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Ron Hanson, photographed in Te Aro, the Wellington inner-city suburb where a planned motorway bypass sparked his arts magazine White Fungus. Photo/Nicola Edmonds

Wellington's White Fungus: From one-off zine to global art magazine

Fifteen years ago, a lively little arts-meets-activism magazine called White Fungus sprouted in the capital. Co-creator Ron Hanson now edits an international version of the publication from Taiwan. Sarah Lang catches up with him on a trip home to Wellington.

International art magazine White Fungus began as a Wellington activist pamphlet of sorts, published in 2004 to protest Transit New Zealand’s planned motorway bypass for the area around upper Cuba St. The multi-million dollar project, projected to save drivers 90 seconds, would also see artists evicted from their studios, buildings demolished and much of the district’s heritage and character lost. Street protests, “Bypass My Ass” signs, and letters objecting to the plan were ignored.

That’s why brothers Ron and Mark Hanson – then in their early 20s – decided to create a zine (a handmade, photocopied magazine) called White Fungus, which argued against the bypass plan, and profiled Wellington artists who had been or were getting evicted. The pair’s efforts didn’t stop the motorway slicing through Te Aro in 2005, but White Fungus has continued and evolved ever since. Ron, as editor, and Mark, as art director, have published 16 issues in the past 15 years, initially from Wellington and now from Taiwan, since moving there in 2009. Both teach English as a second language to adults and children, and are learning Mandarin (Taiwan’s primary language) at Tunghai University, while working on White Fungus.

There’s no media kit outlining a strategic formula or target market. Collaborating on ideas for the magazine’s content, the brothers cover what interests them, what they think might interest others and what isn’t being covered elsewhere. A recent issue included an article by New York writer Kurt Gottschalk about attending an overnight performance of tracks from Max Richter’s album Sleep, and a story by Berlin writer Tobias Fischer on how animals experience and even create music. There’s also an article about the prominent, polarising New Zealand visual artist Luke Willis Thompson, another about the late, obscure 1980s Wellington street artist Ruffo de Graine, and a new comic by Wellingtonian Tim Bollinger.

Ron Hanson met me recently at Toi Pōneke Arts Centre: two adjoining buildings which just escaped the motorway cleaver and now house artist studios. He was in New Zealand for a month to see friends and family – and to marry his partner Ema Chang, a Taiwanese graphic designer.

Tell me how White Fungus began.

Mark and I had taught English in Taiwan between 2000 and 2003, then we moved back to Wellington with this burning desire to do something in the arts – we just weren’t sure what. We were working on a music project in a studio but got evicted because the building was being turned into apartments. We couldn’t find another studio because of all the property development and gentrification.

I was doing a post-grad diploma in journalism at Massey, thinking journalism would support me while I pursued the arts, so I went to city council meetings and heard the mayor bragging about how Wellington was New Zealand’s creative capital, when actually artists were being evicted and a chunk of Te Aro was about to be knocked down to make way for the bypass. There were street protests, and small-business owners and artists formed the organisation Save Our Streets. I witnessed first-hand the council and media’s indifference to this issue.

So Mark and I wanted to make a one-off publication to create a historical record of the area being destroyed. We profiled artists and art collectives, did a story on the history of Cuba St, and another story on the planned bypass. We designed it on an old computer, used our parents’ photocopier until it broke down, then snuck into our dad’s office at night to photocopy more copies. Friends helped us staple, fold and gift-wrap about 1000 copies, then we went around town throwing them over fences or hurling them through doors. When something is wrapped in Christmas paper, you open it. Then we got an anonymous donation of $200 to print more copies. It was meant to be a one-off publication, but it stimulated so much interest.

The [late] art dealer Peter McLeavey cared deeply about this part of the city. When we decided to do a second issue, he was the first advertiser, then became an incredible mentor. Those early days were exhilarating because we went from having nothing to suddenly having something. We got the Labour Government’s artists’ benefit [through the Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment scheme], did a small-business course, then got a small grant. We benefited from the naivety and energy of youth. Creating an independent magazine is a draining, time-consuming thing.

When you moved back to Taiwan in 2009, White Fungus became a New Zealand-Taiwanese arts magazine. That’s extremely niche.

Yes – you wouldn’t plan it! We cover the Taiwanese and Wellington arts scenes but also have content from Europe, New York, Australia, China – and a global network of contacts, from galleries to writers. Niche magazines have to operate globally to reach enough people. The magazine is partly a platform for artwork that might not fit the gallery context – or we show a different side to higher-profile artists. We cover everything from visual art and music to social and political issues, but stubbornly insist on the term “art magazine”, because everything’s related to art.

There’s not much on the cover about what the magazine is or what’s inside it, in order to create a sense of mystery, arouse people’s curiosity, and get them turning the pages without any expectations. Plus minimalist covers give us the flexibility to evolve.

Ron (right) and brother Mark. Photo/Vivienne Haldane

How do you land big interviews like US visual artist Carolee Schneemann and longtime New York Times art director Steven Heller?

