This is a repost of an interview I conducted with Phil Ross, the originator of “mycotecture” (fungal architecture), for Glasstire in September 2012. Phil’s research and process extends back nearly two decades and is now being appropriated without attribution by architects and corporations.
Phil Ross (San Francisco) works in the realm of “biotechniques.” He makes sculptural and architectural works from plants and fungi, and videos about live cultures. As the founder and director of CRITTER – a salon centered-around DIY biology events, he has organized events like “Enormous Microscopic Evening” at the Hammer Museum (2010). His multi-decade research into mushrooms has led to his “mycotecture” series, an experiment in using reishi mushrooms as a sustainable construction material (International Patent Pending). Ross is presently designing and prototyping fungal furniture. His work is part of the touring exhibition, “Intimate Science,” which I curated for Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery, and opens next at Real Art Ways in Hartford Connecticut, November 3, 2012.
ANDREA: In addition to being an artist, you’ve worked in restaurants, in roles from dishwasher to chef; and you’ve also served as a hospice caregiver during the AIDS crisis, where you learned about the benefits of “reishi” mushrooms for the immune system. Did these experiences lead you to working with living materials as an artist?
PHIL: Yes, but I’d go back a little bit further. I grew up in New York City, and like a lot of urban people, I felt highly alienated from nature. I wanted to connect, but I didn’t really know how. The experiences you mention kind of unlocked the “how.” Food and mushrooms were the materials that were in my proximity, so they were the entry point. It became apparent to me that you can connect to nature through pretty much anything or any kind of activity that’s close to you.
ANDREA: Where did you work as a chef?
PHIL: One of the places I worked for four or five years was in upstate New York, at this place called the Omega Institute, which is a kind of a new age retreat center. I spent part of the year there, and in San Francisco, and also traveling around the world. It was at Omega that I was introduced to mushroom hunting from some of the other chefs. It’s in the Hudson Valley and there are all these hardwood forests around there, making it a great habitat for mushrooms.
ANDREA: I think it’s interesting how you describe mushroom hunting as “an esoteric skill” that “bridges delicacy and poison.”
PHIL: Yeah. If you learn to motorcycle race, there’s that tension of having to know what you’re doing and remain in control. I’m not a high testosterone kind of person like that, but I still enjoy the notion of a real world education– and the threat of death is a pretty good one. Choosing the right mushroom is not a theoretical proposition; you have come to a place of certainty, not through posturing, but actually knowing. It’s partially about sensation, but it’s also a science.
ANDREA: At what point did you have the impulse to start working with mushrooms, not as food or medicine, but as a sculptural material?
PHIL: It was when I started to learn how to grow mushrooms. The initial impulse was to figure out how to grow reishi mushrooms as medicine, but when I started cultivating them and learned their growth habits, I immediately wanted to work with them as an art material– a casting material. It was a casting material that could be altered as it was setting. In casting, the amount of time you can work with the material before it sets is called “open time.” In plaster that might be five minutes, and in cement it might be a couple hours. But with mushrooms, the open time is almost as long as you can keep them alive. You can start to think about plasticity and forming things through much more subtle encouragement. The shapes can be controlled via the environment: the temperature, the position in relation to gravity, all these things that we take for granted, but are profound shapers of the world. You can begin to play with these factors and use them as non-physical tools of manipulation. Light, gravity, heat and the cleanliness of the environment determine the form, as opposed to a chisel or a drill or something like that.
ANDREA: So you were “casting” mushrooms in your studio? And how did you maintain a sterile, laboratory-like environment in a domestic space?
PHIL: I knew how to do canning and beer making, and the techniques involved in mushroom growing aren’t all that different. And then I ultimately learned how to build air filters (a really critical aspect was creating clean air). Off-the-shelf laboratory air filters are ridiculously expensive, and so is much of the other commercial equipment you need to do this, so I created my own.
ANDREA: Was it trial and error, or were there particular sources of information that you used as reference?
PHIL: It was pre-Internet, you know. So, the resources I had were primarily books, clubs, individuals, and trial and error. And a lot of people who grow mushrooms are kind of secretive; it’s not the most open culture. I think it just began to be practiced here in the Bay Area in a more open way maybe before other places because of the culture of open-source and a particular history of political/environmental activism.