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27 Feb 2006
Life Support Systems
Mushrooms dining on motor oil. In our own backyard …
San Francisco
Soil is the vital system which supports growth of plants which supply food and oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide and nitrogen is a foundation of life, yet we know less about it than we do about deep space. A shovel full of soil contains more living material than the total number of humans ever born. This is a frontier where fungi lay traps for thread-like worms, bacteria dine on toxic chemicals, and unknown species leave scientists and artists with an exciting world of discovery.

Recently, while doing research about mycoremediation we came across the work of Paul Stamets and Diane Whitmore. Stamets coined the term “mycoremediation” which refers to fungal mycelia used in bioremediation. Of particular interest was the work Stamets did with Battelle Laboratories, which was a major contribution to the research at a Washington State Department of Transportation site. This project involved four similar diesel-contaminated mounds of soil, which gave the team the possibility to apply varying remediation techniques in a comparable situation. Three mounds were covered with plastic tarps of which two piles were treated with bacterial remediation techniques and one was left unmanaged. The fourth pile was put into parallel, alternating layers of soil and pure culture sawdust spawn. This mound was left uncovered. Within a few weeks oyster mushrooms thrived on this specific pile and one month later plant life reappeared. A milieu of life forms (mushrooms, insects, larvae, birds, seeds) manifested a small ecosystem prospering on the (previously) toxic soil, in stark contrast to the three other piles. This experiment is evidence that with mycoremediation, brownfields can return to greenfields.

Mycelium possesses the ability to decompose organic structures by using enzymes to dissolve cellulose and lignin within. When the right fungal species are introduced in a contaminated environment, similar chemical bonds that are present in pollutants are broken down by these enzymes as well. Together with the habitats existent organisms, mycelium can decompose a wide variety of durable toxic chemicals. The fact that we can use mycoremediation to destroy the characteristic properties of long-chained toxins and break them down into less complex ones, gives us the possibility to use the technique in many different ways.

In 2002, artist Diane Whitmore was asked to be part of Chlorophilia, a one evening event at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. This green happening, curated by Phil Ross, exhibited the work of plant breeders, garden societies and research scientists, aligning the work of both artist and expert in a tradition that is as old as human culture. Diane had been interested in collecting edible mushrooms for a few years, when her friend suggested she see a Stamets lecture. She was immediately inspired by him and started experimenting with motor oil. She felt that the word on mycoremediation had to get out into other worlds. The Chlorophilia show seemed like an excellent environment for Diane’s OYSTER MUSHROOM BAR, a format that allowed her to engage with her audience and present a recipe to reverse disasters. In one evening she reached 250 people.

Diane’s Bar project took the form of five stools surrounding a bar where visitors were presented with place settings of a different sort. They received dinner plates of snow-white mycelium, and were encouraged to place drops of motor oil onto the cultures, and examine the result with forceps, scalpels and magnifiers. About one hundred plates of agar culture were served. Each plate was served upon information-laden placemats that visitors could take home. People also received ‘servings’ of mushrooms which had been feeding off of motor oil drained straw, and dissected them. In the meantime, standing behind her bar, Diane had the opportunity to answer questions and inform her audience about the possibilities of mycoremediation.

In an email interview with Diane, she revealed the roots of her interest in recycling and renewal: “As for my personal history, I think it really hit me at the age of 25. That would have been 1988. I had a job as a deckhand sailing across the Atlantic on a wooden ship. One day, I was asked to take out the trash. This meant dumping overboard. I didn't understand some of the subtleties of boat living at this point. I simply threw the black bag overboard, expecting I guess, for it to sink. It was a doldrummy, calm hazy day and the bag did not sink. I watched it float away from the ship, unable to retrieve it. It just floated there. It was very upsetting to me.

With help, that day, I organized a system to sort, dispose of and pack out waste. There were times, out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, that I'd see a lone styrofoam cup float by. The Ocean is really big, and you don't see boats for a week at a time, yet a styrofoam cup floats by you. It changed me, I think.

My first gig at the Exploratorium was as a volunteer for a Garbage Symposium in 1994. I was still a student at SFAI. There, I met Mel Chin, who was working with hyper-accumulating plants, remediating a site in Minnesota, my home state. I got interested in that along with collecting wild food and medicine. I had been using junk in diorama-type artworks since the boat trip, then incorporated my interest in systems and sculpture into a recycling and sorting system at the San Francisco Art Institute. Later, I co-developed a human-powered recycling system for the Burning Man project, a week-long temporary community in Nevada that hosts as many as 30,000 participants.”

So for those of us not attending Burning Man, we can look to the sky while we dip our toes into the far reaches of the earth in our backyards. Think globally, act locally!

Amy and Stijn

Art + Activism / Artists / Events / Sustainability
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