Two or Three Saprophytes

2019

HD video, stereo sound, 16:9, 00:32:27

Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

A saprophyte is an organism that grows by decomposing and feeding on the dead remains of trees and plants.

By the beginning of the Carboniferous period, 360 million years ago, symbiotic systems between fungi and trees had already spread across the earth and covered the planet in an unprecedentedly dense canopy of vegetation.

But while fungi could help to grow trees, they were not yet able to decompose them when they fell. Until the first saprophytes, White Rot fungi, developed roughly 280 million years ago, these trees' corpses were left to sit, fester, and fossilize. 

The arrival of the White Rot fungus closely coincides with the end of the Carboniferous period.

 

In these 80 million years, between 360 and 280 million BCE - an ultimately brief period in which the earth's ecosystem knew only to grow, and not to remove or decay - all of the world's coal was formed.

In the early 19th century, Europe's already coal-powered factories began to use lighting systems illuminated by coal gas in order run 24-hour production schedules.

When coal is distilled to produce gas, it leaves behind a thick, chemical tar that was, at the time, considered the most troublesome by-product known to the industrial world. Yet chemists soon began to realize the range of valuable compounds that lay within this waste.

In 1848 Charles Blachford Mansfield discovered a method to decompose coal tar into its constituent chemicals, including tuolene and benzene.

In 1855, Mansfield died in a benzene fire.

The next year, in 1856, William Perkin accidentally discovered how to produce a bright purple textile dye from coal tar's chemical extracts. In the long decades that followed, the market for these coal-derived, synthetic dyes grew unstoppably alongside a burgeoning network of patent rights and corporatized property relations, and singularly gave shape to the modern chemical industry. 

Fungi account for roughly 90% of the world's decomposition. 

For several decades, environmental scientists have been studying certain fungi's ability to decompose and feed off of some of the industrial world's most dangerous pollutants: arsenic, mercury, dioxin, even uranium.  And, of course, benzene. These fungi have proven able to decontaminate landscapes and waterways saturated with dangerous chemicals, in a process called "mycoremediation".

Since the 1950s, petroleum, chemical, and weapons firms have been conducting extensive research into these very same fields.

Leveraging a stifling IP bureaucracy that they helped set in place throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, these industries have been accumulating portfolios of so-called '"biopatents", securing exclusive rights to these remediative fungi.

Industrialism strives to commodify its waste yet again, and the spiral of capital accumulation expands inexorably.

Two or Three Saprophytes, 2019  |  Teaser

Two or Three Saprophytes is a video essay that traces a speculative history of the industrial revolution, its ecological backdrop, and its legacy of technological, scientific, and economic thinking built around accumulation and "progress". Breaking from strictly didactic or documentary forms, the film refracts its factual historical research through a hallucinatory, narrative lens, mixing reality and fiction to frame the interconnected histories of mushrooms, trees, coal, chemicals, machines, and capitalists as a kind of ecological ghost story.

Visual and verbal motifs of circles, spirals, hexagons, and “revolutions” punctuate the film, sketching associations and contrasts between historical movements, economic patterns, rotational pistons, chemical diagrams, and ecological balance.

Posing a counter-model to industrial capital’s destructive obsession with growth, the film looks to the earth’s legion of decomposing mushrooms as protagonists, arguing for a thinking in which growth and decay are granted equal importance. Informed by Marxist ecological criticism and Gothic horror fiction as much as by scientific and historical research, this film proposes an alternate narrative to familiar ideas of progress and ecology in the post-industrial world.

Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid