculture, but given the variety of approaches to grafting and the fact that it can be something that’s mechanized and institutionalized and industrialized, or it could be something that’s a real art as is the case with so much production, as is the case with scholarship. Some people just churn out materials. For other people, it’s an art form. It’s a really thoughtful practice. Not to say that they’re diametrically opposed. You can still be productive and be thoughtful about it. But I just thought that the range of ideologies and modes of practice that are embedded within the realm of grafting just was really eye-opening, enlightening to me. It proved to be especially useful for the book where I’m trying to look at how cities are to some degree kind of computational, they’re kind of information processing activities happening there, but they’re also spaces of kind of serendipity and arts and poiesis. And grafting proved a really useful metaphor and method to think about not only the combination of the art and the engineering, the art and the science, but also a mode of writing too.
If you want to write in an interdisciplinary way, I think thinking about the practice of writing and research as grafting has a certain ethic, at least for me, or ethos implied in it, especially if you want to do the grafting as a thoughtful, considered art form approach, which is what I would want to align myself with. There you have to understand what root stock you’re dealing with. You have to understand like what’s in the soil, what is in the root stock, and then what are the new kind of cuttings that you’re then adding onto that? So understand that whole process of like, what are my foundations, what is establishing the soil? What are the ecological conditions that are kind of shaping the entire terrain in which this new grafted entity is coming into being and hopefully developing. And then what are the new scions that you are kind of sticking into the root stock. And then how will they merge together? What is the process that you can actually foster a fruitful and productive merger? So these are questions that I think are really usefully applied, at least in my practice to other endeavors, like especially interdisciplinary scholarship too. So that accident of being asked to write that little essay about grafting helped me to rethink a lot of methods that I didn’t have a term for in the past. And suddenly it was this kind of retrospective way of thinking like, this is actually a really useful way of thinking about what I’ve been trying to do all along.
30:17 THE CITY ITSELF TEACHES SO MUCH
So the title of your collection of essays is “A City Is Not A Computer”, as you mentioned, and the subtitle is “Other Urban Intelligences”. So two-part question. One is: city, I know cities are very meaningful for you, but why the scale of a city. And then the second question is to ask you to talk a little bit more about the “other urban intelligences.” What kinds of intelligences maybe become evident if you think about the urban versus the rural?
Okay. That’s a great question. So I think part of my fascination with cities is coming from the fact that I didn’t grow up in one and then moving to New York City suddenly. I had you know gradual acclimation to urban environments over the period, but then moving for graduate school at the age of twenty one to New York City was quite a culture shock in the most kind of delicious way. I mean, I was just overwhelmed in a sublime way with just the variety of resources and new things I can learn and how the city itself was teaching me so much. I learned just as much from the city and its public institutions and kind of cultural associations or organizations as I did from my classes, I would have to say. And the fact that there are established discourses of urban studies I wanted to be able to tap into and make my work intelligible to existing discourses and disciplines.
But also over the years as I have added to my repertoire, my oeuvre, I have really enjoyed thinking across scales and particularly how scales have to translate ideally would translate between one another. So I’ll think about how a database is structured and how that database then renders itself, intelligible in an interface, and how those machines have to be networked into like a technical network of some sort. And how we have to build architectures to accommodate those things and the way people then interact with those interfaces. And then those accumulations of architectures then form a city. And that city does not exist kind of as a hermetically sealed, isolated entity around which we could draw a thick line. A city is engaged in multiple internal and external flows with its regional environment.
And if we look at the contemporary crisis of supply chains, we recognize how everything is so globally interconnected too, and the supply chains connect all the way back to the databases that we use to organize them and to monitor them. So just really thinking about how these different scales of organizing people and resources and information are definitely entangled and are ideally interoperable.
Those have been the types of things I’ve been most excited in thinking about. And I had to kind of choose a home base or a scale for which I could then zoom in and out. And the city seemed an appropriate one to start with, because again, it has this recognizable discourse. The whole title of urbanist, which is kind of a controversial title—some people think it doesn’t mean anything, I think it’s actually a really productive title because it combines people who do urban studies, think about urban history, people who also practice in that realm as an architect, as an urban planner, as an urban technologist. So the city is a really kind of productive and ripe area where a lot of different disciplines are converging in their thinking. So it’s already a very interdisciplinary field of study. So I wanted to take advantage of that, but then use the city as my starting point to think, to scale down, to think about the media objects, the information infrastructures, the architectures within them, and then scale up and think about these larger systemic things. So it was kind of a medium-scale that allows me to move in and out from.
And then the second question was about…
33:50 URBAN INTELLIGENCES
Urban intelligences, I love this phrase. I’m curious about other forms of intelligence. So I’m wondering about this phrase “urban intelligence,” and what kinds of work you might want it to do.
I chose the phrase “urban intelligence” quite a while ago in some of my early writing about smart cities. In part, because even the term “smart cities,” which honestly drives me crazy. It’s a buzz word, a brand name that means so many different things in different contexts. It’s become hackneyed, almost desemanticized because it means so many different things. But just the fact that there’s an epistemological claim being made there. What does it mean to call something “smart”? Why don’t you call it a “wise city” as some activists do? They prefer the term, a wise city or a sage city? I mean, we can use so many different synonyms here, but what does it mean to call something smart? “Smart” is, again, one of those almost prefix-like terms that we can apply to a whole bunch of different things. And it typically means data driven, algorithmically determined modes of operation, often driven by corporations. So I wanted to ask what it meant to call something smart. And what if we substituted in some of those other synonyms? What types of other ways of knowing, valuable intelligences, forms of kind of lived knowledge, are bracketed out that don’t lend themselves to this type of data-driven way of thinking about smartness.
So it encouraged me to ask questions about methods, about epistemology, and this is where our conversation about the libraries might circle back to that because libraries are great at recognizing that yes, we have to collect urban data. Yes, we have to help people become kind of data literate, but at the same time, those aren’t the only ways of knowing our communities. A census isn’t the only way of understanding a population obviously. This is why we compound big data-based methods with ethnography. And I think libraries are good at recognizing that because we have to have data literacy, digital literacies, but also supplement those then with the oral histories, with the conversations that happen in real time between intergenerational communities. So these are among the different types of intelligences that libraries and schools and other cultural institutions do help us to recognize. Not everything can be rendered into a data model and not everything can be “smart”, brand name “smart”, or kind of TM, trademark “smart.”
But then also kind of drawing on some of your work, thinking about multispecies intelligences as well. There’s a lot to be learned and a lot of kind of computer scientists and digital theorists have recognized that there’s much to be learned about distributed or embodied intelligence from things like octopi or bats or slime molds or organisms or entities that have other ways of experiencing space, of navigating space, of collectivizing the preservation of memory. So maybe there’s a lot to be learned about what matters by recognizing how these other species cultivate and preserve intelligence in their own ecologies.
36:46 LIVING IN A WORLD OF MANY WORLDS
One of the reasons that I wanted to call people’s attention to the paucity of computational models of thinking about building worlds. I mean, there are plenty of computer scientists and urban tech people and data driven urban planners who do believe that everything can be rendered computational, that you can build a computational model for everything. Not realizing, first of all, the hubris of such assumptions. The Microsoft example you used earlier about we’re building a computer that can model everything in the global ecology. Count every species, determine how every species kind of interacts with one another, and then make smart precision interventions to save the planet. I mean, there’s something admirable about that and utopian, but also something very hubristic about it.
Going back to our conversation on methods, presuming that the only way we can know is through kind of computational modeling.
I wasn’t thinking about my recent Alzheimer’s research in relation to this, but now that you asked that question, it does become really apparent to me that in the piece I wrote about Alzheimer’s, I ended with this really lovely art project that was at one of the Venice Biennales where some architects were trying to render the activity that was happening in a particular kind of a memory care facility where all of the residents were supposedly engaged in this collective enterprise of drawing a plan of the building. But what we ultimately realized that each of them is really just drawing their own little world, their own cell, and there could be something very isolating and depressing about that, but there’s also, I think something really beautiful. It’s like a world of many worlds.
As I have visited many memory care facilities recently, imagining my mom’s future and looking where she might be at some point, it can be a really depressing place, but there’s also something potentially magical. And I maybe I can find a better adjective, but I’m just going to go with magical right now, or maybe hopeful to realize that, with respectful and compassionate care for people who are experiencing dementia, one of the prevailing modes of care is to validate their world. Rather than keep trying to pull people back into your “No, today is Tuesday. It’s 3PM. Your husband is dead.” Instead of doing that saying, “Let’s live in your world.” Rather than retraumatizing you repeatedly, let’s actually engage in a form of compassionate fantasy together. Fantasy for me, reality for you. So this whole question of who gets to say what’s real, whose epistemology matters the most, whose ontology matters the most. So there was something really beautiful about this artwork that really embodied the best case scenario of imagining a dementia care facility as something that is a world of many worlds. And with compassionate care, it can be that. I realize this is also purely utopian because with the problem of staffing, underpaid staff, kind of under-resourced institutions, you don’t have the capacity to have a staff member who’s kind of entertaining 50 different ontologies simultaneously. But if we did have a world that was designed to facilitate this type of compassion, this would be the ideal situation. We recognize that we can have multiple worlds coexisting simultaneously.
I have to sit with that, that’s incredible. I love this: how to inhabit different ontologies. Thank you. Thank you for that.
I’m still thinking it through. You know, it’s something I’m still living through and I realized the actual limitations of operationalizing, something like this, because, you know, a particular architectural facility can only accommodate so much. Staff can only do so much. You know, some people’s worlds that they create for themselves are scary, frightening, threatening places. And I don’t know that we want to necessarily condone or perpetuate that if people are putting themselves in harm’s way. Yeah, so there have to be some compromises to what I’m thinking through here, but there is also something kind of beautiful and poetic about validating these multiple ontologies that are kind of existing simultaneously in the same space.
Yes. There’s something in between standardizing different imaginaries, different ontologies into kind of grid-like logics and multiplicity, right? There’s something in between that, that we haven’t quite found.
41:25 TEACHING FEEDS SCHOLARSHIP
That might be a nice way to shift into teaching, which in a way is inhabiting other ontologies all the time, or proposing new ones, imagining new ontologies that might work a little bit better, less violently. So I’d love to ask you about pedagogies, in and beyond the classroom. I know you take your students out and do field visits, you work with the libraries, you do lots of collaborations. How do you think about teaching – and that question is leading into, how might you imagine a classroom at any level or of any kind to address the spectrum of ecological, technological, ethical questions that you engage with?
These are great questions. I mean, teaching is in most days, most semesters, like my favorite part of my job, to be honest. Sometimes when other pressures like administrative concerns weigh in, I feel like I’m not at my best as a teacher when it’s a little bit less enjoyable, just because I feel like I’m not doing as well as I want to. And it happens to be the case this semester. So many external life pressures are making me not be as good of a teacher as I want to despite my attempts to do so. Of a piece with my scholarship, I often cite my students’ work, mention them in the acknowledgements of most of the things that I write. Sometimes I collaborate with them on projects. You know, there’s a critique of some scholars, some faculty that they teach the books they write, or they teach classes only related to the research they’re doing. In my case it often comes from the other direction. So I’ll often design a new class based on things that I hear students wanting to discover or realize that there’s something percolating in the university or the student community and it connects to something where I think I can offer something from my own areas of interest. So I’ll design a class about it, teach it once or twice. And then I realize, when I was teaching that class, I really wish there were an article that did this, that compared these things, but I couldn’t find it. So I guess I’ll write it. So a lot of my scholarship comes from the classroom in that way. Especially synthetic pieces or places that try to draw connections between different disciplines. So that’s one way that teaching kind of fits into this larger, I guess we could say ecology or world, epistemological world.
44:07 REDESIGNING THE ACADEMY
And then what would I imagine a classroom or pedagogical experience to be like, if it engages with all the complexity we’ve been talking about, I really have to think more about that. And this is something that I want to think through because I am teaching a new class in the spring called “Redesigning the Academy.” I direct this Anthropology and Design program. And I had to make it legible to students that this is about design and we’re going to rethink how knowledge is produced. Some folks said, why don’t you have a class about the commons, and I’m like, that’s huge! And we could do a whole class about redesigning the commons, but I really want us to kind of limit our focus a little bit, look on why the American academy is the way it is, why it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m also sensing lots of student frustration, not only in relation to job market, the dearth of tenure-track jobs, the brokenness of the peer review system, the types of scholarships that are validated, the folks who were historically marginalized and continue to be, and the limitations of what kind of work matters, the unequal distribution of service. You know, all of these different things. I don’t want it to be a grief session. I don’t want to be a grievance-based syllabus, but because students see these problems, I want us to instead look at Critical University Studies, which is kind of a field in itself, and then draw from art and design, especially people who are imagining new forms of radical pedagogy or new ways of engaging their extra institutional or intergenerational and interdisciplinary, and how we could possibly imagine infusing the more traditional academy with what we learned from these external kind of modes of operation and examples. So these are questions to answer your second question. This is something I really want to think with my students about over the course of the spring semester to imagine what that classroom. And that classroom could be the city writ large, it could be like a traveling troupe on a cruise ship, whatever the case may be. It wouldn’t be a cruise ship because of the carbon footprint, but what form that could take.
