RISD Students Investigate the Secret Lives of Fungi in Digital + Media Studio

students collect mushrooms in Lincoln Woods

What can mushrooms and other fungi teach us about the world we inhabit? Do they deserve rights like humans since research tells us that they are sentient beings? Can they help us solve some of the planetary problems we’ve created, like plastics pollution and lead contamination?

Students in a graduate-level studio called Mycelium as Mode are exploring such questions, foraging for mushrooms in Lincoln Woods (a state park about five miles north of campus) and growing and observing mycelium to support individual research projects. Offered through the Digital + Media department, whose mission is to create a framework for students to discover emergent creative practices, and led by faculty members Florence Wallis and Chloe Zimmerman, the course combines hands-on learning with a wide range of creative perspectives on fungi.

“Fungi has one of the most sophisticated transmitting systems on the planet,” says Digital + Media Department Head Shona Kitchen. “In Digital + Media, students explore diverse subject matter and develop multidisciplinary research methodologies and creative strategies (analog or digital) to interrogate the social, psychological and cultural consequences of ubiquitous or emerging technologies.”

“We’re introducing artists and mycologists whose work engages with fungi, decomposition and interconnectivity across moving image, sound, text, performance and visual and digital arts,” the faculty team adds. They’ve introduced students to such fungi experts as NYC artist and RISD alum Jan Mun MFA 10 DM, Harvard University Professor Emeritus Donald H. Pfister, evolutionary ecologist Justin Stewart and Chilean activist Giuliana Furci, who founded the first NGO in the world dedicated to fungi.

Chloe Zimmerman looks on as Jen Ansley sterilizes her scalpel
mycelium growing on an agar substrate
Above, faculty member Chloe Zimmerman looks on as grad student Jen Ansley sterilizes the scalpel they are working with; below, students are growing mycelium on agar substrates.

“We’re using rot as a pathway to making materials of the future,” Furci told the class. “There are locally made, mycelium-based materials for insulating buildings that also have fire-retardant properties. Some of these species are farmable and might reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Stewart’s presentation focused on the nuanced cooperation between plants and fungi known as mycorrhizal symbiosis and what humans might learn from it. Essentially, the plant provides the fungus with organic molecules created through photosynthesis and the fungus supplies the plant with water and mineral nutrients absorbed from the soil. Stewart describes their relationship as an “evolutionary success story” and is working to protect mycorrhizal biodiversity.

On a sunny day in late October, the class gathers to begin a mycelium-growing experiment using petri dishes filled with agar, a seaweed derivative used in laboratories as a substrate. Each student uses a sterilized scalpel to remove a small piece from a fungus they are working with and carefully places it on the agar before closing the top and taping it shut with Parafilm. “You need to really pull the tape taut to make it stick,” Zimmerman advises as the work progresses.

Taylor Burgess shows off a mushroom she has foraged in the woods
a glorious pink oyster mushroom cultivated by grad student Yitao Yuan
Above, Taylor Burgess (dressed appropriately for the occasion) shows off a mushroom she has collected; below, a glorious oyster mushroom cultivated by grad student Yitao Yuan, who is searching for clues in fungi communication.

The mycelium will grow over the next 10 days or so as the students continue to develop their final projects. The class responds to each project via a question-based activity Zimmerman and Wallis introduced.  

Landscape Architecture student Ben Bailey MLA 24 is exploring reciprocal foraging practices and identifying indicator species related to specific phenomena he has observed among fungi. Grad student Yitao Yuan MFA 25 DM is searching for clues in fungi communication, using wire and needle electrodes to pick up on spikes in electronic output. Jen Ansley MLA 24, also a Landscape Architecture student, is investigating plastic-eating mushrooms as a possible solution to our waste problems.

“We’re introducing artists and mycologists whose work engages with fungi, decomposition and interconnectivity.”

Faculty co-leads Florence Wallis and Chloe Zimmerman

“Part of my project involves building an acrylic box with a plastic-coated pipe inside and mushrooms growing around the pipe eating away at it,” Ansley explains. The mushrooms, however, are not making much progress. “So, my project is becoming a critique of the idea that mushrooms will eat plastics and solve all our problems,” they note.

Grad student Jiayi Zhang MLA 25 and Illustration major Taylor Burgess 24 IL both share artwork inspired by collected fungi—Zhang a series of watercolor paintings connected (like fungi themselves) one to the next and Burgess an interactive illustration meant to highlight the invisible network of mycelium running through and under the forest.

“I think it’s great that you’re both beginning to think about mushrooms as part of a larger system,” Ansley says, “and also considering your own impact on that ecosystem as observers. I wonder if you could represent that change in your consciousness in the projects themselves.”

Simone Solondz
November 21, 2023

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