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The memory of lichens

The micro-forest that will outlive us in the future

Alessandra Navazio
a story by
Alessandra Navazio
The memory of lichens

Lichens, symbiotic organisms dating back over 600 million years, have very long growth times, fluid shapes, and geometries, and can adapt to the most diverse environments. The collective work Shimmer urges us to observe them to build a more sustainable memory for the future

Memory, commonly thought of as something related to the past, is actually also the matrix of our future. What we decide to remember or let go of, what we consider memorable or negligible, has a social and environmental impact in the medium and long term. Lichens, dating back over 600 million years, are not only indicators of air quality but can revolutionise the store of memories we can take with us towards a more sustainable future. How?

What about lichens?

Lichens are organisms formed by a symbiosis between a cyanobacterium or unicellular alga, usually a Chlorophyta, and a fungus, in most cases an ascomycete. In this mutualistic symbiosis, the alga and the fungus help each other: the alga receives minerals, water, and protection from external agents from the fungus, while the fungus receives organic sugars from the alga, which it uses as an energy source1.

It is estimated that between 6 and 8 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by lichens2, «small worlds to study, acting like micro-forests», tells Tekla Gedeon who founded, together with Sebastian Gschanes, the art collective Fuzzy Earth. In fact, lichens on a smaller scale reproduce what happens in the forest ecosystem: a dense web of battles and alliances between species, with different shapes and colours that can merge into various geometries or separate, competing for territory. From leaf-like lichens to those resembling a crust, there are about 20,000 species spread from the sea to high altitudes. It is important not to confuse them with mosses, which are true plants – bryophytes – without roots.

«In my research, lichens are strongly connected to the forest», Gedeon says, «but lichens do not grow only in forests. Cities themselves are a good habitat. It all depends on the variety we are considering. Very bright and yellow lichens, for example, love nitrogen in the air and can live even where the air is not very clean». Other lichens have adapted to survive in the most extreme environments, such as the tundra or deserts.

Fuzzy Earth is a research-based creative practice formed by Tekla Gedeon (1993/HU) and Sebastian Gschanes (1989/A). They operate at the intersection of architecture, design, art, agriculture, horticulture, and technology. Through the application of speculative design methodologies, our work challenges the role of ecological environments, industrial landscapes, and botanical institutions, always focusing on a single specific species and exploring its interaction with the relationship between humans and, other species and how humans interact with them.

Visit their official website

Walking through a forest, a city park, or even just along a street, their widespread presence remains silent because «humans tend to underestimate species that do not have a direct use», notes Gschanes. «Even in the case of cultivating fruit plants, what we appreciate is the fruit and not the plant. We just consume it and appreciate the plant for the number of fruits produced, not for its features. But we need to learn to go beyond this».

Going beyond is the goal of Shimmer3, a name that recalls the glittering of rocks in the sun, a “really small” public sculpture (15 cm high and with a diameter of one and a half metres) placed in Gárdonyi square in the centre of Budapest. «City sculptures tend to mostly be large sculptures of famous people, considered memorable, usually men on horseback» Gschanes explains, «but Shimmer wants to be a counter-narrative. We did not want to celebrate the great figures of history, impressed in everyone’s memory, but the often overlooked life forms that surround us».

The miniature is the result of a collective creation workshop with students from the Budapest Architecture Student Association, led by Fuzzy Earth in 2021. It was designed to welcome the growth of various lichens and initiate a millennial collaboration with the rocks of Mount Pilis: the cylinder of rocks, hollow in the centre, has a series of twenty terrace segments.«Each student could design one, creating various densities, cavities, channels, and textures on the surface» explains Gedeon. «We spent a week in the Danube-Ipoly National Park in Hungary, hiking to find lichens, studying their habitat and different humidity levels. We were struck by how many shapes and shades they can have: they are so small, so similar but also different! Their colours change continuously: we spent whole days on a single branch in a forest, staring at it to see how many lichens there were. Identifying them is incredibly difficult, but this was part of the process of understanding life forms, bodies, and times different from our own».

Photos taken during the Shimmer workshop by Fuzzy Earth, Ádám Ackermann, Márton Révai; sculpture commissioned by Bartók Béla Boulevard Ostrom; collective creation workshop organised by Építész Szakkollégium; workshop leaders Tekla Gedeon and Sebastian Gschanes; participants: Laura Bacher, Zsófia Magdolna Baksa, Anna Kaposi-Ly, Bogdán Kiss, Marcell Korhán, Orsi Kroneraff, Vencel Kustra, András Paragi. All rights reserved. Images reproduced with the consent of the authors..

The lichen time scale

«When we installed this sculpture, many people were standing around us, a bit surprised, saying: “OK, and now what do we see? Where are the lichens? Why aren’t they there yet? But when are they coming?”. And we would reply: “We don’t know. They may come in three years, maybe in ten or twenty years. Or perhaps they will come back when you are no longer here”», Gedeon and Gschanes recall. Lichens grow very slowly and have a longer growth time than humans. And if they do not find optimal conditions to develop, they can go dormant and wait.

