by Brian Hioe
Photo credit: White Fungus
On July 30th, the Taichung-based arts magazine White Fungus held Depopulate 06, the release party for the fifteenth issue of the magazine at Korner in Taipei. After the party, New Bloom interviewed White Fungus editor Ron Hanson on August 6th.
Brian Hioe: First what I wanted to ask was, for readers who might not know who you are, can you just introduce yourself briefly and what you do?
Ron Hanson: Sure. My name is Ron Hanson, I am the founding editor of the arts magazine White Fungus. White Fungus is now based in Taichung City, though it began in Wellington, New Zealand in 2004. Beyond the magazine, we also hold a lot of events and are generally a broad art project and platform. We try to connect different artists around the world and give them a platform they otherwise would not have access to.
BH: Can you talk a bit about when and how White Fungus began, then? You mentioned 2004 in New Zealand.
RH: Yeah. Before we began White Fungus, we spent the first few years of the 2000s living in Taiwan. At that time we didn’t know anyone in Taiwan, and we were just these English teachers, but we were exploring Taiwan and developing our ideas, our aesthetics, and our outlook on life. And then we returned to New Zealand—for me, I returned at the end of 2003—and became involved in a local political issue in Wellington. They wanted to build a motorway through the city, which would see a number of historic, heritage buildings removed or demolished and would cut right through what was the arts district.
Photo credit: White Fungus
We wanted to get involved in this issue and decided the best way we could contribute was to create a publication, as the media in Wellington is very corporate and these alternative perspectives just weren’t being aired. So we decided to make a publication talking about the historic significance of the area, the political dynamics of the issue, and the impact we thought the building of the road would have.
We made the publication quite quickly, but it was well researched. We made it on a photocopier, then we wrapped copies in Christmas paper and just went through the city hurling them anonymously through the entrances of businesses. It was kind of a stunt and it got everyone’s attention. And because there was such a dearth of media dealing with local issues, people grabbed onto it right away. Originally, it was going to be a one-off publication, but we decided to continue.
BH: How did you shift to Taiwan from New Zealand?
RH: It’s strange. For the first five years, we were in New Zealand and having a tough run of it there. We weren’t getting the support we needed to really be able to establish it. There was a lot of resistance towards what we were doing, and in a small country, you don’t really go against the grain. There’s a price to be paid for really challenging the power structure, whether in politics or the power structure within the art world. So we were really banging our heads against the wall. We did build an audience there and had a limited amount of success, but we were running out of materials and reaching our limit.
A key moment was in 2006 when the Taiwanese artist Yao Jui-chung, from Taipei, came to New Zealand to be part of an exhibition called “Islanded” at ADAM Art Gallery in Wellington. This was an exhibition of art from Taiwan, Singapore, and New Zealand, which was curated by Sophie McIntyre, an Australian curator whose area of expertise is Taiwanese art. We met Yao Jui-chung and just really hit it off, since he’s also very interested in art that is politically engaged and historically aware. He’s also very patriotic about Taiwan and Taiwan forming its own path. So we really hit it off and immediately began putting his work in the magazine.
Photo credit: White Fungus
Another key moment was when the Hong Kong artist, Lee Kit, came to Wellington to do a residency. We again just really hit it off and we thought, “Why don’t we go back to Asia and try to tap into what’s going on there?” We knew we could teach English here, so that gave us a financial basis for being able to live here and fund the project, since there were a lot of financial difficulties back then. And Yao Jui-chung was just like, “Yeah, you should come over”, and he was very keen to integrate us. So we thought, “Let’s give it a crack.” We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but almost seven years later, we’re still here, so obviously it’s gone well.
Developing the Publication
BH: Can we talk next then, a little about the growth of the publication? What have been the challenges of maintaining White Fungus up until the present?