I love that you’ve already designed a class around this!
Part of it’s based in my own frustration. I’m lucky I’ve passed through tenure. I’m a full professor and I can make some choices that maybe other people don’t have the luxury to, but just seeing the feeling of constriction among students in particular, about the limited opportunities they have in the academy and the hoops they feel they have to jump through to do work that counts. I just wanna encourage them. They have the potential maybe to reshape. They’re the next generation. I may be kind of the middle generation here. We have the potential to reshape things for a future, for whatever academy might remain, if one does.
The problems have become so so obvious with a pandemic in the last two, three years. It’s become really difficult to just brush them away.
44:07 WHAT I WOULD WANT TO BE PART OF THE FUTURE
Just a couple of the things I would mention, like concrete things is, I did a collaborative during the pandemic. I was realizing that a lot of our anthropology students realized suddenly like, oh my gosh, there’s a vibrant world online that I didn’t really consider to be a legitimate world in itself. So they discovered this whole vibrant field of Digital Ethnography that existed within Anthropology, but especially in Media Studies. So there were quite a few folks who got over a sense of disappointment that they would have to focus a lot of their work on digital interactions. So I designed a January intensive workshop on Digital Ethnography and because we were remote, I said, why not take advantage of kind of the distributed knowledge of people who know all about this around the world? So I co-taught this thing with Annette Markham who is in the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Me Luka at the University of Toronto. So just the idea of having inter-institutional collaborations, where we are taking advantage of the distinctive contributions that collective minds can bring together. We open-sourced all of our materials, made it publicly available for anybody who might want to use it. So this is not novel. I mean, it was just one example of things that have been done elsewhere, that I think— geographic collaborations, inter-institutional collaborations, commoning resources—all of these things are things that I would want to be a part of a future.
As you were talking actually, I just realized that you’re modeling in many ways, a university of the future, right? And I’m thinking you put all your syllabi online, you work very collaboratively with your students. You’re an incredibly generous professor, faculty, colleague. Yeah, so actually, wait a minute, Shannon’s already modeling this. It just hit me when you’re talking. I’m like, wait, I’m asking for something in the future, but it’s actually present in your classrooms at the moment, which is really wonderful actually. It just hit me, yeah, that it exists, right?
That’s really lovely. I appreciate that very much. I think there’s a lot more to be done also, but I will also say going back to your earlier question about what I’m working on right now, there are risks to this too. Not only especially for junior scholars, making yourself legible, having to fit within institutional structures, like the fact that we have reified the 15-week semester. This is something I talk about and I’ve gotten much more flexible in talking individually with each student about what you can accomplish in 15 weeks. Because some of them have macro-scale projects they want to work on, where my class is just one little part they can carve out from a larger enterprise. So rather than submitting something final to me and imposing a false, or maybe even destructive sense of finality on their project, let’s see about what stage can we stop the flow in 15 weeks, then we can talk about what you’ve accomplished in our 15 weeks. And what you want to accomplish in the future. So just the reification of these architectures.
Yes, which I guess leads to the other part of the teaching question, whether you see universities or centers of higher learning or institutions as up to the task of some of the really complex, you know, wicked problems we face?
That’s something, again, I hope to explore in the spring class. I think there’s so much to be learned from these extra institutional models, these more ad hoc or radical pop-up, deliberately kind of ephemeral forms of learning experiences or social networks of skills-share or knowledge sharing. And I don’t necessarily think that universities need to encompass or absorb those. I think there’s a real value to keeping some of these things external, because if you were to encompass everything in the university, you would deflate and kill the specialness. I like having a multitude of learning spaces.
Going back to multispecies, I think they’re all different species of learning spaces, and it’s valuable to have multiple because each different architecture, each different set of social network, each physical setting, each mode of exchange allows for different types of learning experiences. And I think that maybe the most productive thing is to try to move between them. Not trying to, again, merge them, but to allow the multiplicity to be there, but to think between them and move between them.
Is it useful to think about systems or ecologies when it comes to teaching?
I think so, especially if you are designing for the “whole student” as some people say. Or especially over the course of the pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion about designing for trauma-informed teaching, for instance. We’re just recognizing that the students are bringing so much with them to the classroom. So many challenges and so many interesting and really incredibly valuable personal experiences and forms of knowledge as well. So just finding ways to teach for this whole person, being compassionate, and also really trying to find ways to take advantage of all of the intelligences that the collective brings into the room.
But then also, especially going back to our discussion of interdisciplinarity, I really love that almost all my classes draw people from across the university. So I’ll typically have between maybe eight and twelve different disciplines represented in the same room, which makes it so much fun. We’ll have a jazz student speaking to somebody who’s like a computer scientist, who’s talking to somebody who’s in like environmental resource management. We can find themes going back to your idea that we should have more thematically organized education. We can ask, like, what does improvisation mean in your different realms? How is improvisation a method in your different kind of contexts? So there requires, you know, understanding the system or the ecology of different fields. So that as a teacher, you could maybe try to facilitate or ask good questions that allow people to be able to translate between their different experiences. So I do think having a systemic sensibility is really useful to fostering a classroom that does make the most of an interdisciplinary community.
52:45 WHAT’S UP NEXT
Beautiful. That was such a great answer. I’m wondering if you want to say some words about a project you might be working on. What’s up next, a book you might be working on or media that you’re particularly interested in?
Sure. So I haven’t had a leave in about a decade and I hope to have a whole year off next year, which I’m super excited about. Hasn’t been approved yet, but I’m keeping all kind of extremities crossed for that one. And there are a couple of projects that I have in my list, my long list of aspirational projects, and two of them are books. One of them is about furniture as an epistemological object. So I’ve written a few pieces over the years about, for example, the furniture in Silicon Valley workspaces and how these long communal tables and all this kind of hyper designed furniture in a way forces bodies to comport themselves in a particular way and pushes them into certain types of labor relations in different ways. So that was one piece. I wrote about the history of the closet. I wrote about the history of the shelf, the history of like 19th century dressers with secret drawers and how that relates to the rise of secrecy and new epistolary forms in the 18th and 19th century. So a whole bunch of different pieces over the years about furniture as a thing to think with and through, and a way of organizing our modes of knowledge making and preservation. So I really want to do like a creatively formatted book, like a furniture catalog that’s publicly intelligible, but still kind of scholarly informed academic book, but just structured like a furniture catalog, drawing on different kind of, not necessarily canonical, but different species of furniture and how that creates our thinking environments for us.
And then the other project is about sound design. I wrote a piece a couple of years ago called things that beep. It’s about the way so much of what we think of as natural or incidental sounds in our environment are actually engineered: the crinkle of a potato chip bag, the sound the engine of your car makes, the bell on the subway doors as they open and close, the different notification sounds that my phone has unfortunately been making as we’ve been talking today and all the different settings that you can change on your iPhone, just the industries and thinking that cultivates those choices and what types of engagement their designers are trying to create between us and our technology and our material world. So that would be another book, thinking about sound design as kind of a worldbuilding experience too. It’s shaping, through sonic engineering, our relationships with our technologies and the larger material world.
Oh, I can’t wait. Both of them sound amazing. They sound so fun.
Thank you so much.
Thank you. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you. You’re such a generous interlocutor, a great person to talk to. So I hope we can do it in person sometime soon.
You’ve just listened to episode 11 of the Multispecies Worldbuilding Podcast.
My name is Elaine Gan and this was a conversation with Shannon Mattern, a theorist and professor of media, design, and architecture based in New York. Episode 11 was collaboratively produced and composed with the brilliant and inimitable Ernst Karel and Joe Hazan. It was recorded on November 2021 at the Newsstand Studios at Rockefeller Center in New York City. To hear other episodes, please visit https://multispeciesworldbuilding.com or please subscribe through any of the major podcast platforms. Thank you very much for listening.
with Una Chaudhuri
and Marina Zurkow
MULTISPECIES WORLDBUILDING LAB
DEAR CLIMATE (UNA CHAUDHURI and MARINA ZURKOW)
My name is Marina Zurkow. I’m an artist and a teacher, and I’m currently based in Saugerties New York. My practice is committed to issues of climate change and being in a multispecies earth world. I do the work that I do in a few different ways. I have a gallery practice which consists of mostly animation work and a variety of print work and some sculpture as well. I do quite a bit of work in the social practice sphere, which consists of participatory engagements. Collaborators whom I work with are chefs. We do dinners, we do snacks, we do projects thinking about food opportunities and changing climates. I’ve done a bunch of mycelium sculptures thinking about commodities and logistics. And then I work with some traditional print media as well: posters, agitprop, letterpress prints. Some of those other subjects that I’ve worked with extensively are what we call “invasive species” and “signal species” such as dandelions and jellyfish—species that tend to complicate our understanding of the world and our positionality about other animals and plants. With Una and Oliver Kellhammer, and formerly and hopefully again, Fritz Ertl and a variety of other people, I also have had a long-time collaboration called Dear Climate which is a variety of scales of engagement around the idea that by addressing the climate as an entity we can have a dialogue with it, in the hopes that we’ll come closer to this planet that we live on.
My name is Una Chaudhuri and I’m an academic. I teach in the Department of English and Drama and Environmental Studies at New York University. And I’m currently director of XE: Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement, which is a graduate program within the Faculty of Arts and Science. I’m interested in ecospheric consciousness and I’ve actually kind of commitment to expanding the use of that word or concept of “ecospheric” to mean the consciousness that pays primary and very serious attention to the more-than-human world and the species and landscapes and geophysical forces that make up our planetary life. I have always specialized in theater, dramatic literature, theater history, and performance studies, performance theory, and found myself quite early on being able to use those fields to open up new kinds of questions about ecology, environment, the more-than-human world.
03:52 ANIMALS, PEOPLE, AND THOSE IN BETWEEN
I had a friend, Rachel Mayeri, who had been making some pretty incredible work around primates and I reached out to her because I really wanted to teach a class in response to some of the patterns I was seeing at NYU ITP—at the program I was teaching at—which was that people were really instrumentalizing animals in the service of bald anthropomorphism, cutifying their content. And I thought, okay, animals are worth more than this. What if I could make a class that really looked at taking animals seriously as entities? The class was called “Animals, People, and Those In Between,” and it was a studio class with a good bulk of reading and inquiry into other artists working in human-animal inquiries, like Marcus Coates and Rachel Mayeri, and so on. So that’s how we first met. I think it was 2009?
What Marina was experiencing was exactly one of the founding impulses of the field of Animal Studies, which was this recognition that thinking about animals had been so, unfortunately restricted and constrained within the Arts and Humanities because attention to actual real animals and their lives, was for so long considered the purview of the Sciences. And so what was leftover for the Arts and Humanities seemed to be anthropomorphic projections or cultural materials, you know, animals and fairytales and myths and those kinds of things.
This says a lot about Marina and me. Marina comes to things from her own discoveries, whereas I come to things by reading books. I had come across this book called the Postmodern Animal which was published in 2000 and that’s the book that had begun my interest in the field. So my interest really came out of mainstream academic cultural theory, like Postmodernism or Posthumanism. And one of the most satisfying things for Marina and me has been that both of us are so hungry for the other’s perspective and Marina just loves theory but wasn’t coming from a department in which theory was the preoccupation. Of course I was coming from a department that was just all books and no practice other than textual. We’ve seen this play out now, so broadly in the eruption of interdisciplinary people working across art and theory, artist-scholars like yourself, Elaine, is just one of the most powerful phenomena of our time. But when Marina and I started, which was only ten years ago, or maybe for me, fifteen years ago, it was still really unusual.
07:09 ASSEMBLIES OF INFORMATION
I think what was emerging for me—well, not long before this “Animals, People and Those In Between” class happened—something really clicked for me around climate change and around doing research and knitting together what I now would call these assemblages that include media streams of information and disinformation. Notions of the animal and vulnerabilities around climate change, and things that were happening even in my own backyard and at the time in Brooklyn, around flooding and getting evacuation maps from the city and starting to really do research. Knitting things together that collage does really well. I’ve always thought of myself as a collage artist. I’m not much of a draftsperson, I’m a bricolage artist. For me, this idea of making these assemblies of information that are the sum is hopefully so much bigger than the little parts of these stories. They can crack open new ways of looking at relationships. This was really feeling urgent around 2006, 2007 for me, it felt like there was no language, that people were not really relating to the things that I was starting to feel were amazing and terrifying about the planet coming into the foreground.
Right, right. That feels so vividly accurate to my experience of my conversations with you from that time. It was coming out of a very varied engagement with a number of current phenomena that were unfolding.
