White Fungus isn't an easy to magazine to pin down. The experimental arts magazine, produced by two brothers in Taiwan, focuses on art, history, music, politics and the spaces between. The only hard and fast rule that Ron and Mark Hanson apply to each issue is "don't look back". The result is a publication that uses the same cover image for every issue, but that has editorial content which is constantly shifting.
The name comes from some mushrooms the Hansons saw in the supermarket, labeled "white fungus" thanks to an unappetizing mistranslation. The tin was made by a brand called KKK, and the brothers were probably the only people in Taiwan to notice this wasn't the only kind of 'white fungus' to come out of an organization named the KKK.
Despite branching out of Taiwan and New Zealand, and holding events globally like a one-month magazine residency at Kadist Foundation in San Francisco, the brothers are committed to what they call "localism in its most resistant forms". The latest issue – the fourteenth in the mag's 11-year history – features Māori preserved skulls, the Stasi's instruments of surveillance, Taiwanese sound artist Wang Fujui and a guy who goes to gigs just to peel garlic.
I spoke to the editor of White Fungus, Ron Hanson, to find out how the magazine has carved out its own place in the world of arts publishing.
VICE: What's the story behind how White Fungus was born?
Ron Hanson:White Fungus began in 2004 in Wellington, New Zealand as an intended one-off political protest. My brother Mark and I had just come back to New Zealand from spending four years in Taiwan, and the big political issue locally at that time was the mayor wanted to build an inner city bypass through the middle of the city, which happened to go through a historic area and the arts district. This had been resisted for 40 years, and it was coming down to this one election so we decided to make a small piece of political propaganda just talking about the history of the area, and some of the political issues that the mainstream media weren't covering.
How heavily did the local art scene feature at all at the start?
The very first issue was purely focused on this one political issue, but we interviewed and profiled some of the different studios that were being kicked out, who were being removed due to this motorway and other city developments.
Then you and Mark returned to Taiwan but carried on publishing. Now the magazine has acquired a much more global focus, does the sense of protest that was there from the start still exist in White Fungus?
We never really set out to start a political publication, we just kind of started it by accident, and after it got some traction and an identity we thought, 'well, let's evolve it into an arts publication'. So it's very much of a political bent. The material that we cover is usually connected to some social or historical issue, but it's not direct in the sense that the first issue was almost propaganda.
Do you usually try to feature underrepresented artists?
There are a lot of experimental artists, but some of the artists have got pretty big profiles. In this issue there's an article about The Residents (the anonymous avant-garde music collective). I guess for a lot of people The Residents are pretty underground, but for us it's approaching the mainstream in a way. And also there's a lot of artists from Taiwan and other parts of Asia that people wouldn't have heard of. We covered a Mongolian poet once...
Because we were based before in Wellington, and now Taichung – not even the main centres of New Zealand and Taiwan – isolation has always played a part, but in a way it has kind of worked to our advantage in that we can really build up our own world.
Do you see any parallels between the New Zealand and Asian art scene, beyond the fact that they're both underdogs in the art world?
Well in contemporary art you tend to get certain tropes that come up, a certain connection of different kind of media and forms, but I would say that the art here [in Asia] is probably a little more political, and there's more of a focus on sound art here.
The toughest thing with New Zealand is that there's not as many independent initiatives for art, whereas in Taiwan there are more people creating independent platforms that are much more grass roots. New Zealand really lacks that at the moment. I'm not based in New Zealand now, so I don't want to misrepresent it, but I feel like in Taiwan there's more of a connection between artists and the community. New Zealand feels like, in places, contemporary art has become a sort of professional, academic enclave.
As the horizons of White Fungus have broadened you've obviously included more prominent artists. What do you look for in an artist in order to feature them?
We're not really interested in the sort of contemporary art that could come from anywhere and kind of slot in anywhere. There's enough of that these days, but I think the best artists are those who are treading their own path, because when you do that you develop a different perspective and a different way of putting materials together. Unfortunately these days it's not as common for others to take that independent path. A friend of ours – another artist who teaches at the university here – told us that when one of Taiwan's most famous artists, Chen Cheih-Jen, came to speak at the school, he told all the students they should drop out and go get jobs at a factory.
You and Mark collaborate together to produce the magazine, how does that work? Does he stick to the design side and you focus on the editorial?
My background is more as a writer. I studied literature, art history, I studied journalism, although I never completed that. I dropped out of journalism school because I just decided to quit everything and start White Fungus... And then Mark has a background of design, and before that he'd studied art, he'd painted. He has a visual background.
When I was 13 years old, and Mark was eight, our parents took us out of school for a year and we went to America, got some camping equipment in the van, and we travelled to 47 states in the space of a year. For a good part of that, Mark and I were sharing a tent together, and we hated each other, we were like enemies. We didn't really think we'd get along when we were younger, but having been enemies as well as allies, our communication got to a pretty advanced level, so we just sort of realised that what we want individually is really only possible if we work together to do it. So the collective interest becomes the individual interest, and I think it's rare to get that alignment.
'White Fungus' is available to buy online, and Mark and Ron are working on Issue 15.
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