Photo © Steinunn Knúts Önnudóttir

Human Mushrooms: Transformative body techniques and indigenous epistemologies

By Esa Kirkkopelto

As Western modes and techniques of performing are compared with the non-Western or even indigenous forms of bodily expression and communication, where should the comparison start? Does it suffice to suppose that the modes of performance, performative techniques and institutions which characterize the latter are just different from the former? Does not one then still suppose that all cultures agree on what is “performance”, “technique” or “institution”? A comparative approach and analysis may constitute the only way ahead if one wants to foster decolonization of the Western performance culture and its prevailing practices. Yet, any comparison requires a shareable point of view, a common standpoint or optics, which enables it. Therefore, as we discuss cultural differences and question cultural hegemonies, we are also simultaneously searching for common ground. That ground should not be owned or dominated in advance by anybody. Yet, it should be accessible to all. To claim it “neutral” would already be a way to appropriate it. Rather, we should think that what we are simultaneously opening and entering is a problematic and dissensuous zone, where the most fundamental structures of the Western understanding, like the ones concerning performance, technique and institution, are put into play and deconstructed. 

As the “All My Relations” workshop event was decided to be organized at Gylleboverket, and the neighbouring permaculture farm of Etta Säfve and Jona Elfdahl, the organisers wished to find a place for a para-academic meeting, where the circumstances would not in advance define the positions of each participant, the modes of discussion and interaction. The title of the event, as well as the long quote at the beginning of the call from Thomas King, the editor of the anthology of contemporary Canadian native fiction with the same title (King 1990), charged the event with strong but topical expectations. Every participant certainly agreed that these issues need to be approached now and that it was important to do that together.

In my case, the event encouraged me to approach questions concerning the affinities between my long-term experimental practice as a performance artist and artist-researcher, and the comparable indigenous practices. And this essay is now devoted to the reflections this attempt gave occasion to. The text has two important catalysts, the first one of them being John Ó Maiolearca´s study All Thoughts Are Equal (2015), where the author comments some of my previous ideas by comparing them with those of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro regarding the Amerindian epistemologies. The second one consists of my personal encounter with the Wixarika shaman José Luis ”Katira” Ramirez at the occasion of the ”Dances and Songs of Earth (Bergspråk)” symposium, organized by Rickard Bergström and Rebecca Chentinell in Boden on 7–9 May 2022. 

Difficult comparisons 
Since 2004, my artistic practice has mostly been based on my activity within the Other Spaces (”OS”) live art collective (in Finnish “Toisissa tiloissa”), which I convened the same year and with which I have worked ever since. Throughout the years, the working principles of the group have stayed the same: the group creates collective bodily exercises, whose aim is to embody and study nonhuman experiences, phenomena and forms of being, in other words, to visit ”other spaces”. The common theme of the exercises is the transformation in every sense of the term: existentially, ethically, and ecologically. Other important principles that characterize the work of the group are bodily exercise as a mode of performance, body techniques as an area of artistic creation, and the public accessibility of those techniques. The exercises are designed so that basically anybody can learn and accomplish them (or an applied version of them), and the participatory performances and workshops organized by the group provide occasions for their collective sharing.  

As compared with the indigenous or first nations practices and epistemologies, the OS practice comprises at least two obvious points of contact and friction. On the one hand, the practice manifests an extended understanding of interspecies co-existence. By participating in an OS exercise, the participant can have a personal embodied experience about how it feels to have a non-human body and what kind of world-relation the latter enables or opens. Thanks to the techniques which alter the participant´s body constitution, they can not only convince themselves of the existence of the non-human experience, non-human corporeality and the non-human worlds but also study their nature without abolishing their otherness. The experiences are simultaneously personal and intimate and non-personal belonging to a differently constituted bodily creature. According to the artistic agenda of the group, its alternative body techniques invite us to perceive, encounter and treat our more-than-human environment and its inhabitants differently, on a more equal basis, as our planetary neighbours. The actual epistemic and ethical weight of the practice is another question – a matter of artistic research.  