09:18 EMERGENCY SURVIVAL KIT FOR THE BRAIN
We started the Dear Climate project. We called it Survival Challenges. That was our first working title, right, Marina?
Yes, we had arguments for days.
That was kind of the first moment where we came together and asked ourselves: What can we, from our four different disciplinary perspectives, contribute to this urgent sense that was out there in the culture. At that time we thought it was our survival as a species that was in question. Early on, one of the things I think that you brought in Marina was some research about the survivalist communities and some of their strategies. My reaction to that was like immediately, allergic. I was very suspicious of that but at the same time, I think people like Fritz and Oliver had more respect for some of those strategies and were able to keep that dimension to our thinking. But I was the one I think—and Marina completely egging me on—arguing for a much more irreverent, absurdist, surreal kinds of approaches to the question of climate. Which was really sort of unusual at that time, because climate was this very sober and kind of earnest subject. It was not an area that you were allowed to joke about or be light and playful about.
An amendment to this is that when I first wanted to talk about survivalism, it was very earnest, but it wasn’t about prepper culture. It wasn’t about survivalists. It was actually about meditation. It was about Buddhist principles of equanimity and a certain embracing of uncertainty, which I have felt is imperative. That we accept if not embrace uncertainty in ways that capitalist Western culture wants to push away at all costs, whether that’s death or debt or the climate, frankly. And so we did want to leverage at first this idea of prepper culture, but more in the way, at least for me, was an earnest approach to thinking about certain Buddhist practices as an emergency survival kit for your brain, and that the inside-out, you had to rebuild your capacity for spaciousness or tolerance or understanding or compassion.
12:17 OH, GET OVER IT ALREADY!
I think art tends to want to express very little emotional heat. It does it through a kind of cultivation of distance and that has to do with the gallery context and how one observes art traditionally versus…. Theater is not embarrassed of being embarrassing and clowning and kind of emotional extremes. And I even think of an artist like Paul McCarthy, who has built a career on abjection, humiliation, psychoanalytic, self-embarrassment, ridiculousness—but it’s still presented like a tableau. It’s not animated. And in fact, animation as an art practice has always been until relatively recently, a kind of an embarrassing little sister to art because it trafficked childish things. And you can only do that with a kind of nod, nod, wink, wink, like irony wrapper around it. To me those are pretty big differences.
I remember being at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center back in the very beginning of our collaboration with Fritz and Una, and we were all riding around on the floor and it was a lot of artists who were there, who think of themselves on the cool side of things and remembered the kind of embarrassed disbelief of us trying to become trees. It was so great for me, that was such a breakthrough, to just say, “Oh, get over it already. It’s too much fun and too weird to not want to engage in!”
At that same event, in which we had everyone riding on the floor, there was also an artist who was getting us all to smell her urine which she had put into a cup, and she was discussing her urine. So that delighted me quite a bit.
But Marina, just going back to what you were saying earlier about the more meditative practices and uncertainty. Absolutely. That was a huge part of what you were getting us to think about. And we used the words “inner climate,” making our inner lives somehow also responsible to climate, to what’s happening in the world rather than just make it something about our social practice or about science.
But also at the same time, this commitment to uncertainty is a longstanding tradition in the kind of theater that I prize, which is Absurdism and Surrealism and Dadaism. For me, it was also always very comfortable to be displacing certitudes because I came from a tradition. Like Beckett, who I now read entirely as an ecospheric playwright and thinker was all about displacing the certitudes of, Western philosophy and, modernity and so on. And then the Dadaists who were the ones that I really adore. They did the same, but in this, in a more clownish, and at a more willing-to-make-fools of themselves register.
16:04 MULTISPECIES FRIENDSHIP
The values of Dear Climate have migrated over time. We’ve been doing this, it’s our seventh year working on that. They have totally migrated from around 2017. If you think about placing some of these posters in certain contexts, they’re going to read like glib insults, assaults, assaults on the severity and seriousness of these moments, especially for people living inside of these catastrophes. That’s something that’s changed for us, right?
To me, Marina, the decisive change came when we hit upon our name. Because we had lots of different names for our project. And for a long time, I was arguing for “Climate Yoga”. I thought it would be funny, or the G word, I thought it’d be a wonderful G thing. And then we hit upon Dear Climate. All of us felt very happy about it. And very quickly we realized it was also a mode of address. It’s like addressing the climate, like writing letters to the climate. And I think that was the moment where we really discovered our voice, and what we discovered was that the dominant impulse in this project is friendship. We had it in our working strategies. We had a three-part strategy, which said, Meet climate change. Befriend climate change. Become climate change. And originally we had a sort of structure in which we were creating posters that aligned with these three moments or ideas. But what remained was just this idea of friendship. For me, that’s when everything came into focus. I felt like we had a guiding principle, like we had a North Star, which was this idea of multispecies friendship.
18:15 FRIENDSHIP AS METHOD
We have been lucky enough to get to work with some people who became instant friends and also very much seem to embrace the feelings that we were promoting. One of them was Nora Lawrence, who’s the curator at Storm King. And our project at Storm King was probably our most high profile or, expansive project so far. Then the other person was Jennie Carlyle, who is on the faculty and a curator at Appalachian State University. And with Jennie in particular, I think it was our dialogue with her that was incredibly generative for us. So that’s another dimension of collaboration is that we suddenly find these amazing collaborators and Dear Climate is kind of set up, I think, to do that.
And it’s partly because Marina’s a brilliant collaborator and has so many friends in the art world who like to collaborate. That’s been a defining characteristic of our project.
We’ve had some really incredible collaborators. All of the sound meditations that are on our Dear Climate website (http://dearclimate.net) are produced by Pejk Malinovski who is just a great sound artist and radio producer. And we now are, hopefully we’re working with Blake Goble who is an architect trying to design a mini-golf hole for a climate change putting green in Brooklyn. It’s just an insane idea!
Friendship as method.
It’s funny… method and medium, right? I would agree that I look to work with people I adore and I’m going to learn something from, and the output is hopefully traces of that energy that invite other people into this discourse. People we may not know yet.
Marina told me about this book, Emergent Strategies. Our collaborations were partly serendipitous and based on opportunities that came up, personalities, and of course Marina’s contacts like Pejk, who does our sound. Now there’s also so much lovely, serious loving thinking about how to work together, because it’s not easy to work together to create these microsocial organisms.
21:35 PUBLIC PROJECTS OF DEAR CLIMATE
We were invited to be part of a show at Storm King, entitled Indicators, Artists and Climate Change, which featured twelve artists. We were one of the earliest ones because they really invited us to use any part of the property for our project, which was so thrilling. Fairly quickly we settled on the area where there’s a kind of traffic circle, or a large circular driveway, I would say below the main, beautiful museum building and it’s a place where the Storm King trolley, which takes you all around this beautiful property. But it eventually ends up in this place, stops there and picks up more people. So it’s a space that is visited a lot. It was still available for this project, so we grabbed it. It’s a circular driveway and there’s something that reminded us of the United Nations. We immediately had a vision of some kind of circle of flags. We decided to work on the idea that just as the United Nations has one seat for every nation, we were trying to think about one seat for every species and we called our installation “General Assembly.”
Can I give some examples? I just pulled the book out. There were white flags that were very positive and then there were inverted flags that were very kind of critical. So there was: Meet the Beetles. Remember the Albedo. Sleep around. Gobble the landscape. Fete the fungus. See the sea levels. And then there were some negative ones such as: Give Me Luxury or Give Me Breath, and see if I can find another one here. Do you remember another sort of, we got a lot of pushback on the negative ones. Oh yes. Let them eat CO2. The Marie Antoinette one. It was interesting because Storm King historically has never done a “political” show and some of the visitors seemed to be quite enraged that we were offering, offering some challenges that brought people down to earth.
The highlight was when the Secretary General of the United Nations came there. I mean, talk about getting the ideal spectator. He came and they made a video of our piece, which they then ran on the United Nations website or Instagram account. In which he said, let’s hope all General Assembly can be as effective as this general assembly, something like that. Because of course he’d come there as part of his climate change initiative. So that was thrilling. And of course that brought us to the attention of many other people, including Jennie Carlyle, who invited us to do some things for an ongoing series that they have at Appalachian State University called “Climate Stories,” which is an interdepartmental curricular and co-curricular a multi-year project. They commissioned Dear Climate to do something there and accepted our design, which was to do a campus-wide installation of trail markers. And this was a new form or genre for us.
These were three-way signposts like you would find on 4×4 wooden posts out in the woods.
We planted these signposts trail markers around this campus. And the language on them could amount to three-line poems, which were drawing heavily from texts that have animated Anthropocene studies and Multispecies Thought recently. Texts by Donna Haraway and Timothy Morton, and Jane Bennett and things like that. For example, one of the signposts says, “Stay With The Trouble.” The next is “Burst Your Bubble” and then “Study The Rubble.” So there’s a kind of a rhyme there, and it’s designed to create a kind of slipperiness between ideas that hopefully would lead to conversations and further explorations. The signposts amounted to a bibliography in some ways, because it alluded to many important books, like Hyperobjects, Vibrant Matter, The Great Derangement.
The pandemic has sort of left this project in its own bardo. We’re still waiting to see what happens when life returns to campuses, if life returns in any way, the way it did. And we have outdoor engagements and an opportunity for people to really interact with this project. The project as a walking, moving open-ended curriculum is really how we’ve thought about it.
The structure of this class, “Multispecies Lab” that Una and Yanoula Athanassakis and Rob Slifkin and I developed last year as part of the Humanities Lab initiative at NYU was one of the best structures ever for this kind of making, knowing, thinking, learning that employs a variety of epistemologies in its process.
The class is a three-part assignment and it’s done in groups. The first part was called ‘umwelt.’ We had read Jakob von Uexküll and talked about the idea of umwelt and this assignment was for each student to identify, adopt a species and if possible, a specific member of a species, and then have a process of observation, experimentation reflection, cohabitation with that species and then create some kind of imaginative manifestation. It was a report on that process of endeavoring to experience the umwelt of that species. That’s the first one. And then the second one was to work with the same species to think about that species sociality and political realities, and create some kind of utterance or statement or communication on behalf of that species. So if you were algae, what would you want everyone to know? What would you want human beings to know? And what form would that communication take? So that was the second one. And it was called ‘polemic.’ Then the third was called ‘public engagement.’ That’s what we were teaching there, take that same species and create a public engagement on behalf of that species, some way for the public to encounter and develop a deeper relationship with that species. It was public engagement plus knowledge production.
The results were just so fascinating and rich, and there was so much discovery. All along of course, we were studying artists and art practices, the contemporary art practices that are adjacent to these goals of multispecies sociality. Students were able to draw from something like Gal Nissim’s Synanthrope Project which includes some sound walks, including a sound walk in Tompkins Square Park at night to develop a relationship with the rats, the rats of Tompkins Square Park. The pedagogy just exploded. It just became like many tentacles of how to learn, how to teach ourselves.
31:00 TUNING IN
The world of worlding has become pretty preoccupied with outcomes. And I’d say that’s true for pedagogy without a doubt in traditional academies—being forced to list learning outcomes, promise students they’re going to get X and Y out of taking this class, selling something to you, then you’ll be more smart or beautiful or something. So when you start to work over a long period of time on anything, there’s going to be emergent properties that you can either tune to, or you can very busily keep trying to world, to worldbuild. Can we be open to changes in the climate, changes in interactions with other humans and other species who are not human? Can we tune? Can we use learning as tuning?
I think one of the things we’ve been recognizing a lot is the need to connect our work more to social justice, environmental justice issues, which I don’t think we’ve done yet. We’ve definitely aware of that need. And Marina has done that in other parts of her work, but I think that’s really hard at least where I came from, which is Dadaism. It makes that a huge and difficult, challenging leap.
Well, because I think in some ways that that tradition is profoundly apolitical and anarchic.
Some would argue that that’s embedded in the bourgeois culture that it emerged from.
Yes, exactly. I think so. That’s one of the critiques of the avant-garde in Amitav Ghosh’s book about The Great Derangement where he talks about the complicity of the avant-garde with a kind of disembodied floating above the earth. The commitment of my tradition, the tradition I have identified with all my life, to the imagination and frankly not so much to the body, much less the ground under our feet. That’s a big ask for this tradition, how to make that change. You have to abjure some of it. You have to disavow some aspects of what you’ve loved because you have to recognize the complicity of that formation with White supremacy and settler colonialism.
I also want to interject that the domain of the imagination belongs to everybody, and it’s a question of access. So there is something really interesting about thinking about the domains of imagination, being earth-related. What’s happened is that Dadaism and so on have become these rarefied enjoyments and they don’t have to be. I would really argue that there’s a way into this without thinking that justice does not need the imagination.
I completely agree that that’s the task now, to find the connections.
34:30 THANK YOU FOR LISTENING!
Thank you for listening to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab!
You can find out more at https://multispeciesworldbuilding.com
Follow us on twitter or instagram at @multispeciespod
Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab is a collaboration with Wanda Acosta, Josh Allen, Joe Hazan, Genevieve Pfeiffer, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan.
