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Ep 2: To Born, To Die and Thus To Reproduce, 2021
The conversation with Giulana Furci was held on 15th of July of 2021, using the platform ZOOM. The script for the interview was developed by Marília Loureiro, curator at Casa do Povo, together with artist Daniel Lie. Also participated Camila Marambio, curator for artistic research at the Fundación Fungi.
Gabriel Massan was invited to react to the conversation. He developed the video “ A dança de baixo” [The Dance From Below] ( Rio de Janeiro, 2022, Digital sculpting, digital painting and animation.) and a serie of 5 images called “Lembranças dos nossos enterros: De Olinda à Jardim da Saudade” [Memories of our funerals: From Olinda to Jardim da Saudade] (Rio de Janeiro, 2021, Still. Digital Sculpting and Digital Painting). The specific passages to which Gabriel responded appear in bold along the text.
The title of this episode is based on a remark that Marília did during the conversation with Daniel, Camila and Giulana. The transcript of the discussion was edited by Ruli Moretti and translated by Daniel Lühmann (Spanish to Portuguese) and Kevin Kraus (Portuguese to English).
Daniel Lie: Today, we launch Rotten TV, a digital innovation project we are running supported by the British Council, in three regions: Latin America, under the coordination of Casa do Povo; Scotland, with Jupiter Artland; and Indonesia, with the Cemeti Institute for Arts and Society.
In all those areas, we have been looking for thinkers from different fields of knowledge who focus on and understand the theme of rot and decay. It is a collective learning project, one that connects different spaces in which I developed affection, work and relationships.
We are here with Marília Loureiro and Casa do Povo’s technical team and with Giuliana Furci, director of Fundación Fungi. We met in 2016, when I was in Chile and we had a class that was my first approach to the universe of mycology. Giuliana, one thing that stood out for me was your speech filled with great affection and love, in a didactic way, which at the same time was not simple. And what was left was that affection you have for this universe… the same we have for the people we love.
Giuliana Furci: I just want to say I feel a very deep affection for you Daniel, and that your look at rottenness has always been avant-garde, to me. So there’s a lot of love coming from decay and degeneration, which I think are very important terms for what we’re going to deal with today.
When we talk about the origin of life, all has to do with points of view: one can focus on different parts of an energy cycle and say that this is where it begins ‒ and this indistinction also comes to break with order and linearity patterns…
I would like to say that I am very grateful for the opportunity to talk about these things, which are spaces that often exist inside someone, or in a chat with a tree, or with an animal in the woods, but rarely in a conversation with humans…
D.L.: To begin with, I’d like to say I am delighted by the multiple symbologies of the “rotten” ‒ since they allow us to talk about the passage of time, the breaking of life and death binary status, the marginalisation of processes that are conditions intrinsic to bodies, to organic organisms… This year I’ve been developing “Rotten Research” – a broader project that takes on diverse expressions such as texts, Rotten TV, speeches, exhibitions, image creation, and I’m interested in listening to and learning from the different views that appear, not so much about the process that leads from “fresh” to “rotten”, but from “rotten” to “post-rotten”: what comes after the rotten and how to stay rotten. To begin with, my question is what’s the difference between something that ferments from something that rots, and I would also like you to make some considerations about rot from the mycology’s point of view.
G.F.: I think we need to establish a broader framework here. First, when discussing fungi, we’re talking about a kingdom, and within it there are organisms that decompose and others that do not. Mycorrhizal fungi, for example, which associate with living trees, are not in a process of decomposition, but in symbiosis; both processes cannot be thought of separately ‒ and we could even speak of decomposition as a symbiosis.
With regard to fermentation, we don’t normally speak of it as a decomposition process, but it is effectively the first step of it. Fungi trigger a chemical chain, breaking down sugars and carbohydrates that are part of the different compositions of life, and this is where the process of decomposition begins.
