Learning from lichen
Learning from lichen

Learning from lichen

Awarded the S+T+ARTS residency at The Hague: Repairing the Present

This awarded project by Penelope Cain, Repairing with Lichen draws on lichen as an entry point for re-examining + reconfiguring existing relationship with nature, and as a role-model and callout for collaborative living between nature + humans.

 The S+T+ARTS fellowship seeks to imagine and propose innovative solutions to help realise the European Green Deal, through artist-led, science-technology intersections and co-creations.

The S+T+ARTS fellowship is supported by the Repairing The Present Consortium partners & its network of experts. Penelope Cain’s project was selected from over 300 applications from artists based in 40+ countries.

Working with the assistance of In4Art, Witveen+Bos and YES!Delft.

More: here

Lichen is a trade-based interspecies relationship, an architectural collaboration between a fungus (forming the protective outer structure) and an algae+/- cyanobacteria manufacturing nutrients for both species from CO2 and water.

A self-sufficient, community-based adaptation to site. Across the next 6 months I’ll be considering lichen as a role-model for expanded ways of coexisting with nature in the city and the provocation of how to live better with nature. Of micro-rewilding, and of the City as a site for preserving biodiversity at a micro-level

Testing a lichen invitation tile to be made in geopolymer- next generation carbon neutral concrete-type material, with design areas for water, dust and lichen

Working with Beton-Lab Designers

More to follow…

Currently Doing:

Modeling a microCT scan of Xanthoria lichen from the Hague.  The short clip in the HLRS Cave shows algae, fungal mycelium and crystals of parietin.

Possibly the first time lichen has been visualised in this way.

Currently working with:

The Media Solutions Centre, HLRS High Speed Computer Centre, Stuttgart. In the Cave, a 5-way rear-screen projection space working in real embodied VR. With thanks to Matthias Hauser and Uwe Wössner


Writer and curator, Abby Cunane, on lichen + stone:

“But it’s the lichen I want to stay with. The lichen, because of the crater line along the Port Hills, Ngā Kōhatu Whakarekareka o Tamatea Pōkai Whenua…

Lichens are what the bone-hard rock shoulders up there wear—or, they wear each other, the microorganism and the terrain, who is to say?. It’s not a line I have any interest in drawing; surely you too have had a shirt so old and soft that you don’t know where your skin ends and the fabric begins? The lichen may be wearing the rocks, the rocks wearing the light, which is in turn held close by the photosynthetic lichen. As I picture it now, along the crater the light is sodden with rain, a colour like that of oxidised copper on your wrist.’ (1)

Other thoughts

The hold between a fungal hyphae and an algal cell: the mycobiont and the photobiont. There is a point where one species comes in contact with another, sharing food across a cellular membrane, in a nutrient bound embrace.

The algal photosynthesis products shared with the fungi and water in the fungal vessels shared with the algae.

Thinking about how they come together in the first place. What is the first contact, the first interspecies embrace; the first kiss.


Micro-CT scanning lichen at TU Delft…

Thinking+ Reading:

Lichen as bioindicators: Lecanora conizaelides is a bioindicator for poor quality air: their thick cuticle enables survival in the face of high SOx and ammonia levels in air. Across the 19th-20th C Lecanora swept across Europe, growing as all other more air-sensitive lichens died out. (The absence of all lichens from trees in Jardin du Luxenbourg was recorded in the 1890s). As air pollution got worse, lichen diversity dropped drastically from around 130 species to just one.

With improving air quality at end 20th C Lecanora is now on the Red List; outcompeted by the original lichens now the air is cleaner.

Talking with:

Henk Timmerman, lichenologist: about the resergence of lichens on cannal-side trees in Amsterdam. Looking at 18th C watercolours of Amsterdam scenes to dectect lichens then and now. Henk’s theory is that in the last 10 years he has seen lichen density that hasnt been seen for centuries.

Lichens as good air quality bioindicators. Storytellers of the all to rare good news stories in the Anthropocene.

Also Thinking:

Parietin. A yellow pigment expressed by the fungal component of Egg yolk lichen to protect the algae from UV light. The more direct sunlight the more pigment it makes.

A colour-led inerspecies gesture of care.

Also Doing:

What would an invitation to urban lichen look like?

Thinking of bioreceptivity. And of biomimicry and the water directing capacity of lotus leaves and desert beetles.

Also Reading

“The lichen lifestyle is marked by elements of process, change, adaptation, metamorphosis, and relationality. In Hirshfield’s words, these polyphonous organisms are “chemists of air, / changers of nitrogen-unusable into nitrogen-usable.”

In its radically-open otherness, lichens materialize more-than-human wisdom—the knowledge of the world expressed by intelligent beings other than humans. As naturalist Trevor Goward quips, “lichens are fungi that have taken up agriculture.”

Talking with:

Laurens Sparrius, Lichenologist

In the Bryologische en Lichenologische Werkgroep

Talking about where lichen grows in the city, where it doesnt (hint- concrete less than 15 years old), and how to invite lichen back into our cities.

Also with Rachel Pringle, SPUN https://www.spun.earth/

Talking with:


Rachel Pringle, working with Dr Toby Kiers, researching tradebased ecconomic principles of nutrient flow underground and between/with trees by mycorrhizal fungi.

Also Thinking:

Lichens on elms and cherry trees in Fukoshima absorbed 4-7 times more radioactive Caesium-137 than the trees on which they grew. They seem to lock the radioactive particles in immobilised chemical forms in their thallus.