Living with Wildfire
mechanism which releases fungal spores during a wildfire to jumpstart soil remediation
and symbolise regeneration in a changing bioregion.
Changing winter and summer conditions will increase UK wildfire risk by up to 50% by 2080. We urgently need to [re]adopt a more nuanced mindset around fire to understand that in varied moderation, fire is a vital part of healthy ecosystems. As images of devastatingly orange skies from the most fire-prone areas around the world make loud headlines, can we preempt localised wildfire doom in the UK and find hope by bringing preventative and remediating measures out into the open?
Living with Wildfire intro film
cinematography and editing by Maël Hénaff
“We need not just reseeding, but also reinoculating. Recuperation is still possible, but only in multispecies alliance, across the killing divisions of nature, culture, & technology & of organism, language, & machine.”– Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2016
As much a speculative proposal as it is functional, Living with Wildfire offers a self-contained, fire-activated mycoremediation system in an art object, belonging on the perimeter of a home or civic building in a British rural-urban interface zone.
The form is a mycelium sculpture, adorned with descriptive tags made from thick pieces of lead-free pewter, held up on a steel frame. This mycelium (the interwoven root-like hyphae that make up the majority of fungal organisms’ biomass) is grown on silica-rich substrate to enhance its natural fire-resistance. Inside this protective form is a steel vessel, sealed by a cork that contains billions of dormant spores of oyster mushroom, or Pleurotus ostreatus.
If a wildfire reaches the brush piled underneath the frame (gathered from fire prevention forest thinning), steam builds in the vessel, triggering a ‘spore explosion’ that inoculates the surrounding earth and detritus with Pleurotus. The fungi will aid in erosion prevention and begin to break down toxic persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that are found after fires in partially developed landscapes. The pewter tags melt quickly, flowing into the steel rim below, casting a remembrance of the event.
As an ecologically attuned art piece and small-scale, decentralised wildfire insurance plan, Living with Wildfire encourages reflection, adaptation and bioremediation, while leaving room for the grief that comes with witnessing a changing bioregion.
matter of years the UK will be ill prepared to handle wildfires. It must
consider what it might need in the future.”
– G. Rein, Professor of Fire Science,
Imperial College London (2020)
– A.C. Scott et al., ‘The interaction of fire and mankind: introduction’ (2016)
“Fire may not only have an impact on the vegetation (and houses built within the burnt area), but is also a threat to human health from fire-produced smoke & fire’s influence on post-fire erosion, flooding & its potential to contaminate water supplies.”
Attention Calibration Devices
The blue vision™ protective shield, nfinite scroll™ device, and ad Bloc™ goggles aim to lightheartedly add friction to our use of technology that is ever more optimised for frictionless use and addiction.
Business models based on the commodification of users’ attention, like those used by free social media sites, have led to an atrophying of our ability to focus, be present, and even ask how our own values might be supported by technology, rather than undermined by it.
As things are now, the design of most ads-supported platforms (and even those that are not) optimize for longer engagement over anything else. The main tactics used in persuasive design to prey on psychological weaknesses of users are identified by the Center for Human Technology as 1) Making the trivial seem urgent; 2) Encouraging seeking without fulfilment; 3) Forcing us to multitask; 4) Weaponizing fear and Anxiety; 5) Encouraging constant social comparison; and 6) Telling us whatever we want to believe1.
The blue vision™ protective shield, nfinite scroll™ device, and the ad Bloc™ goggles aim to materially combat and prod at the first three of these tactics, respectively. They ask how can we add friction to using technology that is ever more optimised for frictionless use and addiction? Is it ridiculous to place physical rituals between us and these technologies, or to try to create a different neurological experience than that which they are designed to trigger?
These objects do not aim to argue against what our current internet has brought us at its best. However, at its worst, the internet has accelerated extractive consumerism, altered political and social landscapes, allowed for people to subscribe to different realities, and shortened attention spans. Our collective energizing around mitigating climate change relies on a reckoning with the attention economy and pushing for legislation that limits the amount technology companies can optimize their platforms for ever-increasing engagement, rather than functionality, resource use efficiency, or how much they facilitate human goals.
These critical products may gain exposure on social media, namely Instagram, where they will be promoted among kin: decontextualized and eerily light-hearted. They also aim to illuminate an irony in products that place the burden of positive behaviour change on the user when private corporations and governments should first be held responsible for examining the ethics of persuasive technology. Sixty per cent of the world’s population is online2 and one third is on Facebook3; the extractive attention economy affects them all.
1. Brain Science, Center for Humane Technology, www.humanetech.com/brain-science.
2. Johnson, Joseph. “Internet Users in the World 2021.” Statista, 7 Apr. 2021.
3. Tankovska, H. “Facebook Users by Country 2021.” Statista, 9 Feb. 2021.
for Baume et Mercier X MAMF
Here I proposed using an imperfect & antiquated technique to create a sand cast watch for Baume et Mercier, a luxury watch brand hoping to tell a story about the sustainability of its product.
High Speed Two (HS2) is a new rail network that will eventually connect London, the Midlands, the North and Scotland. HS2 Limited maintains that the new system will provide a lower carbon alternative to regional road and air travel1, despite calculations that even at its 120-year lifespan mark, the complex network’s construction and operation will not have been carbon neutral2. Calling HS2 “the biggest environment project in Britain”, the government grant-in-aid funded company has hired teams of experts to plant trees, create replacement habitats, salvage valuable soils, conduct ongoing surveys of ecosystem health, and more 1. This sounds thorough, but because of high-speed track requirements, there is not enough flexibility to avoid destroying a certain number of ancient oak woodlands, homes, or habitats for endangered butterflies8. To summarize the main criticisms of HS2: the carbon emission reduction estimates are misleading, there is irreplaceable habitat along the route (I.e. one cannot make “new” ancient woodlands), it will benefit the wealthy disproportionately3, and the now estimated £106bn budget is better spent on social and medical services. There have been high-profile protests against the project since at least 2018, with confrontations streamed online between camped-out “tree protectors” and contractors4. Despite increasingly salient criticisms, almost all signs point to at least Phase One of HS2 carrying on5.
