John Cage, 1958, Fontana Mix

The largest living organism on the planet (Malheur National Forest, eastern Oregon, USA)

Mycelia mat

Mycological provisions

Fungal development


In 1959 artist and composer John Cage co-taught a mushroom identification course at the New School for Social Research, New York City. For Cage, mushroom hunting was a method for relating sound to environment, a way to move consciously through a landscape. As an unpredictable and mysterious organism, mushrooms are a steadfast emblem and metaphor in many of Cage’s writings on art, education, and philosophy.

Inspired partly by Cage’s work, Mycological Provisions is an arts-based research project exploring the practice of four artist-teachers who take on roles as organisers, artists, and educators in their respective communities. The aim of the project is to examine the evolving complexity of artist-teacher identity and re-emerging trends in social practice.1 Mycology offers a platform to embody, make sense, and deterritorialise these relationships, while challenging accepted methods of qualitative research.

In the summer of 2013, participants2 were invited on a series of mushroom hunts in four public parks on the East and West coasts of the United States. Each hunt was designed as a dérive-like encounter with a landscape, engaging both researcher and participant in collaborative dialogue about their identity and practice. An element of chance was inserted into each hunt through a tool developed for the project called the mycowheel. The mycowheel consists of a faceplate with a rotating spinner that allows a participant to randomise a set of inquiries prepared for each hunt. As both researcher and participant traverse along trail paths a conversation unfolds, interrupted by mushroom sightings, the mycowheel, and kinetic encounters. The following exposition shares documentation, contextual research, and artworks created through the project.

Fungi and multiple ways of knowing

When the largest and oldest known living organism surfaces, it manifests as a delicate mushroom no bigger than the palm of a hand. Just below the surface, the mushroom is connected to a vast network of threadlike roots that extend nearly 2,400 acres throughout the Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon. Although the fruiting body of the fungus appears as a tiny mushroom, the entire network is actually a singular entity, an unseen web that is slowly regenerating the forest by decomposing it over time.

Ontologically, fungi operate at a level of complexity that scientists still do not understand. Mycologist Paul Stamets (2005: 7) characterises mushrooms as the ‘neurological network of nature, likening mycelium to the archetypical pattern of a spiral galaxy and string theory. He explains that the architecture of fungi is all around us, in the formation of hurricanes and weather events, the invisible network of the Internet, the cellular makeup of DNA, and the living tissue of the human body. Fungi are used as insulation for buildings, they can eat oil spills, protect us from bioterrorism, and have been shown to cure some cancers.

The earliest known reference to fungi appears in the writings of Euripides and Hippocrates in the fifth century BCE, revealing cautionary tales of mushroom poisoning and speculation on their medicinal properties. For centuries, fungi were presumed the food of the gods by the Greeks, flowers of the earth by the Michoacan Indians, and were thought to manifest from lightening because they were born without seed. In the West, the fungi kingdom was not formally recognised until 1969 when ethnobotanist Robert Whittaker distinguished fungi from plants. Yet, even after the invention of the microscope, the mapping of DNA, and missions to space, mushrooms continue to evade scientific and rational understanding. With only 5 per cent of the estimated 1.5 million species of fungi identified, scientists are still unable to understand fully how fungi reproduce and live in a mutualistic relationship with almost all other organisms on the planet, including humans.

What we do know about fungi is they are neither plant nor animal. They cannot produce their own food, but rather feed on decaying matter and live in a mutualistic or parasitic relationship with other living organisms. All human bodies are hosts for fungi. They exist in-between your toes and fingers, in your skin, and elsewhere. They are found on almost all continents and ecosystems, underwater, in caves, and below your feet right now. In the mystery and networked complexity of fungi, they provide a context to consider relational and uncertain ways of knowing. A number of feminist and poststructural scholars from Carol Gilligan (1982) and Mary Field Belenky (1986) to Deleuze and Guattari (1987) have explored this concept, explaining that there are no absolute Truths, but rather multiple ways of knowing that unfold in our experience and participation in the world. More recently, Anna Tsing (2015: 4) describes this as entangled ways of life, noting the need for new theories of heterogeneity that take into consideration the precarious reality of disaster capitalism.

In the context of this project, fungi provide a conceptual guide and material to consider socially engaged art and public pedagogy as a networked and relational system. Just as mycelia networks (the root structure of a mushroom) traverse a forest floor, socially engaged practices unfold relationally in a variety of public spheres through embodied, ecstatic, and aesthetic experience. These gestures draw from a constellation of socio-cultural networks, which emerge through disorganised and often antagonistic associations and pedagogical encounters.

Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) idea of rhizomatic becoming offers a means to understand this theoretically. In A Thousand Plateaus, they describe one’s interaction and experience with the world as a complex assemblage of non-linear passages that collapse and fold onto each other, never settling, never making permanence. As new nodes are created, others close and form in an ongoing process of emergence and possibility. This rhizomatic growth is a conceptual framework as much as a biological function – something that is nomadic, unpredictable, and occurring through both mutualistic and parasitic relationships over time.

A number of scholars have adapted and expanded the concept of the rhizome to a wide array of disciplines. The work of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group is a salient example. As a collaborative group of cultural anthropologists their research uses the matsutake mushroom – its production, trade, ecological value, and cultural significance – as a lens for understanding global human–nonhuman relationships. They explain, through the fungus, we learn to see not only multiplicity but also diversities and incipient relations in the landscape more clearly and concretely (Choy and others 2009: 384). While the rhizome is an important conceptual or poetic context for their work, the group evolves a Deleuze-Guattarian understanding to critically interpret cultural ecosystems and social relations. In so doing, they model new approaches to collaborative research and knowledge production.

Elizabeth Ellsworth (2005: 12) relates this pedagogically to what she describes as nonlinguistic events, where the mind, body, and soul coalesce in our experience and making sense of the world. This lived experience is what gives pedagogy its form and material, a force ontologically prior to curriculum. However, the materiality of pedagogy, through which we create and circulate knowledge, is often obscured and difficult to locate. Ellsworth (ibid.: 9) argues we need non-examples that occur outside education to act as catalysts not just to visualize a better world, but to arouse in the public a desire for one. She suggests this can be found in the realm of art, design, architecture, and social action. Yet, our capacity to read and fully comprehend these examples requires a postformal and critical lens that imagines creativity, art, and pedagogy as interdependent systems, which are rhizomatic in their intent and form.

In many ways, the mushroom provides a salient metaphor and platform to visualise and understand these networked ideas, and to move beyond a focus on hyper-specialisation or territorialisation of particular discourses or disciplines. However, we must not presume the mushroom as a universal model, but rather as an open-ended passageway, an inquiry, or a vehicle for new and ongoing understanding. Something that is always growing, always decaying, and always regenerating the very soil from which it emerges. As Cage (1963: 84) once said, we often have the impression that we’re learning nothing, but as the years pass we recognize more and more mushrooms.

Christopher Lee Kennedy


John Cage: mushrooms, silence, and chance operation

Fungi are connected intimately to the work and life of artist and composer John Cage. In the 1930s, Cage studied musical composition under Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg. Later, Cage found he was more attracted to Asian ideas of music and philosophy. In the early 1950s Cage met Japanese thinker Daisetz T. Suzuki and attended Suzuki’s lectures on Zen Buddhism at Columbia University in New York. Cage was attuned in particular to a session on ego and the outside world, which he used to solidify many of his early notions of noise and chance-based compositions (Larson 2012).

In the summer of 1954, Cage moved to a cooperative community in Stony Point, New York, where he began to traverse the woods surrounding his new home. The area was flush with mushrooms and located near a well-known mycologist named Guy Nearing. Nearing became Cage’s ‘mushroom guru’ as he honed an interest in mycology. In 1956 Cage began to teach an experimental composition class at the New School for Social Research. After teaching this course for several years, Cage made a request to offer a class on mushroom identification, framed as a series of five mushroom hunting field trips with Nearing as co-instructor:

This summer I’m going to give a class in mushroom identification at the New School for Social Research. Actually, it’s five field trips, not really a class at all. However, when I proposed it to Dean Clara Mayer, though she was delighted with the idea, she said, ‘I’ll have to let you know later whether or not we’ll give it.’ So she spoke to the president who couldn’t see why there should be a class in mushrooms at the New School. Next she spoke to Professor MacIvor who lives in Piermont. She said, ‘What do you think about our having a mushroom class at the New School?’ He said, ‘Fine idea. Nothing more than mushroom identification develops the powers of observation.’ (Cage and Tudor 1959)

While Cage’s mushroom identification course was never a permanent fixture at the New School, it prompted the founding of the New York Mycological Society, which Cage led for a short time. The course was not expressly concerned with music or composition; however, critics like Edward Rothstein (1981) speculate that Cage’s love of mushrooms may have played some role in ‘avant-garde’ art movements like Fluxus. It’s rumoured for instance that Cage met Allan Kaprow on a mushroom hunt with George Brecht in 1957. Kaprow would later enrol in Cage’s composition course, where he began to develop ideas for performance-based works later known as happenings (Beaven 2012).

In a 1954 article originally written for the Paris Review entitled ‘Music Lovers’ Field Companion’, Cage (1961) begins to describe his parallel interest in both mycology and music. He writes, ‘I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom (ibid.: 274). The text itself is a humorous commentary on classical music, in which Cage uses mushrooms as a metaphor to remark on the seasonal variation of both fungi and concert hall performance. What is interesting is that Cage begins to relate mushroom hunting to a kind of phenomenological experience of both presence and silence in his practice. He says:

I have spent many pleasant hours in the woods conducting performances of my silent piece transcriptions, that is, for an audience of myself, since they were much longer than the popular length which I have had published. At one performance, I passed the first movement by attempting the identification of a mushroom which remained successfully unidentified. The second movement was extremely dramatic, beginning with the sounds of a buck and a doe leaping up to within ten feet of my rocky podium. (Cage 1961: 276)

Later in his career, Cage visited the Mountain Lake Workshop, a series of collaborative artist workshops and symposia in Giles County, Virginia. Cage co-led a mycological foray with Orson Miller and participated in workshops with photographer Marie Cosindas and painter Robert Berlind. Ray Kass, founder of the Mountain Lake programmes, reflects on this experience, describing his initial doubt in the foray. He later notes how Cage’s use of chance operation and mushroom hunting both demand a unique kind of observational prowess and presence. Kass explains, ‘Cage used chance operations in his compositions to encourage the audience to pay closer attention to the world around them. A mycological foray required just such disciplined attention; without it, it was simply impossible to see mushrooms in the midst of foliage and other objects on the forest floor’ (as quoted in Risatti 1996: 4).

Cage also developed a collection of mesostic poems, writings, and a folio of drawings called The Mushroom Book, released in 1972 (text included in Cage 1973). The book compiles lithographic prints by Lois Long, classifications from mycologist Alexander H. Smith, and handwritten/typed texts hidden throughout the book by Cage, inviting the reader to hunt for meaning. Cage also created a poetic text in 1985, Mushrooms et Variationes, that was read at Diane Brown Gallery and eventually turned into a recording and film. The New York Times notes the texts were inspired by Cage’s interest in mycology and explored a number of themes related to mushrooms, art, nature, and cooking (Holden 1986).

Still yet, many of Cage’s collaborators and friends note mushroom hunting was a separate interest and passion for Cage. In Peter Dickinson’s (2006) book CageTalk, several interviews indicate that Cage was drawn more to the scientific systems and taxonomy of mushroom identification and did not necessarily use mycology as a means to produce compositions or music. Fungi were more of an ontological guide, a way of being with the land that allowed Cage to contemplate radical notions of silence and presence. Even so, writers such as Allison Meier (2014: para. 5) suggest Cage ‘didn’t keep it totally separate from art, and left these curious trails of words and art to scavenge through like a forest’.

The use of the I Ching or the Book of Changes is perhaps a more direct influence on Cage’s work with musical composition. Cage used the I Ching, an ancient Chinese system of divination, in much of his work from the early 1950s onward to create systems for composing music. Each I Ching fortune is represented by a hexagram character, which contains a corresponding numerical value and textual interpretation. Initially, Cage would toss coins to generate a series of hexagrams and numbers that he would then use to inform the elements of a composition such as duration, tempo, silences, and so on. The process was quite methodical, which Cage distinguished from the concept of improvisation, using the term ‘chance operation’. Marshall (2000: para. 4) explains Cage used this method, among others, ‘to filter out his own intention for the joy of seeing what would arise’. The I Ching in this sense served as a means to develop a direction for a composition, uninhibited by Cage’s own judgements or desires, and in so doing unfolds as something free and unexpected.

While there is some discrepancy in how Cage used mushrooms to inform his art practice, it is clear that Cage found a deep fascination and value in mycology. The act of mushroom hunting, identification, of moving through the forest was as much a meditative experience as it was a poetic and pedagogical device for Cage. This kept Cage coming back to the forest floor, careening down to find another mushroom, another sound, and perhaps another moment of chance.


Beaven, Kirstie. 2012. ‘Performance Art 101: The Happening, Allan Kaprow’ <> [accessed 12 April 2016]

Belenky, Mary Field. 1986. Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books)

Cage, John. 1961. Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press)

———. 1963. A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press)

———. 1973. M: Writings ’67–’72 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press)

———. 1985. Mushrooms et Variationes (Köln: 235 Media, videotape, colour, 76 minutes)

Cage, John, and David Tudor. 1959. Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music (Washington, DC: Smithsonian/Folkways, SF40804/5)

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Stamets, Paul. 2005. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press)

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)



1. Introduction   2. The hunt   3. Spores

Mushroom lifecycle

Cage on a mycological foray in south-western Virginia, 1988

John Cage