We often discuss interdisciplinary communication and collaboration in the Art and Social Practice Program at Portland State University. Our classroom is populated by people from different backgrounds, which challenges us to find points of connection. The group’s composition changes every year and evolves with individuals’ new research, opening up space for unpredictable shared discoveries and debate. As a student in my third and final year in the program, I am now considering ways to maintain this kind of interaction beyond the classroom.
William Padilla-Brown is a self- and community-taught citizen scientist whose approach resists categorization. His constantly expanding work and research includes mycology, phycology, molecular biology, 3-D printing, writing, rapping, singing, foraging, and living. His Cordyceps Cultivation Handbook (Volumes 1 and 2) were the first books on the subject published in English. All of the images that accompany this interview appeared on his active social media accounts, and he has built an international following from his home base in Pennsylvania. Radical sustainability, skill-sharing, and cellular-level health are at the center of his work with permacultural approaches.
“Nothing is new” is a phrase that William states multiple times in the following interview. He says this not in defeat, but as a straightforward belief in infinite possibilities. This idea recognizes that all knowledge throughout time builds on iteration. I reached out to him because our work is related through core concepts, but not in direct practice, and neither one of us can explore these concepts in isolation. We both use a mixture of disciplines to investigate similar ideas, and I hoped his perspective could be a jolt of energy—helping me consider passed-down, embodied, material knowledge in a scientific context.
In my work as a skilled generalist moving between trades and mediums, I am informed by multiple perspectives gained through experience. This method of working is intentional, and it affects my existence in an economy that values specialization over generalization and independence over collaboration. As artist, educator, and advisor Sheetal Prajapati says of generalist practice, “you can be building skills for one identity by working toward another.” Her statement is a contemporary echo of others such as Buckminster Fuller, who advocated for humankind’s “comprehensive propensities” in his still-resonant Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969. Conversation between disciplines remains important, and it suggests that a path toward more advanced identities and relationships can be continuous knowledge exchange. In practice, interdisciplinary work expresses the multiplicity in an individual’s mind while at the same time reaching out from that sphere toward other people.
Since we live near each other, William and I met up at Borough Park in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania to talk about his work and the way it relates to art, science, and communication.
Mo Geiger: Looking at your work, from what I know—it’s action-based and accessible to people. Sharing information seems really important to you. Is that a fair statement?
William Padilla-Brown: Yes, it’s 100% super important to me. You know, we live in the first time ever where information is publicly accessible and free flowing. And I think it is imperative that everybody knows that.
Mo: Absolutely. I think to many people, it seems like everything’s being commodified. But when you really get down to it, there’s so much free access to information.
William: I mean, we can learn almost anything. And there’s not anything that’s ancient knowledge anymore, almost all ancient knowledge is accessible now. That’s the thing—once you start to learn again, you’ll get up to speed. And then if you’re actually inquisitive and passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll get to the point where you’re on the cutting edge of it. And that’s when you have to get through the pay gates: people that can afford the resources to experiment and learn. And the resources, like the actual tools to do those experiments, are millions of dollars. It’s like when computers were still a million dollars and took up a whole room to use. But then, when computers became publicly available, they advanced so fast. The human mind is rapidly advancing the technology to the point where we’re just so used to it—it doesn’t even faze us anymore.
Mo: This contrast between ancient knowledge and rapidly advancing technology: how do you exist with it? How does new technology interact with the way you do research and share it?
William: Nothing is new, is the other thing. Like nothing is new. We’re all just re-learning everything. So utilizing the ancient is what brings me into the future. My connection to ancient technology is what connects me to the future. What people see as “futuristic”— the algae and the mushrooms—it’s all here. Yeah, it’s old. I guess it’s because it’s small and has evaded the human eye for so long. And we’re the first couple generations of humans to actually be looking at this stuff again.
