Reflections on the mycelial network’s relationship to the arts ecosystem, magic mushrooms, and Velocity’s Spring 2023 Season
Open your mouth and your mind
Like the endless varieties of mushrooms growing from the mycelial network below the forest floor, experimental performance emerges from the underground world of art and ideas. Because of the myriad of aesthetics, histories and practices at play, performance art is like the world of fungi: rebellious and resistant to categorization.
When the man on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice
I think she’ll know
-Grace Slick, White Rabbit
I invite you to take a trip with me as I draw connections between the mycelial network and the psychedelic world of performance art. For those not yet in the know, “taking a trip” refers to the mind-expanding experience had while under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance (e.g. some varieties of fungi like psilocybin or the hypnotic phrase work of the dancers in Black Collectivity: A Practice of Return featured in Velocity’s spring season). Like ingesting magic mushrooms, taking in experimental performance offers us opportunities to enter altered states full of mind expanding possibilities.
One of my favorite things about performance is the wide spectrum of trips we might experience because of the plethora of unique perspectives offered: Will the trip be an emotional rollercoaster, a durational challenge, an experimental mess? Lovely? Horrifying? Boring? Life changing? There are no bad trips. Repeat that to yourself. There are no bad trips. Fear is the mind killer. If you survive (ha) you have learned something about yourself, other human beings and the wide, ever surprising world that surrounds you.
Imagine cultural offerings (dances, performances and other events) as the mushroom caps the arts ecosystem sprouts. The idea of this network’s relationship to the arts came up in a conversation I had with Velocity’s Executive Director Erin O’Reilly (née Johnson) a few years ago while I was the Artistic Director at Velocity. We were researching ways of centering artistic development, nurturing both artists and audiences and brainstorming on how we could contribute to building a healthier arts ecology through our work. Erin brought up the idea of the mycelial network and the idea that the arts ecosystem operates similarly to create a healthy environment for us all.
What is the Mycelial Network?
Mycelium are the long threads of mushrooms that reach deep into the soil, creating “roots” that connect with other networks below ground. Unseen for the most part, the underground mycelial network is a shared economy. Ecosystems flourish without greed. The mycelium underfoot ensures their close-by neighbors have the resources (nutrients, water, etc.) they need to flourish, forming pathways to distribute much needed nutrients across their entire network. Peter Wohlleben, forest ranger and author of the book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate –Discoveries from a Secret World came up with the term “the Wood Wide Web” to refer to how, “like the internet, mycelium and trees communicate with each other by sending electrical signals through their underground networks and this is how trees remember (!!), learn and even nurse each other back to health.” How cool to imagine the mushrooms of performance art sprouting from a multi-faceted network of connected ideas and contributing to the sustainability of our wider forests of cultural communities.
Like the mycelial network, the arts network strives to create a healthy landscape. Performance makers are deeply informed by the desire to increase wellness and self awareness: meditation, release based and therapeutic movement techniques, yoga and other somatic methods are all part of makers’ practices. Discussions about community care, equity, and accessibility are important and hot topics in the cross and post disciplinary field of experimental performance as well, not just in terms of valuing artists identities (BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, class, ability, and more), but also in the interest of revealing the contributions and histories of marginalized experiences. As creators and audiences, we are responsible for growing and maintaining a sustainable ecosystem of people and ideas. Audiences, organizers, and producers can learn much from the value artists place on growing self and community awareness; the metaphor of the mycelial network can help us all understand our impact on the systems we contribute to with our limited resources, our precious time, and our passionate focus. What can we do to build a healthier arts ecosystem…and world…together?
The contribution of the audience is vital to this ecosystem. You do not have to like the mushroom’s taste to receive the benefit of what it offers. Those who willingly eat these offerings digest the relationships, ideas, and practices fed by the network underneath. Whatever our role in the arts ecosystem, our unique take on the experimental performance we digest contributes to the health of the mycelial-like network. We are all powerful…we collaborate in creating our culture together.