RH: I mean, obviously, the consistent challenge from beginning to end has been money. That’s a huge challenge. Financially, we’ve done it through a combination of factors. First, we have received a number of grants over the years. Second, we’ve made money teaching English or doing other freelance projects or whatever work we’ve got available, and we’ve just spent every dollar we’ve earned on it. We’ve also had some patronage from family and other people who believe in what we’re doing.
And we’ve also just been prepared to be poor. Probably the biggest challenge for us is that we’re either working and making enough money so the financial problem is not so much of an issue but we have no free time, which is the kind of situation we have now. We’re just working non-stop and then you get really tired. Or we haven’t been working full-time and had lots of time to work on White Fungus, but then we’re really poor. That’s a pretty obvious challenge.
In the beginning, the biggest challenge was finding people to work with who were as committed and as serious about it as we were. It’s a different story now, where we’ve created a reasonable platform so people can see this is something they should take seriously. And we’ve got a team of professional writers and contributors around the world. But in the beginning, we were aspiring to be a professional project, but we were having to work with amateurs. We would have to push those people and squeeze something out of them—and often for those people, they just thought, “Oh, this should just be something fun, this shouldn’t be so serious”.
KK Null’s performance at Depopulate 06. Photo credit: Zito Tseng
That led to tension and we got into a lot of conflicts. And so a lot of people who were going to write ended up pulling out of the project. For example, like, our sixth issue, I wrote every article in the magazine. Pulling together a team of people who really took it seriously and gave work of the quality we needed was another big challenge.
BH: Despite these challenges, it seems like it’s been a real success, based on that you have an audience, are known, and there’s a reader base.
RH: There’s many different levels of success. In terms of building an audience, it’s been a real success. We’ve got an audience. And that’s related to probably our biggest motivation for doing this which is to build a community. We felt quite isolated, I guess, in the early days, growing up in Wellington and feeling like there weren’t that many like-minded people. The things we cared about weren’t really given a voice, so we were sort of swept under the carpet. But now we get contacted by people all around the world on a regular basis who want to meet us, to engage with us, and so we’re frequently meeting really stimulating, passionate people on a regular basis. Whereas before this project, it was really difficult to find these kinds of people. Now we meet them all the time.
In terms of building a community, that’s been a huge success. We’ve got an audience, we’ve got a name, we’ve got endless opportunities to do things. We haven’t really cracked the financial side of it yet, but at the same time, we’ve made a name for ourselves so we’re starting to see ways we could potentially turn this into a sustainable living. Yet, overall, in terms of fulfilling ourselves and in terms of what we can do creatively, I think it’s been a success on that level.
Building A Community, Reaching Out Internationally
BH: So I wanted to ask next about the role of building an artists’ community, connecting Taiwan and the international art world, as well the other side around, in terms of inviting artists from the international art world to Taiwan.
Because Taiwan, sometimes in my own view, is not very international. When someone internationally known comes here, for example, it’s such a huge thing. I also find it very interesting, for example, that there are translations in White Fungus in both English and Chinese. That’s unusual for publications here, which are mostly monolingual.
Photo credit: White Fungus
RH: I think the first point to make is that we came from New Zealand and it was a similar situation to what we’ve got in Taiwan in terms of not being that international and perhaps a bit more inward looking. But the difference that we’ve had between Taiwan and New Zealand is that Taiwan has really embraced the idea that we could make Taiwan more international and that’s seen as a real plus. Whereas in New Zealand, people didn’t seem to recognize that as being something we could do. They weren’t really interested in changing that.
There’s a lot of enthusiasm for reaching out to the international sphere in Taiwan and there’s a real desire to do so, because historically and politically, Taiwan has been very isolated and there’s a desire to break out of that isolation. Art and culture are one way that can be done, where some of the other avenues are blocked for reasons that are probably well known to your readers. But there are different factors. First, most people outside of Taiwan cannot read Chinese. How do people learn about Taiwanese art, then?