Mo: It’s interesting having to explain. In thinking about these other ways of doing (that you’re describing)—and often in the artwork I do—the way that people see them is just old. It just feels so foreign sometimes in conversations with people who see history and that type of practice as “just being history.” And new technology, for some reason, is separate. You know what I mean?
William: People think that we’re so advanced and so smart now, but the humans who learned agriculture knew all of the plants in their ecosystems. They knew how to follow the animals, they knew how to mimic animal calls, they knew how to do things that we could only imagine. They were probably way more intellectually engaged in the environment, in the world, than we are right now.
Mo: When you think about doing a public art project, and about sharing the beauty of the thing that you do with a public that has all kinds of belief systems, access points, and different levels of knowledge—do you think about how understanding can slowly build up? Does that make sense?
William: Yeah. I think that putting out art pieces like that is a message to myself—it’s a message to a part of me who will see it in a different way. And I think that the best way to look at reality is with no impositions, and to just be as you are in it. And I think that some symbols just hold super strong, especially ones that aren’t familiar. If I put a mushroom out there, and you’ve never seen that before—it’s a natural symbol. Like, if I put a mushroom out there, and you’ve never seen that before, it’s a natural symbol. You don’t even have anything to relate it to. So, when I used to show people mushrooms at farmers markets, they’d be like, “it looks like an alien,” or “it looks like coral.” And both of those things are “aliens” to people: both of those things come from worlds that people have no point of reference to compare to.
Mo: Even though these things are very integral to life.
William: Very terrestrial. I think it’s just like leaving little breadcrumbs for myself along the way to help remember. And through all the different beliefs and where everybody’s different, where everybody’s coming from, there’s a human element that connects all of us. We’re all humans, we’re all alive here. We all need to eat, we all need to drink water, we all want to have sex—it’s all human.
Mo: Forging connections?
William: I think we’ve forgotten how amazing we are, and what our capacities are. Because a lot of people are overloaded with stimuli from computers and television. Any kid that’s in high school right now, you can talk to them, and they will tell you 100 different brands. Yeah, it’s all symbols. But it’s taking up their capacity, when they could be looking at nature and knowing that this tree has associations with this mushroom versus this company has associations with this famous person.
Mo: A leaf is a symbol.
William: Yeah, it’s an indicator of relationships.
Mo: Do you think about how that perspective assists you in thinking forward in time?
William: Yeah, just like I said, there’s nothing new. It’s all patterns, everything that will exist, already exists. Time is nonlinear. The Mayan culture perceived time so vastly that they had a calendar that went all the way to 2012 accurately with star patterns. They weren’t thinking about minutes and days, months and months, and stuff like that. They were thinking about planets moving through space and stars coming in contact with each other.
Mo: In a sense, their knowledge was more spatial?
William: It’s not even that it was more spatial. It’s all about how you treat your consciousness. We’ve been born into a system that treats consciousness very, very badly—a system that utilizes humans like a battery to perform work functions.
Mo: For you, is that part of sharing things with a wider public?
William: You know—the way that we look at time—humans are only ever looking in the microscope and never look up even further. But you can. I can show people timeless things through organisms. It’s just a different type of agriculture, a different type of living, you know. I’m recreating an entire holistic system that utilizes technology: the way that people understand modern technology, as well as electricity and everything like that, for biological and natural functions. Because that’s what it is. Life is life. Taxonomy makes it really weird to classify organisms down to species because you can go forever, but there’s not that many organisms on this planet. They’re just variations of each other.
Mo: Do you see your work as being part of an alternative to this current economy?
William: Yes, yeah. 100%.
Mo: And do you think that the community that you’re building by putting things out into the world and making public actions is part of that economy?
William: Yes. I’ve inspired so many people to fuck the system. And they don’t say it in that language. But I understand it in that language, because I inspired them to do what I do, which is fuck the system. Because this system sucks. And it was made by old kings and queens that died a long time ago. We’re following the same fucking rules of operation that Europeans came to this country with. We’re still following laws that were written back then.