Digesting the Trip
“Divination (from Latin divinare, ‘to foresee, to foretell, to predict, to prophesy’) is the attempt to gain insight into a question or situation by way of an occultic, standardized process or ritual.”
Just like I’m a big fan of the experimental as a performance maker, I also bring it into my written reflection practice. Divination practices help me find new pathways to share my experiences of performances. After introducing some of my divination tools, I’ll walk through what those processes can reveal about the quartet of offerings from Velocity’s 2023 Spring Season: Sean Dorsey Dance, Gabrielle Civil, Claire Barrera, and the Black Collectivity artists.
It is not news to use divination tools or chance operations inside the creative process. Merce Cunningham and John Cage are some of the most well known and celebrated queer artists to use chance operations in the dance field. Many artists reference the IChing, another ancient practice of divination, and more than a few artists I know use bibliomancy to inform their performances. In my opinion “occult” (a term used to describe these practices) is a word often used to diminish the power of methods rooted in more marginalized and femme centric histories. There is much wisdom to be found in researching these intuitive methods. Don’t let the haters stop you from exploring the artistic potential of divination.
Getting creative with the practices below reminds me that making art is not about right or wrong, but what and why. At the heart of divination and performance is the genuine urge to connect with a diverse range of people and ideas. These approaches build relationships with self and others and grow the greater “wood wide web” of creativity for all of us.
My Divination Tool Kit
The divination methods listed below are part of my process as a performance maker and writer. These intuitive tools focus on the playfulness of thinking and making. Playfulness encourages me to express my thoughts and feelings from a place of power. Games of chance help me get out of my mind ruts, be curious, and jump over landmines like personal insecurity, perfectionism, scarcity, and other toxic notions I encounter inside of artmaking and art watching.
CANTICUMANCY: divination by music
In my practice this is a combination of two other divination practices SPIRIT COMMUNICATION and SHUFFLEMANCY. Other artists have referred to this as Spirit Radio. I’ve been working with the Stonewall Inn Jukebox playlist for my ongoing project Melted Riot. The playlist features music that was being listened to during the eve of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a tipping point in the struggle for queer and transgender liberation. I think of this as a way of communicating with my ancestors, artists and friends that continue to contribute to the arts ecosystem but have passed from this dimension to another.
CYBERMANCY: divination by computer oracle
Most simply defined as referring to computer oracles to answer questions, I take great liberty with this idea. Often Google search is my oracle (lmao).
BIBLIOMANCY: divination by books
This is the use of books for divination purposes. There are many ways to do this. I like to choose a book intentionally or at random, close my eyes and flip through the pages and point at some information on the page. From there I open my eyes, read what I’ve found and see what messages I receive in the context of what I’m doing or the question I’m asking. I also like to ask someone to pick a number at random and open up to that page and see what we discover.
CARTOMANCY: divination by cards
The tarot, a deck of cards made of symbols and archetypes, is a divination tool that I use often inside of my creative process. Through its archetypes and symbols, the tarot helps me recognize my beliefs, my biases, my desires, and my thought patterns through “reading” myself and others.
I chose a card from MIDNIGHT MAGIC: A Tarot Deck of Mushrooms by Sara Richard to inspire my reflections for the four projects below. This deck features mushrooms (and a few critters), no human beings. No pesky issues around these visuals as far as gender, race, age…phew. And this artist makes the connections between information about what these very real mushrooms do in the natural world and the rich symbolism of tarot. I’ve put my own interpretations very much fed by the tarot artist’s take on the cards’ meanings in the info section of each review. Thanks, Sara… I’m a big fan of your deck 🙂
Show: The Lost Art of Dreaming by Sean Dorsey Dance (SF)
Tarot Card: PAGE OF WANDS
Mushroom:Pink Burn Cup/ Rhodotarzetta rosea
Tarot Card Info:
Wands relate to spirit or energy. The Page implies limitless potential (the archetype of a Pageboy is a person that is an attendant at an event like a wedding. Presumably in training for a greater role in the community later on). Other words the tarot artist offers in connection to this card are “reunions + renewal”. These mushrooms grow from burnt soil and indicate the possibility of finding delicious morels in the burn. Creativity, Potential, Inspiration. A fertility is here, seeds are all around us, the potential is limitless so move through fear and take a chance.
