Can you tell us a little bit about White Fungus and your own connection to Taiwan?
The seeds for the White Fungus project lie in the four years we first spent in Taiwan from 2000 to late 2003. I had just finished a degree in literature at Otago University in Dunedin and my brother Mark was just out of high school in Wellington. We came over here and began a very deep immersion with the environment. It was a fascinating time. I arrived just before the election of president Chen Shui-Bian of the Democratic Progressive Party. It was Taiwan’s second-ever democratic presidential election which resulted in Taiwan’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power. I remember hearing a political rally one night through my window and following the sound with my dictaphone until I found it several blocks away. My brother came over here about three months after me. We began teaching English, studying Chinese, and developing our fledgling arts project.
Taiwan at that time was still only 13 years removed from the military dictatorship and was undergoing rapid change. As the island transitioned from authoritarianism to fully-fledged commercialisation and consumerism there was a haphazard and abrupt use of English in marketing branding campaigns which fascinated us. We began collecting unusual consumer products that we found. One day, Mark stumbled upon a can of “white fungus” in our local supermarket. White fungus is a wild medicinal mushroom that has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. Often one encounters it in soup, but this was an instant pulped version produced for the mass market.
The can of white fungus was fire engine red and contained a picture of what appears to be the Swiss Alps along with several fungi. In English, the name bai mu er (白木耳）is completely innocuous but the translation into Englilsh is jarring. But even more jarring, while the product was “white fungus”, the brand name was in fact “KKK”. We assume it’s a coincidence and the name was chosen due to its catchiness in a vacuum of knowledge about the domestic affairs of the US. Nonetheless, we were fascinated by this aberrant and somewhat disconcerting product and what it revealed about capitalism and the branding strategies of consumerism.
In 2004, after returning to New Zealand the previous year, we decided to publish a one-off zine protesting the building of an inner city highway that would see the destruction of heritage buildings and force artists from their studios. While racking our brains for a name for the publication, we seized upon the can we had obtained from Taichung. Mark rolled the can across a scanner and every subsequent cover of the publication has been derived from that scan. We produced the zine on a photocopier, wrapped copies in Christmas paper, and hurled them anonymously through the entrances of businesses throughout the city. It was going to be a one-off publication but it caused a stir and we decided to continue it and evolve it into an arts publication.
In 2009, we relocated back to Taiwan. We were broke and figured we could continue producing the publication and supporting ourselves by teaching in Taiwan. At the same time, we would have a wealth of new material to plunge ourselves into. In 2006, we met the Taipei artist Yao Jui-Chung when he was in Wellington to take part in an art exhibition. Yao encouraged us to return to Taiwan and when we did he took us on a whirlwind tour of Taipei, introducing us to dozens of artists, curators and galleries. We really hit the ground running thanks to him.
You are currently on your 17th edition, how has the cultural landscape evolved and changed there over time?
When we first arrived in Taiwan in 2000, the island was undergoing a dizzying pace of change and I don’t think it’s really slowed down. It’s a very different society to what we first encountered. In 2000, Taiwan was, while technologically advanced, culturally at large still pretty rough and ready. It was much more parochial, conservative, and patriarchal. But there was a lot of energy at the grassroots level. Artistically, the ‘90s had been a golden era for Taiwan which was riding the crest of its economic miracle while experiencing its first decade following the end of martial law. Artists had a sense of purpose, exploring previously suppressed history, ideas, and language and exploring what it meant to be ‘Taiwanese’. At the same time it was an era of economic plenitude and much of the new money found its way into the arts. 2000, when we arrived was kind of a comedown, the end of that dizzying period.
Since those years, Taiwan has become much more sophisticated and international. With Taiwanese increasingly going abroad, international trends in contemporary fashion, music, world cuisine, and coffee culture were increasingly being introduced. The arts scene now is much more internationally connected and diverse. The cities are more user friendly. But the most notable change has been growth in progressive culture and values. In 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Taipei hosts the largest Pride event in Asia. Currently, 42.5% of the legislature are women, the highest rate in the region. Taiwan has its first woman president, Tsai Ing-Wen, and the legendary trans hacker activist Audrey Tang is in the government as Digital Minister, practicing what she calls “radical transparency”. It’s a remarkable transformation when you consider that Taiwan was released from 38 years of military rule in 1987, then the longest period of martial law in modern history until being surpassed by Syria.
The change has been remarkable and mostly, in my view, for the better. But I don’t want to undercut those earlier periods either. The seeds for this development lay in the 1980s and 1990s. There was a wild energy to Taiwan back in the early 2000s that I sometimes miss. And there was much fascinating artistic activity that we simply didn’t have access to in those days when the internet was still in its infancy and we hadn’t yet found our own creative direction.