Mo: [Laws that were] a response to another fucked up system. I think there is value in talking about the very act of colonization—how all of our bodies have been acted upon by colonization.
William: I mean, I’m the product of colonization, I’m Nigerian DNA mixed with Eastern South American genetics, because of slave trades. The whole reason I exist is because of colonialism. So I mean, like, we could talk about it all day. And I’m glad I exist because these genetics are pretty freakin’ cool. My body reacts very well to different compounds, based on my genetic lineage. And I know it to be true because I study molecular biology. I’ve been studying it specifically, selfishly, to understand why the hell I was born. Why do I feel this way? And why am I existing in this form right now? Why was I disturbed from my bliss?
Mo: You’re thinking about your own biological existence, and in your work you’ve utilized music, visuals, and all kinds of techniques to share this with people, to put it out into the public realm.
Mo: Is using those forms intentional?
William: It’s another language. I’m speaking in symbols. I understand that the human tool is capable of understanding higher linguistic complex patterns, life is language and humans are just tricked into thinking that auditory language is the only linguistic structure. The human scientific tool is programmed by nature to understand symbols as a language: DNA is protein syntax uttering itself into existence. And the human being is the operating tool for translating the symbols. That’s why kids can talk in emojis before they can talk in English. My little boy could send emojis early on, because it’s a symbol.
Mo: Identifying emotion.
William: And so I think that as mature humans, we’re capable of understanding the most complex patterns that the universe has to offer us. Yeah. And I think that offering your life as a symbol is the most powerful language that you could speak. So every movement that I make is a living language that I’m speaking to the world, because I don’t even have all the tools necessary to express myself the way I feel in my head.
Mo: Yeah, when I was thinking about talking to you, I was thinking about limiting the need for verbal explanation [in the project]. That’s important to me when I do things—explaining ideas with the materials themselves. But that’s more difficult with this kind of intense science.
William: I mean, it’s all about perspective. Because, like, you know, I don’t think it’s intense. Whenever I started getting into all this, when I was younger, everybody was telling me I’m a genius and stuff like that. Which was scary to me, because I thought everything I was doing I should have already known when I was a child. Because all of this—it’s all biological science. How do I identify the plants that are around me? What is edible that is growing in the nature around me? My six year old son knows way more edible plants and edible mushrooms around the area than grown adults who have lived there their whole lives here. So by the time that he’s in his late teens, I can’t even imagine where he will be. And I think that’s just normal.
Mo: Is that the reason that you think you have resistance to language? Because the symbols are more important?
William: I don’t have a resistance to language. I feel like language is crippling once your brain has evolved around it. I really like what the Rastafarians do with English. They don’t use curse words. They don’t say good morning—you mourn when somebody’s dead. They don’t even say “you,” they say “I and I,” and they’ve deleted linguistic structures that create mental instability. It’s all very vibrant, the way they speak.
Mo: Do you spend time with that community to learn about the ways they use language?
William: One of my best friends is Jamaican, Anthony Rodriguez. He’s working on the documentary, “Growing Back To Nature.” And his family’s from the island. We’ll be talking and he just changes his whole linguistic structure. He will sound like he just came off the island, and you would never know that he knows how to speak [American] English.
Mo: Totally. You start to see in multiplicity—splintering. When you’re studying an organism, are you thinking about that?
William: I mean, I feel like it’s a better way of seeing it. I don’t know. If you can understand the environment, and you can understand what that is doing—it’s just the language structure. I was really blessed when I came into this world. I was taught auditory language by two English professors. My grandfather learned English by going to the church to do sermons in Latin because he grew up in Jim Crow Virginia, and he couldn’t go to public school. So, he went to church to learn Latin sermons. He learned English by learning Latin first, and he taught me to use this linguistic structure from its origin structure. So, I already knew that this language had a proto-language from the time that I knew how to use it. He always showed me the phonetics, the syntax, and suffixes and prefixes from the beginning. I lived with my grandparents when I was first born.