Within the fungi kingdom, there are moulds that are decomposers par excellence. There are lichens, which are a symbiosis, that are not decomposing in the sense of rottenness, but in an elemental one, to create soil. So decomposition is not exclusive to decay. When something starts to rot, for many fungi it’s birth, because that’s when they find a space to proliferate, to reproduce, in a process of development that is the beginning of their lives. There are many species of fungi or mould whose complete life cycle is what we see from the outside as putrefaction.
Underlying, it is the fact that energy is not lost, energy is in the process of continuous transformation, and this is due to putrefaction and decay.
From mycology’s point of view, when the body of an animal or plant ceases to metabolize, it is not possible to say that this organism is dead. Therefore, it is not only questionable, but also wrong to say that the end of a physical body is the end of life. I even propose that the most important moment for a tree is when it falls and starts going back to the ground; each organism is a composition of transformed energy, temporarily fixed. Each body fixes energy and, from decay, it gives it back. In that sense, I believe decomposition is a heroic act.
D.L. What you said is lovely, that of giving energy back, because when we look at something that is rotten, from the hegemonic thinking point of view, we consider that it is dead – which creates a distance and rejection feeling, which it is the same we have towards human death. But when I look closely at the rotting fruit or vegetables, I start seeing many things happening – I recognise that there is a lot of life there: I see mould, insects, countless elements and colours. And that’s why the rotten for me is non-binary: by being neither alive nor dead, these boundaries are broken… And perhaps the strongest issue is recognising that this will one day happen to me, to you, to all people ‒ we’re all going to rot.
G.F.: Sure, but that’s the only way to give the energy back. Life is a process of setting elements in the formation of a physical body ‒ we are simply part of an energy cycle that we keep setting; at the moment of death, we return to soil, which will be the substrate for another fruit or plant that will feed another animal. So there is no beginning or end, it is a continuum we are part of.
D.L. But when does the rotting process begin? Why do things rot?
G.F.: The rotting process starts after the maximum reproduction peak. The only function of a fruit, for example, is to produce seeds to propagate the species ‒ which is the way of keeping the species in a system. There is a time when the seed is at the point of falling to spread; after this point, once the opportunity to propagate as a species has gone, rotting begins. And the same happens in relation to human beings: decay usually starts after the peak of reproduction: in older people, fungi start to appear on the skin, on the nails; hair and teeth start falling out…
Putrefaction is the possibility that another being will compose itself: you go back to being a substrate, you go back to being a building block.
D.L.: I’m always paralleling decomposition beyond humans, like vegetables. But sometimes I think about the human body. It seems to me very interesting that when we eat, a putrefaction process takes place inside us. We eat, the nutrients are absorbed and then we poop, which is a substance that is already in the process of rotting.
In contrast, when we die, the organism starts carrying out this putrefaction and digestion process inside of us – only now, we’re eating ourselves.
G.F.: At this point you touch the individual’s limit, because deep down what you’re describing is that we’re not a sole species. A body is not a species, a body is a symbiosis. About a kilo of the human body is made up of bacteria, fungi and other essential microorganisms. A cow, for example, cannot decompose the cell wall of the grass it eats, this is only possible because her organism has evolved in symbiosis with the fungi present in her stomach, which decompose the plants so that they can have their nutrients absorbed. We also live with organisms that break down food so we can nourish ourselves with them. There are studies showing that each human foot carries around 200 species of fungi, which are not there decomposing the foot, but allowing us to be as we are; we are not a species, we are a symbiosis, we are symbiotic organisms. We are not separate from what we eat, from what is in our guts, from the organisms living in our skin, we are not separate from the organisms we live with. Thus, it is necessary to ask, and it is important to ask: what is an individual? An individual is an ecosystem. So, when it comes to decay and rot, and those organisms that might at some point be favourable, we need to recognise that they are mutualistic organisms – that is, they help us to be who we are. And when we stop being the way we are, we also help them to proliferate. We are also a collaboration system, we are symbiosis. Decay and putrefaction are part of this virtuous symbiosis.