This dance’s focus on the process of dreaming brought to mind artist and personal icon Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening practice. Dream Sharing was a part of her workshop process. To reflect on this performance I drew a mushroom card and chose an Oliveros score for performance at random. The following score is from the book Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice:
We Are Together Because (1980)
(November 9, 1980)
When a group is together, each person finishes the sentence, “ WE ARE TOGETHER BECAUSE…” in as many ways as possible. When there is consensus on the essentials of the group, then each person finishes the sentence “WE ARE TOGETHER LIKE…”(using a natural analogy or metaphor) [page 37]
WE ARE TOGETHER BECAUSE we must encourage each other to dream. WE ARE TOGETHER BECAUSE we want to practice the lost art of dreaming. WE ARE TOGETHER BECAUSE the lost has been found. WE ARE TOGETHER BECAUSE performance is an excellent place to practice dreaming. Dreaming reminds us that there are many possible ways to move through the world and to connect with each other. WE ARE TOGETHER BECAUSE we don’t need to understand or even approve of all these possibilities to appreciate them. WE ARE TOGETHER LIKE these mushrooms. They are tree helpers and they are also helped by the trees: they help the tree absorb water and nutrients and the tree provides the mushrooms with sugars and amino acids.
Pink Burn Cup mushrooms were previously assumed to be decomposers of forest litter… but they are actually mycorrhizal symbionts with trees. Like the labels assigned to us at birth, labels change. We must resist projecting our own names, genders, beliefs, dreams onto others. Meditating on this mushroom and its pink color had me thinking of the pink triangle symbol the artists of Act Up, created referencing the pink triangle used to identify homosexuals and other sexual and gender “deviants” during the holocaust. Through the dreaming of our queer ancestors the triangle was turned on its head and reimagined as a symbol of queer liberation and protest.
Watching this dance I witnessed queer and transgender artists celebrated in their beauty, in their skill and in their strength. WE ARE TOGETHER BECAUSE we want to celebrate together. WE ARE TOGETHER BECAUSE we need each other to survive. WE ARE TOGETHER LIKE trees, like mushrooms, like dreams growing together in a world of possibilities.
Show: <Welcome Blur> Translated Bodies / Gabrielle Civil (LA)
Tarot Card: IV THE EMPEROR
Mushroom: Fly Agaric/ Amanita muscaria
Tarot Card Info:
This mushroom is an icon. A go-to for what we imagine when we think of MUSHROOM. Big and strong they show their colors with confident and bright reds, oranges, and yellows. These colors were meant to broadcast their magical effect when eaten to creatures that dared to take a bite. The Emperor represents leadership, control and respect. This is the mushroom king. Like David Bowie’s goblin king in the movie Labyrinth, the Emperor is hot as hell and towers over the other fungi as a legend and in size. This mushroom is the stuff myths are made of with its great looks and psychedelic properties. Leading the way calmly and fairly this card represents activating powerful ideas in the real world.
