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Decompose/Decompone: An Interactive Mycelial Experience

Updated: Feb 25

“Decompose/Decompone” is an interactive augmented reality (AR) exhibit created by eco-artist Sara Dotterer in collaboration with Chris Kennedy of the Central Texas Mycological Society and Eric Paulus of Circle Acres. The exhibit is a self-guided art walk and meditation that is woven into the Circle Acres Nature Preserve and is steeped in eco-philosophy. Circle Acres is a 10 acre site of wetlands, forest, and grasslands in Southeast Austin. It was started by a joint venture between Ecology Action and the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in 2013. Ecology Action which was founded in 1969, has a long-standing history of pioneering recycling programs in Austin. They remain the land stewards to Circle Acres to this day.



“Decompose/Decompone” engages you in a variety of ways as there are four aspects to each piece: the AR visualization, explanation, engagement, and reflection. Her work takes you not only on the journey of the fungal life cycle, but on the emergence of the Circle Acres land from its many harmful iterations to the nature preserve it is today. And then it asks you to reflect both on these journeys and your own journey through its lenses. It is about understanding the deep connections that are all around and a part of each one of us, casting each participant in their own vital role as integral denizens of our Earth.


A really neat aspect of  this exhibit is that it is not geo-tethered and therefore anyone across the globe can scan the QR codes and participate in Sara’s artwork. As you are reading this article, try scanning the QR codes within the images for a unique and interactive experience!


(Left): Yours truly at the beginning of “Decompose/Decompone” and entrance to the Circle Acres Nature Preserve (Right): Circle Acres even has a Mycological Research Station which is run by volunteers who grow, experiment and teach about fungi.


SPREADING SPORES/ DIFUSIÓN DE ESPORAS

Upon interacting with the first piece you find yourself playing with spores of different sizes. Your attention and curiosity are drawn in further through explanations of the three main aspects of fungal “bodies” in paralleling terms to those of trees: mushroom - “fruit”, mycelium - “root system” and spores - “seeds”, as these terms are already within our collective understanding. It asks you to reflect on Circle Acres’ transformation, taking note of both relics of past destruction and sources of new life. You are then invited to partake in this transformation by finding and planting a seed within the preserve, and then spreading your own “seeds of awareness and knowledge” upon leaving.


This land has gone through many significant transformations: from farmland, to quarry, to landfill and now a thriving urban nature preserve. As you look around, the numerous restoration projects become apparent. From the brush berms to the protected saplings and the greenhouses full of native plants and vermiculture operations, Ecology Action has taken a holistic approach to rewilding this beautiful space. 


Just as spores spread and bring about new life, and land stewards have the ability to bring about profound metamorphosis, all of us can make transformational changes within the environments in which we exist, whether physical, online, mental, etc. I pick up the seed of a Turk’s cap lily, which is a completely edible and hardy native plant, and plant it in another space within the preserve’s forest floor. With this simple act, I feel a part of something bigger, and with this feeling I want to further my understanding of my surroundings and help engender this feeling within others.




(Left): Information Card for piece #1, “SPREADING SPORES/ DIFUSIÓN DE ESPORAS”. (Right): AR spores floating on my outstretched hand.


BUILDING A HYPHAL NETWORK/CONSTRUCCIÓN DE UNA RED HIFA

Here you interact with intricate mycelial structures, reminiscent of root systems and learn how they form intricate webs beneath your feet, to trees and other plants. The theme here is connection, through the lens of soil. What stories are embedded within the soil that speak on the past and shape the present? You are invited to plant yourself firmly and imagine connecting to these stories, to these roots and relationships, to reflect upon connections to beings in your life and how these connections affect those involved. 


The humus all around you speaks of the vast decomposition of life within this forest, and fungi play a key role here. While mycorrhizal fungi connect to the web of trees and plants, saprotrophic fungi break down organic matter and some of these byproducts turn into humus. This soil is full of remnants of the past, from the current fungi who are both breaking down and connecting the flourishing forest inhabitants, to the historical devastation of this soil through over-farming and leftover microplastics and other toxic chemicals from usage as a landfill. It is deeply moving to think about the significance of the ground that we now stand on, and the intricate stories that lay at our feet. 


Through this reflection, I think about how my passion for fungi within just a few months has given me so much confidence and strength. My main objective is now to help my fellow humans understand their power, furthering the awareness of these beautiful beings.



(Left): Information Card for piece #2, “BUILDING A HYPHAL NETWORK/CONSTRUCCIÓN DE UNA RED HIFA”. (Right): Feet planted firmly on the ground with the AR Hyphal network taking over my field of view and filling my mind with ideas of our connected realities.


FRUITING BODY/ CUERPO FRUCTÍFERO

The third piece has you interacting with the fruiting body of the fungus, i.e. the mushroom. This “fruiting” of the fungus is paralleled to how this preserve is now “fruiting” after years of decay. You are encouraged to take on a new perspective by climbing to the top of a nearby rock as if you are a fruiting body and reflect upon both the journey undertaken by the preserve to come to this state of flourishing, and on your own journey and what future fruit(s) have yet to appear.


