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Making Mushroom: Moulding a new kind of digital practice

Jan 23, 2023

Image: Being Mushroom, City of Sydney Studios for Brand X and Utp. Credit: Jacqui Manning.

A rainbow-coloured mushroom floats above a blackened, burnt-out bush scene, in the latest major digital work from April Phillips.

Being Mushroom responds to the aftermath of the environmental catastrophe April experienced when the Black Summer bushfires engulfed the Yuin nation on the south coast of New South Wales.

“The mushroom is positioned in this interesting moment when everything had cooled down and been extinguished, but the shoots hadn’t come back. Yet there were still little hints of optimism,” she said.

Exhibited in Sydney’s CBD, the on-screen mushroom mimics the visiting bodies of its audience and their movements, through use of a body tracking camera, gently drawing them into a joyful, cheeky and at times, slightly awkward kind of dance that explores the connection of human beings to the natural world.

“So often in society, the environment is presented as a resource but we are so intrinsically connected to Country – everything is flowing and moving and connected,” she said. “We are not separate from it. We are it.”

It’s the latest creation from the prolific Wiradjuri-Scottish illustrator and educator who is well known for combining bright digital textures with simple hand-drawn features to create characters that are somehow deeply familiar and empathetic to her audiences. They are born of the playful, curious, unapologetically free and unwaveringly experimentation that underpins her professional arts practice, an approach that earned her recognition at the 2022 Women in Digital Awards, where she won the prestigious Rising Star of the Year award.

Image: The development of Being Mushroom

A technical departure from her illustration and education work, April developed Being Mushroom in collaboration with interactive 3D media artists Jordan East and Pat Younis of Origin collective, with mentoring from artist and creative director Anita Fontaine as part of the 2022 Australia Council for the Arts Digital Fellowship Program presented in partnership with Creative New Zealand.

She used the fellowship to explore the use of virtual clay, which enabled her a way of transitioning her unique illustrative voice, style and aesthetic into 3D digital forms.

“I used this simulated putty to blob, sculpt, carve and compound these virtual clay figures in this funny, fluid kind of experimentation process,” April said. “One found a mushroom form.”

Then exploring UV mapping and texturing, April applied digital simulations of real world materials like print halftones, pencil, and spray paint to bring the mushroom form to life.

“Part of what I’m realising in my digital practice is this love for gleaning different softwares, techniques and technologies, bringing them together in this mega mash of computerness. It’s so much fun.” she said.

April took this spirit of experimentation to the exploration of gaming environments with Jordan and Pat to realise the potential for interaction. “The mushroom could be rigged – bones that within, these bones can then be mapped to our bodies through an infrared body-tracking camera.”

This enables the audience to control and puppeteer the mushroom, the power of which gained clarity for April when she watched the audience interact with it for the first time.

“While it’s very clear it’s not a real mushroom or a real figure, I got this sense that people still formed an empathy or synergy with this digital figure and were working with it,” she said. “It was then I realised the work really needed audience. It couldn’t exist without an audience.”

Making mushroom responsibly responsive

Midway through the development process, April realised she had an accessibility problem.

“With the body tracking, the mushroom moves up or down depending on the height of the visiting person, so if you rolled in in a wheelchair the mushroom would sink into the ground. If you were taller, it would float too high into the air,” she said. “It just seemed like we couldn’t make this work for everyone.”

But April was determined. “I don’t want anyone to feel that literal sinking feeling when they are interacting with this work.”

Collaborator Jordan East painstakingly over many hours developed a way of programming the body tracking system to take a measurement of the height of the participant every ten seconds, reconfiguring the position of the mushroom.

“This is a classic example of the kind of invisible labour involved in making digital work,” she said. “You wouldn’t even know that that solution is built in, it’s totally invisible. But it had a cost in terms of both money and time. That’s what it takes to program accessibility into digital artworks and these capabilities are just so exciting. Imagine if an artwork on a wall could read your height  and reconfigure its position just for you.”

The work’s environment is also time responsive. The light within the mushroom’s environment increases in the day and darkens at night using a pre-existing plug-in. 

“That’s one of the cool things about gaming engine plug-ins and digital communities. Someone figures out something and you can adapt it,” she said. “Being Mushroom then becomes part of this catalogue of work that has used that tool and I think that’s really cool for Australian work that we can be part of that dialogue of use.”

April is keen to take this ethos of sharing and co-development into the afterlife of the work, by enabling transparency behind Being Mushroom process with fellow Australian and Pacific artists. 

“It’s not about having all the answers, it’s about making great work and sharing it. If we figure something out then the next person can take that and do something with it, something extra. Then if they share that file, then we all kind of shift ahead.” 

In this sense, April’s Being Mushroom mirrors the real world in other ways too, as just the visible tip of a broader collaborative and connected network that she is growing beneath the surface.

Being Mushroom was supported by the Australia Council for the Arts through its Digital Fellowship Program in partnership with Creative NZ, Brand X, and presented with partner organisation Utp.