From Systemic Colonisation to Mycorrhizal Ecologies: Cross-institutional Agency, Nonhuman Empathy, Transdisciplinary Spaces

By Dr Donna Franklin

Transdisciplinary thinking, creating and collaborating provides a future of endless potential. Only with a foundation of education for all, ethical reflexivity and collective consciousness is there hope for the ‘humanity’ of the Homo sapiens.

Embarking on post-graduate education, I already had a penchant for life science and the nonhuman. Some considered my childhood living with a family member from the medical profession, macabre. Organs placed on the kitchen table and dissected, recently deceased, Penny “the Henny”, cut open, and her inner workings explained…‘you’re never too young to learn’.

With a focus on mycology (study of fungi), the research advocated environmentalism. Exploring material-garment-body interfaces works became metaphors for mortality. Collaborations with performers, dancers, and film artists took these ideas into the public realm. . .

The curiosity in ‘wet biology’ was later formalised by an inaugural cross-institutional Master of Arts at the School of Art and Humanities, ECU and SymbioticA[1] an artist-run research space in partnership with UWA. This experience became the catalyst for a professional praxis in the field of ‘bioarts’[2]. The enthusiasm to provide co-supervision, in-kind infrastructure, laboratory-studio access, demonstrates that flexibility and diversity is possible within University systems.

With a focus on mycology (study of fungi), the research advocated environmentalism. Exploring material-garment-body interfaces works became metaphors for mortality. Collaborations with performers, dancers, and film artists took these ideas into the public realm[3]. Collaborations are sites where the paradigms of knowledge are continually questioned and challenged. The signature piece Fibre Reactive (2004), exhibited nationally and internationally traversed design, new fashion technologies, and contemporary arts. Within this, developing empathy through real-time interactions with nonhuman life became increasingly significant. This concept was developed a number of years after the MAVA in my doctorate research.

Ethics are relational.

 Donna Franklin,  Fibre Reactive  (2004),  pcynoporus coccineus , silk. Photograph, Robert Firth. Image courtesy of SymbioticA.

Donna Franklin, Fibre Reactive (2004), pcynoporus coccineus, silk. Photograph, Robert Firth. Image courtesy of SymbioticA.

Various strategies were used to engender environmental consciousness across the contexts of arts, community and education. This multi-method approach directly situated the praxis into the viewer/participant’s lifeworld.

As a part of the PhD research, I developed and delivered a pilot program for secondary schools which offered a platform for hands-on engagement with the nonhuman (plants, insects, birds, fungi, microbes). The curriculum generated discourse on the ethics of manipulating life, interrogation of biotechnologies, DNA, and local conservation. Students producing self-directed artworks were selected to exhibit alongside established international and national artists in a curated exhibition, Creatures of the Future Garden[4]. To foster community engagement and reinforce multi-use spaces, the exhibition included a WA Birds of Prey Workshop for the public.  

Robinson argues that categorical systems such as NAPLAN are killing creativity in schools[5]. Educators negotiate the spaces in-between teaching to the test, however, what are the long-term social and cultural consequences of this measuring process? Will it lead to undergraduates whose expectations are fixed?

To prepare for the future, from the position of an educator-artist-researcher: cultural theory reinforces diversity and cannot be separated from a making practice - it is praxis (theory-action). It provides the critical thinking tools to interrogate and position ideas in relation to epistemological questions of identity, nation-state, indigenous communities, hybridity, social forces, and histories, globalization to name a few. As a result, art praxis becomes an active part of contemporary society.

I developed and delivered a pilot program for secondary schools which offered a platform for hands-on engagement with the nonhuman (plants, insects, birds, fungi, microbes). . . To foster community engagement and reinforce multi-use spaces, the exhibition included a WA Birds of Prey Workshop for the public.

Further to this, formalized interactions between postgrads, alumni, and undergraduates with mentorship, guest lecturing or short-term studio residencies should inform the structure of undergraduate curriculum. This provides a multiplicity of voices, and generates on-going connections between the institution and professional community.

  WA Birds of Prey Workshop , (2012), Spectrum Project Space, Yvonne Sitko, Oskar the Barking Owl. Photographer, Alexandra Engels.

WA Birds of Prey Workshop, (2012), Spectrum Project Space, Yvonne Sitko, Oskar the Barking Owl. Photographer, Alexandra Engels.

A University represents the pursuit of knowledge for the greater good. In light of imposed economic models within tertiary systems, multiple points of exchange provide an autonomous way forward. A transdisciplinary methodology opens up networks of collaboration inside, outside, across institutions, between groups and individuals. Working together research can adapt and respond to emerging local/global issues with reflexivity.


Dr Donna Franklin is an artist, academic, and educator. She lectures in cultural theory, from 2012-2016 she coordinated Master of Arts (Visual Arts), at the School of Arts and Humanities, ECU. Selected national and international exhibitions Stations of the Cross 2016, DeMonstrable 2015, Textifood WorldEXPO Milan 2015, FuturoTextiles Paris, Buenos Ares 2014, Becomings USST China 2014, Semipermeable (+) ISEA 2013, SUPER HUMAN RMIT 2009, ARS Electronica07, and ENTRY06 Vitra Design Museum, Germany-Taiwan. Donna has presented papers in Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Dublin. She was awarded the Excellence in Research and an APA Scholarship for her doctorate research.


[1] SymbioticA: Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts: www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/

Catts, O. (2017). Shining (broken) Mirrors is not Gadgeteering. NITRO, Edition 8, July 06. https://nitro.edu.au/articles?author=59581b1f414fb54d0e814926

[2] ‘A term to be considered as a point of academic departure’ (Artlink Magazine, Life in the Anthropocene Launch, Kirsten Hudson, Panel Discussion, 2014), the practice evolves and mutates in light of applied technologies, and changing discourse. For example: digital software, networks, AI, robotics, life science, human biology, animal biology, nanotechnology, or conservation (Information Arts, Stephen Wilson, 2008).

[3] This included collaborations within the university across schools: WAAPA and SAH (ECU). Culminating in Trio In Vitro, with Kathryn Puie, Emma Margetts, Midland Town Hall and Railway Workshops, Armoure Aerobe, with Kathryn Puie, Emma Patterson, Strut Dance, Perth CBD.

[4] Franklin, D. (2014). Meaningful Encounters: Creating a multi-method site for interacting with nonhuman life through bioarts praxis. Retrieved from http://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses/1574

Creatures of the Future Garden, Artists: Trish Adams (VIC) Tarsh Bates (WA) Donna Franklin (WA) George Gessert (US) Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (UK) Kirsten Hudson (WA) Svenja J. Kratz (QU) Angela Singer (NZ) The “Made Generation” Collective Jesse Brown (WA) Gary Cass (SCT) and Suzanne Cass (WA) Nicholas Lozanovski (WA) Sasha Whittle (WA), Spectrum Project Space 21 – 30 June 2012

[5] Robinson, (K). (2010). Changing Education Paradigms. 14 October, https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms