Cumulative Skies, Deep Soils at Phosphor Project Space uses art to delve into a very large mushroom | Visual Art | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Cumulative Skies, Deep Soils at Phosphor Project Space uses art to delve into a very large mushroom

click to enlarge Image of fungus in Allegheny National Forest sent out via SSTV early 2020 - ERIN MALLEA
Erin Mallea
Image of fungus in Allegheny National Forest sent out via SSTV early 2020
In trying to guess the largest organism on Earth, the answers would probably range anywhere from the nearly 100-foot long blue whale to the California coastal redwood tree, which can grow to over 360 feet tall. But the correct response is neither animal not plant — it’s a mushroom, the honey fungus, to be exact. Scientifically known as Armillaria ostoyae or Armillaria solidipes, it covers a 3.5-mile area, most of it underground, in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest. It’s also estimated to be more than 8,000 years old. 

Now Oregon-based artist Jen Vaughn and local artist Erin Mallea have produced work inspired by the honey fungus with Cumulative Skies, Deep Soils, running March 7-April 5 at Phosphor Project Space. The exhibition centers on an immersive audio and sculptural installation that combines lighting design with forest field recordings, mushroom vibrations, Slow Scan Television (SSTV) transmissions, and NASA sound recordings. It will also feature a collaborative artist book visitors can read while sitting on “small, sculptural blocks constructed of mycelium, meteorites, cement, found debris, and plastic.”

Vaughn and Mallea spoke to the Pittsburgh City Paper about mushrooms, working long distance, and climate change.


(This interview was edited and condensed for print.)

How did you find out about Armillaria ostoyae? Why does it interest you?
Jen: I first heard about Armillaria ostoyae, the honey fungus, a few years ago when I was doing research for my master’s thesis in fine art. I had been cultivating other types of mushrooms in discarded industrial materials and presenting them as sculptures that were simultaneously growing and decaying. When I found out that one of the largest organisms in the world was a fungus and located only a few hours away, I was thrilled.

Mushrooms are fascinating organisms. Although we commonly associate them with plants they actually have strong genetic ties with animals. They breathe like animals — inhaling oxygen and exhaling CO2, whereas plants, of course, do the opposite, breathing in CO2 and exhaling oxygen. Beyond these simple comparisons, there is a lot of research happening on the bioremedial qualities of fungi and their abilities to absorb toxins, pollution, waste, and radiation. 
The age and size of the [honey fungus] is astounding and mysterious. My exploration to find it proved daunting — most of the fungus is hidden underground, only revealing its profile in the large stands of dead firs trees that it has killed.

When it says that the work was created “from a distance,” does that imply the long-distance nature of your collaboration? Or is it more in-depth than that?
J: I think it’s both. We certainly collaborated from opposite coasts, but it is also about the idea of making contact — across time, space, and species. It’s a purposeful slowing down and fighting against the ease of distance, the losing of touch. 


Erin: Another element of distance in the project is related to the SSTV transmissions we sent leading up to the exhibition. SSTV is a mode of image communication that utilizes shortwave radio frequencies to transmit still images. It is slow and specific, taking anywhere from eight seconds to five minutes for each image to be built from modulating audio frequencies. The possibility of these images being heard, and therefore seen, lies with those who are actively listening, diligently open to receiving unknown, distant communication. 
click to enlarge Artist Jen Vaughn taking sound vibration recordings of mushrooms in eastern Oregon, 2019. - JEN VAUGHN
Jen Vaughn
Artist Jen Vaughn taking sound vibration recordings of mushrooms in eastern Oregon, 2019.
It seems like this show combines two areas — science and art — that are usually seen as unconnected. What’s the value of using art to delve into something like biology?
J: I hesitate to label this particular work as scientific, although it is certainly inspired by and launched from our fascination with biology, ecology, and space. Our approach is more speculative, for instance, the measurements and audio recordings of the [honey fungus] isn’t scientifically accurate. We aren’t attempting to generate scientific knowledge through our mushroom vibration recordings. Rather, we want to use them as means of generating sensory experience. It’s about another kind of knowledge, one both imagined and felt. This space of reimagining and valuing the sensory experience often falls outside the scope of scientific inquiry, for understandable reasons. For me, art opens up that possibility to have both rational knowledge and the experiential come together in a way that generates authentic change and empathy.

E: Jen and I were both influenced by Rachel Carson’s A Sense of Wonder. Carson emphasizes the importance of a connection to the natural world that is beyond scientific and analytical: one that is also personal, emotional, and maintains an ongoing ethic of care, closeness, and awe. Many advances in science and technology have increased the nature-culture divide and alienated individuals and communities from the larger social and ecological systems we exist within. This alienation not only propels climate change but perpetuates environmental, economic, and racial injustice. For us, this work comes from our own fascination with nature and a desire for intimacy with one another and the world around us.

Cumulative Skies, Deep Soils. Opening reception: 6-9 p.m. Sat., March 7. Continues through Sun., April 5. Phosphor Project Space, 7720 Waverly St.. Wilkinsburg. Free. phosphorpgh.com

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