Insofar as the practice is based on transformative body techniques, it secondly raises a question about its relation to different kinds of Western or non-Western and indigenous trance techniques, notably those used in shamanistic practices. Especially the participants, who have had some experience with the latter, have often paid attention to this affinity. However, until now, I and our group members have expressed our reserve towards this type of feedback, and the reasons for this reaction are multiple. Between techniques and cultures, there also reside many significant differences which risk compromising the attempted interpretations in advance. The most obvious of them are the following ones:  

– The OS practice does not have an explicit healing function 
– the OS exercise is available for everyone, not reserved only for the exceptional individuals  
– the techniques for entering the altered states vary from case to case, they are not secret and they do not require ritualistic initiation 
– the experience of transformation is not total but partial (not directly comparable to “trance”) and thoroughly controllable; the risk level of the exercises is low 
– the exercise does not have a social function comparable to that of shamans within their communities 

There are also several cultural reasons, which in this case makes the comparison uncomfortable. During the past century, different non-Western performance traditions and their body techniques have strongly informed the development of Western theatre and performance culture, and shamanism has been one of those sources of inspiration. Comparing performers to shamans is a recurrent topic in contemporary performance culture, and it is often nourished by the performers themselves, especially in the field of performance art. There are also theoretical attempts to build that connection (cf. Gil 1998). However, from the present day´s critical multicultural and post-colonial perspective, these tendencies to assume influence from non-Western sources also seem problematic, and they easily give rise to justified accusations of cultural appropriation and fallacy. Let alone the fact that neo-shamanism constitutes today an integral part of the global New Age culture and markets, which today harm any sincere attempt to approach and study the topic more seriously.  

Against this problematic background, our group has always underlined the experimental and pedagogical aspects of its work. Although our techniques may carry reminiscences of different traditions, they consist of our inventions. The participatory arrangements of the group avoid deliberately raising associations with ritualistic practices, like initiation, ecstasy, sacrifice, catharsis, shock, communitarian models of gathering, etc. Instead, our performances consist of quasi-pedagogical situations, where open agendas, the voluntariness of participation and critical discussion, even within and during the performances, are important constituents. 

However, despite all the mentioned differences and reservations, a factor remains that brings the objectives of the OS group and shamanistic worldview and practice close to each other, and finally also makes the comparison possible and justified. That factor relates to the way we, as human beings, conceive and encounter the more-than-human universe, its inhabitants and its elements. In sum, both shamanistic practices and the OS practice have in common a tendency to anthropomorphize non-human nature. How can the different practices and cultures highlight each other at this point?  

The anthropomorphized other 
To highlight the affinity in question, I must return to a text that I wrote in 2004 to motivate our new practice. In the text, titled “A Manifesto for Generalized Anthropomorphism”, I studied the possibilities of the performing arts, and notably theatre, to establish a practice that would enable the performers to get rid of the dominance of the human figure typical to Western theatre, and to approach and (re)present more-than-human reality. The need for this endeavour is eminent: 

Human hope lies behind all restricted anthropomorphism, behind everything that calls itself “humanism”. It lies in the decidedly non-human. What we encounter at its most beautiful in other humans is something that always goes beyond us. Humans can only rely on what we are not. We are safe to trust stones, plants, animals, the sea, earth and space. Only against those elements can we encounter, understand and regain the uniqueness of our own experience (Kirkkopelto 2004). 

Whereas, as I argued, it may be impossible for a human being to get rid of their characteristic human figure and the imagination sustaining it, it is still possible to generalize that figure and lean it to everything else, so that the non-human other could be finally encountered in a human disguise: “I lend my human face like a mask to what is not human and let that non-human be manifested through that mask.” Finally, the generalization of anthropomorphism may be the only way for humans to understand the masklike nature of their figure and find a distance from it. What reveals from underneath the mask is the “human phenomenon” in its “infinitely finite” mimetic propensity and endless becoming other.  