D.L.: Beyond that collaboration system, I also think about the rotting process in terms of energy. We, who are now communicating with voice, eyes and ears… how do we communicate with other species? Part of my recent interests include these different forms of communication, which occur through odour, aesthetics, but also through energy. It seems very revolutionary to me that something that most of society thinks is garbage, that is dead, that no longer exists, that is considered an end, is producing energy ‒ and not just symbolic energy, but energy to heat a certain space, for example ‒ so I’d like you to talk a bit more about this connection between rotten and energy.
G.F. Metabolic processes require energy and release energy. Probably one of the most drastic ways to be alive is to generate heat. It’s a biochemical process, in which fungi and bacteria break bonds. We have a series of elements on the periodic table combining in different ways to form compounds: from a static element in combination to a compound, this is where organic life begins. When these bonds are broken, the energy that brought them together is released. And it returns to the environment, back to being untouchable. When a body is built, it becomes tangible. When it decomposes, it becomes intangible again. As one feeds itself and grows, a composition begins, a system, in which the elements are formed in a body, in something organic, in something alive – a plant, an animal. And when this ability to compose is over, it begins a process that breaks up the organism, separating it and making it intangible – back to soil, to the atmosphere, to a system. And that’s not the end of life, it’s the end of composition as we know it. When the energy in each compound body breaks down, it exists invisibly and is broken down back into the system. Decomposition is the process of releasing vital energy.
When it starts, fungi life begins. From the mycology point of view, life begins when the other decomposes. For example, you produce energy throughout your life as an animal. You eat, you poop… You interact. Fungi, contrarily, do not ingest or defecate, but absorb: they digest outside the body. Fungi are nature’s great biochemicals, they are organisms that digest outside your body and feed by absorption: the spores travel through the air, reach the food, find a foothold and, in order to live and reproduce, secrete enzymes that break down what’s out of them to absorb the nutrients. The secreted enzymes break the bonds, and this produces heat – and this is the first step in fermentation.
This is what we call decomposition, also putrefaction, matter is being reduced, it’s decreasing, but it doesn’t disappear, it transforms, and this happens through these organisms, capable of transforming what is around themselves.
D.L.: To me, in my work experience, I try doing the opposite; because I think this humanity where we are today (in the hegemonic society) is very hierarchical, always looking at everything from an anthropocentric point of view. But when I’m working with these other-than-human beings , it’s the opposite to me. I seek this knowledge with and for these beings, as they can also teach me. Because this concept of outside digestion makes fungus a genuinely environmental being, doesn’t it?
When you speak about these processes, I think about very symbolic things, and when you talk about breaking chemical bonds, I think about death, grief, breaking symbolic or emotional bonds, or rebuilding them. Because death is not just physical but also symbolic.
In a way, the grieving process is a process in which I am also dying, which leads me to think about the complexity of this affective ecosystem and the blindness of society, of not understanding that this world also belongs to all beings that are here, that they have the same rights and importance.
G.F.: Yes, but it’s just that deep down we’ve never been separated from each other. We’re not ‒ I mean, what is an individual? To what extent are we someone?
The other day I was asked: “Look, it seems like there’s a fungus now people say is worse than covid-19,” someone told me referring to black fungus. And I explained, saying: “Look, life is a continuum insofar as there are conditions for some organism.” When a body is immunocompromised, it is an opportunity for another organism to proliferate and start its life. Judging it as good or bad is a human conception. When a body is post-Covid immunocompromised, as we’ve seen specially in India, there is a favourable environment for a particular fungus to proliferate, live and reproduce. A fungus is not a bad being coming to kill people who survived Covid-19 ‒ that thought process is entirely human. And this also brings us to the concept of balances: Covid-19 has broken many, false balances, and questioning the balance leads us to realize that nothing is static, and the decomposition and putrefaction processes just prove it. They show graphically how much life is little static. All our generation has been pushed to believe that there is a static state of success in life, which is something that doesn’t exist – life is not static.