Learning From: Ash Coates

Plastitrophy - Metamorphosis or dysregulation within the communication and feeding networks of Earth’s biosphere as a form of world building, resulting in synthetic landscapes.

Plot:

Microbes have many different networks within the biosphere that allows for interspecies symbiosis as well as the distribution of information and nutrients. What are the implications of the introduction of synthetic materials into the environment and how will it affect these systems?

Anthropocene: An Epoch, a period in the history of earth, marked by human impact on biodiversity. 

Trophic: Derived from the Greek τροφή (trophē) referring to food or nourishment. 

Plastitrophy: A process of adaptation in which microbes’ resort to synthetic materials as food.

*Components used in plastics are often blamed for disrupting hormonal function and balance. 

*Plant hormones are chemicals plants use for communication, coordination, and development between their many cells. Like animals, plants rely on these chemical signals to direct the expression of DNA and the operations of the cell. Plant hormones are natural substances which control many aspects of plant development.

Hyperobjects: Tim Morton coined the term and explains Hyperobjects as objects that are so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization.

Tree of life: Connecting all forms of creation, are both forms of the world tree or cosmic tree, and are portrayed in various religions and philosophies as the same tree.

Tree of Knowledge: Connecting to heaven and the underworld.

Transorganics: A state of fluidity in which an organism can be both natural and unnatural at the same time.

“…And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?”

Plastic… asshole.” 

― George Carlin

My work draws from images of both real and imaginary places within the body and the landscape, as a way to speculate or explore the future of our environment, relationships between micro and macro worlds and the language, forms and networks that exist within our biosphere.

By referencing biological processes within nature and the human body, altering them and creating fictitious scenarios and relationships between them, I aim to question the boundaries of what is internal/external and what is natural /artificial within the environment and the grey area between what is science and what is science fiction. 

Since 2004-2005, I have been particularly interested in the inner workings of biological ecosystems. I came across the work of the Mycologist Paul Stamets and his 2005 publication “Mycelium Running”, in which he talks in detail about the relationships between humans, the landscape and fungi and the way in which fungi acts as a communication network to transport information and nutrients from one organism to the next. 

99% of biota on earth is microbial in nature and all forms of life contain symbiotic networks of fungi, bacteria and viruses that work to communicate and trade between one another in languages made up of chemical and hormonal transmissions. 

James MacAllister says, “We are all Lichens, products of networks of symbiosis.” 

My work is a visual representation of these worlds, things that exist beneath the surface and the unseen energy that is passed throughout these ecosystems, sending messages from one living thing to the next and creating symbiosis between micro and macro worlds within the biosphere. Lynn Margulis is well known for her pioneering work on Endosymbiosis, a process in which living organisms share genetic information via communication networks between bacteria, fungi and viruses. She contended that these systems of symbiosis are a major driving force behind evolution. These ideas that were once thought of as science fiction are now predominantly thought of as the rule rather than the exception. 

In a world of synthetic waste and debris, are microbes actively evolving to create symbiosis with this inorganic matter?

In my work I present landscapes, but they are just as much external as they are internal. They exist in both places at once, on multiple timelines and parallel dimensions. 

Things inside things, locality becomes obscured and everything is alive. 

The microbes and communication systems that exist in the undergrowth of the forest floor and throughout our external environment have many similarities and seem to correlate with the networks of microbes that exist throughout the human body. Despite differences in composition, they share many similarities in function related to immune system modulation, nutrient distribution, and immune regulation.

Breakthroughs in biotech have allowed humans to transcend beyond their normal sensorial abilities. High-powered microscopes, lasers and sensors allow for magnified sensorial experiences of parallel dimensions, while genetic engineers produce microbes and chemicals to use as interspecies communication channels. We can see that the pioneering work of evolutionary biologists and theorists such as Lynn Margulis, James MacAllister, Bonnie Bassler and Donna Hathaway, on  the collective consciousness of bacteria, fungi and viruses is not only probable but it has now become the consensus. The idea that these (microbes, bacteria, fungi and viruses) are not only sharing information, but sharing genetic material between other living organisms (eg. Plants and humans).

 

We live in an age where time and scale become abstracted as the larger landscape blends with microbes and synthetic matter, woven together in a quantum dance of weird proportions.  

 

Underlying processes, networks and languages of life, death, waste, and decay can now be experienced in magnified and time lapsed representations. The weird worlds that exist beneath the surface are revealed in hyperreal renderings, enabling everyday people a portal into a world that was once available only to the elite and enlightened. 

We can now see through sophisticated microscopes and video technology, that trees communicate with hormones and other chemical pathways, made possible with the recruitment of fungi and bacteria as mediators and messengers. We have created amazing potential for connecting with the landscape, while at the same time, we are polluting it at an exponential rate. 

However, Mother Nature is adapting. In 2011, Yale students discovered a mushroom in Ecuador, Pestalotiopsis microspora, that can digest and break down polyurethane. Since 2011, more than 50 other species of fungi have been identified as being able to digest plastics. Scientists are also finding that some forms of bacteria have evolved to be able to consume these synthetic products. 

In Jeff Vandermeer’s weird fiction novel “Annihilation”, biologists discover that decaying animals and plants contain human DNA. Currently biologists are proving that Lynn Margulis’s theories about microbes transferring DNA to plants, fungi, and animals to true. Conversely, they are also finding human genetic material is being transferred into bacterial genomes. They are also beginning to discover that microplastics are making their way into the biological structure of soil, fungi, plants and then into humans.

It is important to note again that plastics emit chemicals and hormone mimicking molecules that can disrupt the neurological and hormonal pathways in a human body. Can they do that in plants? What implication does this have on the broader ecological scale? 

Quantum theory suggests that simply observing a particle can change its trajectory. Lynn Margulis and other biology experts suggest that collectively, bacteria and other microbes also have some form of consciousness and that as we observe the environment, it looks right back at us. This process seems to create a strange and fluctuating feedback loop. One in which, the landscape changes as we interact with it and then we change as the landscape interacts with us. 

Sociologist Robert Merton suggest that the dysfunction of communication and other systems in the social networks of humans can lead to Deviance with the community. Is this the same for microbial communities?

With the introduction of plastics on our environment are we potentially confusing the communication pathways of these microbes and in turn altering the collective consciousness of the fungal and bacterial societies? Is the Anthropocene some kind of alchemical, techno Gnostic ritual, resembling something from one of Philip K Dick or H.P Lovecraft’s weird and eerie worlds?  Have we unknowingly evoked an Entity, born from both natural and unnatural elements, with It’s mind twisted and It’s influence inescapable?  It’s impossible to say…. However, one thing I am sure of, is that, whether natural or unnatural, in the words of Donna Haraway, “we are all compost.”