If OS practice was considered as one example of the tendency evoked by the Manifesto, it easily leads to theoretical speculations regarding the problem of the non-human mind and experience, its existence, and the possibility to enter it. Even if we could agree that non-human beings have an experience of their embodied existence, does our attempt to open it to humans constitute just another all-too-human illusion – a sophisticated, and therefore even more suspicious case of “restricted anthropomorphism”? Here, the comparison with the non-Western epistemologies may provide some counterevidence and unexpected support. Would those who criticize the OS practice be ready to repeat their critique in the case of the indigenous shamanistic practices as well? 

Non-human subjects 
According to God is Red, the seminal comparative study by Vine Deloria Jr. on the differences between Amerindian and Judeo-Christian religious systems, the relation of those traditions to anthropomorphism is interestingly chiasmatic. Whereas in the Judeo-Christian religion the creator god constitutes a decidedly anthropomorphic father figure, the Amerindians by rule refuse to represent deity anthropomorphically (Deloria [1972] 1994, 79). The whole of creation is for the indigenous Americans something implicitly good, whereas the Judeo-Christians are separated from the initial order of creation by the “fall” and the subsequent feeling of “guilt” (op. cit., 81). That is also why the ethos, according to which the more-than-human beings could be the “relatives” of the humans (op. cit., 85), is so fundamentally strange for Western spirituality and mindset. The Western Judeo-Christian human culture conceives itself as superior to what it considers as not belonging to itself, and this position is God-given. Whereas in Amerindian religious thinking the fundamental equality and the shared experience of being created, of a common transcendent origin, go hand in hand. The different ways of experiencing are meant to exist parallelly and, therefore, they cannot but respect each other and tend to assure the continuation of their God-given co-existence.  

In Cannibal Metaphysics, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro ([2009] 2014) takes this analysis further by unfolding the philosophical premises of the “perspectivism” typical for Amerindian epistemologies: 

The ethnography of indigenous America is replete with references to a cosmopolitical theory describing a universe inhabited by diverse types of actants or subjective agents, human or otherwise – gods, animals, the dead, plants, meteorological phenomena, and often objects or artifacts as well – equipped with the same general ensemble of perceptive, appetitive, and cognitive dispositions: with the same kind of soul. This interspecific resemblance includes, to put it a bit performatively, the same mode of apperception: animals and other nonhumans having a soul “see themselves as persons” and therefore “are persons”: intentional, double-sided (visible and invisible) objects constituted by social relations and existing under a double, at once reflexive and reciprocal – which is to say collective – pronominal mode. What these persons see and thus are as persons, however, constitutes the very philosophical problem posed by and for indigenous thought. (op. cit., p. 56). 

The indigenous perspectivism, as taken to its extreme, leads to the most radical version of the generalized anthropomorphism, where “human” is finally the synonym for being a subject, and “non-human” another name for an object: “Predatory animals and spirits see humans as prey and prey sees humans as spirits or predators […] In seeing us as nonhumans, animals and spirits regard themselves (their own species) as human.” (op. cit., p. 56–57) 

Finally, access to the other-than-human perspectives is opened by shamans, whom de Castro characterizes as “cosmopolitical diplomats” (op. cit., 151):

The notion that actual nonhumans possess an actual prosopomorphic side (i.e. a capacity to perform as humans) is a fundamental supposition of several dimensions of indigenous practice, but it is only foregrounded in the particular context of shamanism. Amerindian shamanism could be defined as the authorization of certain individuals to cross the corporeal barriers between species, adopt an exospecific perspective, and administer the relations between those species and humans. By seeing nonhuman beings as they see themselves (again as humans), shamans become capable of playing the role of active interlocutors in the trans-specific dialogue and, even more importantly, of returning from their travels to recount them; something the “laity” can only do with difficulty. This encounter or exchange of perspectives is not only a dangerous process but a political art: diplomacy. If Western relativism has multiculturalism as its public politics, Amerindian shamanic perspectivism has multinaturalism as its cosmic politics. (op. cit., p. 60) 