With special thanks to NYU Green Grants, Office of Sustainability, NYU Center for Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and The Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
MULTISPECIES WORLDBUILDING LAB
EPISODE 9: CECILIA VICUNA + SARAH LOOKOFSKY
My name is Cecilia Vicuña. I’m a poet and artist. I was born in Chile and I live between Chile and New York.
My name is Sarah Lookofsky. I was trained as an art historian. I grew up in Denmark and I lived for 21 years in the United States. I recently moved to Oslo where I am the Dean of the School of Fine Arts.
I thought it would be nice for us to begin with some of Cecilia’s poetry.
00:38 ENTERING (1983 POEM FROM “PRECARIO”)
I thought that perhaps this was only a way of remembering.
To record in the sense of touching the strings of emotion.
To record comes from ‘core’
The core of the heart.
Listening with the fingers. A sensory memory came first.
The scattered bones, the sticks and feathers were sacred objects I had to put in order
to follow their will was to rediscover a way of thinking.
Listening to the elements, I traveled down pathways of the mind
that led me to an ancient silence, waiting to be heard.
To think was to follow the music, the feeling of the elements.
This is the way a communion with the sky and the sea began.
The necessity to respond to their desires with a work that could be a prayer, a joy to the elements.
Joy itself is the prayer.
In the act of offering, I recalled an essential poetic form.
If at the beginning of time, poetry was an act of communion,
a form of entering into a shared vision,
now it is a space that can be entered,
a spatial metaphor.
It is natural for poetry to complete itself in space.
If the poem is temporal, an aural temple, the palace or form is a spatial temple.
Both temples are entryways to the sacred space of metaphor.
Metapherein means to carry beyond.
Metaphor takes us to other spaces of contemplation,
to contemplate temples us together
or temples simultaneously the interior and exterior.
An active form of contemplation, the spatial metaphor brings together two forms of prayer:
temporal and spatial.
Precarios is what is obtained by prayer.
The quipu which records nothing.
An empty string was my first precarious
object. I was praying, making a quipu, offering up the desire of memory.
A quipu is an ancient system of colored knotted chords that carry meaning created in pre-Colombian South America.
Desire is the offering.
The body is only a metaphor.
In ancient Peru, diviners traced lines of dust in the earth
as a way of divining or letting the divine speak through them.
They invoke the spirits through an incantation and tracing lines on ground.
Lempad of Bali says all art is transient. Even stone is worn away.
God makes use of the essence of the offerings and the people of the material remains
The form of temporal, spatial writing aspires to endure in the intensity of the emotion.
To recover memory is to recover unity.
To be one with sky and the sea,
To feel the earth as your own skin is the only way to pleasure her.
—from Precario/Precarious, New York, 1983.
05:58 RIVER AKERSELVA, OSLO
When I originally was proposed this idea by Elaine—Elaine and Cecilia and I worked together in 2015 on an exhibition in Aarhus where we spent, I don’t know, was it a long weekend or a week? It felt like a week in Aarhus but maybe it wasn’t. So coming into this conversation, I realized, having moved to Oslo, that the art school where I work is a former factory where sails were produced predominantly by female workers. The factory is adjacent to a river called Akerselva, which is the main river running through Oslo, a very spectacular river that runs for nine kilometers. It has 20 waterfalls and one of these big waterfalls is right outside the door of the art school. And it powered the factory, like many other factories that are adjacent to it and now are kind of post-industrial converted to, you know, living and schools and companies. I came from New York in the height of the pandemic and was afraid of the pandemic because of my New York experience. I didn’t feel comfortable gathering in a room, so I would walk along the river instead of having a meeting. I would take a walk and I would notice the river, so I began to research this river. And I read that in 2011 there was a big spill into this river from the water treatment plant, which is the drinking source of Oslo. In 2011, a pipe broke and 6,000 liters of chlorine was spilled into the river. When they assessed the extent of the damage they found basically no remaining life in the river, they found struggling crayfish that were barely alive.
I began digging more and found out that this in fact was not the only spill, that there had been many. I mean like in 2012, there was 19,000 liters of oil spilled into the river by a hospital. In 1988, nine tons of acid with 23,000 salmon fry killed. A couple of weeks later, 16,000 liters of oil from industry. And in 1990, 19 tons of phosphoric acid, with an estimated death toll of 25,000 trout and salmon. So it’s a kind of ongoing, steady, non-dramatic event, which has been described as “slow violence.”
Every time I take a walk along this river, I think of Cecilia and Cecilia’s work. I know that so many rivers have been important in your life, Cecilia.
Yes, I hear you. And I feel the pain of the Akerselva, you know, it is such an amazing idea, like a short, tiny river that is immense at the same time, that is only nine kilometers long. So you can walk it in one day, you know, from beginning from its birth to its disappearance is something so astonishing to me.
10:22 RIO MAPOCHO, SANTIAGO
I can tell you that I was born next to a river, a river called Mapocho. Mapocho is the river that gives life to the valley of Santiago. Mapocho in the indigenous language means the “disappearing in the earth”, because this river comes from the tallest mountains in the Western hemisphere, the Andes, and halfway, it disappears. It goes under the earth and then reappears a few kilometers down the line, to go into the ocean. But, hearing you, what I was feeling is that I didn’t know the exact word in English for the word, the desaguadero, which is when a lake empties itself or when a glacier begins to create a watershed.
El Rio Mapocho, the river next to where I was born, is really rio de caca, a river of shit. And I don’t know the history, when did this begin? Did this begin with the Romans, did this begin with the Middle Ages? When did the concept of using water, not as water of life, but as a water of death, meaning a carrier of everything that’s unwanted like shit or toxic materials? So this slow violence, this calamity that you’re speaking of, is really a concept that water can and will be used in this way. This is what has poisoned the planet itself, not just every single river, but the entire system—because water is one.
I remember writing a long time ago, a poem called “Amnio Sacrificial”, and this is the amniotic liquid in which the baby is born in the womb. It’s also the planet itself is in my feeling or perception. It is an amniotic liquid for all forms of life. So how can we live and exist within this amniotic universe, disregarding and destroying it?
So this, I suppose, is the realization from which my art, my life has emerged. Because already in the sixties, I have to say, we knew these things. Already in the forties, we knew these things. I mean, how come that it seems that for this half a century or a little more than half a century, the real art of humanity has been denial. Denial of the reality of our doing, of what we do. So to wake up from that denial, I think is what’s happening now. And this is what I feel the water itself is asking. You know, the water wants to be water. This is also an ancient poem of mine, it’s like the river wants to be heard before being contaminated and this notion of hearing, how can we possibly open ourselves to a hearing when we have been trained—generations of us have been trained—not to hear, not to listen?
What is unique about the site that I’m in right now in Norway is that it has a green image. There are more electric cars in Norway than anywhere else in the world. This river, when you walk along it, there are signs describing it and its natural beauty and all the species that thrive there, but there’s no mention of the spill. Norway, it’s an extractivist economy at base. Even though it has such a green image, its main export is oil and its second greatest export is industrially farmed fish: salmon. I guess the word for that is greenwashing. But when people talk about Akerselva, they talk about the natural beauty.
And as I was preparing for this conversation, I thought, oh, I really don’t know about this river. I need to know more. I have been reading, but I need to know more. And I was kind of stressing out that we’re going to have this conversation and I’m not a scientist and I haven’t done all the research. But I thought, you know, I’m just rrgonna walk the length of it. I’m going to take the tram to the top and I’m gonna follow it from the lake all the way down. At one point you get blocked because there’s an old industrial site where the river is contained within a factory that’s still a factory. So there’s a continuity between the industrial age and our current age, that part is still accessible. And then at a certain point, when you get very close to the downtown area, it goes underground. It goes under the train tracks and then it emerges and flows into the ocean, into the fjord.
So all this to say: listening. The river has a language and we need to listen to it.
16:31 LISTENING WITH FINGERS
Yeah. And in that sense, the metaphor of listening with the fingers is really no metaphor. For example, I remember there is this wonderful deaf musician. I can’t remember her name. I think she’s from Scotland. And she says that she hears from every pore of her body and she composes the amazing music, and she hasn’t heard music at all. She hears it with a different kind of sense. And I think the idea that we as humans have evolved so many senses that we have chosen to disregard, to abandon, it’s really very important. And I think this is one of the things that our art and rituals can bring back. For example, I have done rituals where I invite people to simply lie down, let’s say on rocks where you can touch and caress the ocean or the river and feel it come to your skin, caress your skin and move back in again, because the river and the ocean are sort of breathing systems. Breathing—not breeding creatures, but breathing. I don’t know how you pronounce the difference. Meaning breathing air, breathing oxygen. And so you feel there is a lot of knowledge that is not knowledge. A lot of knowing that is not knowing. A lot of feeling that is not feeling, but it’s something else can begin to emerge.
I remember years ago I was very sad about another one of my rivers, because as you said, there are many rivers in my life. There’s another river that is not even classified as a river. It’s classified as a mountain stream because it’s very wild and one moment it can be very thin. And if there is a lot of rain, which now is very rarely the case because there’s the brutal drought that’s been hitting Chile for the last 10-15 years. Most snow, most glaciers are disappearing very fast. It’s said that perhaps in 10 years, there will not be enough water for the people to drink in Chile. So this brutal reality of destruction of water is embodied by these alluvial rivers that have for thousands and thousands of years created themselves as a stream of water that can be huge one minute and disappear the next but still be there, still be there as potential.
So it is the potential for the regeneration that we are really attacking. And so how could we open—not just to the hearing of a sound—but to a sensing of a potential, where our interaction with that potential may bring it back.
Another kind of subtext of this conversation is that not only do all rivers, all water, connect to one another on this planet, but also we are water. And so I think what your work does so beautifully is kind of make us conscious of the fact that we are not separate, but the water is in us.
I think what art can do, and what your work does, is at once register absences through colonial violence, long histories that have erased cultures. You conjure these absences in your work. And not only that, but as you just said, it’s towards the future. Collectively, we’re here now to imagine a different future.
21:13 ALIVENESS OF PROCESS
I wonder if I could just jump in really briefly. From what you’ve both been talking about, there’s the sensing of different kinds of temporalities. There’s also this idea that death doesn’t happen once. It’s ongoing, but it’s also recursive. Things die. They come back. What does it mean to acknowledge that there are multiple streams that are happening all the time? And I think reclaiming things in the world that are not yet dead. What does it mean to have an art practice, or process, or research process, that can push us to think about sensing potentials or keeping track of regeneration? Claiming these violences, and opening them up so that things can keep going or become something else?
I can speak to that because this idea of process is embedded in every living system, and even in systems that in the old days were defined as non-living. Now, the definition of what is animate or inanimate is becoming blurry. It’s a very good thing, because in ancient cultures, indigenous cultures around the world, this distinction between who is alive and not alive, it’s just like a joke. It is not there. Because the aliveness of the processes of all the matter, of all energies, is perpetually an interaction. It is perpetually a process of both self-transformation and transformation of everything around it—because everything is in response to something else, you know? And so when we become aware, that awareness is perhaps the one process in which we can find the way to communicate, to sense the other processes, how they are playing with our process. For example, in Spanish, the word conocer, to know, which of course is from Latin, is composed of, and with being. So to know, it is ‘to be with being’. What being? The being of all that is, everything has being. So this is not an essentialist idea. It is something so incredibly beautiful to acknowledge that it is this awareness—what is like the equalizing field. Now we know that, for example, even subatomic particles become self-aware. We know that bacteria are self-aware. So this awareness, it’s truly like an ocean of awareness of which we are part. To me, that is the key understanding of how processes work in us.
25:02 LOOKING AT THE OCEAN LOOKING BACK AT YOU
In your very first work or Casa Espiral 1966, what I find so beautiful is you say at the moment when you became an artist was essentially the moment when you realized that not only were you looking at the ocean, but the ocean was looking at you. There was this mirroring. And I think that’s the kind of being-with that needs to happen. It’s just so simple.
Yeah, it is true. It is so simple. So basic, so elemental. Every child is born sensing that, feeling that, you know. So we have a culture that removes that from the child, but in Chile, there is this extraordinary sage Humberto Maturana that recently died. And I was hearing in Santiago, one of his late talks, and he says something so beautiful. He says that every baby is born amoroso. How would you translate that into English? The baby is born amoroso or amarosa, you know, it means the baby is born wanting love and ready to give love. And so these back-and-forth interactive processes are already embedded in this living being that is just out of the womb, and feels already that way, because probably inside the womb felt the same. So, this is the real treasure of what humanness is. And we have to interact with our own awareness. We have to interact with the other awareness, and that can be the beginning of recovering potential. And recovering an ability to allow emergence to do its own thing. Because the beautiful thing about emergence—I’m a total fan of quantum biology, quantum physics, quantum astrophysics, and that’s really one of my passions—and what is it that they are discovering? It’s been like a century of discoveries, and it is the discovery of interaction, the discovery that information is situated in the exchange, which is basically the same as indigenous ideas or knowledge around the world, you know. You go to Aboriginal Australia, you go to ancient South Africa, still ancient peoples are current today. And their worldview now is not unlike a lot of quantum physics, you know? So it is this chance for us to recover those forms of knowing that are beyond description of the previous epistemology. It’s right there. It’s still available.
