I was soaking in the tub this morning reading about mycelial networks and their hyphal tips (fungi*). About how they make decisions, navigate the world, grow, communicate and thrive and I was struck by the following words where the writer, Merlin Sheldrake, is talking about how the form of the network is a record of the recent life events of that fungus. He writes:
“A mycelial network is a map of a fungus’s recent history, and is a helpful reminder that all life forms are in fact processes not things. The ‘you’ of five years ago was made of different stuff than the ‘you’ of today. Nature is an event that never stops”
He then goes on to quote William Bateson who said:
“We commonly think of animals and plants as matter but they are really systems through which matter passes”.
Sat peacefully in the bath I had, for a second, one of those “Argh! I don’t really exist!” moments that come maybe once a day to the forty five year old. Then I felt the calm you get when a sort of universal truth settles into your mind. Of course we are process and not matter. The thing you are at this very second as you read this sentence has already gone – been changed – with some bits, destroyed, digested, ejected, remade, rebuilt, or reworked as you read. The thought processes are the phrasing that connects all these notes of creation and destruction.
Then I got to thinking about how important and relevant life as process and not form is to understanding our collective creative endeavours.
I think art (as life) is the process: the thoughts, the systems, practice, craft, modelling, collaboration, communication, discussion, reflection, the making. The ‘finished’ pieces are the matter left behind by art. Humans are the process which run in a human body and we leave behind a trail of our own matter (and thought) in the world. A thing (or performance) isn’t really the art, or at least very far from the whole of it. Very far.
On a personal level I felt like the analogy was useful to me in a way that discussions about the nature of art with artists has never been. I’m not a completer/finisher. There. Said it. My colleagues will agree 100%. But I like ideas. I love the process of creating and making, failing and making, talking and collaborating, communicating about process, unpicking technology and tools, hacking and repurposing but when I get close to ‘completion’ of a project my energy and interest tails off because the destination is never as important as the journey. In terms of art, increasingly I would rather sit in on a rehearsal than go see the show. I’d rather talk with others about a piece than sit passively and be ‘arted’ at.
Theatre is particularly problematic when it comes to valuing ‘the show’ over the process of making. It’s got funding and support systems that still value product over artistic development and the act of creating a ‘thing’ to be delivered to people excludes people from the actual ‘art’. I’m glad that the organisation I currently work for, puts innovation and inclusion at the core of what we do, because I think that that allows us to support ‘art’ and not ‘things’, and to be able to open a door to the process of art.
These thoughts seem especially relevant at the moment when I know a lot of us feel that because we’re not placing things in front of an audience, we’re not being creative. The truth is that the art is the thought and conversation and process that we follow. The finished ‘thing’ – the show that’s made and staged – is dead as soon as it stops moving and changing. It’s just matter left behind.
So the lesson today is, enjoy the act of making. Enjoy the play. Enjoy the exploration. Be less reverent and respectful to the notion of a ‘finished’ product. Adapt. Change. Regard your previous (and current) work merely as the ‘matter’ left behind on your artistic journey. Spread your hyphal tips wide and far to find opportunities that you can’t currently see. Connect.
* The mushroom is literally just the sexy bit of a fungus that spreads spores. The mycelial network and the hyphae are the actual organism. The hyphal tips – the very ends of the networks – are both like individuals and part of a larger thing. They sense the world, make decisions, and interact with other organisms and the environment. They branch and explore and problem solve. I thoroughly recommend the book ‘Entangled Life : How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures’ (2020) by Merlin Sheldrake. (Vintage Publishing)