Who is the artist? Who isn’t the artist? Remember the Happenings of the 1960s? Me neither, but this felt like one to me. The joy of moving and making and dancing with others. This experiment; a collection of performance excerpts by 4 performing artists that work with the written word in town for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference is inside and outside of myself and with my friends and with strangers and on my phone and on the projection screen and walking around the space and dancing with people I just met. During one part of the performance we are invited to text JD (the artist in the group that couldn’t make it in person but they are still with us in time if not space–AKA Zoom) Gabrielle gives us all their phone number:
Gabrielle asks me to hold onto a stack of family photos for her. The photos have that special smell photos have when they are developed from film negatives; a pre-digital sensation. She begins by tracing the edge of the stage, slowly, a processional of one, her energetic and intentional movements leaving a trail of rose petals behind. We watch the red petals fall and soundlessly hit the floor leaving a bright trail. When the time comes, I hand the photos to her. Gabrielle goes back to the dance that is now show and tell: back arching, legs delineating the edge of the space between the artist and the audience. She takes her time picking out folks in the audience to show images to. She shows them one by one, like you would to a friend that’s visiting your house for the first time and wants to know what your old house was like. Is it true you and your brother looked like twins when you were kids? What did your cool aunt and uncle wear to your graduation? Are these images of her actual friends and family? Are these beautiful Black and Brown faces still with us or long gone? Is this one from the 1980s? The 90s? The past? The future? The performance was eyes looking into eyes. Eyes looking into images. Bodies looking into themselves. Bodies sensing themselves and those who are absent. Those who have yet to be met. Say hi. Even if you don’t speak the same language. It is possible. Welcome, says Gabby, welcome, welcome and you are welcome. You are welcome to blur. To be blurry to blurrrrr to be here with me to be here as you are.
Show: Grammar of the Imagination / Claire Barrera (PDX)
Tarot Card: III THE EMPRESS
Mushroom: Hen of the Woods/Grifola frondosa
Tarot Card Info:
This mushroom is for eating. Hen of the Woods hides beneath old maple and oak trees. This mushroom is Mother. There is plenty…enough to share. It adapts to its environment growing around rocks, sticks and even other shrooms. In the context of tarot, the message is maternal: abundant, tasty, nourishing. The Empress is a symbol of a leader; this leader is resourced, sensual, and resourceful. Thought of as an ancient medicine, this immune system enhancing and anti-inflammatory mushroom grows in large quantities and can weigh over 30 pounds! This card brings with it the question: what supports your well being on all levels? What sustains you? Surround yourself with support and see your dreams become reality. And, remember you can’t help others before you help yourself.
Hands clapping and missing and slapping
Do your socks match? (Who taught you how to put your socks on?)
All in a circle now
The power dynamics of age.
All holding hands.
How old are you? Is that your grown up?
Is that kid yours? Are you a kid?
Does it matter? Whoever needs help needs help no age limit on that.
Now on the floor suddenly a sea of legs of all ages, like dolphins.
One dancer disappears behind another, diving deep.
Care for me inside of the dance. Do it.
if you want to play PLAY
What is under the water?
Learn to swim first (that’s just common sense)
Or get thrown in (there are many ways to learn, some rough as hell).
What if play spreads like wildfire?
Chaotic and tangled…all over your neighborhood.
All over your city.
What if all of us, of all ages, agreed: recess is mandatory.
That’d be the worst of it.
You must hold hands with your buddy. You must learn to reach out. You must learn rules and unlearn rules and bend and fall and break and repair and learn there are no rules.
The sound of more than 4 people breathing together. Outside.
They are standing in a circle.
We are all raising each other.
I reach for your hand.
I did not get to see this show in person. I watched a video of a previous run that preceded this presentation by about a year. I offer my reflections above as the result of meditating on that video and helping to support the production in its planning stages. Watching a recording of a piece intended for a theater is like peeping into a bizarre alternate dimension in a protective bubble suit. I am cut off from the smells, sounds, energies and kinesthetic realities that have been crafted to share in person. I love that I could still reflect on this work through a recording, but it’s important to recognize this method changes the experience. My reflection above is rooted in my desire that I could’ve been there in person.
Show: Black Collectivity: A Practice of Return /[Nia-Amina Minor, marco farroni, Akoiya Harris, + David Rue] (SEA)
Tarot Card: XI JUSTICE
Mushroom: Old Man of the Woods/Strobilomyces floccopus
Tarot Card Info:
A spectrum of black, white and gray scales allow this mushroom to camouflage itself into the forest floor. When cut, however, the Old Man’s flesh flushes a bright red. The Justice card deals in black and white as well, but its gray tones represent the balance between opposing forces—the same balance that allows the old man to thrive. Judgment is about balance, cause and effect, fairness. What is the truth? Are your actions in line with your values? Are you taking responsibility for your actions? The spectrum of truth has many shades.
