RADIUS
CCA  Center for Contemporary Art and Ecology 

24 September – 27 November 2022

Underland Chapter 3

ENTANGLED LIFE

Book Tickets

Participating artists:
Abbas Akhavan, Ursula Biemann, Suzette Bousema, Eglé Budvytyté, Wim van Egmond, Johanne Hestvold, Nona Inescu, Dominique Koch, Milah van Zuilen

ENTANGLED LIFE is the third exhibition of the UNDERLAND year program, exploring the multispecies entanglements that occur in forest ecosystems through the work of nine artists. Moving from the world wide web to the wood wide web, this exhibition seeks to advocate for a heightened notion of symbiosis, mutualism, reciprocity and interdependence.

Forests, home to eighty per cent of the Earth’s biomass, have long been places of mystery, imagination, wilderness, and wisdom. Despite being overly present in our common imaginary, forests have long been treated as resource-making agents to quench human needs and desires. By simplifying them in such manner, the vastly rich interdependent relationships and exchanges that take place in forests—among trees, plants, fungi, microbes, soils, carbon, nutrients, and water—are played down and relegated to a strict botanically resourceful reading. The third chapter of UNDERLAND engages nine artists who share an interest in exploring the multispecies entanglements that occur in forest ecosystems, through practices across science and art, to ultimately propose ways of mutual interdependence and kinship. How can we employ nonhuman knowledge in forests to veer towards a radical opposition to the climatologically and ecologically man-made unsustainability and disaster that define the Anthropocene? How can we apply the symbiotic and mutually supporting forms and processes that characterize such living systems to human societies?

Drawing of a hypothetical plant community consisting of plant species that associate with different types of mycorrhizal fungi and which form three seperate underground networks (1) Trees forming networks with ectomycorrhizal fungi are interconnected; (2) various plant species and a tree (3) form arbuscular mycorrhizal networks and are also interconnected, and (4) an orchid forms a third underground network.

Trees, whether in boreal, tropical, or temperate forests, depend on their microbial partners. Millions of species of fungi and bacteria swap nutrients between soil and the roots of trees and plants through mycorrhiza—the mutual symbiotic association between a fungus and a plant—forming a vast, interconnected network of organisms throughout the forest commonly called the wood wide web. Just like the world wide web allows for fast and multi-layered exchange of information through the internet, the wood wide web hosts interspecies communication and exchanges which keep forests alive and healthy. Furthermore, mycorrhizal networks challenge human societal constructs. Fungi exemplify a total transgression in orthodox scientific structures by not only operating within frameworks of community and cooperation, but also in the transgression of gender categorisation by being non-binary organisms. In human terms, it could be said that fungi work in queer ways when they are relying on different species with different genders and sexualities reciprocating to subsist. On the other hand, mushrooms, the fleshy, spore-bearing fruit of a fungus, bear the potential to speculate possibilities of life in capitalist ruins, as anthropologist Anna Tsing postulates. Mushrooms namely are highly adaptable organisms that are able to thrive in climatologically degraded, polluted, and contaminated lands and soils, illuminating potential ways of co-living in the Anthropocene.

Myccorhizal fungi.

The complex underground world that is the wood wide web works through collaborative intelligence, or what professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard has described as forest wisdom. This kind of wisdom is not new to Indigenous peoples. Generation after generation, they have developed cumulative, local, and spiritual knowledges on nature which conceive the forest as a conscious, interrelated entity in which they are also participants in a non-hierarchical way. For instance, the Huu-ay-aht First Nations people, living in the Barkley Sound region on the west coast of Vancouver island, have shaped a forest wisdom around the concept of Hishuk Tsawak, a worldview meaning 'everything is one, everything is connected.' Indigenous forest wisdoms differ from orthodox western science not only because the latter studies the different elements of the environment separately, but also because it works under the assumption that mind and matter are separate, which in turn leads to assuming that humans are outside the environment and thus able to control or manage it. As a consequence, the standardised western scientific knowledge and language feels inadequate and insufficient to grasp the interdependent and all-encompassing ways of the forest networks; likewise, forest wisdoms are increasingly being incorporated in more unorthodox scientific studies. As an example, researcher Michael Marder claims that plants possess intelligence and consciousness, and accordingly advocates for more context-sensitive ways of acting upon one's environment.

John Ernest Weaver, The Ecological Relations of Roots, 1919.

Confronted with the challenges of climate change, there is so much to be learnt from the collaborative practices that keep forests alive by means of intricate symbiotic relationships, both above and below ground. They are a testament to most ancient synergies that come through even in major ecological disruptions. The forest, its root structures and the symbiosis found in its plants and fungi serve as inspiring analogies for reciprocity and mutual interdependence to counterpoint the greedy and selfish extractivist practices based on human exceptionalism. As biologist Lynn Margulis claimed, symbiotic or cooperative bonds between species are crucial evolutionary forces, and in turn "evolution is no linear family tree, but change in the single multidimensional being that has grown to cover the entire surface of Earth." This third chapter of Underland seeks to speculate on a broader consciousness of plant-thinking and fungal networks, to host an assemblage of artistic and scientific practices that seek to inspire mutually caring ways of being of acting to find ways to simultaneously survive and subvert the Anthropocene.

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  1. The environmental orientation that conceives the Earth as a resource whose utility is determined by human needs and interests is called Prometheanism, coined by John Dryzek, based on the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole the fire from the gods to give it to humans.
  2. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press, 2015.
  3. Suzanne Simard, “Forests are Wired for Wisdom”, Onbeing podcast episode, September 9, 2021. (link)
  4. Castleden, H., Garvin, T. and Huu-ay-aht First Nation. ‘“Hishuk Tsawak” (Everything is one/Connected): A Huu-ay-aht worldview for seeing forestry in British Columbia’, Canada’s Society and Natural Resources, vol 22, no 9 (2009): pp. 789–804.
  5. Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York City: Columbia University Press, 2013.
  6. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What is Life?, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Curated by Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk, assisted by Sergi Pera Rusca.

ENTANGLED LIFE is made possible with support from Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds, Mondriaan Fund, Municipality of Delft, FONDS21, The Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, BNG Cultuurfonds, Stichting Zabawas, and Institut français de pays bas.

The work of Abbas Akhavan is loaned from the Servais Family Collection, and presented in collaboration with Tlön Projects.