Claire Taylor, Everything is Connected to Everything Else: Myco Logic, introduction to exhibition catalogue, Heritage Courtyard Pavilion, Parramatta Justice Precinct, 2017.
Elizabeth Day has had a long-standing interest in institutions and contexts of incarceration and care—historic and contemporary. A main thematic of her doctoral thesis was the colonial imposition of the prison on the Australian landscape, which drew her to work with the aggregation of institutions in Parramatta North. The institutions include Cumberland Hospital’s East Campus on the site of the Female Factory and Asylum, Parramatta Gaol, the Norma Parker Centre and the infamous Parramatta Girls Home. Day’s work there since 2013 has engaged with the historic shifts taking place with the highly contentious redevelopment.
The works in the ongoing series Invisible Words Invisible Worlds are responses to the Parramatta North sites and can be read as an ethical commentary on the abuse that has been inflicted there. Day is particularly interested in how trauma can be readily experienced and passed down through generations. The Invisible Words Invisible Worlds series incorporates texts based on Day’s experience as a prison educator over the last 25 years. In this exhibition, these works are displayed in a closed section of the Heritage Courtyard Pavilion and can only be encountered from a distance; the viewer is kept on the outside looking in.
In one half of the series the texts emerge from (and are at times lost within) rafts of unravelled wool, glued and stitched onto muslin and felt, extending the Unravelling of Form series that Day has been working on since the mid-1990s. The title “offcuts of reason”, from a catalogue of Day’s from that era, asserts itself through these works and connects the different bodies of work shown in the pavilion. In materials these textile works reference some of the earliest manufactures of the women held in the Female Factory but Day’s works counter any notion of productive labour. It is instead a process of unravelling as undoing order, structure, and form; as unlearning conformity; as reconciliation. Not all the works have texts in them, a few are blank, others have a face of muslin over them. It is as if there are some stories that have yet to emerge and others that have been covered up.
The wool-based Invisible Words Invisible Worlds works are laid out across the floor of the platform overhanging the open archaeological pit in the pavilion. This is the area where the pavilion’s heritage displays are housed. The artworks are arranged to suggest footings of walls, marking wards of the former Colonial Hospital on this site, whose actual footings are preserved in the pit below and whose architecture is referenced in the contemporary pavilion structure. On the glass walls dividing these spaces, Day is exhibiting the other half of the Invisible Words Invisible Worlds series: a series of transparencies of altered electron microscopy images of carbon nano-tubes that have been artificially “grown”. The squiggly nano-tubes closely resemble offcuts of unravelled wool, and similarly have texts embedded in them. The grid emerges as a motif in many of Day’s works and is evident here in the highly pixelated details, most prominent in the jagged edges of the letters, revealing the limits of the imaging process.
For Day, these works make a connection between quantum invisibility and the invisibility of the voices of those who have been traumatised while incarcerated or in institutional care. Installing these works on the glass echoes the texts selected by heritage specialists to mark the pavilion’s outer glass walls, noting the cruelty with which the Colonial Hospital was synonymous, but the works speak most powerfully to the justice contexts that surround this site. The pavilion is in the Heritage Courtyard, in the heart of Parramatta’s Justice Precinct. Day was interested in constructing a wall of the transparencies to reference the sandstone block walls of many of the colonial institutions that connect to this site and Parramatta North, but installed here they are dispersed around the platform and pavilion partition, as if fragments of former structures that have come to light, along with their stories.
In the main part of the Heritage Courtyard Pavilion is Myco Logic, an evolving participatory project whose inception was in Kandos, regional NSW, as part of Cementa15. For more than a year, Elizabeth Day worked with local community groups in Kandos as well as with other festival artists to make a “crop” of hand-crafted fungi, knitting together these divergent communities. This “crop” was brought together on a raft of raffia and string “mycelia” in an installation created by Day for the festival. Day has extended this project through an arts program she has facilitated at Cumberland Hospital, between July and November this year , with the workshops open to the hospital’s broader community, including carers and family members.
At the heart of Myco Logic is a creative exchange based on the image of fungi and their underground mycelial root structures. The mycelia are vast networks that communicate between species and transmit nutrients beneath forest floors. Day likens this system to a logic of communities. The project mobilises this non-centred image of mutually supportive networks and aims to foster connections between contributors through the process of making hand-crafted fungi together.
The exhibition in the main section of the Heritage Courtyard Pavilion presents artwork from the Kandos iteration of Myco Logic as well as works from the program at Cumberland Hospital and community workshops in the pavilion. By involving the psychiatric hospital and broader community in practical, creative workshops, Myco Logic assists in building support networks within and outside of the hospital, addressing the isolation experienced by many in mental health contexts. The program was originally developed to be implemented through the hospital’s Life Skills unit and its timing was intended to help strengthen the support for consumers, carers and families as part of the preparations for the major transition they face when the hospital’s East Campus in Parramatta North is decommissioned and the uncertainty surrounding this. In developing the hospital program, there was recognition that recovery takes many forms, with not always a return to how the person was before: the past for carers and consumers can be fraught with trauma and grief. Fungi have the capacity to thrive in dark conditions and break down dead matter into constituents for new growth. Their image encapsulates the notion of reconciling difficult pasts and finding new ways forward.
The mycelia in the Parramatta Myco Logic installation are not only made up of string and raffia but also shredded receipts, bills, reports, records—the administrative interface between our lives and institutions. Once vital documentation, now disposed of. The temporary fencing under the mycelia is a strong but precarious support for the installation. It references the hoardings that have already gone up around many buildings in Parramatta North for archaeological and conservation purposes, partitioning off areas as construction sites. For Day these echo the long history of institutional containment and control exercised across the site. Cumberland Hospital’s East Campus is set on the eastern side of the Parramatta River and includes the historic Female Factory and former Asylum site. The multiple layers of grids that emerge from the fencing and mesh set against and in contrast to the rhizomatic, promiscuous mass of raffia mycelia in the Myco Logic installation speak to how different institutional structures, rules, procedures and regulations get overlaid and superimposed but fundamentally run counter to the thinking of those they are intended to protect or care for. Christine Dean describes this approach in Day’s practice as an ‘assault on the history and ideology of rectilinear thinking’ [Christine Dean, “Unravelling Production” in the offcuts of reason: works by Elizabeth Day, 1997]. In facilitating this most recent iteration of Myco Logic as a community-based project in a psychiatric hospital, Day draws upon not only how similar the image of mycelial networks are to communities, but also to the image of neural networks and the fact that mycelia transmit information across their networks using the same neurotransmitters that our brains do: the chemicals that affect how we think.