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The Lichen_ART project


Project outline 

This project is concerned with developing and researching new, ambitious and immersive work intended for public presentation. The project involves a cross-disciplinary exploration into the interactions between plant life and the climate, specifically through examinations of the symbiont life form lichen. The research explores how art can attune our attention to subtle changes in our environment and can cultivate observations, instincts and insights developed through our unique phenomenological position within the natural world, and how these can complement scientific understandings of climate change and our biodiversity crisis, offering alternative ways of engagement. On one side there is our ability to measure and model, on the other our somatic capacity to tacitly experience, infer and intuit.

Beautiful yellow lichen - Xanthoria sp. growing on a piece of wood

What is a lichen?

Lichens are symbiotic organisms, composed of fungal bodies and either algae or cyanobacterium, that are photosynthetic parts of the lichen. The algae or cyanobacterium produce nutrients by photosynthesis and share them with fungi. In return, the fungus provides shelter, protection from harsh conditions, minerals and water, that fall on its body with rain. 

Lichens were first considered plants (that was in the 1860s)! But it was in 1868 that Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener looked closer at the body of the lichen and revealed that they are composite organisms, consisting of fungi that live in partnership with microscopic algae. This discovery was met with resentment – it just was the time to mark, distinguish the organism and place it in the right place on the taxonomy ladder. The lichen description by Shwendener wasn’t the case! So it brought some kind of chaos to the existing taxonomy and other scientists didn’t like that.

However, the Swiss scientist together with colleagues, using microscopes were able to separate the two components apart and prove that it is not in any case a plant but a fungus with algae.

With more research around lichens, recent discoveries show that lichen consists of three organisms – two types of fungus and algae!


Why are lichens bioindicators?

Lichens are very sensitive organisms but at the same time they have ways of protecting themselves. Lichens consist of body of a fungus (or two fungus) the stiff and crusty surroundings and a spongy, loose interior. This crusty layer gives the lichens protection they need from the harsh conditions – like low or hight temperatures and dry conditions. They can stay dry for long periods of time.  As the water content falls, the photosynthesis also abolishes and lichens become inactive. But once a drop of water fell on the lichens, they come back to live!

And because they don’t have normal roots like plants, they have evolved to accumulate different nutrients from the environment they live in. They have active uptake systems for anions like nitrates and sulphates from the air. So the lichens that for many years lived in the areas with a good air quality, now face a huge problems and for some time back in the 60’ some species considered bioindicators, started to die off in highly polluted areas.

The sensitivity of lichens also comes from the fact that they don’t contain a wall layer like plants do, to protect them from the incoming danger.

Bioindicator species - Usnea sp. growing on the bark of pine tree in Vale of Clara Nature Reserve Co.Wicklow, Ireland
Rocks covered with colorful maritime lichens in Howth Co.Dublin Ireland

Matilda C.Knowles

Our journey was inspired by  the footsteps of the first Irish lichenologist Matilda C. Knowles, who  

recognised that, at the shore, lichens grow in distinct zones; she discovered this while studying lichens at Howth Head.

Knowles was the authority on Irish lichens, identifying hundreds of species across the country, and even discovering several species “new to science”. Her magnum opus was The Lichens of Ireland, published in 1929 and running to 255 pages!

Most of the species she collected during this study are archived in the Herbarium of the National Botanical Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. 

Dried herbarium specimes of over 100 years old lichens collected by Matilda C. Knowles, stored in National Herbarium in Dublin, Ireland

Rocks covered with lichens at Howth Head, Co Dublin.

Ramalina sp. lichen collected by Matilda C. Knowles  in 1912, stored in The National Herbarium, Dublin 9.


Together with Chloe Brenen, we visited multiple locations of interest, where Matilda C. Knowles, collected the liches, from which the most picturesque was Howth Head. To look into the aspects of air quality and correlate the number of bioindicator lichens in specific areas, I used diffusion tubes to measure the levels of NO2 pollution in the air in 4 different locations.

1. Co.Wicklow, where Matilda collected some interesting Usnea lichens.

2. Howth, where she discovered lichens growing in specific zones.

3. Trinity College Dublin - where Matilda lived (Nassau street), while working in The National Herbarium (now building of Natural History Museum).

4. National Botanic Gardens - where Matilda's collection of lichens is stored.

The results show the low pollution level in Vale of Clara, low to medium pollution levels In Howth and National Botanic Gardens and medium to high pollution levels at Trinity College Dublin.

Results of air quality survey at four different locations in Dublin and Co.Wicklow

Chloe Brenan

Chloe Brenan’s practice is concerned with modes of attention, emphasising our somatic capacity to tacitly experience, infer and intuit the world’s patternings and murmurings. Through a combination of moving images, photography, sound, print, installation and text she explores the porosity of the body and its indivisibility from its environment, particularly as it is contextualised against the unstable backdrop of the climate crisis. She is interested in how forces are registered and measured - both experientially and materially - in human and non-human bodies, exploring the possibilities of different and expanded modes of sense-making and attunement. Informed by feminist and new materialist epistemologies works often involve close and careful examinations of the poetic haptics of daily life, processes on the edge of perception that call into question boundaries between bodies, intimate spaces and the wider environment.


For more information on Chloe's work and ongoing project check here

Chloe Brenan - artist working on the Lichen_ART project in Howth Co.Dublin
Trinity College Dublin
The Arts Council
National College of Art and Design
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