Mo: Do you think that has influenced the way you think about your research now?
William: Um, yeah, the linguistic structures are such a big deal because I’m a molecular biologist, I look at the language of life. Like if I didn’t know the language like that, I don’t think I’d be able to look at the language of life this way.
Mo: That reminds me of the way we were talking about “time” before. How do you think about yourself in this moment?
William: For me, I’m just trying to stand on the fine line of being in the present moment and loving my family right now. And in preparing for what’s next. Because all of my actions are in preparation for what’s next. I’ve solidified some level of social equity, which fulfills my very human need of having some nuts buried away. The very animalistic need of having some sort of security. I’ve secured some social equity.
Mo: Yeah, and [you’ve done that] in many parts of the world.
William: Because homeostasis cannot be achieved without symbiosis with local systems, both biological and social. So once you’ve achieved homeostasis with your biological and social systems that are right around you, then you can achieve symbiosis at national- and international-level biological and social systems. I’m reaching into symbiosis with international biological and social systems which allows me to free flow through them.
Mo: You’ve got an internal cycle and you’re introducing your body into another cycle. looking further down the road.
William: Yeah, everywhere I move, I’m taking care of. My body is nourished. Not just nourished—taken care of to the highest degree. Everywhere I go, I’m at the dopest farm that exists there with the people that have achieved the highest level of consciousness there. It allows me to consistently not need to worry about myself.
Mo: When you think about yourself moving through space, do you think about yourself as an organism?
William: I think of myself as a consciousness entity operating a biological computer moving through space. I think of myself as a space.
Mo: So when you picture yourself, there is a machine element?
William: Um, it’s a biological mechanism. Consciousness is a free-form space and timeless thing, right? And I don’t think that it’s always organic, because I think that artificial intelligence can be created. I have no opposition to technology. I think that tools can be used to crush societies or build them. What I’m doing is in opposition to suffering. And that’s it. The only thing I oppose is suffering. That’s why if I could say I exist for anything, it’s to be a part of ending suffering. Suffering is anti-evolution. Like—how can we use energy for more complex experiences?
William: And we’re getting there. I mean, it all started with little freaking bacteria that could barely use energy, and then they figured out how to use solar radiation. And now we have nervous systems. What’s next? You know—it’s all for higher levels of complexity. I think that we are the fruits of this experiment. We are the fruits of the planetary womb, incubating under the nuclear star for hundreds of millions of years to the point where life has produced high consciousness that’s capable of entering into the realms of higher intelligence. We’re capable of taking our physical biological bodies, re-altering our structure into light, and exploring multiple dimensions of reality. And that’s the one thing I’m trying to figure out. Because I think that’d be really fun.
Mo: Because why not?
William: Yeah, I mean, it’s all in our code. I’m just trying to figure out what phrases and which code language makes my body turn into light. So I can move through dimensions again.
Mo Geiger (she/her) is an artist and graduate student in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Trained as a theatrical designer and technician, she began her career working in live performance and continues to do so now. Since then, she’s created interdisciplinary, site-specific artworks, designs, and research projects seen in art galleries, theaters, museums, public places, and local organizations. She is a co-founder and member of Valley Traction performance collective, and she is based in Boiling Springs, PA. More info is available here.
William Padilla-Brown (he/him) is a Multidisciplinary Citizen Scientist practicing social science, mycology, phycology, molecular biology, and additive manufacturing. Interested in the mix of Contemporary Ritual and a nuanced modern Urban Shamanism, William spends his time vlogging for social media, writing, researching, rapping, singing, and loving his Beautiful Lady Lydia and their son Leo. William holds Permaculture Design certificates acquired through Susquehanna Permaculture and NGOZI, and a certificate from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. William regularly teaches youth and adult classes at schools, universities, clubs, and events, as well as in private consultations. More info is available here.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program