Big Question

How can art be a collective process?

Shanzhai Lyric stewards an incomplete poem.

Interview by Camila Palomino

Shanzhai is the Chinese word for counterfeit. It translates literally to “mountain hamlet,” as in an area on the outskirts of a town, shielded or protected by a mountain. In rural areas and in older times, these hidden spots at the edge of towns would be where bandits stockpile goods to redistribute or resell among those on the margins. This term first drew our attention when we were given the opportunity to travel to Beijing in the summer of 2015 and spend a month roaming a multilevel women’s clothing market in the city. We witnessed an abundance of garments bearing a beautiful, ecstatic, and erratic non-standard English text. At the time, there were many terms for this kind of error in the body of text, one of them being “Chinglish,” which felt derogatory and insufficient to describe the phenomenon we were witnessing. We felt these garments had something to say, but we didn’t have a theoretical framework to think or talk about them.

We were drawn to the term shanzhai, which originally comes from the sphere of technology products. It has been written about evocatively by Byung-Chul Han and Yu Hua. Both have traced shanzhai’s lineage to a Chinese Robin Hood story called “Water Margin,” as well as to the tradition of Chinese landscape painting where a central image is often surrounded by emptiness, intentionally leaving room for collective inscription. The value of a particular landscape painting is not in relation to one individual author-artist; rather, it grows in value the more subsequent author-owners inscribe themselves into the landscape. On these multiple levels, shanzhai has provided a philosophy, a politics, and a poetics for us to continue thinking about concepts of authorship and ownership, access to resources, and the redistribution of goods.

The term “shanzhai lyric” specifically was important for us to think through the concept of a collectively authored lyric. The lyric poetic tradition is one of expressing emotions and feelings often through the lyric “I.” Thinking of shanzhai lyrics as a collectively authored lyric allows us to appreciate how the garments—these counterfeit, shanzhai garments—express something that so many people relate to on an emotional level about the experience of living amidst information overload and the language of consumerism. The churning forces of fast fashion create these shanzhai lyrics, a collectively authored reflection.

Shanzhai lyric is how we refer to these poems, but also to the work that we do collectively as custodians of this archive. Since 2015, the archive has become a collection of over 400 garments, mostly sourced in Asia, but also in other parts of the world where you can often find them in informal street markets. We continue to circulate this collection, which we also call the Incomplete Poem, through libraries, exhibition spaces, museums, personal closets, or anywhere that will host them and put them in dialogue with different traditions and legacies of poetry and literature, from bodies of feminist art to post- and decolonial studies. The project is also a logistical one of keeping these shanzhai lyric poetry-garments in circulation and inviting others to be in conversation with them through translation and mistranslation exercises, workshops, performances, and collective poetry readings.

Something we’re drawing directly from the shanzhai lyric is bootleg as a strategy. For us, this has entailed restaging or recreating ephemeral moments, most recently along Canal Street, New York’s counterfeit epicenter, as a way to draw attention to buried histories. What can we learn by copying? In many educational contexts, for example, copying has a pedagogical dimension. It’s how you learn. You try to copy, and in copying, you learn both about the thing you’re copying and about yourself, your relationship to it, your ideas about it, your issues with it, your love for it, your hatred of it, your curiosities, and your questions.

In the summer of 2023, we brought the archive to Leeds in the north of England, which is the historic center of the textile and garment industry in the UK. While there, we also visited the alleged grave of Robin Hood and became obsessed with the formation of hedges in a landscape. This phenomenon emerged during the enclosure period and was very formative in terms of European or Western conceptions of private property. Hedges were used to break up common land and divide it into privately owned parcels. This development is also the source of the term “hedge fund,” a way to protect your assets and keep enemies or “invasives” out—a form of financial risk management. Even if there’s something erratic that causes great losses, the “hedge” still works to protect your property. So, in both the literal hedge and the hedge fund, the word relates to structures that allow the few to guard what they own from the many. It establishes, creates, or bolsters the fiction of private property: that by creating a border, backed up by force, one can unjustly seize spaces and resources that were previously shared by a community.

In Leeds, we created a hedge structure-slash-reading-apparatus that contained poems that were most in line with some of the things we were thinking about. Reading apparatuses are what we call the purpose-built structures that we present the archive in and which we designed in collaboration with the architectural collective common room. The apparatuses showcase the garment poems as documents to be read and ideally touched and engaged with, and often reference places where text and textiles live. It’s important to us and to this project to keep our archive as available for public consultation as possible, so it’s pretty much always circulating. We try to also have it move between official spaces, like a museum or a gallery, and unofficial spaces, like a community space, a warehouse, or a factory, or into domestic spaces. Each context allows people to view the garments and the lyrics a bit differently, and makes it accessible to different communities and audiences. Having just recently received the archive back in New York City from the United Kingdom, we’re excited to soon be showing it at a hosiery warehouse in Glendale, Queens. There, we will continue researching various anti-property movements that we began to dig into while in Old York, such as Luddism, which started with rebels smashing the looms that threatened their livelihood at a hosiery factory.

Part of the shanzhai philosophy for us is thinking about how to use institutional resources to keep this poem circulating to different spaces. Often, it’s about connecting institutions of wildly different scales, protocols, or missions, to communicate around the movement of the poem. There are also forms of radical logistics we’ve been involved with, having friends or comrades bring shanzhai garments around the world on travels they already have planned, as a way of slowing down some of these networks and thinking about the ecological impact of transport. It is a choreography of verses, thinking about how the ongoing poem is constantly shifting, recombining, and reconfiguring. We also encourage the creation of installations that welcome touch and interaction, a rejection of standard archival protocols. We enjoy how the poem is affected by bodies. These are garments meant to be worn, and the body bends and shapes the language, both collectively and individually. Bodies are the landscape of the poetic text’s meaning. Part of the practice is group readings, inviting further instances of co-authorship and allowing groups to affect the shape of the lyric together.

In 2024, we’re coming up on 10 years of thinking about, gathering, and circulating the shanzhai lyric since we began this project in 2015. As we approach this milestone, we are curious to reflect on the past decade of this form of experimental writing. Delight in the error is really important to us, as well as thinking about how non-standard text points to a kind of tender human-machine collaboration—both the inability to express, yet somehow, the simultaneous capacity to overexpress. It is a paradox where the supposedly incorrect form feels truer in reflecting the experience of navigating this world, of being alive on this planet right now. This phenomenon will only shift and evolve further and possibly disappear as technology changes and as Artificial Intelligence increasingly learns to eliminate mistakes. There is a time-bound quality to this project and how shanzhai lyrics reflect and capture this strange moment in time.

Interview conducted for Art21 in March of 2024 by Camila Palomino. Original photography for Art21 by Timothy O’Connell. All other photography courtesy the artists, the Henry Moore Institute, and MoMA/PS1.

Shanzhai Lyric is Ming Lin & Alex Tatarsky

Camila Palomino is a curator, researcher, and writer based in Queens, New York. She is Curatorial Assistant at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics and the co-editor of “Retail,” the fifth issue of Viscose Journal.