28:25 EACH RIVER IS DIFFERENT
I think one of the things that your work brings up so often is a kind of wonder, as well as that there is so much that is still unknown.
Yeah, and this not knowing is really also a misnomer, because the beautiful thing about language is that everything that we name is simultaneously a misnomer, so I think this is what allows language to communicate. The fact that it’s never exactly precise. It’s never exactly what either one, the speaker and the listener, thinks, but it’s always something else. For example, poetry. Poetry is the specialization of keeping that-that-is-not-there present. And to me, there is so much beauty in the quest, in the quest to revive these potentials in language itself, in relationship, in touch, in all the basics. It’s the basics that we need to take care of, because another wonderful thing in our conversation, the one we had with Elaine, the three of us a few days ago, is the notion of the locale.
The fact that each river sounds different from every other river, each part of the river sounds and is different from other parts of the river. And each river requires us to relate to it as a being, as its own thing. And so, then comes the idea of responsiveness, the responsiveness of the river and our response to the river, our responsibility for the river. And so for example, I can tell you that I have experienced the most wonderful relationships with regards to that responsiveness, as potential for ecological and cultural and political action.
30:29 RETURN OF THE MUSSEL
A few years ago, when I was doing my film, “Kon Kon“, I learned about this magnificent beach at the mouth of another huge river, the Aconcagua river. “kon kon” is at the mouth of “aconcagua” and “aconcagua,” the name itself is the name of the tallest mountain of the Western hemisphere. And it means “looking at ‘kon’”. And “kon” is the most ancient name known in this part of the world for life-giving water, water and life force. And it’s a feminine name. So I am in this beach at the mouth of river Aconcagua. And the fishermen there tell me that a certain mussel that we call macha has been extinguished through extractivist operations. Can you imagine extinguishing a mollusk that has lived there for billions of years? Well, that’s what had happened.
So I invited the group of people to come do the dance on the beach with our feet, the old way as I had seen when I was a young girl. That you would have your feet wobbling or wiggling in the sand, to enter until your feet touched the mussel that is hidden under the water. And that was a traditional way of bringing it out to eat. So I invited a group of people, we did the dance. Two or three years later, I come again to that beach and you know what the fishermen tell me? Did you know that the mussel has come back? So the dance, the performance was to call for the absent mussel. It was called in Spanish “La minga de la macha invisible”. So we’re going to be dancing for an invisible creature that is gone, extinguished. And it came back. So what that tells you is this, we can interpret this: Is it a coincidence? Is it the responsiveness of others? But in any case, the effect that that has on us as workers, as artists is encouragement, you know, and these give courage, insert the courage inside your body. Encouragement, you know. It’s the one thing that we need now, because how on earth are we going to be dealing with the disappearance of drinking water? Which is going to be happening already so soon, and in so many places is already happening.
In the Akerselva, there’s also a very rare river mussel that was thought to be extinct, but then after they did a thorough accounting of the species they couldn’t find the river mussel. So maybe I should go out and do a little dance?
Yes, a little dance at the Akerselva!
It’s amazing because the sensing is with your feet, it’s with your bare feet.
That’s right. I have a little film of it. The film, you look at it, and if it’s not big, I think that’s just a tiny little documentary of that moment of the attitude of all these bodies. What would be the right word, wiggling waggling, their feet, right and left. So your feet begin to sink in the wet sand, because this is a little bit very close to where the waves break, but not yet in the dry sand, so it’s like in that intermediate transitional sands. And these transitional sands are always the preferred place where life regenerates and emerges.
And so there is the metaphor that these phase transitions, in all processes that take on water, become liquid and so forth. We, in our spirit, in our minds, in our understanding also go through these phase transitions. And so if any goodness can come out from this horrendous period we’re living in, where so many people have been massacred by disease or by the destructivist push like in the Amazon. Every Indigenous community in the Americas is being massacred in order to burn their forest, in order to grab the rivers, the oil under the rivers, whatever it is. So how could we transition our senses and our thoughts to a space where we don’t tolerate such things? Each one of us, all of us, it has to be all of us. Not just the people who are willing, but also those who are not willing. So I think that’s the challenge for the new art to come—in that reaching out to engage and work with those who don’t want to take part in this transformation.
36:40 EVOLVING INTO ONE
Well, I just saw the publication of an article today, and I didn’t have time to read it because we were having this meeting, but it was published in this wonderful website called phys.org. And it’s about how it’s a new discovery that I am guessing now, because I haven’t read the article, but the headline is that now it seems that human beings are evolving as groups. I read that and it really chills my blood. It is so incredibly beautiful because you see there’s a lot of criticism of the very many movements that are rising up around the world, let’s say in Hong Kong, in Madrid, in Colombia, in now, even Brazil, Chile, the Arab Spring, I mean, everywhere, there is this rising up of this emergent force that is headless. And the criticism is that why doesn’t this become a political party that organizes people, because then these are the massacred by the military police and so forth. And it sort of dissolves. But you have that, which is what the media tells you. And then you have this discovery that communities are becoming like one organism. That is how bacteria operate. That is how slime mold operates. So I think learning from science as a language that communicates with art at a deeper level where both the art and the science are sort of transforming the self-awareness of a group which becomes a sort of organism. That to me is mind blowing. And that is perhaps where humanity is already moving. And if we interact with that, knowing perhaps the knowing itself will guide us in new kind of knowing, a knowing of the group as an organism seeking survival, seeking the continuity and the caretaking of the water, the river, the forest, the desert. Every living thing has a language that we need to attend. And it will be a new kind of combination between science and art.
I was reading about a study of farmed salmon, and the caretaking that goes with this practice of taking care of, you know, 50,000 salmon that are hungry and they’re underwater in these pens. But it made me think of the kind of individuation that you’re talking about between a life form, a being, and the being-with when you take up this one salmon, but it’s with 50,000 other salmon. It’s kind of reaching that understanding that we are not alone.
Especially now you know, for example, think of what’s happening with the pandemic. The pandemic has separated all of us, and we’re all in an isolation that feels so alien to us because we have always lived in groups. I mean, human beings, everybody knows they are social beings. You know, we can’t survive without each other. And yet, now we have pushed the environment to such a degree that we are forced to be isolated and what a monstrosity that is, because isolation is exactly what would prevent us from moving to a new kind of awareness. But perhaps the possibility exists that this kind of thing that we are doing, Elaine is in New York, you are in Norway. I am also in New York, but till a few days ago, I was away in Chile, and we were still able to communicate in a way that is almost telepathic. You know, for example, I see, I read, of your thinking, Sarah. And I believe I know about Elaine. And there’s something that communicates, that is not just via Zoom or through this digital system, but something else like a web of knowing that there is life exchange happening through understanding, through awareness. And to me, those are the only threads of hope in a moment so brutal as the one we live in.
41:24 THIS IS THE RIVER I CARE FOR
I was watching a little documentary about the rebellion against the damming of a river very essential to Sami life and practices, and the activist whose name is Niilas Somby said that “all rivers are important, but this one is the one that I take care of. This is the one that I have to protect. This was the one that I have responsibility for,” is the word he used.
So, I think it’s the kind of awareness, both that you are in your environment and that you have responsibility for it. I think what Cecilia’s alluding to with our telepathic communication is we have to reach beyond. And I think that art has the capacity to make these connections and it’s the kind of connections that are abundant, and that this many stories can be told. For example, how Cecilia was saying that there’s salmon farming in Patagonia, and some of the same salmon companies that are operating in Norway are operating in Chile. The pellets that these salmon eat are from anchovies that are fished in Chile and in Peru. The electric cars that are roaming all over Norway have lithium batteries, some of it mined in Chile. That lithium mining is polluting some of the waterways in Chile that we have been talking about. Art can make these kinds of connections, this is the kind of world we’re living in and it must be addressed at that level.
Suddenly in the year 2019 in October, just a few months, actually three months before the pandemic broke out in the world, the Chilean people rose up practically in every town and spilled into the streets like a human river, demanding action to face the incredible unfairness and injustice of a system that not only privatizes water and allows for all these mines to destroy the land, destroyed the water destroy people’s lives, but also allows for extractivist operations. Like the Norwegian style in Patagonia, who’s polluting these primal waters of this. One of the few that are not polluted is now being damaged by the system. So this great, great movement of becoming a human river eventually came even with the pandemic arriving, became into a call to rewrite the constitution. And this, I believe, is the first time that this is being done in this manner in the world, where people’s human river of discontent has become a very concrete call, where people will collaborate in a new manner. And so an election took place while I was in Chile, and this election elected mostly independent, unknown people to be the writers of this constitution. So this is a new kind of collaboration where artists, intellectuals, peasants, indigenous people, scientists, professors, politicians, are going to have the chance to collaborate in a new manner. So what did it take: the suffering of almost half a century of oppression, torture. The brutalization of, and dehumanization of, the people through abuse and exploitation to have this rising of beauty that has the chance to create a constitution, an institution of togetherness. That’s basically what it is because “con” means together, it means “with”. So what kind of collaboration is the one that is called forth by the present moment? I believe it’s that kind of collaboration of the areas and sections of society that have never really collaborated before. It’s not just for example, all of my work has been born out of collaboration. I have collaborated with the rivers, with the birds, with the animals, with the ocean, and also with many, many people throughout. And I continue to do that, but that’s just the beginning. It is opening to the idea of collaboration at a larger scale. Who do we need now to turn around these policies that continue to allow extractivism to destroy the planet?
46:38 THE RIVER, THE OCEAN CALL THE SHOTS
I can think of one story because that river is the one that calls the shots. The ocean is the one that calls the shots. From my perspective and in my work, what I do, I come to the river or I come to the ocean, emptying myself of all idea, of all thought, of all everything. And when I become like a piece of dirt, like a piece, I become like one of those little basuritas, the debris that’s lying around the ocean edge of the river, I become that, then something comes. Something comes which in any way that I would describe it would falsify it. So all I can tell you is that in doing it, just a feeling begins to emerge and the river indicates what I have to do. For example, in the Mapocho river and the river I was born next to — Because as a young girl, I always kept playing on that river of shit because it’s literally the place where the shit comes down the city and we’re forbidden to come close to the open sewage river. But we as kids, illegally always found the way to get into the river and make ourselves within that dirty fucking water. And the river somehow responds to that with images and these images have converted into my art. I have done so much work around this river, but the last piece I did is called Quipu Mapocho which is a work where I went to the birth of the river up in the glacier, which is close to 4,000 meters above the sea. I walked there with two friends, you know, a musician and a filmmaker. And I did my first free show, up in that place. And then in different places around the trajectory of the river, all the way into the sea, I invited more and more people to do rituals there, including in the middle of the city. Because this river crosses the city. And in one of these performances, I can tell you that I did it in the river. That used to be an Inca river that connected this Northern part of Chile to the Southern part of Chile. And this is now a bridge where all the unwanted people gather, meaning the immigrants, the refugees who arrive in Chile seeking to work because societies are so cruel and monstrous in their own countries, you know, in Venezuela, in Colombia, in Peru, in Bolivia. And so all these people are gathered in this river. And I arrived there with a small nucleus, my mother, and perhaps four or five friends. And I began weaving the people, and the people who are crossing fast, because this is an active river with traffic, both cars and trucks and people. And you see how some people want to be part of this living web that is being woven body against body. And some people want to shout at it. Some people want to be bad about it. But I can tell you that once this sort of living ball woven with red thread, all of us, of course, it’s pre-pandemia that I did this aware of pushing each other, unknown people are squeezed into one knot, one living knot, what I can tell you is that all of us who were in that moment, what we experienced was a sort of explosive joy, explosive love, explosive commitment to the beauty of being alive.
It’s something that I know. It has to happen. You know, I believe it is beginning to happen that people—because there’s so much hatred and so much division, which is completely pointless, especially when we come to a point where water begins to disappear, for example, in Chile—how this is going to become a new law for the land. So I do feel, perhaps it’s a crazy feeling, but I do feel that all these rituals performed during 50 years are part of that transformation, you know, and that similar work done by hundreds and hundreds of people do have the effect of breaking those artificial barriers that separate people through assumptions, through expectations, through ideologies. And I think we’re coming to a place collectively as humans, where we can see that all those are limiting because of the necessities, the new needs, when water disappears, when monstrous diseases are unleashed, something new has to come.
53:08 RIVER AS ARCHIVE
I love what you said, Cecilia, about the river is the one that calls the shots, earlier. You know, the river is also the one that remembers. So in our conversation over the weekend, I think Sarah, you said the River Akerselva is an archive. When things have been broken, to remember or reassemble might also be coming from the river.