Your latest edition covers everything from an essay in defence of bats to the sensational Han Dan ritual, what is your commissioning process?
It’s organic and nonlinear. It’s really just the fruit of endless conversations that have been going on for decades. We like to explore a topic deeply and often return to the same topic to take the exploration further. For a new issue we usually have one or two pieces in mind and we build out from there. We don’t like overt themes nor do we wish to meld the content together. We’re more interested in creating juxtapositions and contrasts, an unfurling of multiple perspectives or vantage points through which each individual piece of content is thrown into multiple shades of light as the publication progresses. We try to create a kind of disorientation of the senses. As the reader turns each page, we don’t want them ever being sure what will come next.
In your own interview with noise artist Justice Yeldham, you refer to planning to bring him to Taipei for a concert before Covid intervened. Elsewhere in the issue you profile composer Annea Lockwood and look at avant-garde jazz outfit The Art Ensemble of Chicago. What are you own connections to music?
We’re interested in a broad range of art forms, but music holds a special place for us. It was our earliest contact with art and our entry into that world. Growing up we had endless listening sessions. It was and still is ritualistic to us. And from a distance, growing up in New Zealand, music was something we could access better than other artforms. After beginning the magazine in Wellington in 2004, we began connecting with record labels around the world. We began being sent a huge amount of music. It was an education. We also hosted a weekly radio show on student radio called The Lost Weekend. I began doing a segment on the national classical radio station Concert FM introducing electro acoustic music. We began holding events in which we invited musicians and other artists to perform. That led to us doing events all over the world, helping us to build the audience for the magazine. Mark has also been invited to DJ at clubs and festivals in Taiwan. In fact, we were working on a music project before we started White Fungus.
When we googled, ‘What is the culture of Taiwan?’ it threw up the following answer: “Taiwan’s culture may be described as traditional and conservative, like most other Asian cultures but to a greater degree. It is mainly Chinese in origin and is patriarchal and patrilineal, with the family at the centre of cultural activities.” Is this an accurate summation in your opinion?
Taiwan society is patriarchal at its roots but has undergone and is undergoing rapid development and moving in a pluralistic direction. Society here is increasingly tolerant of different modes of being. Nonetheless, the patriarchy remains but is currently being confronted with Taiwan’s MeToo movement which started here in late May, sparked by a popular Netflix television show Wave Breakers, a drama about an office of political staffers in the run-up to a presidential election. The drama contained a plot line about sexual harassment in the office, and featured the line, which has become a clarion call, “Let’s not let this go.” The movement began in political circles in Taiwan but has spread throughout society. The movement has led the recent amendment of the Act of Gender Equality in Employment to add protections against sexual harassment in the workplace.
Does on-going tensions with China impact on the breadth of culture or are dissenting and activist perspectives evident there?
Dissent is well tolerated in Taiwan. There is lively grassroots political activity and a high level of civilian participation in society. Probably the most striking example of this in the last ten years is the Sunflower Movement in which students occupied the legislature for 24 days to block passage of a trade agreement with China which critics argued would have given undue influence over the economy and media to China. The occupation was backed up by a march of up to a half million people in the streets and shook up political culture, launching a wave of youth activism.
Taiwan enjoys freedom of the press. Like most Western countries, the limits on press freedom come more from the commercial saturation of the media landscape than from overt suppression. If anything, the situation with China only pushes Taiwan in a more open and democratic direction. It’s a way in which Taiwan differentiates itself from China and appeals for support from the international community.
What is exciting you most about Taiwanese culture at the moment, any initiatives of note? How important is the promotion of the independent voice of a small country living in the shadow of its neighbour (we have some experience in this instance)?
Culture plays an important role in Taiwan. As Taiwan is blocked from organizations such as the World Health Organization and is unable to compete at events like the Olympics using its own flag, culture plays a critical role in getting Taiwanese views and perspectives and own stories into the world when so many other avenues are blocked. Often in the on-going political brinkmanship over this issue, we hear US and Chinese perspectives at the exclusion of voices from Taiwan, from the people who actually live here and have family roots in Taiwan that often go back centuries, or in the case of Indigenous peoples, thousands of years. Conflict easily becomes something abstract when there are real people being directly impacted. This is a geopolitical flashpoint and looks to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Taiwanese voices need to be heard.
There’s so much here going on worth paying attention to. I’m interested to see what the next stages are for Taiwan’s democracy, and what the long-term impact of the MeToo movement here will be. I’m very interested in Audrey Tang and how technology is applied to democratic initiatives. In terms of the arts, we’re very interested in the experimental music and sound art scene which began in the 1990s. And of course, there’s a presidential election coming up early next year which is of great consequence.