‘Then I started to get hooked’: a scientist on her collaboration with the art world

Pro Helvetia South America, Art+

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Chilian scientist Patricia Silva Flores discusses her collaboration with the art world and the participation in ‘Fungi Cosmology’, a long-term project that explores the dialogue between art and science

An ecologist of fungi and mycorrhizae, Chilian Patricia Silva Flores has applied her knowledge in the conservation of natural systems. It didn’t take long for her research to attract the interest of professionals from other areas of expertise, and she began collaborating with artistic projects. ‘Then I started to get hooked.’

‘I always felt very strongly about speeding up the transfer of knowledge about the Fungi Kingdom. My ultimate goal is to deliver the message properly, to show the importance of fungi, that we are all part of a network in which fungi are very key,’ Patricia explains. ‘And I asked myself how art can help us access emotions, memories, sensations, how that generates a deep and long-lasting learning.’

One of these collaborations ended up being ‘Fungi Cosmology’, a long-term project, revolving around the fungi kingdom, that explores a transdisciplinary dialogue between art and science in different countries. Bringing together science and arts professionals from Brazil, Chile, and Switzerland, the research includes lectures, workshops, and expeditions, with study focuses. The first destination was the Brazilian Amazon, in March of 2023. The second, one year later, was to the Chilean Patagonia. And the last one, in the second half of 2024, will be to the Swiss Alps.

Learn more about ‘Fungi Cosmology’

In the following interview, Patricia talks about her collaboration with the art world, with different cultural contexts and her research on fungi — beyond a scientific perspective. ‘We should take fungi as a model of how to behave, how to act in a more collaborative way, how to take charge of the problems.’

Portrait of scientist Patricia Silva Flores. She's smiling, wearing glasses and has grey straight hair
Scientist Patricia Silva Flores

Before ‘Fungi Cosmology’, had you worked in a transdisciplinary way, at the intersection between art and science?

In a more multidisciplinary way, yes, but not so intentionally. I started getting requests to collaborate with other areas of expertise, I guess due to the research I do, and coincidentally many of the projects came from the arts. The first was an electronic artist who wanted to raise awareness about the importance of a system and all its aspects, including fungi, and she asked me to collaborate. It was something that made me step out of my comfort zone a bit. Then came other people, from the performing arts as well. Then I started to get hooked.

The truth is that I’ve been connecting in a very micellar way with these people, and the collaborations have gone very smoothly. Suddenly ‘Fungi Cosmology’ arrived, and the proposal seemed mind blowing, it made me think outside the box.

In your practice, you look at the preservation of systems and the influence of climate change. How do you think this intersection with the arts can help in sharing scientific information and raising awareness?

I always felt very strongly about speeding up the transfer of knowledge about the Fungi Kingdom. My ultimate goal is to deliver the message properly, to show the importance of fungi, that we are all part of a network in which fungi are very key.

Here in South America, fungi have not been studied so much. We know how important they are, and I said: this cannot be ignored. From my academic standpoint, I can’t just keep writing papers and sharing them with my peers, I have to bring them to light. And I asked myself how art can help us access emotions, memories, sensations, how that generates a deep and long-lasting learning.

Also, how can we learn from a system that has been there for millions of years and from which we can perhaps find some answers. So I feel we should take fungi as a model of how to behave, how to act in a more collaborative way, how to take charge of the problems. These are extremely valuable lessons that a project like Fungi Cosmology provides us with.

Picture of table with several leaves,. On top of them are fungi, tree trunks and petri dishes
Fungi analysis during trip to the Amazon (Brazil0, photo by Rodrigo Valle

Regarding the project, what did you imagine before the first trip? What was the encounter and the relationship with the team like?

Before it all started, I was super excited. I always saw the Amazon, the first destination, as a very sacred place. From my science point of view, I made myself a portable laboratory. The whole group teased me because I was carrying so much luggage. In the end my small suitcase was the only one with clothes in it, the big ones were all lab equipment.

In the beginning, my questions were very scientific and that’s why I took all I took, to gather knowledge in a way we can protect everything. We arrived and the interaction with the scientists was super fluid. I was very struck by the conversation with my colleague Martina [Peter], from Switzerland, and learning that we shared the problems of being women in science, despite the fact that she is from a country that does not have the problems of resources that we have in terms of science.

With the curators and artists, the approach was more timid, because it’s a bit out of your comfort zone. They know things I don’t know. But the truth is that it was all very friendly. Being with the curators and the artists has made me question my practice, how I approach the territories, why I do what I do. Questions that I didn’t usually ask, because the world of science is logical. And I thought about how to put into practice what I was learning with the artists, which ended up strengthening the concept of how we pass on a message and take action in relation to what we want to do.

It is interesting what you are saying, because Martina Peter mentioned that, from a scientist’s point of view, she has always been convinced that a reality does not change regardless of who is observing it. But from this experience, she started to think about how perspective can also influence scientific analysis. Has this experience led you to reflect on your perspective as a scientist?

Yes, the way we look at science should be super objective, but it’s very hard. We are human beings, there are emotions. When you let science really speak to you, one has to come around to describe the phenomenon, what the experiment is showing us. But the way we convey the results of an experiment also has to do with our background. In other words, perhaps the result itself is still objective and scientific, but how we communicate it, how we interpret it and how we bring it out to the scientific community or to the general public is absolutely related to who the observer is.

The idea behind ‘Fungi Cosmology’ is not only to investigate fungi, but also how they relate to the territory and the local population. In Amazonas you had contact with the knowledge of the Yanomami, for example. How was it to think about these relationships in different places?