That’s one factor, just to have a source of information which is in English. Because a lot of people are curious about Taiwan and would like to learn about it, but how do you do it? First it’s just that simple fact of having it in English. But second, there’s kind of a role in being a translator, of being able to communicate something in a way that audiences outside would be able to understand or connect it, or to frame it, in a way that makes it relevant to other discourses that are going on.
It’s also important to note that the sort of artists that we champion are not always the sort of artists that are the most popular here. An example that I would we make is Noise Steve, who’s been doing stuff here since the 1990s. For us, we learned about him through Jeph Lo, who is one of the directors of the Cube Gallery. We learned about him because that was one of the rare instances in which we could read about Taiwan in English. Jeph had written an article about Taiwanese sound art for an exhibition at the Venice Biennale. We’re just crazy about Noise Steve and think that he doesn’t get the visibility that we believe he deserves in Taiwan. But we’ve presented him in Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, Macau, and Hong Kong, plus had him play alongside international artists in Taiwan.
Whitney Vangrin’s performance at Depopulate 06. Photo credit: Zito Tseng
Another artist is Betty Apple. We’ve taken her to San Francisco, we’ve taken her to Berlin, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Betty is someone who has real international currency, but in Taiwan, she’s not getting the opportunities that I think she should be getting. So I think for us, it’s great to be able to provide a platform for artists that might not otherwise get their due recognition. We just brought over a performance artist here, Whitney Vangrin, who just loved Betty and wants to get her to New York.
The other side of it is bringing international artists into Taiwan and exposing Taiwan to things that people here have not really had the chance to experience. Again, someone like Whitney Vangrin comes from a lineage of New York performance art which is really important, that’s the real thing. And I don’t know if this has really taken place in Taiwan before. It has the potential to really broaden people’s horizons and really open up the space for different things. Because there’s not a huge amount of performance art here and I guess that’s partly the problem that people like Betty Apple have run into. People are like, what do you do? How do you present your work? How do we write about your work? How do we think about this? So bringing Whitney here is really big.
We did a really big event a few years ago working with Kandala Records, which is an important organization in Taiwan. We brought Merzbow here. Merzbow is huge all around the world! Probably the biggest noise artist in the world. And he had never performed in Taiwan before! Which is bizarre, when you think that he’s been all around Europe and America, and even performed in New Zealand now. Yet Taiwan’s so close to Tokyo.
That was a really exciting situation where we partnered with a local group, Kandala Records, and through that partnership were able to create a huge event and break that into Taiwan. That was a big success, we had more than 300 people go to that event. Usually noise art is a pretty small audience. Like a hundred people is a good crowd. But that was big.
Betty Apple’s performance at Depopulate 06. Photo credit: Zito Tseng
So I think that through these different areas, hopefully we are, first, raising the visibility of Taiwan and making it more of a destination that people want to perform in and people want to visit. And also opening people up to things and changing the ways that Taiwanese think about themselves. To let people realize that they can gain a currency that’s beyond Taiwan. And if that’s the case, how do we do it? How do we present ourselves? How do we connect to the world?
BH: Let’s jump back and talk a bit about White Fungus’ political engagement. I notice there’s a focus on politically engaged art in some sense. You also talk about in the mission statement, the need to resist commercialism. Before we also touched on that regarding what happened in New Zealand. It does seem like a kind of political project that you began with.
RH: Well, White Fungus began as a political publication and it’s still very political. But the nature of it has changed as we have changed, as we have developed. We kind of started it by accident, because we felt very passionate about this single issue—the building of that road, which was going to displace a lot of artists. At that time, we were trying to get started and we struggling to get a studio space for our work, which at that time was more focused on sound and music. There was a mayor who was branding the city as the creative capital of Wellington and going around boasting and bragging about it, yet we couldn’t get a studio space. And all these people we knew, who were established, were getting kicked out of their studios.