What this many-sided passage of de Castro unfolds is the implicit political message or potential of the shamanistic practice for global thinking and lifestyle. However, even de Castro does not seem to imagine those practices could or should be revived in non-indigenous contexts. – What can one do, then? On the one level, the threat the climate catastrophe sets to societies has motivated great practical, political and technological efforts to reorganize our planetary existence more sustainably. On another level, contemporary biology and ethology have produced an increased understanding of the way non-human animals, and even plants, sense and communicate. The carrying out of the needed changes is not that much a matter of information than that of transformation. One of the main factors that still prevents us to conceive the connection between the mentioned two levels, and sensing the suffering they hide, is our historically and culturally conditioned mode of experiencing. Our experience of ourselves and our neighbours is integrated into the complex capitalist system of production and consumption, which promises us a life free from suffering and, to some extent and some people, even enables it. If performing arts have anything to do with reaching sustainable goals, it relates to their potential to transform that mindset that is simultaneously general and individual, and currently still too attached to the goals opposite to sustainable life.  

Mushrooms exercise 
Here’s a schematic description of the OS exercise I facilitated for the group I worked with at the All My Relations gathering. The exercise was accomplished outdoors by eight persons, under heavy but warm rain, in the hazel field belonging to Etta’s and Jona’s farm.  

In this exercise, we delve into the experiential world of mushrooms. Mushrooms are found everywhere in the soil. They work as underground scatters, which liberate nutrients for other organisms. In the lifecycle of mushrooms, the overground mushroom, called fruitbody, constitutes just a vanishing moment. The main mode of existence of mushrooms is mycelium. This thin and fine fiberlike network can cover huge areas and live for thousands of years.  

The exercise starts by embodying a mycelium. It happens in the following way: we go down on the ground by lying on our stomachs, heads in different directions. We spread our arms, grasp the wrists of our fellows by our hands, and set our ankles above their ankles. That is how our bodies get connected and form a network. We close our eyes and let our heads rest softly on the ground. Please check that your position is comfortable enough so that you can stay in it for a while. Next, we start to feel that our connected bodies rest in the litter layer of the soil, just underneath the surface of the ground. To find our way to that layer, we imagine that our breathing is aligned with soil respiration, the exchange of gas between the soil and the atmosphere. The air flows vertically through our bodies upwards and downwards, connecting us firmly with the ground. At every exhalation, our bodies sink deeper into the soil. Horizontally, the mycelium we form continues to infinity. We keep on earth breathing during the whole exercise. Each body constitutes one junction in the vast mycelium. 

Now, something starts to move within it: chemical nutrition, information and energy. That something spreads from one junction to another. The flow causes pressure in the neck of the participant and, as a consequence, their vocal apparatus starts to emit a low creaking sound. As the sound stops the flow stops, and then it starts again. That is the sound of the mycelium. 

Little by little, as the conditions are favourable, the mycelium starts to raise fruitbodies. Fruitbody is formed by bending one´s neck upwards and raising the head slowly until one´s face looks sideways. During that phase, the emission of the mycelium sound ceases, and the fruitbody now just listens. As you raise a fruitbody, you can easily imagine what kind of fruitbody it is, and where and under what conditions it grows. As a fruit body is full-grown, it releases the spores, i.e. the seeds by which the mushroom reproduces itself. This happens by slowly opening one´s eyes, which now function as the gills of the fruitbody. The spores flow out of the open holes between the gills. As the spores have been sown, the eyes/gills close again, and the fruitbody melts away by letting the head sink back to the litter layer. Each junction grows fruitbodies in its rhythm and as many as one wishes, but without hurrying.  

