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SYMBIOTIC COLONIES

Kaspars Vanags interviewed by Eve Kiiler


> The rice mushroom was quite popular in Estonia, but this is the first time I hear about the tea mushroom.

In Latvia we didn´t have this rice mushroom, we had this one from tea and lot of people knew it so when we started the project it was easy to work. Usually when you work with conceptual art, people have this more or less negative attitude or at least they mostly don´t understand what are you talking about. They simply don´t want to listen. In this case, it was completely the opposite. We first made this expedition to 30 people who have their own t-shroom at home and then we made a documentary. As they opened the door we were there with a small camera and some of them didn ´t even notice it. But in another sense it was quite a hard thing, because most of them are people who are from the so-called underclass or people who have financial difficulties. There are a part of mushroom growers who do it because of health issues but many others do it because they can't afford to buy corporate soft drinks. So when you are getting in the apartment, some of them are really horrible or without any sanitary conditions ... In Riga we made a longer documentary, there you could see that the apartments and some of the mushrooms were really dirty and they were very thick and grey, even black. For example, in Riga when the visitors came they first took a glass of t-shroom and then watched the video. Sometimes when they noticed the apartments where these mushrooms came they stopped drinking.

> What is the idea of the project?

The idea was about networking thing and our fairy-tale story that the t-shroom is a symbiotic colony, its a fungus and a bacteria living in a symbiotic colony together. Humans are the third part in this symbiotic colony. So the fungus is the parallel to networks. All these mushrooms come from one family or one mama-matrix, and people who take this t-shroom with them become a part of this network, or as we say, they become a mushroom. Just think of mushroom mycelium, thousands of square kms of a huge network under the earth. When you pick up a mushroom, it's just a small visible part of it, not the mycelium. The same is true of those who are growing the mushroom. Some people, for example, Hanno (Soans) and me are the visible part of the mushroom network. That was one idea - you have a lot of layers in this t-shroom project. Another idea was to bring to the surface how we have become addicts of designed visuality or designed reality. People come in, they see the mushroom, and the first thing they say is it's so ugly! They prefer Coca-cola just because it is designed and looks marvellous, but they never ask what is in there. The visuality is our new belief-system. It could be ok, if only we are not starting to interpret nature as something ugly. That's the thing for us the natural thing has become terribly ugly.

> How do you treat this network between people in this project ...

We can say that during Soviet times the market was controlled by the ruling power and you couldn't buy t-shrooms in the shop. Now we can look back on the t-shroom as a dissident product, a form of consumption that was outside the system of control. Nowadays, our everyday life is also controlled by the market because of neoliberalism and the privatization processes of the 1990s, and we see that more and more dimensions of our private life and public life are controlled by the market. The t-shroom is a controversial network, a give-away network. A grandmother gives a mushroom to her grandaughter and the granddaughter can´t buy this mushroom in the shop. That means that there is a small part of our everyday life which exists outside the market, a part of consuming that is outside the market. So, I think that especially because of the Soviet prehistory of the t-shroom we get a double meaning. At that time the t-shroom was a dissident as it was outside political control and nowadays it shows that is possibile to find an alternative way to exist outside the market.

> It also seems quite important that the whole network is based on trust, because you give something to somebody which is not controlled by any power or eurostandards and you are responsible for what you give to other people.

Trust and belief systems there is always this question where they are coming from? Actually nobody can give
a secure answer where the mushrooms are coming from. Even the stories about Korean doctor called Combodza who
had the t-shroom with him and who came to the emperor of Japan. We can´t trust this story either and at the end of the
day the t-shroom is something like an alien. To live with this alien is nice experience.

> How did you advertise it?

I would rather not use this term "advertise". We were more like popularizing it. But in a way that it worked like a subversion. We made a very low budget and low quality TV spot in the style of teleshopping, where people were telling their own experiences. We made the documentary, we asked people to tell their own relationship to t-shroom and then we used extracts of this material to make teleshopping on TV. It ran on the biggest TV channel in Latvia. The owner of the TV company was a filmmaker before he started his TV career and he is very open to art projects, so he gave us this possibility to use prime-time up 15 times per day for 1 minute long ads. Therefore we had queues in front of the shop. There was an old guy who said well, I am drinking it every day, it's good for your heart, it's good for your stomach and for your liver and it's better than Pepsi-Cola. Pepsi-Cola is bottled and distributed by Aldaris, the biggest brewery in Latvia. Aldaris wanted to take us to court, as the newspapers said. But the man in the video said it by himself, we didn´t push him to make a statement against Pepsi-Cola - it was real documentary. It took a month for Aldaris to realize that this was an art project and not a commercial, and that we were not doing it because we wanted to make a profit since we were giving the t-shroom away for free.

> In similar situations in the West, corporations have taken artists to court ...

We had the same situation with our advertising project last year. With this project we tried to show how brands are slowly taking over the public space and how nowadays our everyday life is not controlled by a direct power but through brands. To do subvertising and adbusting, you make parodies about advertising. But you can't parody the media, but only concrete companies. We argued with real companies but no company sued us because they knew that if the process will start, the arguments we mentioned will be made public in the media and since most of arguments are true, it won´t work in their favor. We had a marvellous example in Riga - the Norvegian company who owns Rimis has invested a lot in Latvia, including the reconstruction of a central railway station. And it was the same as in the Soviet times they didn´t allow anyone to take photos in there ...


A longer version of this interview originally appeared in the Estonian webzine Looming.


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