WHITE FUNGUS GOES GLOBAL – Exclusive Interview with Editor Ron Hanson
Robert Ashley: “Great ones like White Fungus only come along now and then. Get the recent issue and find out.”
Carolee Schneemann: “I follow and relish the rich, un-predictable, and consequential span of White Fungus.”
Named after a food can found in a Taiwanese supermarket, White Fungus is a gorgeously dynamic publication dedicated to left-of-field art, culture, and music. Starting as a protest zine against a motorway that would displace and thereby destroy Wellington, New Zealand’s local art community, White Fungus has become over the course of a decade a full-blown, international independent publication. Now located in Taiwan, the magazine can be found in North America, Asia, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. However, a recent world-wide distribution deal with WhiteCirc will more than triple White Fungus’ stockists. An expanded version of their latest and 13th issue is set to launch February 1st, 2014 with a kickoff event in Berlin. White Fungus’ unique launch parties of the past have included special performances from Merzbow and an array of experimental artists featured in the magazine’s current and past issues.
Since their beginnings as a DIY handout in 2004, White Fungus has been showcased at the MoMA (New York) Millennium Magazines exhibition and been held in numerous collections including the New York Public Library, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Library of Australia, the Southbank Centre in London, El Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, the Taipei Fine Art Museum and more. They’ve also just received a grant from Creative New Zealand to give their global launch an extra boost. With notoriety growing exponentially, the bilingual (English/Mandarin) magazine is set to take the art world by storm. White Fungus is perhaps the most unexpected and distinct magazine of its kind by being simultaneously local and globally-minded through its features on the Asian Pacific underground. Issues will typically range from unconventional historical essays to in-depth criticism of noise culture, then suddenly deliver full-page fashion spreads and comic strips.
White Fungus at Tate Modern
Founded by brothers Mark (Art Director) and Ron Hanson (Editor), the magazine maintains a small staff of under a dozen. We spoke to Ron Hanson about White Fungus’ early days, its split national identity, and its looming future as a globally distributed culture-maker.
The subjects that make up White Fungus are very diverse; where does art, music, anthropology, fashion, etc. converge for you?
RH: Energy, concentrated-ness, and independence. There are all sorts of potential connecting points that most people aren’t cognizant of. I think art now needs to deal with relations as one of its most vital concerns. As there has been a major economic shift over the past ten or so years, the issue of relations comes very much to the forefront. These relations are partly created and administrated by magazines and other media which determine what kind of associations and connections are deemed viable. Obviously we’re going our own way and would like to shake up the whole system.
White Fungus started as a protest against a motorway in New Zealand that would displace Wellington’s art scene, a very locally-based impotence while printing and distributing like a zine. What did those very early issues look like?
RH: The first three issues were printed on a photocopier and they’re raw but vibrant, stark but engaging. The covers were color, done on our printer, but the insides are completely black and white. There was a lot of collage, satire and general irreverence. I remember at the time we were definitely thinking of them in terms of punk. Our skills back then were really basic but we didn’t try and do more than we were capable of at that moment. Limitations present their opportunities for exploration, so in a way, they’re not limitations at all. The early issues have their charm with their unpredictable smudges, each copy is unique. Some people prefer the first issues to more recent ones, but I appreciate them all as part of an overall trajectory and journey. We knew what we wanted to say and we were tapping into a local issue that people cared about, so we gained immediate traction, though in retrospect, we were definitely boarding a slow train.
Did you ever foresee your magazine surviving a decade later and facing global distribution?
RH: To be honest I thought the whole thing was going to be a lot easier than it has been. Call me naïve! I think everyone starts out with grand ambitions. The world teaches you that things are more complex than you’ve been informed to believe. But I think that life should be hard – at any rate it is, so it’s best to develop a philosophy dealing with that material reality.
Did the cultural shift from moving from New Zealand to Taiwan inform your publication in any way?
RH: The influence of Taiwan was there before we even launched the publication. We spent the first four years of the previous decade in Taiwan experimenting, collecting strange consumer objects, and developing our aesthetic. The name of the magazine comes from a can of “white fungus” my brother Mark discovered in our local supermarket in the industrial zone of Taichung. Plus we saved some money then returned to New Zealand and used the money to launch White Fungus. Then, when the money ran out, we slummed it for eternity. By 2009 in New Zealand, though, for us, the game was up. We were faced with a simple decision. Either disband the magazine and try and use the currency we’d built up to nestle some kind of position within the art institutions or universities, or move to Taiwan and make some money the only way we know how by teaching English. But the move was also great for the magazine. We’d spent so much time in New Zealand and built up a strong network of collaborators so we could continue to be actively engaging in New Zealand while based in Taiwan, though it takes a while for most people in New Zealand to really grasp that. But we are able to also build a whole new base and engage with stuff going on in Taiwan. We’ve also been able to facilitate exchanges between the two locales, particularly in terms of presenting artists. New Zealand and Taiwan are both underdogs on the global stage so it suits us to be working primarily from these two locations while we engage with the world.
You’re planning a launch event in Berlin, slated for February 1st, 2014. Previous events included a special performance from Merzbow and showcased some artists featured in White Fungus. What do you have planned for Berlin?
RH: We’re co-curating an event with N.K. which will bring together the Taipei and Berlin experimental sound for a night of raucous ecstasy. I can’t announce the complete line-up at this moment, but I can say that Betty Apple and Wang Fujui, the godfather of the Taiwanese experimental sound scene and still its leading practitioner, will be both be performing. It will be Betty Apple’s first-ever performance in Europe.
A large part of White Fungus is its focus on the underground scene of the Asian Pacific region – a community the West doesn’t hear about much. Will this still be a highlight as your distribution grows wider? What’s the vision for White Fungus’ future?
RH: We’ll be continuing and expanding our coverage of the Asia Pacific region. It’s a region that’s undergoing a metamorphosis and I think White Fungus has a role to play in both covering and instigating some of these waves. But we’ll also do a whole lot of other stuff too and continue to challenge and surprise ourselves. The vision is to continue with this rhizomatic philosophy and approach which has no final destination or conclusion. Each issue has to be surprising and unique. This has to continue being an adventure or we’d just get bored. We wouldn’t have gone the lengths we have to establish this to only conventionalize it or streamline it into some demographic grouping. If we wanted a life of boredom and constraints, we would have taken a more conventional approach from the outset.
Are you an artist?
RH: I think of myself as an artist but at the same time I don’t particularly feel the need to be recognized as one. Art is a paradoxical activity and field of classification. If we can think of art as an activity dealing with the edges of language systems and aesthetic codes and producing traces of the yet-to-be-defined or fixed-into-a-system-of-secure-meaning, then this activity can essentially not be recognized in the present, for the act of recognizing is essentially a backwards act.
White Fungus founders Ron and Mark Hanson at an abandoned Zhong Xing market.
Adamantly claiming a “don’t look back” attitude in the magazine’s mission statement, yet containing historical and faux-historical essays, White Fungus insinuates that cultural memory is valuable to progression. Is that why you’ve chosen to produce a physical publication over a virtual one?
RH: The past resides in the future and future resides in the past, i.e. the whole binary equation is limited to a fault and it seems unlikely that such a simple conception of history and time can uphold itself as we travel at reckless speed into the future. I’m very drawn to Walter Benjamin’s idea of blasting an event out of the continuum of history and exploring the full nature of its materiality which is not located in one singular point of linear time. I was and remain blown away by Benjamin’s passage in On the Concept of History: “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”