The exercise takes from 10 to 20 minutes. Before we start, we agree on the approximate duration and on who decides when the time is up. When the one in charge feels that the exercise has reached its completion, they detach their grip from their fellows´ arms and withdraw themselves from bodily contact. As that happens, it´s a sign for others to do the same, and that is how the network dismantles itself fast. We continue to lie on the ground for a while as human beings, breathing like humans breathe. Then we raise ourselves to a sitting position, look around, wait until everyone does the same, take a look at each other´s eyes, and assure that everyone has come back to human form and state of mind. Then the exercise is over. 

How to become a mushroom?
Mushrooms exercise was invented in 2005, and ever since it has been made numerous times both outdoors and indoors in the workshops organised by the OS group. Generally, the altered experience it produces has been considered meditative and enjoyable. I chose it for this context because our working group had time to do just one exercise and this one was particularly appropriate to highlight the corporeal logic of the OS exercises. Its subject also fitted the autumnal season of the event.  

As one can notice from the description above, the transformation mainly concerns the way how we as humans imagine our bodies both mentally and proprioceptively, i.e. through our internal corporeal sense. The way towards a more-than-human experience opens by altering our idea of the composition of our bodies, our “body image”, as one might call it. (Gallagher 1986) Inversely, it reveals how that body composition is all the time sustained by a certain imagination, which goes unnoticed as long as the body functions and behaves according to its accustomed patterns. The exercise like the Mushrooms re-imagines and re-composes the participant´s body by combining unusual body positions and corporeal relations with unusual imaginary associations. These connections are based on a certain number of corporeal interfaces between the human body and the alien body under study. in the case of the Mushrooms exercise, those interfaces, or bodily tropes, are easy to recognize and possible to enlist: lying position / soil; closed eyes / the underground darkness; breathing / exchange of gas between soil and air; connected bodies / mycelium network; stretched arms / a crossroads in that network; collective creaking sound / the life activity of the mycelium; head / a fruitbody; raising the head / growing the fruitbody; the opening of the eyes / releasing the spores; sinking the head / melting away of the fruitbody… 

Out of those interfaces, each participant re-composes for themselves an intermediary body that they can enter, maintain, enjoy and study from within. The intermediary body works as a mimetic and affective attractor for different kinds of affects, mental images, memories, and human and non-human associations based on the participant´s personal life and experience. Some preliminary knowledge about mushroom life is necessary to accomplish the exercise, but one does not need to be a biologist to accomplish it right. The intermediary body belongs neither to the participant nor to a mushroom and the mode of its existence is typically virtual (Kirkkopelto 2021). As one enters it, one simultaneously enters the strange lifeworld of the human mushroom. As such, that state is accessible only to humans, but that fact does not exclude the possibility to seek contact with actual mushrooms through it. The experience is dependent on the maintenance of the technique, and on the participant´s conscious and continuous effort, which also implies that the virtual mushroom experience is simultaneously accompanied by the participant´s conscience of their actual situation. In this respect, the disposition is closer to a performance than a state of trance, where the borderline between virtual and actual is momentarily effaced. Finally, thanks to the common bodily and technical starting point, the life worlds experienced by the participants become articulable and comparable afterwards.  

Here are two diagrams which I draw for the occasion to illustrate the logic described above:   

Epistemologically and ontologically, the functioning of this model presumes that we agree on a few premises which, however, are not commonly shared in the Western epistemologies, namely 

– That all beings do have a body (instead of “soul”; unless the soul is conceived as the experiential form of the body) 

– That experience of having a body is something all bodily beings can share despite the crucial differences prevailing in their bodily constitutions 

– If corporality is something that varies between beings but that all beings share, then it is possible to study its functioning beyond human experience 

– Performing body, through its capacity to manifest different possibilities of the body to imagine itself and the other bodies, provides a medium for studying the process of bodily variations beyond the “human” body constitution and image 

Hence, the strangest thing does not reside in the possibility of entering the mind and body of a non-human creature. That possibility is excluded at the outset. What constitutes the matter of our wondering, and a new kind of understanding, consists rather in the intimate relationship the described practice establishes between corporality and imagination, and the possibilities the corporeal imagination opens for embodied research. 