I’m aggressive in firing off emails and releases. It’s basically fishing – if the net’s wide enough, some things will come in. And people like our back story. I interviewed Carolee Schneemann shortly before she passed away, and the interview went to 50 pages, including images of her work. If the story works in two pages, great. But if you’ve got something really dynamic and unique – a famous, 79-year-old artist with decades of stories to tell – why wouldn’t you grab the opportunity? Every word she uttered is part of the historical record.

You don’t suffer from Tall Poppy Syndrome?

To hell with that. When you chop other poppies, you stunt everyone’s growth. I find one thing leads to another. Once I emailed all these galleries saying, “We have US author Chris Kraus and avant-garde noise artist Merzbow in this issue, and do you want a complimentary copy?”. Twenty New York galleries replied, and we got invited to hold an event in New York. Then the Museum of Modern Art in New York put a copy of White Fungus in their exhibition Millennium Magazines. And currently the magazine is part of Independent Curators International’s exhibition Publishing Against the Grain, which is touring the world.

How many countries is the magazine stocked in?

About 20. In 2013, we got a deal with WhiteCirc in London, which deals with 70-80 distributors worldwide, and gets us into really good stores. Our main audience outside Taiwan and New Zealand is Europe and America, but we’ve been selling copies in Lebanon, Colombia, South Africa, Brazil. We’ve just been picked up by Stack Magazines in London, which sends subscribers its choice of an independent magazine each month. We also sell physical back issues, and our new website has more content from previous magazines. Two people work with us on the magazine.

Does White Fungus break even after you include your costs and time?

We spend about a third to half of our time on the magazine. We make back probably 70% of what we put in. Teaching English is my main income, and I enjoy it, but White Fungus is my passion. If you get into independent publishing to get rich, you’re dreaming. But our sales are growing and there’s a boom in the number of independent magazines and stores specialising in them, like MagCulture in London, Rare Mags in Manchester, Lorem in Zurich.

And independent magazines are branching out. A few make money just from traditional revenue of copies sold and ads, but many also use the magazine as a brand and might have a creative agency attached. Because we’re known for White Fungus, we’re offered writing and editing work, and commissions to make small art publications. We also run live events in various countries: they’re based on sound art and experimental music, but often mix in poetry, dance, experimental film, performance art. The events have been described as a live magazine. We see ourselves as creating art as well as covering it.

What’s it like working so closely with your brother?

Our office is Mark’s place, so we meet up most nights to work. At one point, we were teaching full-time by day and working on the magazine until 1am, but we’re more balanced now. We argue sometimes, but constructively. Some people think that someone else pushing back against their idea is a slight. But we see it as harnessing the power of two minds.

Mark and I didn’t get along as children. The squabbling and fighting between us was pretty chronic. But the summer after I finished studying [English literature and film] at Otago, and was back home in Wellington to save money, Mark had just finished high school. We realised we actually did get along, that our interests and skill sets complemented each other’s, and that we wanted to work together. Our goal was to launch some yet-to-be-defined arts project. But first, we needed life experience. I got a job teaching English in Taiwan and convinced Mark to come over when he was just 17. We lived there for four years.

Ron Hanson.

You returned to Wellington in 2003, then started the magazine. Why did you move back to Taiwan in 2009? 

Partly out of economic necessity. We enjoy teaching English in Taiwan, make decent money, and living costs are significantly lower than in New Zealand, so we can continue the magazine. Also, Taiwan helps feed our thirst to engage artistically. While in Wellington, we started publishing the work of Taipei artist Yao Jui-Chung,

who encouraged us to return to Taiwan and, after we arrived, introduced us to dozens of curators, artists and arts professionals. It felt like there was an opportunity and an adventure to be had. And there’s so much to unravel in Taiwan. I like the unexpected inter-meshing of modern and traditional elements.

When I first arrived, every day was an adventure. I remember stumbling upon street ceremonies with Buddhist music and mini-plays featuring dragon costumes. The street puppet theatre, traditional tea houses and covered markets still capture my imagination. I need to remind myself to slow down, tune into my environment, and maintain that initial state of wonderment. Taichung feels removed from fast-paced contemporary life, but it’s only 50 minutes to Taipei on the high-speed rail, so we can work in both cities.

Tell me about your teaching.

I take pride in my teaching. It’s not merely a means to an end. I really love telling stories and teaching kids to read and write. We’ve cut back our teaching a bit to study Mandarin. I’m determined to become fluent. It’s gruelling, but I always feel best when there’s a new mountain to climb.

Where did the magazine’s name come from?

Taiwan has changed over the decades from a society under martial law to democracy and fully fledged capitalism – and the use of English and imagery is still haphazard. We were collecting weird consumer products and Mark discovered a can of “white fungus”: it was fire-engine red with an image of the Swiss Alps. Random! We didn’t open the can, to preserve it in its original state. But it contains a translucent gelatinous pulpy mix which is a delicacy in Taiwan, often encountered in soup. We knew we’d call something “white fungus”.

What do you enjoy most about White Fungus?

The people. Once, we couldn’t find anyone else who shared our interests. Now, through the magazine, we do. It all started from wanting to highlight an issue, refusing to limit ourselves, and thinking, “Let’s push this forward and see what it becomes.” 

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.