Downtown Taichung City. It is early evening and a bellman stands outside my hotel, wearing his uniform like a peacock. It’s the kind of uniform you find only at hotels that haven’t been updated since the 1970s: classic red and blue bordered with gold trim. But it has nothing on the colourful lights that flash along the high apartment buildings that ring the hotel’s forecourt. Psychedelic patterns and fluorescent flowers blossom across façades, the buildings branded with parvenu names like ‘New York New York’ and ‘Rich 19’. They pulse in time with the invisible beat of the city, a heart that pumps one command through the arteries of its citizens: Go ye out and make some money.
That is exactly what Taichung has done. Home to 2.6 million souls and a two-hour drive from Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, over the past decade it has transformed itself from a rural backwater to an upwardly mobile, sprawling city. The view from my 10th-floor hotel room is of a cluttered skyline, serrations of buildings unfolding like some property developer’s erotic dream. While in town I have the opportunity to interview Ron and Mark Hanson, New Zealand-American brothers who together create a magazine called White Fungus. It’s a publication that has been places and seen things; interviewed Carolee Schneemann, held residency at San Francisco’s Kadist Art Foundation and organised sound concerts across Asia. Gazing over Taichung, a city many in the West have probably never heard of, it strikes me as an odd place to have ended up. Didn’t these guys ever think of moving to New York City?
Cities are great concentrators of resources: economic, social and intellectual. Their mass sucks in people of all stripes. For those with aspirations of social mobility and those wanting to escape poverty, cities promise opportunity for advancement and self-improvement. In the West, where the social contract – of economic security in exchange for banality and conformism – scares some with its extreme humdrumness, its long empty days of monotony, participation in culture – fashion, film, art, music, writing – seems to offer an alternative. With the population density of urban spaces, the combinatory logic of chance encounters and the boundless energy of the ambitious, major cities are the perfect proving ground for the young person striving to reinvent themselves, and to claim their cultural inheritance. With the large culture-sector employers and institutions situated in the big cities, moving to one is a logical step for any aspiring artist or fashion designer.
Less than an hour after arriving in Taichung I am standing on dusty ground between a fenced-off construction site and a busy intersection. As each traffic light flicks red, scooters begin pooling like water behind a dam, to spill forward once the signal changes. Waiting, uncertain if I’m in the right spot, there is the sense of chaos one finds in a foreign country, when unfamiliar events happen at a hectic speed; for a moment you forget you can hail the first taxi and ride straight back to your hotel. Then a scooter peels off from the mob: Ron, his body framed by a white plastic exoskeleton, the result of a recent motorbike accident. We ride to the White Fungus offices, an imprecisely demarcated area in Mark’s living room. The two brothers have a similarly imprecise demarcation of roles, but if things need names, then Ron is the editor, Mark is in charge of design and art.
White Fungus began life as a protest zine/art stunt in 2004, responding to a decision to build a new motorway through the centre of downtown Wellington, New Zealand. The whimsical protest failed – bulldozers and demolition workers pulled down historic buildings to make way for the highway – but White Fungus grew, a magazine offering a voice in the wilderness, outside of the mainstream New Zealand art establishment. As it grew its focus widened to scrape diverse art and sound scenes across the globe. Issues were painstakingly curated, designed and released in their own time. Like all good things, White Fungus’ raison d’être wasn’t to make money, and it didn’t.
After 10 issues were printed in New Zealand the brothers needed jobs to supplement the endeavour. They decided to return to Taiwan, where both had previously lived and worked as teachers (the path from NZ to Asia to teach English is well-worn). Moving back to Taichung meant returning to full-time work they found challenging and enjoyable, and – most importantly – allowed experimentation, with their surplus time dedicated to White Fungus. Monthly pay cheques would cover the cost of living and help subsidise publication costs. The notion of surplus time fits with the magazine’s project of countering the totalitarian nature of capitalism: “Art is something that has to be stolen, it’s never a sanctioned activity,” says Ron.
“We’ve struggled for more than a decade to do this but we get to keep what we’ve built and have control of the future of our project. So many people play by the rules and don’t have the discomfort or extreme struggles during their work careers, but come retirement are forced to deal with the emptiness of the whole affair.”
Still, Taichung may seem an odd choice. It isn’t the largest city in Taiwan; Taipei has the cultural trappings of a country’s capital – museums, art institutes and an active music scene. Yet Ron describes Taichung City as fertile ground for a creative endeavour. Rent is cheap, there are few distractions and no social scene to keep abreast of, or get comfortable within. While geographically the Hansons place themselves on the margins, their time in Taichung is punctuated by frequent journeys to larger cities – Beijing, San Francisco, New York or Auckland – to host events and network. Short trips that give them a flavour, but which aren’t long enough for them to fall prey to those cities’ tediums.