Performers or shamans? 
As de Castro concludes, ”[s]hamanistic activity certainly consists, it is true, in establishing correlations and/or translations between the respective worlds of each natural species, and this through finding active homologies and equivalencies between the perspectives in confrontation” (op. cit., 152). Insofar as the OS practice is also based on ”homologies and equivalencies” between human bodies and alien bodies, and as it enables to reach the first-person perspective of the latter, it opens for a comparison with the indigenous practices. Since I have no personal experience with the latter, I cannot pursue this comparison further without external expertise. However, the least one can conclude is that OS practice, like many other contemporary performance practices which today search for contact with the more-than-human, can truly assume the political function de Castro envisions as characteristic of shamans, namely their ability to work as ”cosmopolitical diplomats”.   

That function also corresponds to the three sub-themes that motivated the All My Relations gathering and unified its participants. From the eco-pedagogical point of view, the non-human performance practices head toward a ”multinaturalist” perspective, which goes beyond the nature-culture divide: what earlier was considered as “nature” now disperses into a myriad of different kinds of agents or “natures”, whose co-existence – if their right to exist is respected – constitutes a major challenge for human socio-economic systems, technological development, and also for individual choices. The performing body can become a vehicle to access that perspective and a medium for studying both human and non-human life from that perspective.  

The simplification, reduction, downshifting, relinquishing and unlearning required for the ecological transformation do not only concern our external socio-economic behaviour. That behaviour can also be changed from within, as a mode of experience, by the use of experiential body techniques. Self-cultivation, which in earlier times aimed at personal development, liberation and salvation, can today be understood as a collectively accepted and accessible ecological practice, as a performance we make for, and for the sake of, the universe. This is also how transformative performance practices can finally transform the practices of performing themselves, as well as their social and cultural function. 

Finally, the performance practices that reach toward the more-than-human prepare terrain for a cultural understanding, according to which different cultures, both indigenous and non-indigenous ones, could encounter and communicate with each other on a more equal basis. 

de Castro, Eduardo Viveiros [2009] 2014. Cannibal Metaphysics. For a Post-Structural Anthropology. Peter Skafish (trans.). Minneapolis: Univocal.
Deloria Jr., Vine [1972] 1994. God is Red. A Native View of Religion. Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing.
Gallagher, Shaun 1986. ”Body Image and Body Schema. A Conceptual Clarification”. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, vol 7, number 4, 541–554.
Gil, José 1998. Metamorphoses of the Body. Stephen Muecke (trans.). Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.
King, Thomas (ed.) 1990. All My Relations. An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.  
Ó Maoilearca, John 2015. All Thoughts Are Equal, Laruelle and Nonhuman Philosophy. University of Minnesota Press.
Kirkkopelto, Esa 2021. “Virtual Bodies in Virtual Spaces, a Lecture-Demonstration.” Condit, Outi & Kellokumpu, Simo, Networked Actor Theory, Nivel 14 Publication Series of the Theatre Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki 2021,

posthuman performance, more-than-human, body techniques, transformation, altered states, inidigeneous epistemologies, shamanism, ecopedagogy, self-cultivation

About the author
Esa Kirkkopelto is a performance artist, philosopher and artist researcher focusing on the deconstruction of the performing body in theory and practice. Kirkkopelto was Professor of Artistic Research at the University of the Arts Helsinki in 2007–2018 and the Lund University in 2020–2022. Currently, he holds a similar professorship at the Tampere university. He is a founding member of the performance art group Other Spaces.