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Interview: Ron Hanson, White Fungus
Ron Hanson, co-founder of TW arts magazine White Fungus, on his decade in the DIY print mag biz and their upcoming launch event at Zajia
By Aug 13, 2014 Arts
As an English-reader interested in sounds that shouldn't strictly be called music, it didn't take me long after moving to Beijing to discover Taiwan-based magazine White Fungus. The interdisciplinary arts and activism publication was co-founded by brothers Mark and Ron Hanson in 2004. Originally from Wellington, New Zealand, Mark and Ron have lived mostly in Taiwan since 2000. These days they're based in Taichung City, with high-speed trips to Taipei most weekends to pursue their late-night cultural habits.

Though White Fungus has had a long-standing relationship with Beijing sound artist / music critic Yan Jun, the Hansons haven't been active in Beijing. That changes on Saturday though, when they hole up at Zajia Lab to unveil their newest opus, a sound art journal called The Subconscious Restaurant. They're also bringing along some Taiwanese sounds via regular collaborator Wang Fujui and Taichung's own Noise Steve (GREAT NAME).

Here's chief editor Ron on White Fungus, Subconscious Restaurant, lessons learned after a decade in the hardscrabble DIY print mag biz, and being "unfuckable with":

***

Mark and Ron Hanson

SmartBeijing: You guys are from New Zealand, but you've spent a significant amount of time in Taiwan since 2000. What attracted you there in the first place? How do you split your time geographically these days?

Ron Hanson: In the beginning it was a mixture of pragmatism and intuition. In 1999 I was finishing studying English Literature at Otago University and I heard that you could get jobs teaching English in Asia if you had an English degree. So I started looking on the internet and checked out what was available in different countries. I had never been anywhere in Asia before, so was pretty interested in the whole region. And at the time, when I look back, I was pretty ignorant of the world, so couldn't really make an informed decision. But Taiwan felt right, so I headed over. It think it was a mix of fascinating history, contemporary culture, and availability of jobs. Plus, I wanted to learn Chinese, so it was probably always going to be Taiwan or Mainland China. Immediately after arriving in Taiwan, I felt such a rush of excitement and the feeling of great potential, so I told Mark he should get over as soon as possible. He had just finished high school, and then three months later he was here. We began exploring Taiwan together. These days we spend most of our time in Taichung City, heading to Taipei most weekends on the fast train. But we're starting to make more and more trips abroad. Nonetheless, we're pretty locally rooted.

SmBJ: What is your background, in terms of study, training, professional practice, or even personal interest? You're brothers, so I assume you've become involved with art, music, etc in parallel to some extent?

Ron Hanson: We're kind of lucky, as far as siblings go, in that there is a five-year gap and our initial skill-sets and personalities are so different, so there was never really any competitiveness with us. The age gap doesn't mean so much now as it did when I was 23 and Mark was 18, but we'd kind of worked things out between ourselves in terms of goals, priorities, and a kind of ethical way of going about our business — that is, ethics according to how we see the world, not how most people see the world. Mark has a background in design and I have a background in literature and art history. But really we have only ever been interested in art. We just decided to take an independent path. We were heavily into music, art, and literature from the beginning. The literature kind of dropped off along the way but the music and art have merged.



SmBJ: You started White Fungus upon returning to New Zealand after your first four-year stint in Taiwan. What was the motivation? What's the division of labor for the magazine between the two of you?

Ron Hanson: I think we were just set to explode one way or another, and so whatever the first available opportunity there was to do something and gain some traction, we were going to do it. As it turned out, that first opportunity was to create a publication opposing the planned and subsequent building of an inner-city "bypass" in Wellington, which really destroyed the city's arts district. But it's important to note that before returning to Wellington, we were busy for years doing research, discussing and developing our ideas. We were serious and planning to do something, and ultimately everything. We were actually focused on music at the time, but got kicked out of our studio so re-shifted our focus to local grassroots activism. In terms of the division of labor, firstly, it's important to note that we discuss everything and any individual actions are coming out of that basis. But generally speaking, I do more of the communication, publicity, and editing, Mark takes charge of the visual side and a lot of practical, organizational stuff; he's much more practical than me. But the most important thing is the discussions we have as we formulate our ideas. This a conceptual project and that comes from the meeting of our two minds. I've never met anyone more dedicated than Mark in terms of the constant vigilance in terms of reading art or any kind of language.

SmBJ: I usually don't go for such stock questions, but: White Fungus is an interesting name. What's the meaning or personal significance of this title for you?

Ron Hanson: Mark discovered a can of "white fungus" in the local supermarket in the industrial zone of Taichung City in 2003. We had already been collecting strange consumer objects but we knew this was the ultimate discovery and would be the key to our project in some way. We're very interested in branding. And we're very interested in translation. In White Fungus, we felt, we had the ultimate brand. Tough to break in, but once there, unfuckable with.