From Jasmine Mahmoud’s questions + text from program for A Practice of Return:
“How do we return to our memories and histories?”
“How does the body activate historical knowledge and practices?”
“The movement work then, is an embodied research method – it enacts a repertoire that traces historical dance technique, transmits history through the body, and allows us to be present with history. As we engage Black Collectivity’s research and practice throughout the following two weeks, consider which archives they’ve embodied, and how they activate history and practice through their embodied returns.”
I was inspired to dive into my own obsession with creative archives, specifically the Stonewall Riots of 1969. I used the Spirit Radio divination technique to find a few songs to spark my reflection for A Practice of Return from the Stonewall Jukebox playlist featuring songs playing the night the riots began:
You’ve Made Me So Very Happy / Brenda Holloway
I’m so glad you came into my life
The others were untrue
but when it came to you
I’d spend my whole life with you
In witnessing this dance I am transported through timelines, through imagined friendships in duets, and love affairs in quartet form. I am transported to the dance studio, I hear Syvilla’s voice echoing in the room. I am transported to a dance hall of the past full of couples partner dancing, friends giggling, families laughing and talking. I teleport back to the present day black box theater…but I continue to be transported by the joy I feel in the dancers, in the movement vocabulary…the gentle language of a turn repeating, the camaraderie of skillful shapes made together in partnership. I imagine I feel the complex emotions of the dancers as they researched the history of embodiment and followed their curiosity. I feel the relief of resting after great exertion as I watch one of the dancers find their way gently into the floor, laying on their side at the edge of the room. The dance of their gentle inhale and exhale as they lie still.
Only the Strong Survive / Jerry Butler
I can still hear her saying:
Boy, I see you sitting out there all alone.
Crying your eyes out
Cause the woman that you love is gone
Oh, there’s gonna be, there’s gonna be
A whole lot of trouble in your life
Ah, so listen to me, get up off your knees
‘Cause only the strong survive
This work introduced me to a luminary of Seattle dance, Syvilla Fort. Watching this dance I sensed her powerful presence in the room. Pulling the Justice card from the tarot for this reflection, I met the mushroom Old Man of the Woods. Like the mushroom, Syvilla’s influence on the dance landscape was new to me (when you cut the flesh of the gray, black, and white mushroom… it turns bright red!!). Opening up the dance archive brings vibrancy and renewed interest to this current creation. The past continues to feed us and make us stronger.
Our artistic ancestors are here with us in process, in practice, just under the skin. In my own artistic projects I focus on accessing erased queer and transgender histories through meditating on images from art history. Black Collectivity’s approach to the archive and its relationship to dance refreshed my interest in the ways movement research is a form of justice…of resistance. Despite grand attempts to diminish and erase so called marginalized histories from the world we use our power as creators to bring attention to the contributions of the past and let others know how these influences inform our creative practices and make sure our most vulnerable communities persist. The body keeps the score…our histories are inside of us just waiting to be activated.
Remember… Feed Your Head : )
When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your Head
Feed your head
We all contribute to a thriving arts ecosystem when we reflect on what we experience as audience members. This might mean talking to ourselves in our own heads about what we saw… maybe a casual post show conversation with friends… or a heated discussion with other performance trip takers and makers. Maybe we write something up so we can share a bit of what we tasted and invite others to connect with the work in that way. Knowing where to start processing something experimental can be difficult without a bit of encouragement. I hope sharing my own mycelium-saturated thoughts encourages you to follow your own method of digesting what you feel called to bite into. Feed that head!
The woods are teeming with life and there is a great variety of mushrooms out there to taste. Engage with the people and ideas you are curious about. Trust your gut. Leave the rest on the forest floor.
For more info about the mycelial network check out these links:
A previous iteration of this written piece existed as a zine commissioned by Velocity Dance Center.