This morning we’re in Taichung City, Taiwan with editor Ron Hanson of art magazine White Fungus. Founded by brothers Ron and Mark Hanson in Wellington, New Zealand in 2004 as a quasi political manifesto, the publication now features interviews and writing on art, politics, contemporary music and history. We catch up with Ron the week after the release of issue 15.
Where are you today?
We’re sitting in our studio/apartment in Taichung City, tired but elated. We’re in the latter stages of a marathon, producing our new issue and organizing a release event.
What can you see from the window?
The urban clutter of the ramshackle industrial/residential area we live in, and on the horizon, the High Speed Rail that connects us to Taipei, Kaohsiung and Tainan. There are no sidewalks where we live and scooters, megaphone-attached trucks spouting political or commercial messages, and religious ceremonies punctuate the streets. Modernity is in dereliction of its duties.
Are you a morning or evening person?
I’m active in the morning but I don’t necessarily always enjoy it. I would say my heart and soul reside in the latter part of the evening.
Which magazine do you first remember?
What Mark and I remember as children growing up in Wellington was the New Zealand Listener. There were only two publications in our household, the Listener and Time magazine. It was a meagre diet but I guess it got us started nonetheless.
What’s your favourite magazine this morning?
At this moment we’re excited that our friend Pipi Freestone in Taichung has just started a new trilingual (English, Chinese, and Japanese) publication, A Drum Sounds Loud Because It’s Empty. It’s a low-fi grassroots affair but there’s something exciting about a fresh beginning.
What’s your favourite local art space project this morning?
The Cube in Taipei is a special place for us. They’re committed to a program of socially engaged art, often dealing with archives and sound art; they also run a small publishing program. They sometimes organize events outside of the gallery, including a concert by Stephen O’Malley at the Wall.
You’ve been publishing White Fungus in Taichung City since 2004. How has the publishing scene changed over the years, and what is independent publishing like there now?
The scene here is mostly locally focused and publishes in Chinese, which makes it difficult for international audiences to access; Not Today, started by the founders of Waterfall, is one notable exception. There has been quite a bit of growth in recent years with more publications starting.
We were recently at an indie fair in Taipei, Not Big Issue, and were surprised by how many more small grassroots publications there were compared to a year earlier. A new store in Taipei, Pon Ding, dedicated to art publications, recently opened. Boven, a magazine café and membership-based archive also opened, providing a centrally located space for Taiwanese to access the world of independent magazines. In recent years UK curator Kit Hammonds, who co-founded Publish And Be Damned in London, has been based in Taipei. One of the first projects he did here was to call a gathering of local publishers at Taipei Contemporary Art Center. These initiatives and others make the ground more fertile for independent publishers to emerge.
The first issue was wrapped up in Christmas paper and thrown into entrances of businesses at night. Now that the publication is more traditional in terms of its look and distribution, how do you ensure that it retains a radical edge?
I think there’s something challenging about pursuing a magazine based on the premise of running essentially the same cover every issue with no information as to what’s inside. It forces us to think about the magazine in different ways. I guess some people might say we have lost our radical edge. We began as a protest magazine focused on a single issue but have continued to evolve and won’t stop doing so. We feel the need to constantly surprise ourselves and haven’t necessarily reached a point of comfort.
Tell me about the covers. Each issue’s image derives from a can of “white fungus” that you found in a local supermarket. What is “white fungus”; and what is its significance for you?
White fungus is a local delicacy with medicinal properties. Often eaten as a desert, it’s said to be good for your skin. Mark found the can in a supermarket a couple blocks from our home in Taichung City in 2003. Immediately we knew we had something on our hands that was going to be part of our nascent creative project, but we had no idea how at the time. We were transfixed by the bright red can with “KKK brand” emblazoned in white italic slab-serif lettering above a mélange of white fungi. On the back there’s a picturesque image of more fungi foregrounding a chateau in what appears to be the Swiss Alps. Obviously we decided to forgo the “KKK” bit but were fascinated by the idea of “white fungus” in a can. There was a certain stark absurdity to it and it offered a kind of backhanded commentary on branding and capitalism. We’re also interested in the vagaries of translation and glitches of communication.
As a name, “White Fungus”, doesn’t sit right, but nor does it sit anywhere. For us it helped to open up a new kind of space. Each cover is derived from a scan of the can Mark took in 2004. The idea to is to escape any kind demographic categorization and the expectations that come with that. It’s been a challenge establishing a magazine in this manner, but it’s also allowed the magazine to be presented in many different contexts. The cover isn’t time or culturally specific.
What are you most looking forward to this week?
Well, what I’m really looking forward to is the end of the month. We’re holding a release event for our new issue at Taipei nightclub Korner on July 30. Performance artist Whitney Vangrin is coming over from New York, and experimental music pioneer KK Null from Tokyo. They’ll be performing alongside several local artists and DJs. That will be a chance to blow off some steam from the rigmarole of independent publishing. We’ll be pretty focused until then.
What are you least looking forward to this week?
Probably something that I haven’t even anticipated yet. It’s all part of a rich tapestry in the end.
What will you be doing after this chat?
I haven’t thought that far ahead.