Mutual Aid is an installation created by Stefano Mancuso and Pnat, presented as part of the Resilient Communities exhibition in the Italian Pavilion at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale. The work explores the intricate systems of cooperation within underground root structures as a case study for how to live together harmoniously above ground. In an effort to address some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world today, shifting away from ideas of self-identity towards a more inclusive understanding of collectively is essential. Mutual Aidasks us to take a critical look at the human-centric organisation of the world, and to adopt a view that acknowledges the constant, horizontal exchange taking place between plants, humans, bacteria, and fungi alike.
Mutual Aid: The Politics of Gaia | Wellbeing Culture Forum 2021
The mycelium of a single mycorrhiza can extend and connect to multiple plants of different species. In this example, cause and effect are not so relevant. Mutual exchange takes place simultaneously. Additionally, we see that it is not necessary to rank the mycelium or the plant as better or more powerful than the other. Both organisms depend on each other to survive, as do the trillions of bacteria swirling between them. The plant gives what it can and takes what it needs, and the mycelium does the same. If we apply a more macro lens to this exchange, we see how much easier it could be to live together if we adopted that same modality with all of the inhabitants living in this world.
Mutual Aid installation by Pnat
This relationship further illuminates the Gaia theory, coined by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock, which posits the earth as a single, living breathing organism that thrives from collaboration. The theory disproved the archaic Neo-Darwinists survival-of-the-fittest mentality, instead emphasising that nature is about cooperation rather than competition. Ultimately, Mutual Aid reminds us of the diverse types of communication passing between species and to expand the range of our senses to truly listen to what is around us.
Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution explores the role of mutually beneficial cooperation or “mutual aid” in the macro-organisation of the animal kingdom and human societies. In the text, he writes: “There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence…Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.” As Kropotkin lays out the pragmatic necessity for more mutual aid and its integral role in nature, he also highlights the importance of self-empowerment and self-reliance within networks of solidarity.
Panellists at Mutual Aid: The Politics of Gaia
Extending further into the current political sphere, mutual aid is also described as a type of non-bureaucratic, re-distribution of wealth, energy and resources, in which members of communities take it upon themselves to donate to people in need or ask their fellow neighbours for contributions themselves. Here, we can think of platforms like GoFundMe and Kickstarter, as well as the many thousands of Mutual Aid groups that emerged in response to COVID-19 in the UK and elsewhere. While deeply unjust that many vulnerable citizens do not receive enough support from the government, this kind of communal exchange also exemplifies empowerment and a taking-matters-into-your-own-hands attitude that is also embodied in the plant networks of Pnat’s installation. Mutual Aid challenges us to think about the formation of identity in relation to symbiosis: the idea that identity is not made up of hard, stark lines, but instead of porous, reflexive connections.
Architecture finds itself at a pivotal time in history. The last year has seen many shifts in the organisation of life on our planet. The over-arching question of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, How will we live together? feels all the more urgent against the backdrop of the pandemic, increasing political polarisation, and climate catastrophe. It becomes increasingly clear that the question of cohabitation must extend beyond humans, to more-than-human co-inhabitants, bacteria, and a rapidly changing environment. Mutual Aid echoes the ability of complex ecological environments such as forests plants to use an incredible system of mutual support and resource sharing to make the ecosystems in which they live more durable and resilient. In this endeavour, plants are our role models.
1. How can we move from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance?
2. How can we apply the underground networks between plants to cultural and social infrastructures above ground?
3. How can forest agriculture transform with organization and quality of food within our cities?
4. What does it take to move away from a human-centric perspective of reality to one that is inclusive and non-hierarchal?
5. What can we learn from fungi, bacteria, and plants?
Stefano Mancuso (Co-Founder of Pnat, Author & Professor of Botany at University of Florence) Refik Anadol (Media Artist & Designer) Sissel Tolaas (Artist & Researcher) Anab Jain (Designer, Futurist, Filmmaker and Educator, Co-Founder of Superflux) Nina Gualinga (Environmental and Indigenous Rights Activist) Maja Hoffmann (Collector and Founder of the LUMA Foundation) Jeanne de Kroon (Social Entrepreneur) Joseph Grima (Architect) Salome Rodeck (Cultural Historian) Not Vital (Artist) Marianne Krogh (Art Historian & Curator of the Danish Pavilion)
Hans Ulrich Obrist (Artistic Director, Serpentine) Mikolaj Sekutowicz (CEO and Curator, Therme Art)
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