The basic idea is this – mycelium can digest a lot of things, anything with cellulose really. When the mycelium digests the cellulose, it forms a white spongy matrix of material called Chiton. This process can pretty much continue as long as the mycelia has something to feed on and moisture, and it will take the shape of any container it is places in for the period of growth. To end the process, the structure needs to be dried out at around 180 degrees which kills the fungus.
How I Got Here
I first heard about all this at a no credit Biomaterials weekly workshop over the fall semester, which SVA had offered to students at its Nature and Technologies lab, taught by Oliver Medvedik from Genspace.
We also experimented in class with growing and drying scoby and cultivating glowing and colourful bacteria that can be painted with – but what really won me over was the fungus forms. It just so happened that my class had also been presented with an opportunity to make individual art about food for an exhibition and work with Kevin O’Callaghan, and I immediately realised I wanted to make some form of a marriage here. As I was looking at mycoform examples and admiring the organic and rich texture and feel, it became clear to me what I wanted to say about food aesthetics and engineering and how I wanted to say it through the metaphor of ready made versus organically grown furniture. I figured I would use the time at the lab to grow the organic, mycelial part, and time at the woodshop to prepare the ready made part of the piece.
Over the next few weeks we spent our lab time inoculating petri dishes and jars of woodchips/gypsum/wheatgerm mixes with Reishi and Oyster mycelium, on a growing scale. However, being the experimental process that it was and us students having no previous experience with it, resulted in some of the samples becoming contaminated and unusable and some just took different times and different rates to grow.
Consultations with Oliver and the SVA NATLAB’s team resulted in a plan to take over a closet at the lab and turn it into a makeshift incubator with heating mats and plastic dropcloths, since this was a fairly large scale operation with real life furniture size growths to make.
On the woodshop end, we decided it would be best if I made containers in the shape of the furniture parts from styrene, and assembled the pieces that grew in them when they are ready and dried out into the shapes of a chair and half a table.
The Constraints of Reality
As the end of the semester grew closer and time to have a secure and reliable process ran short, I realised that for the sake of practicality and making sure that I have what I need to display in the exhibition I would need additional assistance.
With the help of my department chair, Cheryl Heller, I contacted Ecovative, a biomaterials company that manufactures innovative mushroom materials as environmentally responsible, cost effective packaging and insulation solutions. They also conduct research to develop material properties and performance, so they provided me with some additional material info and I put in an order of 30 lbs. of their live mycelium and wood waste mix, along with some prepared mycofoam panels as a backup. As much as I wished I had been able to make the mix myself from scratch, I knew that Ecovative’s formula had been tried and tested and was more reliable than my experiments at the lab.
I spent a whole night making the styrene boxes, based on tracings I made of the original furniture. The next day, after 4 hours of sleep, I headed to the lab to assemble the improvised incubator and fill up the boxes to start the growth. The order from Ecovative arrived just on time.
Here is how I logged the process from this point on:
Dec. 6th 2013
To make the incubator, I sterilised the closet with ethanol and then covered it all with painters’ drop cloths (which I then sprayed full of ethanol again. I covered just about everything that I came in contact with over the process. Also, of course I wore surgeon’s gloves throughout the entire process). I placed a wire shelving system inside and positioned 3 waterproof seedling heating mats in the space – 2 that were 20”x20” and one that was smaller.
I lined most of the boxes with saran wrap, except for the chair sides which were too narrow and complex in shape to be able to be lined properly. Sprayed it all with ethanol, of course. I filled them with the material from Ecovative, packing it in quite densely (I am noting this, because the mixes we were making previously at the lab were packed more loosely to leave more room for air). I wrapped each box with saran wrap quite tightly, to keep it safe from contaminants.
I then placed them around the closet space, some directly on the heating mats and some next to them. It took just over 10 lbs. of the mix to fill up all the boxes – I left the remaining 19.5 lbs. at the lab, until I could find refrigerated storage for it (the mix needs to be refrigerated and it is good for around 30 days from arrival). It took me around 5 hours overall to prepare everything from start to finish.
I placed a digital thermometer in the closet and closed it. Temperature inside was 24.5 celsius when I left.
Dec. 7th 2013
I came in to check up on the growths and to put the leftover mycelium mix in a refrigerator at the lab. The boxes were humid underneath the saran wrap, and mycelium fanning out was visible in most of them. Temperature inside was 28.5 celsius.
Dec. 9th 2013
Examined the boxes today – they are growing much faster than I expected. Almost all of the boxes are now covered in white chiton inside. The boxes that sat directly on the heating mats have no chiton forming inside, our assumption is that they overheated and the fungus died. We unplugged one of the heating mats. I will give it a few days to see that those growths are indeed dead and useless, before replacing the mix.
Temperature inside was 31 celsius.
Dec. 11th 2013
Boxes that overheated are indeed completely dead. I threw away the dead mix, sterilized the boxes again and refilled them with the leftover mix from the fridge, which was now much more solid and really had to be pried apart to be distributed. I did not re-line the inside of the boxes with saran wrap this time, just covered it with it from the outside.
Also, the growth in the boxes looked like it had slowed down – I replugged the third heating mat and hung it over the door, so it doesn’t touch any of the boxes.
Temperature inside was 26 celsius.
Dec. 13th 2013
The refilled boxes are growing but seems that it is more slowly than before. I repositioned the hanging heating mat and the arrangement of the boxes in the closet so that they are closer to the heating sources.
Temperature inside was 26 celsius.
Dec. 16th 2013
The boxes that were refilled have picked up and are now covered in fluffy white chiton. The older growths are more solid and less spongy to the touch than before.
Temperature inside was 29 celsius.
Dec. 20th 2013
Drying day. Took the boxes from the lab in a huge plastic bin (sterilised with ethanol…) and transported them to the Genspace building.
Unwrapped the saran wrap and removed each piece from its box to see it fully. The growths were good but not consistent – in some of them there were patches of the mix that had not filled out so well with Chiton, in some it had all filled out nicely. There was possibly significance to lining the boxes with saran wrap, and/or to the density of the packing, and/or to being packed with brand new mix versus being packed with mix that sat for a few days in the fridge – however it was difficult to determine what led to what, since the circumstances varied from box to box. Some of the pieces are more fragile and crumbly than others. However, the shapes came out very exact to the boxes. Pieces that were 2 inches in depth did better than thinner ones. Dried out in several ovens – the small pieces took about 15-20 minutes in a standard oven, at around 200 degrees.
The bigger pieces took longer and higher temperatures and retained a lot of moisture inside. Not everything had fully dried out when I removed it, some pieces felt still a little soft. Will leave them to air dry and try more drying rounds in my kitchen oven at home.
Jan. 11th-13th 2014
For the exhibition’s installation I put together the pieces, which I had coated with Shellac after drying. I used dowels, glue (yes, that’s when it became a little less organic unfortunately..) and the weight of the wood part of the piece for support and balance. Added final touches and details. It actually all worked!