Library of Babel,

Group Therapy Exhibition,

Frye Museum Seattle, Washington. 

September 14, 2018 - January 6, 2019
September 15 Consciousness, Fungi and Journeys Within Architcectures of the Mind
Talk with  Dr. Jenn Dazey, Bastyr University and Zachary Tavlin. School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Library of Babel,

a Symbiont Induction

“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings … Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances.”

“The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges, 1941

The key to the Library of Babel, both in terms of the fungi-based spiral staircase installation, as well as the short story by Borges from where the title originates, is the idea of recursivity, which is the basis for understanding the ultimate source of biological, as well as creative endeavors.

In the short story, the narrator has to deal with the apparent contradiction that the universe is infinite and yet the number of books it contains is finite. In order to try to resolve this conundrum, he comes up with the idea that the Library repeats itself or is “periodic.” By walking far enough in one direction, you eventually come back to the same spot you started from.

This idea of recursivity was also written about extensively in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, and is a great basis for understanding creation as it extends into biology. A good example of how the form of something may stay the same, while what it is made of may completely change over time, is the story of the Delphic Boat, in which the oracle at Delphi was asked if a boat that had every plank replaced was still the same boat. The oracle replied that it was, because what was most important were not the individual planks but rather the relationship between the planks. In the same way, generation upon generation of living entities may look almost identical due to the biological information they contain and that moves through them, and yet the molecular make up of these organisms is constantly transforming, growing and decaying.

This cyclicality is a message that comes through the installation and counters humanity’s quest for permanence. Nature’s modus operandi is cyclical and therefore one of resilience, whereas man’s efforts degrade over time as was catalogued in the book, The World Without Usby Alan Weisman, in which entire neighborhoods were calculated to be completely overrun by forests within 500 years. Though, rather than an attempt at biomimicry, which is often just a pantomiming of natural systems in design approaches, the project aims for a deeper connection and therefore nurtures the sense of symbiont. In other words, the project seeks a merging dependence of intentions and approaches between visitor and spiral fungi stairway, just as fungi interact with tree species in an exchange of nutrients, as well as through the removal of waste products and their return to the soil.

Symbiosis was first conceived of by the 19th Century German mycologist Heinrich Anton de Barry. In the context of fungi, the word points to relationships of mutualism, where both parties benefit; commensalism, where one benefits but the other party remains unaffected; and also parasitism, in which one party benefits at the expense of the other. Perhaps these dynamics may also be extended within the creative ecology of art, with mutualism, of course, being favored over parasitism, or equally extended, or perhaps inoculated into social models or worrying technological advances, such as in the development of AI and ethical codes (if such can exist) for genetic manipulation.

Another type of mutualism can be found in endophytic fungi, which are microscopic fungi that live inside all plants, just as humans are the generous and fortunate hosts of over 4 lbs. of microbiome made up of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses that help with all sorts of internal processes, such as digestion. Mutualism is a given: it is a mirage of our social sickness that we think we are largely independent and unitary, whether it relates to world trade and migrants, the environment, or even inside our own bodies. What is most interesting, of course, is the mutualism that can be found, say, between insects and fungi, such as with leafcutter ants. In this case, very different life forms have found a way to cooperate to each other’s benefit, which contrasts with our own species that is so often at war with itself. Having said that, the idea of a symbiotic relationship between fungi and humans is not as distant as, say, between humans and plants. Fungi are much closer to us than they are to plants on an evolutionary, genetic basis. So, as an inductive entry point to the idea of symbiosis, working with fungi seems entirely appropriate.

On a formal level, in Library of Babel, a Symbiont Induction, a spiral staircase makes up the vertical backbone of an infinite library, which complements the mechanics of hypnotic inductions that sometimes rely on architectural conceits, particularly the staircase, to induce a deepening hypnotic state. In this case, steps are used to help count down from 10 to 1 as a relaxation technique.

