FungiFest breaks the festival mold

It's not easy to bring up slippery plasmodia and foul-smelling toadstools in art world cocktail party conversation. Such is the dilemma of a fungi enthusiast. But this weekend, Machine Project launches a two-week mycological affair that brazenly celebrates mushrooms, molds and other members of the oft-maligned fungus kingdom.

"The stranger it was, the more excited he got about the project," says mushroom hunter and FungiFest co-curator David Fenster, about pitching the exhibit to Machine Project director Mark Allen.

A filmmaker by trade, Fenster envisioned a room full of art showcasing "beautiful and visually arresting" mushrooms in their quiet dignity, but after meeting with Allen, the two were soon dreaming up a festival of wacky events.

Saturday's opening night includes the screening of Fenster's short film "Fly Amanita," in which an actor wearing an elaborate, red-speckled headpiece portrays a human-sized toadstool and waxes existential. "He's a very philosophical mushroom," Fenster offers.

Saturday also features an appearance by botanist and mycological consultant Bob Cummings. A professor at Santa Monica City College, Cummings will be on hand for a question-and-answer session and to help identify mushrooms brought in by attendees.

He'll also oversee the mold racing. A race track made of agar will be dusted with dried Physarum polycephalum -- a species that technically belongs to the kingdom Protista but is often included in mycological study. A starting gun will pop, and the slime molds' progress will be evaluated the following week, after they've had time to ooze toward a finish line 110 millimeters away.

Also on Saturday, the gelateria Scoops will dish up black truffle gelato, and patrons can sip dubiously palatable chanterelle-infused vodka. "I suspect it will be undrinkable," Allen says.

"It looks like urine, and that's another reason it's not super appealing," Fenster quips.

The fungal festivities resume on Monday at the Natural History Museum for an L.A. Mycological Society meeting covering varieties of fungus "from Aspergillus to zoospores."

Next Thursday, the FungiFest takes over the Hammer Museum with microscopes projecting spore slides, and a station for wild mushroom identification and a modern dance piece based on the fungal life cycle.

The whirlwind concludes at Machine Project on Jan. 23 with a toadstool collecting expedition, followed by an oyster mushroom sauté and dreamy music by Ambient Force 3000. What makes it mushroom music? "I'm not sure exactly," Fenster concedes.

Though some amateur mushroom enthusiasts may gravitate toward the hallucinogenic lore, Fenster notes that mycology should be celebrated for its diversity, including "culinary aspects, a connection with ancient religion, and even mushrooms that clean up toxic waste."

"There are things all around us, like mushrooms, that we filter out," Fenster continues. "And when we start to notice them, the world becomes much richer."

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