Shimmer urges us to explore changing time scales and train our memory to handle longer life spans, without humanising everything we experience. «We are used to seeing rapid changes around us: time-lapses themselves speed up natural processes – like the growth of a sprout – to make them more visible and immediate to humans» Gschanes explains. «Conversely, we believe that everything needs to slow down, practise patience for what surrounds us, and come to terms with the idea that there are time scales larger than us. Even scientists who study lichens sometimes die before completing their research, and the next generation of scientists continue their projects», preserving their scientific legacy and memory.

Not surprisingly, one of the main inspirations for Shimmer was the research of mycologist Anne Pringle, who, since October 2005, has been studying4 Xanthoparmelia lichens on the graves of Petersham cemetery in New England. Pringle recorded the outlines of lichens on tracing paper each year for eight years, trying to uncover the secret of their longevity. «Cemeteries are among the least clean places,» explains Gedeon, «and this promotes the growth of lichens, unlike many other places in the city, which are cleaned with pressure water pumps and chemicals.

With Shimmer we wanted to create something that could potentially get dirty and crack, establishing a new world for lichens to patiently wait for.

We want these rocks to be exposed to rain, sun, shadows, and contamination to see what happens in the coming decades and centuries. Slowly, without haste».

Shimmer has been ageing since 2021, and every September, Fuzzy Earth returns to Gárdonyi square to perform a photogrammetry of the sculpture and monitor the lichen population. A 3D scan has become a ritual in the memory of the neighbourhood residents, and marks a care that will be intergenerational. «Every year, we scan the sculpture to see how the surface of the rocks is changing and organise small workshops with the residents» says Gedeon. «We do it to keep people waiting and with the idea that we are now the ones who have to adapt our rhythm, time, and memory to those of another species. Returning to the same spot every year for the scans has become a sort of strange technological dance: we take thousands of photos, walking in circles and crouching. We wait without doing anything, talking about the lichens and speculating about who will inhabit the rocks».

The 3D images are not available yet: «We have time to make them public», says Gedeon, «for now, not much has changed. Maybe in ten years, together with some scientist, we will be able to analyse the data and organise an event. For now, I like to think of lichens as microscopic worlds where I cannot be or immerse myself, but which I try to imagine through art».


The future memory

In Shimmer Narratives, the storybook born from the annual gathering ritual, some ideas of the future about the sculpture a hundred or more years from now are collected. Visitors to the statue will imagine their ancestors in front of the work and ask themselves: what did they see? How did they interact with the lichens? Hence the main question: what memory of the present turned into the past will remain in the future?

“Landscapes yet to come” is a collection of speculative narratives curated by Fuzzy Earth that imagines Shimmer’s future lichen worlds shown by 3D-scanned micro lichen landscapes.

Discover “Land scapes yet to come”

«People are now generally curious about what they don’t experience every day, but they will probably forget about lichens again because, for most of us, they are not such an important species», emphasise Gedeon and Gschanes. «Currently, none of our lives depend on lichens, but it is important for people to be increasingly aware of their existence because we can learn a lot from them».

Primarily, letting things happen, which also means allowing the sculpture itself to get dirty, as the dirt could already contain some form of life. Gschanes asserts that «we are discussing with local gardeners because we don’t want the sculpture to be cleaned with a pressure washer, but it’s hard to understand that sometimes what needs to be done is to take less care or to care in different ways». The very name Shimmer is slowly transforming into its opposite: rocks that do not shine in the sun but become an environment «and it’s beautiful the way it is». Then, for Gedeon, «lichens are fascinating because they can adapt well to different climates, temperature changes, and humidity».

They are fluid in changing shapes, geometries, growing together with other bodies, and becoming one, suspending the idea of self to make room for us.

And this is a great legacy for the future. Shimmer is thus establishing an intergenerational process of care for the work and a collective responsibility in building a different memory for a more sustainable future. One in which those who visit it a hundred years from now will be able to say that their ancestors learned from lichens how to share, live together, let things happen, and be different.

  1. For more on the relationship between algae and fungus, see Spribille, T., Tuovinen, V., Resl, P., Vanderpool, D., Wolinski, H., Aime, M. C., Schneider, K., Stabentheiner, E., Toome-Heller, M., Thor, G., Mayrhofer, H., Johannesson, H., e McCutcheon, J. P. (2016). Basidiomycete yeasts in the cortex of ascomycete macrolichens. Science353(6298), 488–492. ↩︎
  2. On lichens, see Asplund, J., & Wardle, D. A. (2016). How lichens impact on terrestrial community and ecosystem properties. Biological Reviews/Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society92(3), 1720–1738. ↩︎
  3. Shimmer by Tekla Gedeon & Sebastian Gschanes, Fuzzy Earth had the following contributors:
    Laura Bacher, Zsófia Magdolna Baksa, Anna Kaposi-Ly, Bogdán Kiss, Marcell Korhán, Orsi Kroneraff, Vencel Kustra, András Paragi and was realised with the support of the Budapest Association of Architecture Students and the Bartók Boulevard Association. ↩︎
  4. On the research of mycologist Anne Pringle, see Rosner, H. (2012). In a Place for the Dead, Studying a Seemingly Immortal Species, The New York Times. ↩︎


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