• Issue
  • Nov 01, 2021

The Point: Learning From Lichens

Lichens and moss on Dongbaek Dongsan in Jeju, South Korea. Photo by Sojin Kwak. Courtesy Taeyoon Choi. 

In 2021, the Point asks writers to imagine post-pandemic futures. Below, curator and artist Taeyoon Choi proposes an alternative model for virtual networks that facilitates care and equity instead of violence and stratification.

Where are virtual worlds created? Pangyo Techno Valley, the self-proclaimed “Silicon Valley of South Korea,” is home to numerous tech platforms, conglomerates, and start-ups. Pangyo, the city where this technological nexus is located, is composed of transportation hubs, bedroom communities, shopping malls and outlets, schools, and hospitality-centered complexes. Like other satellite cities around Seoul, it sprawls outward from a center, bringing with it urban developments, highly manicured landscaping, and mechanical waterfalls that decorate public domains. The domesticated nature in these spaces feels virtual, as if made by software. In fact, software can neatly simulate nature, as is demonstrated by the Barnsley Fern, an iterated function system that is often used to imitate the natural fern. From a bird’s-eye view, these satellite cities even look like the central processing unit of a computer. Similarly, inside the blocks of uniform, glass-and-steel high-rises, the hip interior architectures of tech corporations feel like virtual environments, replete with exotic plants and cheerful messages graffitied by local artists. Against this backdrop, tech workers, programmers, character designers, and project managers spend their days, and oftentimes nights, creating virtual worlds.

What types of worlds are created there? Take the company that invited me to Pangyo to give a talk as an example. The company takes pride in its statistics—its games have millions of concurrent players, and its 2020 sales totaled more than USD 1 billion. In the world of tech platforms, these bizarre numbers are not outlandish. The world in the company’s most popular game is a war zone that looks vaguely Middle Eastern. Players sign up as one of two anonymous mercenary soldiers to engage in virtual warfare. What ignited the war is unexplained. In a 2019 Vox article, Naomi Clark, director of the NYU Game Center, writes, “Even though it’s silly to say that ‘games cause violence,’ it’s also just as silly to say that games have nothing to do with a culture that has a violence problem.” The virtual and real worlds are in an interdependent relationship; they reflect and mimic each other. We have the technological capacity to build virtual worlds filled with bloodshed. We also have the capacity to create virtual worlds that reflect the values of caring and equity. What’s stopping us? A lack of imagination for a different kind of networking.

Networks are not only technological, they’re natural. Every week, I drive about two hours south from Seoul to work on a half-acre farm in Gyeryong mountain. I used to come to the farm as a kid. The small yew trees that I planted are more than a few feet tall now. Wild weeds took over the trees while the farm was neglected for decades. I’m learning the basics of forest maintenance and farming machinery, taking solace in the physical labor of weeding and digging, and appreciating the birth and decay of life-forms. During this time, I’m in an active dialogue with the fungi, critters, and animals around the farm. The biologist Lynn Margulis advocates that individuality is a false belief. “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking,” she asserts in the book Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors (1998), co-authored with Dorian Sagan. Lichens, for instance, form mutually beneficial relationships between fungi and algae, such that they coexist in interdependence while each element’s integrity is maintained.

The future of networking may be an interdependent relationship between virtual and real-life experiences that takes its cues from the partnerships of lichens. In 2021, I co-organized the Summer School of Unlearning. I collaborated with researchers and alternative school founders Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev of ArtEast in Bishkek, Aigerim Kapar of Artcom in Almaty, Jung-Yeon Ma in Osaka and Jaemin Shin in Seoul, as well as a group of artists they invited. Because of Covid-19, we had to convene online. Through a monthly seminar on Zoom, we explored the theme of “unlearning.” We define unlearning as questioning how we learn and what we learn. The art education systems in Central Asia have not changed much from Soviet times. In an essay for the project, Kasmalieva and Djumaliev write, “These educational systems train perfect skills but almost do not allow any freedom of interpretation in form. To resist this system, we tried to refer to modernistic art which was restricted at that time and it was quite hard to find any visual information about that.” While the political and cultural context is different, the hegemony of institutional art education is similar in East Asia. Trespassing through time zones, languages, backgrounds, and virtual and physical spaces, we discovered the commonalities of our lived experiences through sharing images and discussion. Our engagements were limited to a few online meetings, but it was enough to hold space of care for each other and to discover common concerns, such as environmental justice and feminism. How can we scale up such tender networking in the virtual world? Instead of dreaming up more virtual warfare, perhaps we could use software, hardware, machine intelligence, and distributed networks to create more lichenous relationships.