The HS2 Phase 1f: Deep Listening website explains that HS2 goes forth and has recently contracted this company who specializes in “deep listening” surveys on construction sites. It has become clear to HS2 Ltd that exclusively quantitative data collection is not sufficient to monitor and promote a holistic thriving of the region at the different stages of this physical transition. They will gather rich, qualitative data from organisms along the route, making recordings of rivers, cacophonies of birds, rustling leaves, and individual badgers. The announcement of the survey also represents an effort to evolve with the language around environmental sustainability. As an expression of values conveyed through narrative becomes more critical to positive reception of corporate projects of any scale, their marketing and execution will become more creative and expansive.
If this deep listening project were implemented, the more dispersed yet effective, affective and potentially subversive outcome would be an expanding variety of individual experiences that people working on these sites would have, contributing to a greater shift towards identification of the spiritual self with the network of nature. This falls into the “power as empowerment of others” category within a systems thinking framework in that the act of deep listening facilitates sensory connectedness to the environment rather than superficial connection made through acts of hierarchical domination that are characteristically required in land development6. Practicing expanding “the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum of sound” workers on the assignment would likely daily experience some level of emotional connection with the subject at hand: the subtle sounds of the landscape. Employees would gather rich audio along the route, connecting them to that landscape.
When encountering language and imagery from a blend of esoteric environmentalist and corporate inspirations, I hope that a visitor to the HS2 Deep Listening website thinks it is real for a little while. After learning about HS2, I want some people to keep changing their minds about whether or not this particular phase of HS2’s construction is an absurd waste of money. I offer documentation of some people at work recording sounds as well as a small library from sounds recorded in Denham Country Park near a tree protector camp in November 2020, before major construction ensues. I hope to further explore a question as to whether it is possible to bring personal connection and caring into the equation when making “observations” of nature while entrenched in a sector that generally treats elements of nature as economic commodities7. When listening to these gathered sounds, I want people to have a sliver of the experience that contractors must have had while making them: a moment intently listening to the many layers of a changing place.
1. On World Environment Day, HS2 CEO salutes the 'Biggest environment project in Britain'Jun 5, 2020-last update. Available: https://mediacentre.hs2.org.uk/news/on-world-environment-day-hs2-ceo-salutes-the-biggest-environment-project-in-britain
2. Barkham, P., 2020, -02-02T16:40:30.000Z. Will HS2 really help cut the UK’s carbon footprint?. The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/feb/02/will-hs2-really-help-cut-the-uks-carbon-footprint
3. New Economics Foundation, 2019. HS2 will serve wealthier passengers and deliver more benefits to London than the North. Available: https://neweconomics.org/2019/03/hs2-will-serve-wealthier-passengers-and-deliver-more-benefits-to-london-than-the-north
4. HS2 Rebellion - An alliance of groups resisting HS2. Available: https://www.hs2rebellion.earth/
5. Topham, G., 2019, -08-21T16:41:51.000Z. HS2: how far has work got, and why might it be scrapped?. The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/aug/21/hs2-how-far-has-work-got-and-why-might-it-be-scrapped
6. Capra, F. & Luisi, P.L., 2018. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
7. Bellacasa, María Puig de La, 2017. Matters of care: speculative ethics in more than human worlds, University of Minnesota press.
8. Barkham, P., 2020, -01-15T06:00:05.000Z. HS2 will destroy or damage hundreds of UK wildlife sites, says report. The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/15/hs2-will-destroy-or-damage-hundreds-of-uk-wildlife-sites-report
This series of three canvases includes depictions of my grandmother in San Francisco in 1933, e-commerce style images of clothing I made or altered, and photographs of palm trees in front of my current home in the East Bay. In this video, footage from around the area is projected onto these paintings. The dye used here is not plant-derived, but the impetus for this particular rumination on family history, memory, ecology, and settlement in California was one invasive tree, whose leaves produce a bright orange dye.
In the 1950s my grandmother planted a Eucalyptus cinerea, or Silver Dollar Gum, for this purpose. This single act, done almost exactly a century after a similar species was first turned loose in the Bay Area by colonizers who somehow thought it would make good lumber, feels different: isolated. Since she first told me that this tree near her driveway had a unique use, I have been harvesting leaves every few months to dye wool.
The revelation of the orange dye-producing tree coincided with our unearthing of a family loom from the basement about 50 yards away. Although the present pandemic has slowed my ability to weave on that loom in my grandparents’ living space, this extracting, dyeing, projecting and processing of photographs has been a way of asking: what should be done with the physical products of our ancestors’ decisions? These things are not static nor disconnected from larger systems, though they may feel that way to the individual. I’m reminded of this at least every few months when I harvest leaves for another dye bath; the spot on the trunk I’ve taken from has always at least doubled in new growth.
August 21st, 2020 update:
Much of the land in this footage has burned in the SCU Lightning Complex Fires. Certain native plants that have been dormant for decades underneath invasive grasses, can grow again after a fire when those grasses are burned away.
for Artists’ Television Access
© Suzie McMurtry 2020
© Suzie McMurtry 2020