Even in complete darkness, the most curious creations sprout.
These are dark times. Sometimes I feel like everything is shit. But you know what? Cool stuff can grow from shit…specifically, mushrooms.
These neat little life forms seem to pop up spontaneously in nature, but in fact, they need the perfect conditions to grow. These conditions are cool, damp and almost in complete darkness. Mushrooms do not need light to grow. Instead, they feed off of the seemingly discarded and decaying parts of other life forms. So sometimes, seemingly bleak, cold darkness can be the perfect conditions for new growth, new ideas and inspirations.
Can we, as a society, learn to produce in dark times? Could these dark conditions in fact be the perfect conditions for new inspirations, new directions?
Christiaan Nagel, a British street artist, has been adorning cities with mushrooms as “an ode to the future.” These brightly coloured, expanding foam sculptures can be spotted in cities such as London, Berlin, New York and more, catching the eye of passersby and reminding us that ideas can spontaneously emerge in an infinite number of perfectly imperfect situations. Inspiration is everywhere. Perhaps the future will be different than we could have ever imagined.
In order to gather some insights on his inspirations and intentions with the mushroom project, Novelty contacted Christiaan for a conversation about art in dark times.
Novelty: The idea of “Art” is, of course, fluid and ever evolving. In your opinion, is there a distinction today between Street Art and Gallery Art?
Christiaan: Yes. I’d say gallery art is more structured. It is often a collection of an artist’s work and has a commercial element to it. Street art is very much in the moment. I think a more important distinction to make is between Street Art and Graffiti. All this street art business is set against a backdrop of graffiti, which is an anarchistic movement. This is unsolicited art. Graffiti artists pride themselves in getting the impossible spots. It’s purely expression and non-commercial. I’d say there is an art pureness in it.
Novelty: So how is street art evolving today?
Christiaan: Street art got it roots from graffiti, but has now diversified into so many branches, from fine art to sculpture and situational art. Walls are often secured by organizers and artists are then invited to paint those walls.
Novelty: Do you consider your work to fall more within the realm of street art, or graffiti?
Christiaan: Probably more street art, but I like installing on the fly and getting those mad spots. Further down the spectrum you get public art, which means lots of submissions and funding and approvals etc.
We’re not about that.
Novelty: How was the mushroom project born? Why mushrooms?
Christiaan: My message is simple: Expand your mind. The natural world is more interesting than any science fiction writer could ever imagine. The mushrooms are from a different world, seeping through to ours. And they mostly pop up at night, magically. And it’s only with an open mind that you can truly see them.
The mushrooms are an ode to the future. It’s going to be so very different than we can ever imagine.
Novelty: Cool, I like this concept. In addition to being the stuff of science fiction, in what ways do you see the mushrooms as an ode to the future? Do you intend the future of art, or the future at large?
Christiaan: I’ve been working on a narrative of the mushrooms. I’m hoping to bring it out as a book at some point. My main characters are the Neo-humans who are faced with unrest in the Underworld that has been brewing for a long time. The only way they can get to the underworld is by consuming these little mushrooms. Once there you will encounter characters such as the Fi Of The Underworld: large shoals of fish that swim through the earth surface as if they were ghosts.
I’m a big Studio Ghibli fan. Maybe one day I’ll have it illustrated in that style.
So these street art mushrooms is this underworld seeping through to the now.
I will tell my story with street art.
Novelty: Amazing! So speaking of the almost magical qualities of mushrooms, in nature, mushrooms pop up seemingly overnight, in conditions that other plants would not possibly be able to survive, ie. complete darkness. What do the mushrooms symbolize for you, that made you decide to adorn the city with them?
Christiaan: That’s it. Mushrooms also grow underneath the ground as an almost neural network that sends information to flora. That bush in your garden is probably hooked up to a tree several metres away, thanks to mycelia.
Mushrooms change the way the brain works. They sprout new links across previously disconnected brain regions changing the organizational framework.
Novelty: I agree. I often believe that conflicts in society or, on a smaller scale, simple loneliness and isolation, stem from a simple lack of ability to communicate or reproduce what unfathomably complex ideas, concepts, and images we as individuals have floating around inside our brains. In this sense, I suppose the intricate communication systems in the natural world are something to be envied. Do you agree that perhaps art can be used in lieu of (or at times more effectively than) words?
Christiaan: I agree. [Art]’s a non-verbal expression. For me the most important thing is that it provokes ideas within the viewer. The idea is to induce daydreaming.
Us getting more and more connected I think is a very good thing.
Novelty: Another interesting thing about mushroom communication is that although the mushroom body we see above the ground can be very short-lived, the mycelium fibers underground that you mentioned can be long lasting and have a really far reach. I think this can also speak for ideas and actions in today’s “dark times.” Though the visible effects may be small at first, the underlying effects can be lasting, for better or worse. What do you think? How can art be used, in contrast, to create lasting impressions that are positive and uplifting?
Christiaan: I think a great shortfall we have today is in rationality. So we probably see “dark times” very differently. In reality we understand very little of the world and we’re awful at making decisions. My art is in contrast with the status quo. I promote free thinking, especially in situations when you find yourself being VERY certain about something. That’s the best time to try and destroy your own ideas. Stress test them.
I’m still trying to work out whether art has a positive impact on society. I’m doing it because it just feels really good.
Novelty: Yes! Speaking of the “feel-good” aspect of art, I find it interesting that you have chosen to create mushrooms of such bright and vibrant colours, can you tell us about this choice?
Christiaan: The expanding foam I use to make them has always looked edible to me. Colour makes me feel excited. I’ve definitely drawn inspiration from the pop art and early street art guys like Haring.
Novelty: And how do you choose the locations for your mushrooms?
Christiaan: I’m on 24/7 mushroom lookout. Some buildings are just made for mushrooms. I think a bit like a graffiti artist and always try and get the highest, most difficult spots.
Novelty: Christiaan, can you tell us what “the future is dark” means to you as an artist?
Christiaan: Well I tend to disagree. I don’t think the future has ever been brighter. Expression has found a voice in society. The world has turned into a street art playground. Before, street art was considered “defacing” property, and guys spent time in prison.
Regarding the world right now; I’m wary of big emotional responses. By shouting our ideas out, we are at the same time pounding them into our own heads. Too much of that and you’ll never be able to see the other point of view.
Novelty: I suppose this is where the “expand your mind” mantra is important.
Christiaan: Got this quote from the wisest old man I’ve come across,
“To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
And the solution to this is a “latticework of mental models.” Go read up on that shit.
Novelty: [Laughing] Sure will. To wrap up, what advice can you give to other “creators” in today’s social climate?
Christiaan: That there is less utility in art than we think there is. Think about that for a second.
Novelty: Thank you for your time and inspirations, cheers!
See Christiaan’s site, christiaannagel.co.uk, for mushroom news and products such as clothes, prints and mini-mushrooms, to remind you that inspiration is everywhere. The future may be dark, but it is what you make it.