Traversing Mycelial Networks: An Interview with Monika Czyżyk

by Lorna McDowell // Aug. 29, 2023

This article is part of our feature topic Wilderness.

Monika Czyżyk was born in Poland and is now based in Helsinki, Finland, with a working studio on the island of Vartiosaari—one of the biggest islands on the Eastern Helsinki archipelago and just a short journey from the mainland. An artist primarily working with moving image in a socially engaged manner, Czyżyk’s recent work has been influenced by the island’s lush, natural environment of forest and fungi. In ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report’ (2023), Czyżyk uses virtual reality to create a 16-minute walk through a glitched organic network and “dream topography of spaces, objects, dance parties and entities” beneath a towering forest of giant mushrooms. The artwork also features a pulsating soundscape of organic techno and shadowy festival crowd scenes. A collaboration between Czyżyk, Gabriel de la Cruz and Neil Luck, ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report’ takes a more DIY approach to the VR medium than is often seen, breaking down the glossy artifice of video game aesthetics and taking the viewer on a journey through something more wild, more raw. In doing so, it creates an impression of venturing into the unknown, of passing through an uncharted digital wilderness of whispers, symbols and fragments.

I had the opportunity to experience ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report’ at Floating Berlin, a richly biodiverse and unique architectural site situated on a rainwater basin serving the former Tempelhof airfield. ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report’ was exhibited at the public opening of Floating’s ‘(Re-)Gaining Ecological Futures: Mycopoetics’ program in June 2023, a series of events curated by Berit Fischer that explored what we can learn from the complex world of mycelium networks present in every ecosystem on our planet. As a live element of the installation, Czyżyk scratched a list of the names of people queuing to view the VR piece into clay painted on the glass of a window adjoining the exhibition space—a nod to her other, larger-scale works that involve painting on windows using clay that Czyżyk sources locally. After journeying through the artwork’s fractured, virtual landscape, I was left with the impression that while true wilderness might no longer exist on our planet, ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report’ hints at what wildernesses could result from a world increasingly saturated with digital realities.

Monika Czyżyk: ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report,’ 2023, installation at Floating Berlin, ‘Regaining Ecological Futures’ // Photo by Katharina Geist

Lorna McDowell: Mycelium networks are a kind of underground wilderness that we are only just starting to gain a deeper understanding of. How did you come to draw on mycelium networks as a key part of your concept in this project, and in some of your other work?

Monika Czyżyk: I am not a mushroom, yet hypothetically I exist within the consciousness of a mycelium network, engaging with it on a human-like scale. I also often think of how mycelium is our ancestor. In 2020, I started a tiny secret garden on the rock above our studio on Vartiosaari island, an unconnected enclave in east Helsinki where I live. Since 2016, I’ve maintained a functional studio on this island, and from 2016-19 my projects were influenced by the island but not focused on it as a subject. From 2020 onwards, and in a mycelial manner, I started working with and for the island and the community here. Then in 2022, I started to direct most of my efforts towards nurturing my secluded garden. This was a transformational process that allowed me to enter into a new kind of presence along with a shift in my pace, perception and being. That summer, we treated our bodies like gardens to cultivate, adhering to an Ayurvedic diet, meditating daily and embarking on nightly walks.

Sometimes the island allows me to enter its hidden rooms. One night, after the open studio event we hosted in August last year, together with the mushrooms I guided a group of friends through a nocturnal forest exploration. The terrain beneath our feet revealed a distinct pattern, while the trees and branches formed a unified image. Glowing worms illuminated our path, enabling me to sense the forest’s spirits, history and unity. I felt welcomed into its embrace, envisioning the intricate communication between us and the mycelium network, with the mycelium network receiving and sending signals. The glowing worms inspired an earlier work of mine. This nighttime journey through the forest inspired the virtual journey in ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report’.

Monika Czyżyk: ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report,’ 2023, still // Courtesy of the artist

LM: Your process involved capturing real-world images and fragments with a smartphone via LiDAR scanning technology. As you describe, this aesthetic proposes an alternative to the polished and refined hyperreality of video games. Could you talk about the significance of the fragments you selected?

MC: Ok, let’s start with the ground…We are walking on a flooded map of the Baroque pleasure gardens around Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, which also looks like a rhizomatic image of a brain.

You’ll see a glitched mass of energy pulsating in a chapel dancing to ‘Miau Song’—a song I created with Neil Luck. My first LiDAR scan happened at the Funky Beach at Boom festival in 2022. Hypnotic dance, sunset and artist Simon Wald Lassowski teaching me how to politely and non-intrusively capture a moment in public space with a phone.