The wind through the trees, the song of the birds, the humus on the ground are all fruits of this preserve, and are all part of the endless cycles we take part in just by existing. Climbing onto the rock increases the flow of wind and sun on my body. I look at the AR mushroom and feel as though it has emerged from the ground next to me. I think about if it were real, how different our journeys would have been that led us both to this moment where we stand together, absorbing sun and wind on a crisp winter day. 


I am finding myself wanting to call the “fruit” the reward of our toils, but feel that it takes away from the journey which can be as rewarding as the “final” product. And while we may think of fruits and mushrooms as final products, everything is a cycle and that final product is another part of countless cycles.



(Left): Information Card for piece #3,”FRUITING BODY/ CUERPO FRUCTÍFERO.” (Right): Imagining the AR mushroom intricately woven within the soil of Circle Acres.


DECOMPOSITION/DECOMPOSICIÓN 

Here you watch as an AR mushroom decays into the scene, thus ending the life cycle of the fungi. Acknowledging that all around you are traces of the preserve’s history contained within its soils, you are invited to take a seat and imagine you too are decaying into the soil, leaving behind your trace, and contribution to these endless stories. Further reflection finds you wondering how the remnants of decay bring about regeneration, and what may be “decaying” for you that will bring about new “life.”


Through interacting with this piece, you are brought into a part of the cycle of life that is on the whole disregarded in American culture, the subject of our decay. We do our best to ignore and prolong decay, even though it is integral to our existence. Fungi go through endless cycles of birth and decay, while we only go through one. The cycle of a mushroom has it decaying and bringing new life even while the majority of the fungus is still alive. Everything we do is part of a cycle that has both birth and decay-like elements. Some may consider decay the end of a cycle. Others may call it a beginning.



(Left): Information Card for piece #4, “DECOMPOSITION/DECOMPOSICIÓN.”


REGENERATION/REGENERACIÓN

The life cycle starts again. Such is the process of regeneration, or the renewal of life. New mushrooms form, new plants are grown, new stories are woven through the soil and the canopy above. None of this would have been possible if not for the years of planning and environmental stewardship taken on by Ecology Action. Here you are asked to put forth your own contribution to this effort by becoming a citizen scientist and logging a species you saw in the preserve to the iNaturalist project “Circle Acres Biodiversity.”


Decay directly leads to regeneration. Everything that is currently here is only here because of the decomposition and significant land stewardship that has occurred before. I love how this exhibit brings you in at multiple points to participate in the continuing of Circle Acres’ regeneration. To continue on in this spirit, I have logged the multiple species I have taken note of during my exploration. 


It is incredible how simple actions can lead to enormous growth and change. Every one of us is an agent of change whether we know it or not. Our intentionality as we move through this world has the ability to both heal and harm. I am sticking with the former.



(Left): Information Card for piece #5 “REGENERATION/REGENERACIÓN” (Right): Screenshot of the iNaturalist “Circle Acres Biodiversity” project


ECO-INTEROCEPTION FOR MORE MEANINGFUL ENGAGEMENT 

An Afterword with Sara Dotterer, the Eco-Artist 

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sara over coffee to understand how this very thoughtful exhibit came to be. 


Sara is currently the Director of Brand Strategy at the Ricciardi Group and graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts from Southern Methodist University in May of 2023. Halfway through her MFA, and concurrent with the pandemic, she found herself walking the streets of New York, endlessly fascinated with the fractal patterns of wintering trees. These fractal patterns became the focal subject of her work, and the beginning of a new perceptual tool she calls eco-interoception.” 


Eco-interoception is a fine-tuning of the term interoception. Sara explains that, “Eco-interoception is a tool I have developed to improve my perception of my body’s internal state through ecological learning.” Using the idea of eco-interoception, she began paralleling the branching fractals of the trees to systems within our bodies such as blood vessels and neurons. This ideology was furthered when she began undergoing clinical ketamine therapy to “rebuild neural pathways that had broken down due to depression.” She then learned how these neural pathways and networks are much like mycelial networks. 


Eco-interoception is the underlying theme for “Decompose/Decompone.” Within it Sara uses embodiment theory to take participants on a journey to embody their own learnings through the lens of the fungal life cycle and ecological restoration. Using movement and meditations, participants are invited to engage with the land in more meaningful ways. Her idea is this, “People have to find their unique relationship to nature to care enough to make change. They have to find that one species, that one park or even just a single tree in their neighborhood that they build a relationship with. As an artist, if I can create space or opportunity for people to embody their relationship to nature in a new way, they may in turn engage with the earth in a more conscious or meaningful way. They might pass this new attunement on to a friend, and the attunement to nature branches and multiples – much like mycelium."


“Decompose/Decompone” is special. Sara’s embodied integration of ecology, physiology and philosophy draws in your curiosity and brings you closer to yourself and your surroundings. If you are in or around Austin, TX I highly recommend an inquisitive and open-minded stroll down the guided path of “Decompose/Decompone”.


(Left): Sara Dotterer at the beginning of “Decompose/Decompone” and entrance to the Circle Acres Nature Preserve. (RIght): Models for each piece, developed with Polycam, Blender and Adobe Aero.


 

Contributing Author: April Kissinger


April is a fungi fanatic that has held a number of diverse STEM positions over the past 12 years. She is currently devoting her time to studying our fungal friends, as she feels the future begins with "Myco" !

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