I remember seeing a film so long ago where a Japanese scientist said that the molecule for water—I don’t know how to say it in English, H2O—it is an impossible combination that if science were to try to put together the molecules that compose water, it would be an impossibility. And so I thought, what a fantastic thing that water is, this liquid water, water has been found in intergalactic spaces all over the universe, but not liquid water. So what is it about this liquidity of this planet, water that exists for us to inquire that we have yet to learn? So this archive is really what the river is holding for us as future-knowing, that is what I felt when Sarah spoke of the Akerselva as an archive. It was very, very moving Sarah, to hear you and imagine you and your kids walking down that river.
Yes there are so many histories recorded of the river, of its industrial histories of contamination.
55:30 DIALECTS OF THE RED WING THRUSH
There’s a bird that lives on the Akerselva called the red wing thrush and it also thrives along the Akserselva. And it sings in dialect. So, you know, how Cecilia was saying that every part of the river is its own river and a different river, the red wing thrush, depending on where it is in the river, that the red wing thrush population will sing in one place, and in a different dialect in another place. And then the thrushes that live in between two dialect areas will be able to sing in both dialects.
It’s perfect to see the translator, the one that communicates. I think that’s the role of the thinker and the artist to be open to both sides. For example, in that piece that I was describing about the bridge, what I was feeling was that each one of us wants to be a bridge. You know, we want to be living bridges amongst those who hate each other, who ignore each other. We want that. So why don’t we let it be that to be the speaker, to be the singer, to be the thrush that can sing both ways. The way of each side, that’s the most beautiful image. I love these birds.
Wow. Yeah. I saw one today, we don’t speak the same language, but we had an eye to eye.
Yeah. You’d be surprised. You know, I remember being on an island Chiloé in the south of Chile where this very exquisite singer, a little bird that is also of course going extinct. I was so thrilled to hear the song, one of my walks up and I started to sing back to it. Can you believe, of course, I don’t know how to sing that song, that exclusive bird song, but whatever I did, the bird went silent, waited a moment. I went silent, and he sang me back. And for a long stretch, the bird would always be near and would continue to want to enter into that dialogue. So you should do the same with your red thrush. You never know what the thrush will think of your song.
58:27 UNUY, QUECHUA FOR WATER
Okay. This is part of the water sequence and the water sequence is based on the Quechua concept of unuy. Unuy means ‘water’ in Quechua but if you look at Quechua from the perspective of Spanish, it’s also Una, which means ‘water’. So this water sequence is composed based on the gaze of the language, the Spanish language into Quechua, and incorporating Quechua concepts distorted by Spanish.
59:32 WATER AND ITS THIRST ARE ONE (POEM)
[CECILIA SINGS/READS POEM]
63:29 THE WATER IN OUR EYES
Thank you for doing that. It was a very nice way to end, with the amniotic fluid and the thirst. In some other place that I’ve read, you write that the reason we see is because of the water in our eyes. I think there’s something there.
Yes, thank you so much. I have to say this: that to meet again with you, Elaine, and you Sarah, it brings back, I never had the chance to tell you how beautiful and meaningful it was for me to revive the seed project for you. It was really one of the highlights of my life at the time when I really was the most overlooked person and an artist. And now for the first time, I will have the chance to recreate the seed projects for Chile now, as an older woman, you know, so my memory of having done it with you, even for, for a moment, it was something that would live with me forever.
That was definitely one of the highlights of my life. So I’m happy to hear that there was some resonance that’s very special. There are so many seeds flying through the air in Oslo right now. My computer screen is covered in pollen. There are so many seeds. When you’re walking, it’s constantly like in your ears and in your head. So it felt nice to be biking here with seeds in my mouth to record with you today.
For me as well. So precious, really Sarah and Cecilia, incredible. You know, I work with seeds. So Cecilia your piece has stuck with me for five, six years. Yes. Thank you so much. It was really a gift to be assembling some of them. I remember you were on the computer, we were doing it on Skype and you were saying, no, do this and how does that look? And so that was a real honor to assemble and pick the seeds in Denmark. Really, really beautiful. I’m so happy to hear you will do it in Chile.
Yes. I mean, look around, my last big exhibition in Chile in a solo exhibition, in a museum was in 1971. So for all this time, I have been completely overlooked, marginalized in Chile by the art scene. And now all of a sudden, you know, because of all the things that are happening with my work outside of Chile, it’s like, “oh, Cecilia exists after all”. It’s just very sad because of the colonized mind at work, you know. But on the other hand, I’m still alive. I mean, how many women are never acknowledged, you know, or they’re acknowledged when they’re 90. I’m lucky that I’m 70. So I may still have some strength left.
Like seeds that are dormant but as you said, it’s an awakening. It’s an amazing time in Chile.
It is. It is, it is. One thing that I wanted to say, and I forgot, is that the great fighter for the rights of water was elected as Governor in the province of Valparaiso, which was the most badly hit by the privatization of water. In this election for constituents to write the constitution and also for governors, something extraordinary happened which is, that Rodrigo Mundaca who has been one of the great champions and leaders in the fight against the privatization of water was elected governor of the provincial Valparaiso. So this is a huge turnaround to have for the first time a governor that cares for people and water. And the well being of both in conjunction. It is really something to look forward to.
Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Elaine. I send my love to both of you.
Thank you for listening to us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. My name is Elaine Gan and I had the great pleasure and honor of hosting this conversation between two friends, poet and artist Cecilia Vicuna in Chile and New York, and art historian Sarah Lookofsky in Oslo, on May 30 and June 3rd of 2021.
This episode was produced collaboratively with Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, Genevieve Pfeiffer, and Elaine Gan.
You can find out more about our speakers and our lab, or listen to other episodes and access transcripts at our website https://multispeciesworldbuilding.com
You can follow us on twitter and Instagram: @multispeciespod
or you can support us by simply subscribing to this podcast on Apple, Google, Spotify or other major platforms.
We are extremely grateful to the Green Grants Program at New York University, the Center for Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and to the Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
MULTISPECIES WORLDBUILDING LAB
EPISODE 8: PAUL SADOWSKI
EXCERPTS FROM JOHN CAGE
So to introduce this: Cage would give performances where he was seated at a table with a desk lamp and he would read to the audience and there were different settings and things, procedures shall we say, or performances associated with it. One of them was a series of ninety stories which he read. And there were stories from his life. Some of them were mushroom stories, but, you know, there were all sorts of topics. Each of them, regardless of length, had to fill a one-minute interval. So the short stories would be very distended. And the wordier ones had to be very quickly read. And then in the background, David Tudor would be running around the studio, pounding on pianos, hitting gongs, using ratchets, all sorts of sounds that interrupted the reading that Cage was making.
These are excerpts from John Cage’s writing about mushrooms. So when he’s in the first person, it’s John Cage, who’s addressing.
“Let me show you my recent text. It is called “Mushroom Book.” I had for many years wanted to write a mushroom book, and I found that when I concentrated on mushrooms, it was not interesting. So what I did was to list all the things that interested me. So: mushroom stories, excerpts from Thoreau’s ‘Journal’ about mushrooms, excerpts from Thoreau’s ‘Journal’ – anything, remarks about life and art, or art and life, life and art, life and light, life, or art and art. By that I mean life becoming art, and I think of Fuller.”
“I think that there must be found a kind of common denominator between those who, like Mao, rely on power and those, like Fuller, who have a faith in the goodness of material, of material having. You see, Fuller like Mao believes in the goodness of human nature, and he thinks that what makes people bad is the fact that they do not have what they need. If they had what they needed, they would be less selfish than they are when they do not have what they need.
“I have noticed too with our mushroom society in New York that when the weather is dry and there are few mushrooms, the people are very secretive and selfish and they do not let anyone know they have found anything, they hunt very quickly.
I noticed too with myself that as I have what I need, I look at our large stores in New York and I do not see anything that I want.”
“Lois Long (the Lois Long who designs textiles), Christian Wolff, and I climbed Slide Mountain along with Guy Nearing and the Flemings, including Willie. All the way up and down the mountain we found nothing but Collybia platyphylla, so that I began to itch to visit a cemetery in Millerton, New York, where, in my mind’s eye, Pluteus cervinus was growing. By the time we got back to the cars, our knees were shaking with fatigue and the sun had gone down. Nevertheless, I managed to persuade Lois Long and Christian Wolff to drive over to Millerton. It meant an extra hundred miles. We arrived at the cemetery at midnight. I took a flashlight out of the glove compartment, got out, and first hastily and then carefully examined all the stumps and the ground around them. There wasn’t a single mushroom growing. Going back to the car, I fully expected Lois Long and Christian Wolff to be exasperated. However, they were entranced. The aurora borealis, which neither of them had ever seen before, was playing in the northern sky.”
“‘Elizabeth, it is a beautiful day. Let us take a walk. Perhaps we will find some mushrooms. If we do, we shall pluck them and eat them.’ Betsy Zogbaum asked Marian Powys Grey whether she knew the difference between mushrooms and toadstools. ‘I think I do. But consider, my dear, how dull life would be without a little uncertainty in it.'”
06:00 PAUL SADOWSKI
My name is Paul Sadowski. I am an amateur mycologist and my day job is a music publisher. That activity is what brought me into contact with John Cage. And then John Cage brought me to mushrooms.
06:23 FIFTY-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF NY MYCOLOGICAL SOCIETY
In 2012, the New York Mycological Society was celebrating its 50-year anniversary, which was coincident with John Cage’s Centennary. So a committee was formed and I, Gary Lincoff and Pam Cray were members of this committee to plan an event that would appropriately celebrate the club and Cage. We came up with an idea to try to have a sort of mashup of mushroom and music. My thinking hinged on a project I had worked with as an undergraduate: a production of a piece that Cage wrote together with Lejaron Hiller at the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana called HPSCHD, which is an abbreviation, if you will, of harpsichord. And this project, this piece, was composed of several sonic streams. There were four harpsichordists playing music from Mozart’s Dice Game pieces, which Cage had randomized in his way. There were films of NASA projects, all sorts of outer space stuff and rockets launching and stuff that basically covered every surface of the art gallery which held this project. There were I believe 64 channels of computer-generated sound that Lejaron Hiller had put together, literally beeps and bops and things. It was quite a cacophony. 32 slide projectors: these were projecting slides that Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg had put together. They’re sort of these fractal stained-glass things which were overlaid on all of the space footage from NASA.
So all of this was going on simultaneously for about two hours or so. People were milling around in the middle of this whole circus of stuff going on. So we thought it would be interesting to do that, an interesting formula to try to approximate. We ended up in a more or less proscenium space, so we were at the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City.
We decided to, as the audio component or one of the audio components was to do a realization of a piece by John Cage called 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs. This piece had been commissioned by Jann Wenner upon the move of Rolling Stone from San Francisco to New York City. So several pieces were commissioned at that time, and this was one of them. As I mentioned, I had a long association with Cage. I was his music copyist and I walked in one day and there was a Hagstrom map on his kitchen table or his dining room table, which had all of these triangles and different colors drawn upon it. And these triangles were triangulated locations. There were addresses that were chosen by chance operations, the I Ching throwing and stuff. The instructions for the piece are you go to the location and record what’s happening there. And then it’s played back. Three of them linked up as these so-called Waltzes.
So anyway, we did a realization of that piece as a 90-minute backdrop for the rest of the performance, which consisted of five readers who had chosen texts from Cage’s mushroom writings—so, the Mushroom Book and certain mushrooms stories from Indeterminacy and other things that appeared in his voluminous writings that Gary Lincoff had actually gone through pre-internet, you know, you couldn’t just search for things. He actually went through the books and extracted all of these stories and compiled them. So that provided the live element. And then Pam put together three ninety-minute films comprised of still photography of mushrooms, film clips, and videos. Some were interviews with long-time society members and we had a clip from a documentary of Cage hunting in Rockland County.
And so the evening went. Three of these films simultaneously happening. And behind the audience was the, the sounds that we had Emily Harris and I had collected. Instead of following the score that Cage had written, we put out the call to the society for people to give us specific locations where they have seen mushrooms growing within the five boroughs, letting that be the randomizing situation. And so for a couple of years, Emily and I went out and we’d record two minutes or something somewhere. Wonderful coincidences ensued, which was then mixed down and played behind the audience while the readers were reading and their eyes are filled with all of the images. So that was the piece, the 90-minute piece that we played before an audience of about 700 people.