There’s my grandmother’s apartment, which was the place of my childhood. You’ll also come across a statue of Bacchus; artist Jessica Bogush in my garden; the members of Nomadic Kiln Group (an art collective group I participate in) at the fire kiln; an islander with his son and two beehives; a pumpkin frog; stones; statues; dragons; and a ghost train coming in and out of the forest.

As for the pulsating capsules, they are the guardians of the forest and synchronised energy sources. They are connected with the giant mushrooms that populate the forest and pulsate to the rhythm of ‘Organic Techno’, another music piece created with Neil Luck.

The forest is built from Prototaxites, which are now-extinct giant mushrooms and fungal ancestors. These giant mushrooms engage in a kind of electrical spiking activity, forming their own bio-language and grammar, which mycelium networks are also thought to do, although this is not proven yet.

Every LiDAR scan has its own assigned sonic scape, so as you move through the forest the music changes, but the entire forest is connected through the looped ‘Organic Techno’ track. I think of the mycelial energy pulsating through the scene as a bit like the way energy pulsates through a rave, as humans dance and send signals back and forth.

Monika Czyżyk: ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report,’ 2023, still // Courtesy of the artist

Monika Czyżyk: ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report,’ 2023, still // Courtesy of the artist

LM: How did you approach the collaborative process of creating the work, for example, designing the digital landscape, the sonic elements and the layering of the various fragments?

MC: I think my general approach to collaborative practices is through playing, juxtaposing and collaging. It’s my third collaboration with Gabriel de la Cruz, who always reacts to impossible and rough ideas.

And something interesting happened with this project, cause we just didn’t care about the medium itself. We were trying to break it. And once we started to do so, it opened some new way to approach VR in a more DIY way.

Gabriel had an archive of 3D-printed mushrooms for us to use. In his own words, he is interested in taking collective risks and a process of reflecting back and forth, helping the project form itself.

After coming back to Akademie Schloss Solitude from the weekend in Berlin, I knocked on the door of brilliant composer Neil Luck, and said: “hey, I was melodically meowing with a group of strangers in a metro. Would you be up for making a meow song?” With Neil, in a short period of time, we built a body of work. Videos, performances, night walks, an NTS mixtape. We are currently working on a new film called ‘Almanach’. And many of the sounds that you can hear in ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report’ you can hear in his new album called ‘Eden Box’.

Our motives, sounds and ideas are fluid and intertwined, reflecting our dynamic and ever-evolving creative process.

Monika Czyżyk: ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report,’ 2023, still // Courtesy of the artist

Monika Czyżyk: ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report,’ 2023, still // Courtesy of the artist

LM: In the piece, a rich forest of fungi springs from a glitchy digital wilderness beneath, which features entities and objects from across history and civilisations—from nightlife, stone circles and nostalgic soundbites, to deities, religious architecture and domestic scenes. Everything is enmeshed and interconnected. How do you think that the work speaks to cycles of decay and renewal? Or questions the extent to which humans are actually distinct from nature?

MC: The work is inspired by the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’. There is a collection of objects and places that I am attached to. There are people, places, moments, that will exist outside of the physical wonderland—positioned next to the mushrooms, awaiting the inevitable metamorphosis and ultimate liberation. This creative journey serves as a poignant exercise, embodying the art of releasing and surrendering to the flow of existence. It’s an exercise of letting go.

Monika Czyżyk: ‘Mycelium Orgasm Report,’ 2023, installation view at Project Space Römerstrassee, Akademie Schloss Solitude // Photo by Daniel Kilgus

LM: As an artist working primarily with moving image, and here with VR, how do you anticipate what your practice might look like in a future that looks to be strongly impacted by Web3, the metaverse and our human tendency to create new realities?

MC: I have been working a lot with clay lately, painting and drawing on windows with clay materials from Finland, Poland and Germany. I would like to work in a self-sustainable way, where one just needs oneself to create: a practice that would allow me to enter a space with a slightly twisted experience of time, that would push me to be hyper-present. But then, of course, I am seduced by and drawn to new things. New ways of electronic expression. Maybe soon we will be rendering with the rhythm of an eye blink. That could be fun. To collaborate with AI tools, language models and organics to create new memories and VR movie dreams.

I am curious to explore more virtual experiences and ways of being in the metaverse. In the end, only what we believe and feel is true.

Artist Info

Exhibition Info


Group Show: ‘Regel 62’
Exhibition: May 27–Sept. 3, 2023
Iso Roobertinkatu 16, 00120 Helsinki, Finland, click here for map

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