Passing for Normal The mushroom chair
Arts & Culture, New in Ceasefire, Passing for Normal - Posted on Wednesday, June 1, 2011 0:00 - 6 Comments
By Dave Prescott
For a while now I have been looking for someone with the time, skill and interest to help me grow oyster mushrooms on a straw-stuffed chair, in order to install it without explanation as a piece of living art in my local high street.
The two mycologists I have approached have both been lukewarm to the idea, one not replying to my request, and the other politely saying that it wasn’t her “area of expertise”. If it had been a request to identify or classify a mushroom I would have come to the right place, but growing on chairs? I would need to try elsewhere. Quite polite. Not, “what the hell are you talking about?”, but, “try elsewhere”.
Trying elsewhere, I spoke to a fundraiser friend about whether funding might be available for such a project and he thought not. I asked if it would make any difference if the chair was stuffed with manure, which, like straw, is a good growing medium for oyster mushrooms, however he thought this definitely wouldn’t be something that was felt to be a funding priority.
Next I asked a biodynamic farmer if he knew anyone who grew mushrooms and his response (this is coming from someone who pays close attention to lunar cycles) was that growing mushrooms was ‘a bit of a dark art’ and that he couldn’t help.
This kind of pointless and tangential searching continued for a while as I tried herbalists, artists and the guy from the council whose job it is to close off the high street. I even heard tell of a witch practising locally but I never had the nerve to approach her.
Well, I learned quite a lot about quite a lot of things but I was no closer to my stated goal. Becoming downhearted I started to mention the idea in ever-briefer soundbites to the few friends I had left, watching the words hit the blank walls of their faces in sadness as the idea slowly lost all trace of integrity.
So this is a last ditch call for people who either have the skills or access to funding for a project of this nature. Perhaps you’re wondering why I want to do it. In a way it would be good to withhold my reasons and invite comment. I enjoy the notion that someone knows exactly where I’m coming from with this idea even before I explain it. That someone would be exactly the person to make it happen. But that is perhaps to ask too much, as well as to risk irate comments about my annoying lack of connection to anything remotely recognisable.
Let us therefore assume for now that the chair has been installed in a busy high street. There is a little plaque mounted in the pavement, like in a memorial garden or an art gallery, and it says something like ‘Mushroom chair/ 2011/ Mixed media/ Donated anonymously to the high street’. Below that, there would be a URL linking to a statement that explained the fundamental importance of fungi to all life on earth.
Here is a picture of what the chair might look like just before it is installed in the high street:
I wanted to include a picture of a busy high street but I decided you would know what one of those looks like. You can very easily imagine most people scuttling past the chair too busy getting to the shops or the crack house to stop and look. It would be so obtrusive and weird that it could effectively be invisible.
Some people would have conversations right next to it and not refer to the chair once. They would strain themselves trying not to glance at the installation. More constructionally-minded people might wonder vaguely how it was put together. Or else they would notice the chair and get angry, or perhaps feel superior, thinking, oh look someone is being weird/ someone has too much time on their hands/ someone needs to get a proper job/ the Arts Council has too much money and should have been cut right back to the hilt. The Tories are too kind.
Or maybe they would think, some people just don’t look after their stuff, or that is disgusting, I wish people wouldn’t fly-tip. What do we pay our council taxes for anyway? I’m writing a letter to my MP as soon as I get home.
Optimistically, I imagine a few people stopping to have a good look at the chair and being quite surprised, for example, that oyster mushrooms come in a range of different colours and sizes, and possibly thinking about the wild mushroom soup they once had in, for example, at a friend’s café off Westbourne Grove before, say, the café got closed down and the friend took up online poker.
One or two people might look on in silence and think, well, that’s an interesting object, I’m glad I saw that today. Wasn’t expecting that by any manner of means. Some people might try and sit on it. This would be just something that happened. There would be no attempt to prevent it. No barriers, armed guards or neurotic artists hiding under a manhole cover.
It would probably last an hour or two before it was vandalised, set on fire, shat on or some combination of these things. Hopefully though, before that time, someone might have scribbled down the URL and gone home to look at the statement explaining the fundamental importance of fungi to all life on earth. They would get themselves a nice cup of ale and sit down in front of their laptops and get comfortable wondering what they were about to read and thinking slightly about whether there was perhaps something else they could be doing instead.
The statement would start off with a kind of apology saying, look, I’m not one of these people who thinks that we shouldn’t travel into space before we first understand all life on earth. No, if you want to spend time floating around looking at stuff from a long way up then you go for it.
There would be a pause at this point in the statement. The man would drink some ale and start searching for something on YouTube instead.
Then there would follow some ill-judged semi-garbled flannelling firstly around the nature of artistic production and, secondly, around the bizarre language that has sprouted up around mushrooms and what this all means.
Abruptly, the statement would rapidly attempt to return to its point by making some fairly technical claims such as, without fungi we would all be buried under dozens of miles of rotting vegetation, or, humans are closer to mushrooms than plants and there is talk in some esoteric academic circles of merging the animal and fungi kingdom to create one giant super-kingdom.
The man has put his laptop down and gone outside for a roll-up. No one is reading the statement any more. It is talking about how several fungal varieties, in particular oyster mushrooms, grow well on a surprisingly large variety of substrate, many of which are considered waste material. This means, among other things, that in poor countries, mushroom-growing can provide a supplementary or even main income to subsistence farmers, with extremely low capital investment.
Urgency and passion would kick in. Some fungi have been used in clinical trials to alleviate cancer symptoms, and others have been used to remediate toxic waste sites, bioaccumulating elements such as arsenic, radioactive caesium, lead, mercury and copper and rendering the whole site safe once more.
There was an experiment to demonstrate the potential for mycoremediation which involved oyster mushroom mycelia being implanted into diesel-contaminated soil. Over time the mushrooms absorbed the petrochemicals, grew, then rotted, attracting insects, which brought pollen and seeds, which grew into grass and small flowers, until this ecological nightmare had turned into a piece of bucolic countryside.
It would finish with a flourish about how fungi take all the crap from the world, all the rotting, festering, wasted shit that would otherwise lie around getting more rotten and festering and wasted, how fungi takes all this and, without using sunlight which is otherwise a basic requirement for life, transforms it into something useful, aesthetically pleasing, occasionally deadly and often delicious.
The point of the installation, right at the end of the statement, would be this: ‘Something utterly marginal that most people know absolutely nothing about has the potential to do completely amazing things.’
These words are dedicated to Paul Stamets.
Dave Prescott is a writer and consultant. He lives in the countryside.
Photo: Zeger Reyers.
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