Mushroom Hunting with Harrell Fletcher: a Participatory Project at the Tahoe CoLab Retreat

Although I had encountered work that was created using socially-engaged principles before, I didn’t have the term “social practice art” as part of my vocabulary until about a year and a half ago. When we decided that the theme for the joint SPE West and Southwest retreat-style conference in the fall of 2017 should revolve around collaboration and then started brainstorming keynote speakers, I began my education into this exciting practice that the Tate defines as: “art that is collaborative, often participatory and involves people as the medium or material of the work.”

We were very lucky to convince Harrell Fletcher to come on board as not only the keynote speaker for the conference, but as the “weekend headliner”, which included leading us all in a participatory project to model the type of work that can be done in the world of social practice.

Fletcher is probably best known for the 2002 project he did with Miranda July called Learning to Love You More (LTLYM). LTLYM was a pre-social-media web-based project that ran for 7 years in which people from all over the world contributed over 8000 submissions based on 70 creative assignments that the artists proposed. For example: “#53: Give advice to yourself in the past” and “#39: Take a picture of your parents kissing.”

LTLYM, Etienne and Catherine”, Romain, Chalon/Saone, FRANCE

Fletcher is also the founder of the Art and Social Practice MFA Concentration at Portland State University, a 3-year flexible residency program which currently only accepts approximately six students per year.

The keynote talk on Friday evening of our retreat set the stage nicely for all of us to think about collaboration in a different way. SPE as an organization tends to attract those who enjoy collaborating around photography: educators, artists, curators, etc., but most of us would probably have a difficult time letting go of the control over our work to the degree that Fletcher embraces as he truly allows the people he is working with to own each project.

For example, Fletcher told us that during a summer residency at an art center in Brittany, France, he realized through casual conversations that the locals didn’t seem to care for the sculptures in the park so he gave them opportunities to come up with their own ideas. He was particularly taken with the idea proposed by an 8-year-old boy named Corentine Senechal for an approximately 3-foot long turtle sculpture to be made of solid gold and painted green.

Fletcher described for us the collaboration that took the boy’s idea through the entire artistic process, from idea through drawings, small scale models, meetings with the art center’s director/curator, site and gallery tours, a full-sized model, overseeing production, taking delivery of the piece, permanent installation in the sculpture garden, and finally, the public dedication ceremony.

Some of the details of the collaboration were humorous and some quite remarkable. Fletcher and the boy didn’t speak each other’s language, but were able to work together through a translator. Because of cost concerns, Corentine had to begrudgingly allow the sculpture to be made of a “very gold looking bronze” with an ounce of gold mixed in. When he saw the shiny gold final cast piece, Corentine still decided to paint the whole sculpture bright green, according to his initial plan. I found myself smiling at the absurdity of some of it all. Had I been in Fletcher’s shoes, I know that I would have had a very difficult time not manipulating the situation (and the boy) to create something less “amateur.” But that is exactly the beauty of this type of genuine collaboration: honoring the decisions of every participant, no matter their age or level of formal art education.

Corentine’s Turtle 2006, Domaine De Kerguehennec, Brittany, France

As an introduction to our participatory project on Saturday afternoon of the conference, Fletcher gave a brief talk where he explained that he doesn’t go to a place to bring something to the place or its inhabitants, rather he goes to a place to learn. He had arrived at our present location in the Sierra Nevada mountains a few days prior to the start of the conference and had spent time exploring the place and the people of not only Granlibakken Resort Center, but the surrounding town of Tahoe City and the wilderness surrounding Lake Tahoe. One thing that he discovered was that this place in this time of year is wonderful for mushroom hunting. In fact, the evening before, he had brought in a mushroom that he had found hoping someone in the audience could tell him if it was edible or not (there was no consensus, unfortunately, so it remained uneaten).

He reminded us of something we all know as photographers: having a camera makes you look at the world differently, with a kind of “hyper-sensitivity.” The question he wanted to examine was: how do you do that without a camera? Then he brought us back to mushroom hunting and the idea of looking for something, but not knowing what it is. He said, “It’s not about finding the mushroom; it’s about experiencing the world differently.”

So, he suggested that we should all go out in the surrounding nature, in pairs or small groups, and walk around, chat, and look for mushrooms. He said we don’t need to be skilled mushroom hunters, instead that there was beauty in the “amateur act” of hunting for mushrooms. He also encouraged us to use the mushroom(s) we would find as an object for interaction as we try to identify it/them, using whatever research methods we chose (internet searches, consulting expert friends, etc.). He suggested documenting our findings photographically and bringing back these documents to the same room in an hour or two to be collected into a collaborative piece that would be shown that evening.

I must admit that staying inside where it was warm and dry crossed my mind and, as the one who volunteered to amass the collection of photographs, would have been totally appropriate. But I’m so glad that I went out with a group to hunt for mushrooms. We chatted, we got to know each other, we got cold and wet, and we found a bunch of mushrooms! Which we delighted in photographing and trying to identify.

© Courtesy of Amanda Dahlgren

I did go back early to make sure that I was there when the first groups returned to share their photographs, but I’m so glad I got to experience participating in the project as a fledgling mushroom hunter. Frankly, I was stunned at the joy and camaraderie that I felt in this ridiculously simple task. That same joy and camaraderie was shared by those returning from their group outings and continued into the evening when we gathered to view the results of our adventures, projected as a slideshow of photographs with titles “identifying” the mushrooms (sometimes quite humorously).

Even the role that photography played in the exercise was down-played to the extent that we were able to let go of our perfectionism. For the most part, we all used our cell phone cameras so we could be mobile, not worry about damaging equipment in the rain, to ease in the research process, and so we could quickly document and easily share our findings.

© Courtesy of Amanda Dahlgren

As I reflect on the genius of this participatory project that Fletcher set up for us, I have some thoughts were I ever to try to facilitate something similar. The “assignment” that he set up for us was not about photography, education, critical discourse, or any of the other fields that we were all experts in. In the field of mushroom hunting, we were all relatively on the same playing field. None of us were experts in mushrooms. Although some had a bit more experience than others, none of us had years of training or education wrapped up the study of fungi nor did we have professional reputations as mycologists to worry about. Because we were all amateurs, we were able to play and enjoy the experience.

© Courtesy of Amanda Dahlgren

Amanda Dean Dahlgren is a designer, technician and craftsman, but above all, is a photographic artist who has always been fascinated with aesthetics and artistic expression. Her bachelor’s degree in design has influenced her work in terms of the visual impact and her MFA in photography helped her solidify the conviction that art should open dialogues about the way we live as a society and what we choose to value.

In addition to being an artist, she will always be an educator, because the connections and collaborations that happen while learning and teaching are what keep her alive as an artist. She believes strongly that every student, no matter their age, background, or skill level, has something valuable to contribute through the photographic arts. It is her mission as an educator to challenge and inspire each student to find powerful and authentic ways to express it. This is not a calling she takes lightly.

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The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.

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