13:06 CAGE AND MUSHROOMS AT THE NEW SCHOOL
Now, John Cage had studied music with Henry Cowell at the New School. I mean he studied previously with Arnold Schoenberg but in New York he took classes with Henry Cowell who was probably best remembered for applying the fist to the piano keys. Fistful chords on the piano. Anyway Cage had an association with the New School thereby, and was asked to teach a music class. And he said he would do so only if he could teach a class in mushrooms. He had some exposure to mycology and you know, he was the valedictorian of his high school class. He was a very, very studied, well-read person. He had the capacity for this kind of thing. And eventually he came to New York City, he was living downtown on the Lower East Side and then for one reason or another, he moved up to Stony Point where he lived for a time in a farmhouse that had a lot of people living there. It was a kind of an artist colony. He would go out and walk in the woods, the property as it’s known today adjoins Harriman State Park. So there were plentiful opportunities for wandering around the woods there and Cage found mushrooms. He came upon actually not a mushroom, but he either thought he found a Helebore, which is edible. And it turned out to be skunk cabbage or vice versa. I’m not sure, but everybody got sick and ended up in Nyack Hospital where the nurse told him, “If you’re going to fool around with this stuff. You should find somebody who knows what they’re doing.” And this woman knew about this person well-known in the area. He was actually himself a horticulturist. He had nurseries and so forth. He did a lot of work with rhododendrons. He did all kinds of grafting of exotic rhododendrons with native species and produced anyway, a lot of rhododendrons that were widely sought after and built himself a very good reputation in all things botanical. So she said, you should get to know this person, his name is Guy Nearing. So Guy Nearing and John formed an association. Guy Nearing was his teacher, in fact.
So, um, what happened? So this brings us now back to the New School. So Cage and Nearing actually were teaching the class. Of course, John Cage is the famous one so he gets the lion’s share of the credit, but Guy Nearing was very much a prominent figure in this class. He was the first naturalist at a new Wildlife Conservancy that was put together in the Palisades called the Greenbrook Sanctuary. It was formed as part of the Interstate Palis ades Commission. He laid out most of the trails that are there today, and he also did a survey of the fungi of the property. So, he was probably the most accomplished mycologist outside of the New York Botanical Garden in this area.
So Cage and Nearing taught this class and the class was basically a schedule, not unlike the New York Mycological Society is today, of field trips. For the most part, they were going out in the woods and collecting mushrooms and explaining them to people. So it turns out this class was an elective, and it was the least expensive class that the New School had to offer. So you had a lot of, let’s call them foul weather friends, you know, just people who took it so they could get a discount on trips to Europe and things like that. It’s like today, if you’re a student, you can get an Apple computer at a student rate. So that kind of held up in other commercial things. And so people took this class to get the commercial advantage of being a student officially enrolled. Anyway, this class was taught for a couple of years, I think. It became rather unwieldy as Cage put it in a letter to the society. He said it became rather like a parent with an adolescent. He said, you know, it was just too much responsibility for the leaders of the group and not enough responsibility taken by the members of the group. And so they decided to create a society with what they considered significant dues. You know, you had to have a little skin in the game. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, come and look for mushrooms with us.” And that’s how it started. And Laurette Shapiro was the first secretary. And in fact it was rather a threadbare administration. There were only two officers, one was a treasurer and one was the secretary. There was no president, no vice president. So it has always existed and still does to this day, exists as a kind of an anarchy in the best sense of the word. It is a group of people who look for mushrooms. That’s what it’s all about. It does do all things mushroomy and in terms of projects and directions and so forth, you basically volunteer to do something and the resources of the society are there to support the person in this project whenever it happens to be. And so it goes. It’s remained pretty decentralized, you know? And so it’s quite a marvelous group actually.
19:50 AUTOGRAPHY and FRIENDSHIP WITH CAGE
So, Cage and Nearing and three other people—I’m going to remember two of them, Esther Dam and Frank Ferrara and there’s a fifth one, but they were the founding members of the club. So they basically sustained the club. Eventually Cage, his career really took off at some point. And, probably around the time I started to work for him maybe a little before, he became very highly commissioned. And, so when I got out of college in 1973 is when I started working for him. I actually met him in during that HPSCHD program and then subsequently a year later, there was a production at BAM in what was then the Leperq space, which is now Joe’s Cafe. In the Leperq space, we did a production and cause I was in charge of these slides. Since I was involved with the slides, I was kind of shepherding those to his apartment and it was on the ride over the Brooklyn Bridge that we talked about my work at that point, which was working as what was known as an autographer. This is where my music career kind of took off. Autography is an artisanal practice of basically drawing music, rendering music to resemble printed music.
And so we discussed the work that lay ahead of him. He had a bunch of commissions, and that’s how we kinda got started as how I got started working for John. When you see printed sheet music— at least say prior to 1980—this music was engraved. There would be a metal plate and various dyes. So you’d have a dye with a note, an oval that would be the note. You would have an instrument of five tines, like a fork if you will, called a rostral–that would draw the staff’s lines. You would make an impression in the copper or bronze, I think copper sheets. And you would draw that rostral across those would be your staff lines, and then you would hammer the various notes into place. And then score the stems and the ligatures, and all of the other things that make up printed sheet music. So that’s how it was done way back when. But it also had been done by pen and ink. And that’s what I learned from an autographer by the name of Carlo Carnevale. His father worked for Verdi and his mother worked for Puccini. So, you know, it was a long line of this kind of fine handiwork. And I learned this craft from Carlo. That’s kind of how I came with that skill set to meet John Cage. And then I worked for him for about twenty years. And I worked till he died in 1992.
23:36 APARTMENT HOUSE 1776 and MUSHROOMS IN ALBANY
So this happened in probably 1975, I would say maybe August. We were working on one of his bicentennial commissions. It was called Apartment House 1776. And so this was a group of pieces that John would randomize some way or other, that would be performed by several ensembles that would represent the music that was extant in 1776. So there was a group of Moravian music. There was a string quartet. There was even music that featured Negro spirituals. There was American Indian. They were at the front of the stage and then behind them was the orchestra that was playing a whole other piece called Renga, which was derived from the drawings of Thoreau. So he kind of picked out little things and made visual scores of them. There were a lot of swoops and punctuations and, you know, kind of randomized music going on.
Anyway, that was the piece we were working on. So at the time I was living outside of Albany, which is where I grew up. And he came up to Albany to work on this piece. He was basically proofreading the material I had put together. It was a rainy rainy week for the most part. But Saturday came and the sun was out and he said, “we’re not going to work today. I want to go out.” He said, “take me someplace where there are old trees and lawns there aren’t too well mowed.” So I took him to a local cemetery, the Albany rural cemetery. And we drove around in the station wagon and we did some car foraging. So, you know, every now and then he’d stop and we’d get out of the car and we’d find mushrooms and put them in the basket. And so forth. By the end of the afternoon, we had gathered quite a lot and he basically focused on edible mushrooms. That afternoon it was not a mycological exploration. It was focusing on things that he was familiar with. And we went back to my apartment and he cooked everything up and we ate it all, each mushroom prepared a different way to accentuate its flavor. And then we washed down with some Montepulciano or something. Anyway. That was the big mycological adventure I had with Cage.
27:35 CAGE’S DEATH and HEALING
What actually brought me to mushrooms had to do with his death, which came rather suddenly. He had had a couple of minor strokes that didn’t do that much damage. But the big one came on August 12th of 1992 as he was making his dinner. That was the end of the line for John.
And so I was kind of left, bereaved. He was a friend at that point. He was a patron. So there was a big hole there and one of the little mushroomy things that did happen while he was alive, what came about… An incident: my father who likes mushrooms and decided he knew enough about mushrooms to go look without any experience or knowledge of it. And he did finally get sick from eating mushrooms and I decided I had to get him a field guide or something. Cause you know, he was just flying by the seat of the pants. He’d just see a mushroom and people often do this, they say, “Oh, that looks so good. Yeah, that looks delicious.” Which is foolhardy. You know, lots of people have made that mistake. So I asked John, “John, I want to get a book from my father.” And so, he made a couple of recommendations and one of them was the Audubon Guide to North American Mushrooms which I bought. And I was reading through the preface and in that preface Gary Lincoff, the author, wrote about how he came to mushrooms and it was through John Cage! So there was this connection there.
And so August 12th, John died. And I, up to that point, I was starting to think about a hobby. Before that, as I mentioned it was a full-time job plus, and I was at a point I was working for John, but I also had other clients, and so I was working a lot. Too much and not getting out in the woods enough. And so I thought to have a hobby, which would get me out into the woods and also might, in the acquisition of Latin binomials, might keep my brain going in my dotage. And so a friend suggested I go to the New York Botanical Garden and take their beginning mushroom class up there in September, which was being taught by Gary Lincoff.
So that’s how it happened. And it turned out that Gary, over the next twenty years, and I became very good friends and, in fact, after he died, again I was kind of bereft and you know upset, and realized—it hit me even harder than Cage’s did because it was Gary that actually helped heal me from Cage’s loss.
31:03 GARY LINCOFF and MUSHROOMS IN FIVE DIMENSIONS
I guess the best way to talk about Gary is to talk about the club. So I joined the club. Now, this is in 1992. After the last day of class, Gary handed out an information sheet for people to introduce them to a way of going on with their mushroom activity. And the New York Mycological Society was listed as one of the resources. So, there was a phone number. There was no web page in 1992, very hard to find the New York Mycological Society. I have a feeling in a way that may have been a good thing because you had to be a hunter to find them, you know. I think that was a good thing!
But in any case, it was rather easy for me. I had a phone number and I talked to Wilbur Williams, the treasurer, and paid my dues and began going on walks with them. And it was an interesting group of people. And it was at the end of the season when I joined up. So it wasn’t until the 1993 season that we really got rolling. It was a smaller group at that point. And so there were a number of personalities that we became acquainted with, but all of whom or most of whom at least were very friendly, very free with their information, very interested in telling you whatever they knew about mushrooms. It remains really the best way to learn about mushrooms is to join a mushroom club because it’s very much an in-your-hand experience, you know. A mushroom in a photograph is really a two dimensional thing and you need to study mushrooms in really four dimensions or five dimensions. You need to know their length and width and depth three, their smell, and how they proceed in time, particularly with certain species. So it really is a much more complicated affair than looking at a photograph and comparing it to another photograph. That’s definitely not optimal. And that hands-on experience is something that you get, you know, on a trail with someone who knows about the mushroom. They’re going to tell you things that you aren’t likely to find in one place at any particular time.
So one of the people who was the go-to person in the club was Gary Lincoff, and he just had an encyclopedic knowledge of mushrooms. And so you not only learned the basics, you learned some of the subtleties. You learned the aspects of the habitat, the ecology, you know, the whole nine yards was what Gary would bring.
So those walks were precious. And we were like his acolytes. I mean, we’d roll up to our lunch place and we’d eat our food and then lay out our mushrooms. And Gary would go through, who knows hundreds of mushrooms and, go through at least 20 or 30 of them and give you a complete descriptive, really encyclopedia-type essay on each one. So he was invaluable. He was funny. Eugenia Bone, who wrote a book called Mycophilia featured Gary in large part. And she called him the “borscht belt mycologist” because he had an impeccable sense of comedic timing, very very very entertaining.
Over the years, one of the aspects of the New York Mycological Society that has been part of its structure is that we have our walks and then in the wintertime, there are lectures. So you have something to do during the so-called off-season. So Gary was the person who organized that and brought in people, but he always had at least one lecture, you know, when he would talk about things, always in a sort of off-beat way. It was never a dry lecture. There was just a little entertainment built into it, you know. That was his profession. He did mushrooms all the time. He taught botany as well. He was actually a first-rate botanist, in addition to a first-rate mycologist. He’s more well-known as a mycologist because that was his passion, but at the botanical garden, he educated thousands of botanists, you know, and he taught these intensive classes in botany.
I can tell you, he knew the botanical gardens so well, he could do it blind because he went through a period of blindness. He had hurt his back severely, and he was in so much pain, he was put on steroids. And the corticosteroids will cause a cataract to form on your eyes. And so he was telling me one night at dinner, he was like teaching these classes in botany. And he said, if it weren’t for the fact that I knew the garden so well, he said, I couldn’t see the tree, but he knew where it was and he could feel, and, you know, so he was a first-rate botanist. You don’t need me to testify to that, there are many people who have given that testimony. In any event, he was not just a good teacher and it wasn’t just his technical information he passed on, he was a real inspiration. He was one of those people who didn’t just talk the talk, he really walked the talk. I mean, he was very, very complete. It was a holistic kind of situation. So he inspired me to delve into microscopy and all of that.
37:43 EXPLORING GREENBROOK / PALISADES FUNGI
Greenbrook is an interesting place. It sits out there on the top of the Palisades kind of across from Yonkers is about five miles North of the George Washington Bridge. If you look at a map of the Palisades Parkway, you see it do this curious little loop around and there’s brass plaque at the site sanctuary saying that this was founded by the New Jersey Ladies Garden Club, something like that. And you think of a bunch of Ms. Marples running around working on flowers and whatnot. This was probably a pretty powerful formidable group of women. And so it was built and there’s a fence around it. It’s a fenced in property and this made it very attractive for women to go to because you could feel safe there, and you still have to unlock a lock to get in, you know, your membership card is key.