With their haphazard encounters and the feeling of unbound movement, the morass and depth of human life crammed into one small area, cities have long been one of the sustaining elements of Western culture. But they are not what they once were. The contours of capital have become ever more gradated, and as buildings soar so do rents. Free space – the interstice and fallow ground essential to creative experiments – is shrinking. Community-driven projects are under threat as ground continues to be ceded to private industry, with its monomaniacal quest for profit. As rent swallows an ever-increasing portion of the average salary, free time also shrinks, and with it opportunities for creativity, experimentation and engagement.
The instruments of cultural production have matched the rise of cities’ skylines, companies becoming increasingly vertical and hierarchical, consolidated and scaled-up. The ideology of our age is economic totalitarianism, which exists as a mode of organisation, a system-wide approach to profit, where content and all other processes exist as vassals.
New entrants to cities encounter the reality of hyper-rents and perpetual consumerism (‘networking’). Their first task becomes finding a job so they are able to pay rent. For those that would engage in that most abstract of endeavours – creativity – their time is sapped by the requirement for multiple low-paying jobs. If they find work in a creative industry they find themselves at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Their opportunities for creative agency are pre-figured by the purpose of the system they find themselves within.
But within the referential net of the city-machine the struggle has become part of the myth, an easy-to-identify-with trope that populates film, television and music. Stylistically it is cast as a struggle of self-becoming that Nietzsche would appreciate; in reality it is the struggle of an individual to become an economically significant component of Society Inc.
While we may slave during the day to pay rent, there is no excuse for not being free in the night. The official reason I was in Taiwan was corporate journalism, a tour of factories that build machine tools, a somewhat obscure industry responsible for producing machines that themselves are used in factories around the world to manufacture almost everything from cars to cutlery to mobile phones. Each day was a succession of visits to production facilities, where men in blue boiler suits build huge clunking machines on factory floors, labouring in murky light like Jonah trapped in the cavernous belly of the whale – or brightly lit rooms where rows of humans sit at long tables assembling small pieces into larger components. Part of the vast and normally-unseen consumer goods production chain that spans the planet, there was something unsettlingly regressive about the sight of men and women building machines that in turn themselves would be used to build new machines. The development of machines and automation suggests a day where the entire production chain could occur without human labour, the only human element being the desire for the end product.
Meeting with Ron and Mark in the evenings presented a welcome alternative to this machinic logic. Their talk of producing a magazine with no profit motive and no simple telos helped ease the memory of the clumsy Taiwanese robots and boiler-suited factory workers.
On my second evening in Taichung we drank cold-brew coffee at an open air café in an old market. A hulking fish sculpture gleamed blue in the corner; upstairs, artist-run spaces filled the old buildings. Pendants from Taiwan’s anti-nuclear campaign hung in the alleyways. Outside a secondhand store a chest of drawers stood, its fresh coat of paint drying in the evening. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. With the imaginative vision of travel the space seemed a thicket unmapped by the coordinate system of profit, and by its existence a demonstration of how capitalism cannot allow things simply to be, cannot allow them to persist and become what they might be. Instead, spaces, objects and people must be continuously measured against profit, to be discarded or demolished if they are lacking. We discard permanence on the promise of something else, for an abstraction that we give credence due to fear. The possibilities that inhere in all things – including the old and seemingly unwanted – are rarely glimpsed.
My visit to Taichung City came just months after I had moved to Berlin, seemingly a safe move within the logic of the uber-metropolis as a site of cultural significance and creative opportunity. But it was a fool’s errand. The fact is that the larger cities – with high rents and living costs – impede an individual’s opportunities for creative freedom, forcing them to cast their lot with the established organisations.
The age of the big cities as cool is over, and the opportunities for creative freedom lie at the margins. Moving to a large city is the same kind of lazy self-characterisation evoked by a teenager starting to smoke cigarettes. As if smoking cigarettes automatically imbued a person with a vein of rogue coolness, as if basing your project in New York/Berlin/London were shorthand for producing an original or daring publication.
When the centres become staid and inured against possibilities of change, inspiration and alternatives will always be found on the margins. Disruptions emerge like the mycelium that rise spontaneously in a dark forest after rain.
The histories of art, literature, music, fashion are littered with examples of the renewing powers of the ‘outside’, discoveries of new spectra of light, new rhythms of time or music, or giant human figures. It hardly matters how we find such places – whether by accident, intent or necessity.
I visited Taichung in September 2013 and wrote a profile piece for the New Zealand publication Pantograph Punch. Since that time Mark and Ron have launched several editions of their bilingual magazine the Subconscious Restaurant (sister publication to White Fungus), held magazine launches in Berlin and Wellington and organised a sound tour of several Asian cities. The 14th edition of White Fungus was launched at a Tokyo sound event in March 2015. Distributed worldwide, the magazine remains commercially in a transitional state, as a labour of love and of free time.
Stian Overdahl is a freelance writer based in Berlin. He blogs at www.fashionandwarfare.com. Read more by Stian.
Artwork by Nova Campanelli. Nova is a singer, illustrator and art historian. Follow her on Instagram.