One could imagine the spiral fragment being part of a much longer staircase ascending upwards or downwards infinitely as in Borges’s story, or at the same time its form perhaps becomes the visual cue for a double helix with its almost unlimited combination of DNA strand letters A, C, G, and T, representing the four nucleotide bases as they are amalgamated, just as the 25 characters were recombined in all possible ways in book after book in Borges’s “The Library of Babel.”

This reduction of literature to code, or nothing more than a series of letters, was described in the story, as a book that the narrator’s father had once seen with the letters M, C, and V “repeated from the first line to the last.” As the narrator later suggests, implying a kind of underlying universal information behind words, almost akin to the DNA behind life forms: “Others have mentioned the possibility of codes; that conjecture has been universally accepted, though not in the sense that its originators formulated it.”

Just as code is a device that models information, so there is a relationship between architecture and mental structures. As far back as the writings of Cicero, the idea of architecture and the mind has long been linked in Western culture by means of the mnemonic practice of “memory palaces”’ or the method of loci, in which a list of objects is committed to memory and easily retrieved through its sequential association with rooms in a building or landmarks in a city. This is another reason why an architectural feature has been used in this installation. Stairs, of course, extend the range of memory and experience to different floors or planes of consciousness.

It’s important when making a link between consciousness and fungi to remember that mind is embedded in life, rather than an outside observer of it. When thinking about the brain with its billions of neural pathways, one can’t help drawing some kind of analogy to the threadlike connections made by underground mycorrhizal fungi that act almost like a vast communications network, which mycologist Paul Stamets called “nature’s Internet.”

The fungaria included in the installation are reishi, the fruiting body of which has a step-like form and have been used for thousands of years as a medicine in China, where they are called lingzhi. When ingested, it is traditionally held that these fungi embed themselves in our mental processes, on the level of ‘Shen,’ breaking down repetitive behavioral and thought patterns.

In Borges’s “The Library of Babel,” he mentions a “circular chamber containing an enormous book with a continuous spine that goes completely around the walls.” This, he claimed, was revealed in ecstasies to “the mystics.” What could be more similar to the underside lamellae of a fully fruiting mushroom, where information and biological processes come to a crescendo, and millions of spores are released to generate new life forms? Of course, it doesn’t take much of a leap to consider fungi as vehicles for spiritual or shamanic revelation throughout the ages, as well as healing tools that have been used off and on since the 1950s in parallel with LSD to help with PTSD and chronic depression and which are discussed at length in Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change your Mind.

On the surrounding walls, acoustic tiles in the shape of spiral steps, with 12 treads as a nod to the passage of time and circadian rhythms, have been created from mycelial networks. In part, this is to enhance the ambient sound design of the space, but also, it’s a nod to the discovery by scientists such as Dr. Monica Gagliano that through a process called bioacoustics, plants and fungi use acoustic mechanisms to hunt for water sources, as well as to listen out for encroaching roots and communicate in general.

We have even reversed the sense of what an acoustic tile is: instead of using it to merely absorb sound, we have been using it as a source from which to record microscopic sounds emanating from the mycelial roots as they grow into the tile molds. The tiles become two-way, in a kind of auditory question-response process.

Another aspect of the tiles being made out of, or rather grown from fungi is a way of reinforcing the idea that mutualism with the world of fungi doesn’t just stop at a biological, nutritional, medicinal or mental level, but can also weave its way into our processes of production and attenuate the sickening load that plastics-based consumerism and its resultant pollution has on our planet.

And so, to summarize, the installation,Library of Babel, a Symbiont Induction,is more of a jumping off point for exploration into mutualism than a terminus. As a visitor, you are invited to ascend or descend the fungi steps, it is entirely your choice.

In the words of biological philosopher Antoine Danchin: “From a certain standpoint, physicist Rolph Landauer demonstrated in 1961 that creation of information does not require energy, in other words it can be made "adiabatic". The consequence, for Art, is that there is no beginning, nor end, in the possibility of creation. Creation is yesterday, today and will happen tomorrow: the unfolding of an eternal beginning.”


Using Format