It started just by accident in that we felt very strongly about a single political issue and were like, “People should know about this?” We didn’t really set out to start a political publication and yet we were in the process of sort of becoming politically aware, politically conscious. And so at the beginning, it was much more in your face sort of rabble rousing. Muckraking is the word you might use. We were more idealistic and more like, if we just really do it, we can change things.
Tzu Ni (left) and Cevo Yang (right) performing at Depopulate 06. Photo credit: Zito Tseng
Over time, I think for anyone who becomes politically engaged, they go through that first period where they become shocked because they realize the world is quite different to perhaps how they were brought up to believe it was. You start feeling a sort of indignation and wanting to change it. But then you reach a point where you realize this sort of resistance has to be something you can really sustain over your whole life, and no, you’re not going to change things immediately. And no, the world is not an ideal place, but you can impact change, you can make it a better place.
So it becomes more of a long-term strategy rather than just riling it up and trying to push on certain issues. We wanted to get into the arts, and after we started this political publication, we thought, let’s evolve it into an arts publication that has a political bent. Over time, we became more respectable, I guess. And some people would see us as losing our radical edge. But I think in terms of our political engagement, firstly, we’re taking a deeper perspective in that we want to help our audience to really gain an in-depth perspective on their political situation rather than focusing on an issue that is here and now. We’re also trying to encourage and to give visibility to artists who are engaged with political issues.
Taiwanese artists that have really inspired us are Yao Jui-chung and Chen Chieh-jen, because both really deal with Taiwanese history. These are the kinds of artists that really appeal to us. With sound art, it’s not always as direct, where there’s that obvious content, in how an artist like Yao Jui-chung is dealing with historical issues. But I think that it’s really challenging the way that we constitute ourselves, as a human subject. And the way that we connect to other people, because we live in a system where we have a hierarchy of the senses, with the visual prioritized—and so I think challenging that is important. So that’s a less direct way, but for me that’s equally political.
Xu Xian performing at Depopulate 06. Photo credit: Zito Tseng
I think over time, I’ve realized that the biggest thing you can do politically is, rather than focus on any one issue, because there are so many, is to build a network and a community that can think for itself. That can mobilize, that can determine its own identity, and its own course. In terms of what we’re doing politically, that’s bigger than any individual issue.
That’s what we’re doing, building a community. That can respond to things which come up. We do deal more with established structures now, whether institutions or occasionally even corporations. But we have our own agency. We can say yes or no to anything. We’ve got a lot of maneuverability. And we can chose the terms of how we want to present artists, and of how we present ourselves.
BH: What do you see as the future of White Fungus? Where do you see growing in the future, now that you’re twelve years in?
RH: Well, there’s going to have to be a lot of flexibility. A lot of it is just because there are so many factors we can’t see. One goal is just to keep going. I want to keep publishing and it’s very difficult to do that, but I just want to be able to continue publishing. What I would really like to see is a physical space where these activities can come together on a more regular basis. We hold a lot of events and work with a lot of different venues and we want to continue doing that because I think that’s really exciting. With each venue you work with, you’re tapping into that network and influencing it—and it’s also influencing you and you’re growing.
Photo credit: White Fungus
But I would like to have a physical space where the people that we know can interact on a more regular basis and we can gain more consistent visibility for artists and thinkers that we think are really vital. I think the event that we held recently at Korner really demonstrated how much talent there is in Taiwan, how many passionate people there are and how many open-minded people there are. If these people could get together on a more regular basis, a lot of good things would come out of it, culturally, socially, and politically.
So that’s what I would like to see, a physical space, that would not compete with what is already here, but would fill a hole, a gap, and complement what is already here and help drive it further. Because we want to be an engine that helps to bring more people to Taiwan and to encourage people who are running small businesses and organizations, to encourage them and let them know that what they are doing is important. To show there’s a collective sense of purpose. You’re not alone. You’re doing you’re thing that is unique, but you’re not alone. We want to create a more vibrant situation where it’s easier for people to start up stuff.