A Great Magazine With A Revolting Name
Taiwan-based magazine White Fungus (well, maybe not revolting, but I’m just not a lover fungal things) has just released its 16th issue. The new number features a 50-page interview with pioneer performance artist Carolee Schneemann, an epic exploration of the world of animal music, plus Kurt Gottschalk reports on a New York performance of Max Richter’s SLEEP.
Taipei curator Jeph Lo describes witnessing the emergence of noise music in Taiwan’s post–martial law era, alongside a photo essay on political demonstrations held during the island’s transition out of military rule. There is an article about 2018 Turner Prize–nominee Luke Willis Thompson, plus an interview with Dor Guez about the Christian Palestinian Archive. The issue also features new performance art from Taiwan, plus a profile of obscure Wellington street artist Ruffo who appears in Chris Kraus’s classic fantastical memoir I Love Dick.
White Fungus was started in 2004 by brothers Ron Hanson and Mark Hanson in Wellington, New Zealand. The first issue was an impromptu protest against the building of a motorway that would cut through the city’s arts district, destroying heritage buildings and forcing artists from their studios. Copies of the first issue were produced on a photocopier, wrapped in Christmas paper and hurled anonymously through the entrances of businesses throughout the city. The name of the publication comes from a can of “white fungus”, a commercially produced pulped beverage the Hansons discovered in their local supermarket in Taiwan. In 2009 the Hansons relocated to Taiwan where they have since been active publishing and directing live art events.
The 16th issue of White Fungus hit the stands in 2019. I talked with Ron Hanson about this beautiful fungal growth.
How long have you been editor? And what brought you to Taipei from where? I’m the founding editor of White Fungus, which began in October 2004. We’re actually based in Taichung City, but are only 50 minutes by fast train away from Taipei. Our roots in Taiwan stretch back to 2000. We lived in Taiwan for four years (2000-2003) before starting the publication. During that time we were teaching English and exploring the environment, developing our aesthetic. We started White Fungus upon returning to our hometown, Wellington, New Zealand. After five years of running the project in New Zealand, we’d hit a brick wall and exhausted all avenues for publishing. At that point we decided to relocate back to Taiwan. Here we can support ourselves and the project by teaching English. The move also gave us a whole new terrain to explore and incorporate into the magazine. We’re still on the margins geographically, but compared to New Zealand there is more of a flow of people. But also, significantly, the environment here has always freed us up creatively. We’re exposed to so many unexpected textures. As foreigners, in terms of creativity, there aren’t really any fixed patterns for us to conform to. Even after all these years, there’s this childlike state of always working to decode an unfamiliar landscape.
How long has the mag been publishing? We began the magazine in 2004, though at that point it was more like a zine in form. We produced the first three issues on a photocopier and made heavy use of collage and satire. Our 12th issue, released in late 2011, was the first issue to be perfect bound and acquire some level of professionalism
What was the goal in publishing and where are you now in terms of that goal? Initially, we intended to produce a one-off publication in support of a local protest movement against the building on an inner-city “bypass” that would cut through Wellington’s arts district, destroying heritage buildings and forcing evictions of artist collectives from their studios. We decided to make a small publication detailing the history of the area about to be carved up and dealing with the issue from an arts perspective. It was during the city’s local body election that would decide the issue. We produced the publication under pseudonyms, wrapped copies in Christmas paper and hurled them anonymously through the entrances of businesses throughout the city. The publication caused a local sensation. We received an anonymous donation to print more copies and even prompted a response in the local media from the mayor Kerry Prendergast: “I will not dignify with comment the lies and innuendo contained in White Fungus.”
After causing a stir with the first issue, we decided to continue the publication but evolve it into an arts magazine. We wanted to create a form flexible enough to allow us to roam unhindered in terms of content and subject matter. Ironically, giving each issue essentially the same cover allows us to reinvent the magazine each time. So in terms of setting out with a commitment to flux and maintaining irregular rhythms, I would say we’ve remained faithful to the original premise.
Who is the audience? We’ve really tried to cultivate a new White Fungus audience by eschewing demographic separation and partitioning. That’s partly why we don’t include any information on the cover as to what’s inside. It’s also why we try and make the first article of each issue something that transcends the various artistic groupings. We always wanted the first article to be something that even our grandparents could read. This approach has allowed the magazine to cross borders and slot into a lot of different contexts. It’s also generated a fair amount of confusion; such as when a chain store in Canada placed the mag in the marijuana magazine section. But generally speaking, our readers are often people with a strong interest in the visual arts or experimental music. Sometimes people approach it from a design standpoint. Other people are interested in It from the standpoint of independent publishing.
What has been your most satisfying experience with the magazine? It’s been the experience of communicating and engaging with people whom we admire or who challenge us. It’s been the ability to become participants in culture rather than mere distant passive recipients of it.
Tell me how this one differs from other issues? With this issue we decided to really take our time about it and not cut any corners in creating the kind of space we’re seeking to activate. However long it was going to take, that would be how long it took. We worked for the first time with 33 Print in Taipei and went for a higher quality print. In many ways this issue completes the journey from splotchy photocopied print on office paper to a quality print magazine.
Why the name White Fungus? In 2003 my brother Mark discovered a can of “white fungus” in our local Taichung supermarket, titled “KKK brand”. The can is fire-engine red and part of it features a melange of white fungi against a backdrop of what appears to be a chateau in the Swiss Alps. This strange product somehow reveals something about the nature of branding in and of itself. A sinister subtext of consumerism is inadvertently brought to the surface. There’s also the issue of translation. In Taiwan, white fungus is a delicacy, often served as a desert or in soup and reputed to be good for skin and digestion. Yet the name’s translation into English is jarringly awkward. Taiwan underwent a rapid transition from paternal authoritarianism – the longest period of martial law in world history until being surpassed by Syria – into a frenzy of consumer capitalism. The use of English in early branding exercises was haphazard and often unwittingly produced surprising results. We collected a number of strange consumer products we encountered, but none struck us quite in the same way as this can of white fungus. Upon starting the publication we were searching for a name and we determined that the time had come to put the can into action. Each cover of the publication is derived from a scan of the can. It was the beginning of an anti-brand.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.