So Lynn had been leading these walks and I had gone on a few with her. And was introduced to Lynn through the then-naturalist, a woman by the name of Nancy Slovic. Sadly Lynn left us in 2001. After her passing, Nancy asked me if I could take over the walks. I could not have even entertained the thought of doing that if I hadn’t hung out with Gary so much, because he not only taught you about mushrooms, but he taught you about teaching. I had always done a little bit of teaching, but I felt better prepared through my association with Gary. So I started doing these walks annually and after a time she said, “you know, Paul, there’s a project that I have in mind”. And I said, “what’s that?” She said, “well, there was Guy Nearing originally here and he had done a fungal survey. There’s a list.” And she said, “I had Gary go through the list so he’s updated the nomenclature, but I thought it might be interesting for us to do a new survey of the property to compare to the 1949 list.”
The scientific method if you will, of a mycologist is to make collections and to describe them. To classify them and kind of organize them. In the classification, you end up organizing them according to habitat and you know what plants they’re associated with. Mushrooms, probably everybody knows by now have relationships with plants through their root systems. So making a list is just like what mycologists and botanists do. It really is the scaffolding of the profession. It provides one with the information that one needs to come to a greater understanding of the place of fungi in the world, how they interact with our world, how we interact with them and so forth. So that’s how it works.
And so Guy made a list of the mushrooms. I mean, that’s the first, most elemental part of it. What would grow out of that eventually would be a book with descriptions and, you know, supporting literature and photography and so forth.
42:06 NANCY SAID, LET’S DO THIS PROJECT
Nancy said, let’s do this project. And she finally nagged me enough and I said, okay. And we set off on this scientific adventure. Up to this point, I was basically pot hunting, meaning we were hunting for food. So I was kind of an itinerant, going to places where I would find morels in the spring and then there would usually be a break till the summer season started up. And then we would go looking for, you know, Lactarius in the hot months of July and the Black Trumpets and the Chanterelles. And you go to the places that are good habitats for those things. So, you know, you’re off to Vermont in August, you’re in Oak woods in July, you’re under beech trees in August. So you go where the trees are, where you’re likely to find the mushroom that you want to put into your dinner that night. And that’s kind of how mushrooming was for me.
Now, there are a lot of other mushrooms. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of species, the fleshy mushrooms, you know. We’ll put them in the thousands of species in our area, most of which we ignore because we’re kind of laser-focused on Chanterelles. As soon as you see a Chanterelle, you go for it and you spend your time there to pick every last one. Then you go looking for another patch of yellow in the woods and ignore everything else in between, right?
A survey is a whole other exploration. And so that’s really when I grew into whatever level of mycology I’ve found myself in today. So then I was no longer kicking Russulas. I was picking them and trying to figure out what they were, and in order to do that, you needed to get the microscope out. That’s when I was now confronted with the polypores, which are something we generally ignore unless they’re a Chicken of the Woods or a Hen of the Woods. We were largely ignoring those because I didn’t really have much use for them, but now there was a lot there to study. So in fact, I ended up going to Maine to study with Tom Volk at Eagle Hill, which is a wonderful summer school, if you will, that’s up in Steuben, Maine, a little North of Acadia. It’s a great place and beautiful, and it’s intensive every day you’re in the classroom and then in the field. It’s like eight hours a day and I would spend the evenings just kind of poring over things and trying to figure them out. Microscopes. You brought literature with you and you could just do a total zone in on polypores.
Those are the years 2007/2008 that the New York Mycological Society and members of the Greenbrook Association — it’s called the Palisades Nature Association actually — would get together on weekends to make collections of fungi that we found in Greenbrook. One of the things I neglected to say was that I did say it was a conservancy. One of the rules that you must abide by is you don’t pick anything. So we were allowed to pick mushrooms to do this work. The project was advised basically by Nancy who was a first-rate naturalist who studied all things botanical and otherwise, very familiar with all the flora and fauna of the area. She set up the protocols that we followed. So, we accessioned everything. We had people following a protocol that included in situ photography. Then we would pick the collection. Then that would be brought to a staging place where we would then do studio photography as best we could. And then everything was labeled with its location and the surrounding trees and so forth. It was in itself for the people who participated, it was a great way to learn about how to do this kind of work.
For me, I was then confronted with trying to identify these mushrooms that I had, many of which I had no idea what their names were. And so NYMS and those Monday night meetings were invaluable because we have some really very, very well informed people in the club who could look at something and say, Oh, that’s that. That’s that. That’s that.
47:43 MUSHROOMS AND RAIN
We did this work every Saturday or Sunday for two years. And in its broad outlines, it was quite interesting. Overall, we made 1,400 collections. The summer of 2007 was a rather thunderstormy summer. So you’d have these fronts coming through, deluge, then cool breezy air behind the front that would dry everything out. That summer, we found a little over 400 collections. The next year was filled with rain events, which are more like the one we’re having today and yesterday. These low pressure systems that would come through and you’d have a several-day rain event, not particularly deluge-full, but rainy, consistent rain. And that year we found over a thousand, so we more than doubled our collecting. On that point alone, it was instructive just to show how, what the interplay of hydration and fungi can result in. In between those two summers, I went up in the winter and that’s when I first started looking at mushrooms in the winter time and I was surprised by what I found. Particularly looking at the polypores, which are rather durable, but we find all sorts of things like the split-gill mushroom, the Schizophyllum commune, oysters, which grow all year round, and other species, which are very cold-tolerant, you know. The Enoki, for example.
That is really where we kind of got our feet wet. Gary said, well, I think you should make a presentation to the society on the work that you do. You know, so I did this thing and it had everything but the kitchen sink in it but you know, you have to start somewhere. So Gary was in so many ways, he taught me about mushrooms, but he also led me into other activities, until eventually, you know, he kindly suggested that I take over his classes at the botanical gardens. So I’ve been doing that for the last couple of years since he left us.
50:51 A MUSHROOM THAT WAS OUT OF PLACE
One of the things to illustrate what seemed anomalous to me at the time was this mushroom I found. It was a polypore. A polypore is a durable mushroom that we generally find growing on wood. And when I say durable mushroom to differentiate it from the more evanescent ones we find. So, your typical fleshy mushroom that you find — be it a Chanterelle or a Morel or whatever you find growing with a cap and a stem as a rule — are mushrooms that are destined to be basically rotten in a couple of weeks. So they come up, they produce spores, and then they demise one way or other. The polypores will grow more — they have a much more complicated cellular structure, which will ensure their continual presence over a short or even long period of time, say within a season or perennially, that will have periods of production of spores and senescence, where they’re basically not producing. So you have a period where they’re growing and producing spores then say it dries out. Then rain comes for a longer period of time during which time they then begin to grow more of these spore-producing cells and produce spores. And so they go back and forth between these two states. But they may be around for, as I said, a season, there are annuals. And then there are these polypores that grow for many years. Year after year, they add a new layer of spore-producing cells. So anyway, these are known as the polypores.
I found these polypores in November. Some of them were just starting to form and other older ones had been out for awhile. I took them home and I keyed them out in a book I had on polypores. So when I say I keyed them out, I used a book that contains many descriptions of many fungi. You have this structure at the beginning of a chapter or the book, or both places that will lead you to a particular identification or a genus or a species. So it’s a stepwise list that you work your way through to lead you to a possible solution. So I did this, I went through the key with this mushroom that I had found, and it turned out it keyed out beautifully to a mushroom described in the book or named in the book as Polyporus elegans. The only problem with it: it was a southern species. It was not a northern species, and we’re technically speaking a northern species. So, I put the name on it because it seemed to fit and kind of left the mystery of “why is it here” for another day.
The other day came, some years later when Gary was teaching a class for the Connecticut Westchester Mycological Association known as COMA, in a class that COMA ran called Mushroom University. Gary was teaching a series of classes, ten or something on Saturday mornings, on polypores. And so he came out and he named this mushroom and I said, Gary, I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s something else. And it turned out into a long exploration. We ended up consulting Tom Volk and others, and it turned out it was this southern species. And it’s all throughout the North now, from the Midwest where Tom is out there in Wisconsin all the way through. It’s now known as Tramedes gibosa. So that seems to indicate to me — I don’t think it’s good science to conclude that this is somehow indicating global warming or climate change, but it could be, you know. It might be a contribution to that point of view.
56:26 GEOLOGY MATTERS
But something else that’s happened. Greenbrook is situated on the Palisades escarpment. Now it’s an interesting bit of geology going on there. When lava flows into cracks in sedimentary rock, they form either sills or dikes. Dikes are vertical. Sills are horizontal. On my many rides between my home base, which was up around Albany in New York on the train, I would look across the Hudson and see these columns. There’s a colonnade of rocks, which are the Palisades and I always assumed they were dikes, because they’re vertical. But in fact, the Palisades are a very thick sill of diabase. That is, lava that has insinuated itself between layers of sandstone. And the columns that you see are actually like a honeycombed kind of crystallization of this sill. The sill kind of is at a very acute angle. So it’s maybe say 12 degrees, you know. So it’s almost horizontal, but it’s just a little bit off. But what you see at the Hudson River is like the shearing off of this sheet of lava that remains today. So kind of interesting. I have to say that in studying papers on certain mushrooms, you know, when you do this sort of thing, you spend your time in the library. There was one paper that really caught my attention by a Scottish mycologist working in England by the name of Roy Watling. And I think this might’ve been his master’s thesis, I’m not sure. But looking at the work, it talked about the mushrooms that he found in this locality, but he really introduced the whole thing with a study of its geology. So geology is a determinant factor in all kinds of habitat that grow there and you have to consider the various geological things that have happened.
So you have Greenbrook, as I said, sitting on top of this diabase sill. And you have to remember that maybe 10,000 years ago, this had been a glacier. The glaciers receded and basically scraped this sill off clean. The sandstone that was on top of it — remember the sill is in interstices between two layers of sandstone, and I won’t go into the story of how the sand got there, because that’s a whole other lecture. But there we were, and the sandstone had been just wiped clean off of this diabase. And so whatever the succession of probably lichens and mosses and fungi, and then vascular plants, it is that the plants that have brought the organic soil to the top of the Palisades. And indeed, because of the structure of the Greenbook Sanctuary, you can see this very clearly. As you get to the East where the face of the Palisades is, it’s very exposed and rocky. It’s rather bowl-shaped. In the center of Greenbrook, there’s a pond. And one of the naturalists there who told me he was in the pond for some reason, doing something in his waders. And he said, it’s only about maybe two and a half feet deep of mud before you’re on rock again. It’s interesting to consider in terms of the fragility, if you will, almost the evanescence in geological terms of the organic stuff that is, we call soil that is now present there in Greenbrook and everywhere around here that has a rocky substrate. So this was, I thought, a very interesting aspect of it. And it was a consideration that I got from Roy Watling to look at the geological underpinnings of a situation.
In the geological scheme, you had the glaciation, then the recession of the glaciers, then you had the slow colonization of the rock face by the succession of organisms. Maybe three or 400 years ago, it was probably mostly Eastern hemlock. That was the dominant tree in our area that has receded northward over the last 25, 30 years. You had these beautiful stands of Eastern hemlock and then the lengthening winters and the milding of the winters has made the presence of the Woolly adelgid more possible. You see this out West with the oak borers that can now survive the winters because it’s warmer. These are insects that are just killing off vast stands of trees. You know, they’re like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, rather than a black and white sort of explanation.
1:02:33 DIFFERENT KINDS OF ROCKS
So that experience at Greenbrook really opened my eyes up a lot to not only different considerations of the mushroom species that we would be looking at, but also, you know, the geological underpinnings. We live in a really interesting geological area here in New York City area because we have that sill that is the sandstone bed. Across the Hudson, you have a tongue of the Appalachians that comes down. So it’s a completely different kind of rock. You have the mica schist and so forth. If you look at say Inwood Hill and Palisades, on the face of it, they look more or less the same. You have these sheer cliffs there basically, but they are different geological formations.
The mainland burroughs — so you have the Bronx is basically the mainland — is geologically very different from the islands. Manhattan for all intents and purposes is part of the mainland. But the other boroughs, Queens and Brooklyn, are on Long Island. And Staten Island is by itself out there in the harbor. Long Island itself is a terminal moraine that delimits the progress of the glaciers and where the glaciers dropped a lot of sediment, which is the sand that forms the beaches and so forth of Long Island and up through Cape Cod, Nantucket, and so forth. So we see very similar conditions there but a very different geology. You know, if you’re in Inwood or you’re up in Van Cortlandt Park, the soils aren’t so sandy, as those that you find out in Staten Island where we spend a lot of time. Out there, we see sinkholes, kettle ponds, and then as you’re out towards the beach, it’s just a whole different kind of environment out there. And the mushrooms are very different and the trees are very different. Your adventures into the various parks bring different kinds of mushrooms that you wouldn’t be finding in the Catskills, for example, you know, just a whole different kind of mycological flora.
As John Cage said, you know, the mushrooms are continually surprising.
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