Tell us about your practice.
Since 2015 we have collecting, studying, and celebrating the poetic, non-standard English text found on garments mostly made in China and distributed across the globe, a phenomenon we call “shanzhai lyrics.” We consider these garment writings to form one long poem unfurling across landscapes and bodies. The word shanzhai, which means counterfeit in Chinese, translates literally to mountain hamlet in reference to a Song Dynasty tale called the Water Margin, or, Outlaws of the Marsh, a kind of Chinese version of Robin Hood in which outlaws stockpile goods to redistribute among the those on the margins, shielded from government interference by a mountain hamlet (shanzhai). At the moment, our shanzhai lyric archive contains over 500 poetry-garments that we circulate in closets, universities, reading rooms, art spaces, and community centers. In 2020, we founded the fictional office entity Canal Street Research Association in order to study the flows of counterfeits here in New York City. We are guided by shanzhai as a way to re-think the slippery line between real and fake – and to advocate for community strategies that help redistribute the goods.
What was the genesis of the Canal Street Research Association?
In 2020, we had a grand scheme to trace the pathway of a shanzhai tee across the globe—including a stop at the Museum of Counterfeit in Paris where we had hoped to insert ourselves as unofficial artists in residence. When everything shut down, we found ourselves stuck back home in NYC. Curator Constanza Valenzuela approached us with an enticing offer to make something for an empty storefront on Canal Street, right near where we both grew up. So we invented the Canal Street Research Association, a fictional office entity whose aim is to study the flows of currents and currencies that converge on New York’s counterfeit epicenter: Canal Street.
You’ve mentioned growing up near the area, how has your research changed the way you view familiar surroundings?
Canal Street is a microcosm. We quickly realized that to study global trade routes, we didn’t need to leave the block. Examining the history of the street, it became apparent that the area has been a channel for waste, surplus, and overflow since its very inception. Canal Street as a hub of raw materials has shaped generations of artists. You can basically trace the history of 20th-century art to Canal Street; from Duchamp to Fluxus to loft jazz to the mixtape boom of the 90s, all these different scenes took inspiration from the poetics of junk, detritus, and cultural collision.
In your almost decade-long look into Shanzhai garments and bootlegs, what’s something that surprised you in your research? What’s kept you engaged in continuing this line of inquiry?
We are continually surprised by the associative connections between seemingly disparate phenomena. And as researchers of the double, we are particularly delighted to discover double lives. Canal Street PI Dempster Leech was also a veteran of the downtown theater scene. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cut her teeth working for the Fendi family and loved riding her motorcycle down to Canal to bust fake Fendi sellers. Intellectual property scholar Paul R. Paradise also holds expertise in keeping and maintaining parrots. In Paris, the Louis Vuitton Foundation sits just across from the Museum of Counterfeit. Pirates, parrots, Paris, baby! Everything is connected. The more you think about the slippery line between real and fake, the more apparent it becomes that authenticity is a performance. The categories that have been invented and maintained to bolster those in power are unstable. If we keep tugging at them like a loose thread on a shanzhai t-shirt, they unravel. What’s left is the raw material to weave something else.
What has been inspiring Shanzhai Lyric lately?
Marshes, informal street markets, outlaws, expressive matter (EMV), parrots…
What’s next for Shanzhai Lyric?
This summer we’ll head to the UK to continue our investigations into Robin Hood-esque strategies and the radical legacies of garment workers. We’re inspired by the rebellious weavers of Rochdale, England who established the first workers cooperative, a model that was replicated by one of NYC’s oldest cooperative housing complexes: Rochdale Village in Jamaica, Queens. The housing complex was created by Abraham Kazan, head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, who was greatly inspired by the weavers. We want to trace this spirit of cooperation and redistribution to its antecedents in the neighboring Sherwood Forest where Robin Hood and his men famously stole from the rich to give back to the poor. We’ll also be digging into the history of enclosures in England, which divided and demarcated the commons with hedges and fences. This process laid the ground, so to speak, for notions of private property that limit access to public space and shared resources today. We’ll be exploring these themes with an installation and research program at the Henry Moore Foundation in Leeds.