The two territories we went to both have — had here in Patagonia, still has in the Amazon — a very strong connection with nature, with what nature provides. And that for me was very striking, how in the Amazon we clearly saw how humans have always been part of a cycle (at some point we stepped out of it and lost our way). But you start to understand why we are all sick in the cities. And that for me was very impactful, it had to do with the experience of eating, with this political discourse that is behind food, of not overexploiting. The cultures, the Yanomami, they showed us precisely that: how, from what nature provides, not only food is generated, but also housing, clothing. And then you have all this super-colonising perspective, in Amazonia and then Patagonia, where the native peoples simply became extinct.

Finally, one thinks how we can relate fungi to this, and they are precisely what allow us to see the collaboration between certain species. Why can’t we have that perspective among cultures? For there to be respect and coexistence in the end.

Group of people walking in the middle of the Amazon Forest. The green, tall trees cover the most part of the picture, while the group is depicted in a small porting, at the end of a trail
Group field trip in the Amazon ©️Rodrigo Valle

From the standpoint of scientific analysis, it was originally planned to take the samples from Brazil to Switzerland, but in the end, it was decided to leave them in the territory. How do you see the question of where the knowledge is kept?

In that case, for me in the beginning, the logical thing would have been, for example, to have taken them to Switzerland, to have obtained the results in an easier way, perhaps, because we would no longer be in Brazil. But I also understood why they didn’t want these materials to go. And it has to do with a long history of cultural and scientific appropriation. There are many cases of fungi that have been sampled, taken away and ended up patented and you can’t even use them anymore.

But in the end, we are all part of this world, knowledge should belong to all of us. I also feel that trust has to be built, as we share credit and recognise the work of others who are part of that territory. And also, we must adapt ourselves to the needs of each territory, so each territory feels safe. It has to do with respect as well.

From the first experience, what were you envisioning for the second trip?

I was very much looking forward to it taking place again, to meeting my colleagues. And particularly in Patagonia it had a more special meaning because, although I now live in Talca, in the Maule region, I am from Patagonia, from Magallanes, so it was as if they were coming to my home. It was very moving, I felt like a hostess. And the interaction was different, at some point I felt a bit invaded. It was very strange because, for example, we had a field trip in which everyone was picking a lot of mushrooms and at one point I collapsed, ‘wow, why are they picking so much?’ It has to do with taking care, not being so extractive. And maybe that’s what we did in Brazil. Being on the other side of the coin, I felt different.

But meeting again was fabulous, there is a more relaxed relationship, I think we were more open, even critical. An openness to deeper discussions. Also, it was a bit different in the sense that we had to do everything ourselves. In Amazonas, we were very well looked after, they attended to us, they gave us food. Not here, we had to take care of everything, we were in the middle of nowhere. So, it was challenging in other ways.

Two images from a shore
Tierra del Fuego

Do you think that cultural exchange, while bringing a lot of enrichment, also reveals asymmetries?

Yes, and that’s something we were discussing on the second trip. In Chile for many years our own cultures have been displaced or no longer exist, so perhaps I don’t have this sensitivity to colonisation so well developed, it has to do with how I grew up. And the encounter with the group has made me question things that I hadn’t questioned before, it makes you sensitive to certain aspects. My colleagues in Brazil feel this very strongly and I love that. So, it makes me question it here in the territory where I live and approach it more carefully.

What are your thoughts on the next meeting?

With this experience under our belt, I think it will be exactly the same in Switzerland, we know each other much better. There was a concrete development of ideas, and now we will have to go and conclude with everything we know. And also knowing that now we, the South Americans, are the foreigners. I think new things are going to happen and it’s going to be great anyway. That’s the grace of this project, three different territories, with different hosts, so each one takes on a different role. And I’m going to understand maybe how the Swiss felt when they were in South America, when they were in Amazonas. It’s like putting yourself a bit in the shoes of each one, it generates some very rich exchange of ideas.

Group of people sitting on the stairs in front of a house
The team of Fungi Cosmology in front of CAB (Alberto Baeriswyl House-Museum) in Tierra del Fuego

Finally, what do you think you’ll take from the project?

Well, I’m seriously thinking of pursuing this line of transdisciplinary research, at the intersection of science and art. And I would also like to incorporate anthropological and sociological aspects. That’s the most striking thing that the project has left me with. I call myself an ecologist of fungi and mycorrhizae, and if one thinks about ecology, why not think about other areas of knowledge within that ecology? It also occurred to me to create calls for residencies in the laboratory, so that artists could come. I feel that there is a very interesting combination of ideas, and we can probably finish the project with some kind of book, there are ideas for publications that we have been discussing. From the scientific perspective, I’m always thinking of how I can make my peers see the relevance of this. But we are planning something together with the artists and the curators, one aimed at the general public and the other focused on the scientific world.

Biography

Patricia Silva Flores (Chile) is a fungal and mycorrhizal ecologist. She is currently an Assistant Professor at the Universidad Católica del Maule in Talca, Chile; Director of Communications at the International Society of Mycorrhiza (IMS), co-founder and active member of the South American Mycorrhizal Research Network and Associate Scientist at SPUN initiative (Society for the Protection of Underground Networks). Currently, Patricia has three lines of action: (1) Research on fundamental scientific questions about mycorrhizal ecology, and applications of mycorrhizal fungi and mycorrhizal symbiosis in restoration ecology and silvicultural/agronomical contexts. (2) Undergrad and grad students formation on fungal and mycorrhizal ecology and applications, through lectures, internships direction and thesis direction. (3) Scientific outreach, focused mostly (not only) on fungal and mycorrhizal science outreach.