SmBJ: In your mission statement you describe White Fungus as an "online platform," but you also release print editions. What different goals do you have for each medium? Why is it important to produce print magazines in this digital age?

Ron Hanson: Each medium is different and you just tend to explore whatever medium is in front of you. As far as mediums go, we never really had a home. I mean, Mark was a painter when he was a teenager, but that was about the extent for both of us. We were both totally focused on developing our ideas on art but we never really thought too much about mediums until the last moment.

SmBJ: You also say that "White Fungus is committed to localism in its most resistant forms." What does "localism" mean for you, as you're spread across two countries, and have also spent time in residencies in San Francisco and other localities?

Ron Hanson: But we live in Taiwan, and my number one priority is to live somewhere that is stimulating and satisfying to me. That said, in order to do that, it is important to develop relationships and lines of communication with other locations, so their localisms flow back into our localism, and vice versa. We are independent but benefit from these connections in terms of the ultimate strength we are able to draw upon.


Ron at Publish and Be Damned, Taipei Contemporary Art Center

SmBJ: White Fungus has been running for almost a decade, is that right? What have been some personal highlights? Specific articles, events, etc…

Ron Hanson: Ten years as of around about now. There've been too many highlights to mention. Personally for me, and the magazine, getting to know Carolee Schneemann is pretty big for us. I did an interview with her, which we published in our 12th issue. That interview is about to be re-published in a big new book, Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable by Black Dog Publishing in London. Carolee is someone who really shifted a lot of stuff in art, historically speaking, and her work is gaining more attention by the year, so who knows where the discourse around it will go. So to get a chance to be part of that is something that makes everything worthwhile. There's so many other great things, but those are other stories.



SmBJ: I've been encountering White Fungus for years, given your coverage of avant-garde and experimental music in greater China, but you also cover visual art and more socially-oriented activism projects. What is the conceptual or aesthetic overlap between the different fields you cover? What's the thread that connects these disparate practices?

Ron Hanson: I always think of art and different information fields in terms of energy. I'm always thinking in terms of energy. Some material will always present itself in the course of doing what we do. There always seems to be some incredible kind of pattern to it. And I think we're good at identifying those patterns and bringing it all together. I mean, we have a pretty thorough understanding of classical, modernist, and post-modern strategies, so it's not that we can't do that, we just choose to do something else.

SmBJ: In 2012 you started a side project, a magazine and event series called The Subconscious Restaurant explicitly focusing on experimental music. Why make a separate publication? Is there a regional focus?

Ron Hanson: The second issue of The Subconscious Restaurant is effectively a re-launch, so the goals may have shifted a little from the first issue. [Issue 1] was focused on an art tour of New Zealand by Taipei sound artist Wang Fujui, whereas this issue is focused on a city, Taipei, with the intention of expanding out to incorporate a region — while remaining rooted in Taiwan.


Wang Fujui at The Cube, Taipei

SmBJ: This weekend you're making your first official appearance in Beijing, connecting with locally-based sound artist and critic Yan Jun, who's written for White Fungus in the past. Why are you trying to connect to a mainland audience now, and specifically within Beijing?

Ron Hanson: In terms of going to Beijing, Yan Jun is pretty key. If he lived in Nanjing, we would probably be going there. Also, we struck up some communication with Zajia Lab, and were really interested in the space.

SmBJ: Are you concerned that your political bent may provoke a backlash among the authorities here? Presumably you'll be treading carefully, especially considering the fraught relationship between Beijing and Taipei…

Ron Hanson: Not really. After all, Edward Snowden lives in Russia. I worry more about going to America than China. When I go there it feels like entering a total police state. I haven't personally felt any trouble from China. In terms of Taiwan, my experience is more that China would like to absorb Taiwan into its success story rather than smash it. The extent to which that is successful is a matter apart from what we're doing.

SmBJ: What can we expect from Saturday's Subconscious Restaurant event at Zajia? What future plans do you have for White Fungus and Subconscious Restaurant, between Beijing, Taiwan, New Zealand, and elsewhere?

Ron Hanson: High energy, sharp dynamics, sounds and visual kinetic motion that you have not seen before, a publication you will not have read before. People you have not met before. I think there will be more.



***
Catch the official Beijing launch of Subconscious Restaurant on Saturday, August 16 at Zajia Lab. The event will feature sound performances by Wang Fujui (Taipei), Noise Steve (Taichung), Yan Jun (Beijing), and Rat Spy 51 (Beijing), plus a dance perfomance by Zarah Killeen-Chance (Auckland). 8pm start, 50rmb (includes a free copy of the magazine). More info in the listing.

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