The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue

Canal Street Research Association: Shanzhai Lyric

Shanzhai Lyric, Untitled (Window Display), 2020. Window Cinema poster on repurposed builder’s paper, money fan, bootleg books, Canal Street ephemera. Courtesy Canal Street Research Association, New York. Photo: Daniel Terna.

On View
327 Canal Street
November 4, 2020 – March 31, 2021
New York

At Canal Street Research Association (CSRA), a temporary storefront exhibition opened in October 2020 by the two-person collective Shanzhai Lyric, and organized by curators Constanza Valenzuela and Jack Radley, photographs of every building on Canal Street line the perimeter, brimming with visitors’ annotations written directly onto the walls. The notes are personal (“2nd Location CANAL JEANS it was like a pilgrimage to come downtown to go here”), anecdotal (“Took pictures here with my brother when we thought we were gods,”), and informative (“Leo portrait artist here every day when its warm”). In this space just west of Mercer Street, Shanzhai Lyric traces the transitory and ephemeral nature of Canal Street as a site of knockoff production, dislocated trade routes, and gentrification—and the ways in which bootlegging can generate creative disruptions.

Shanzhai Lyric, Untitled (Timeline), 2020. Photos of Canal Street featuring visitors’ inscriptions. Courtesy Canal Street Research Association, New York. Photo: Daniel Terna.

Canal Street has long been, as the artists recently noted, an epicenter of hustles—a sandwiching of centers of raw materials, design, production, and distribution. In recent years, a new wave of real estate development has displaced small businesses, alongside increased policing of vendors selling goods on the sidewalks. COVID-19 has stalled development and brought the impending deterioration of retail, perforating Canal Street with empty facades. Nevertheless, during the Summer and Fall landowners and businesses boarded up these hollowed out storefronts to "protect" private property from the specter of riots. Amidst these circumstances, more vendors are creating ad hoc spaces to sell goods outside of unoccupied stores, essentially bootlegging public space in order to make a living. The bootleg is a tactic for subverting daily realities, for benefitting from a capitalist model intended to exclude.

Shanzhai Lyric, Untitled (Memory), 2020. Detail of inscriptions on Canal Street timeline. Courtesy Canal Street Research Association, New York.

Shanzhai Lyric is a collective project by Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky, who use shanzhai poetics—nonstandard English words and phrases most commonly seen on knockoffs and clothing made and/or distributed outside of the United States—as the nexus for interdisciplinary explorations of language and reproduction. In their archive of clothing on display, collected from Hong Kong, South China, various cities in South Asia, and Chinatowns in the US and Latin America, language is a thematic underscore. Statement t-shirts proclaim: “I AM A RIMADONMA AND YIU”, “wellcome to the idiot world,” “NOT A FOHOWER” [sic]. The use of English is not intended to be coherent or formally correct. Instead, it captures an internationalized, irreverent approach to language, simultaneously devaluing English as the dominant global language while shaping its words towards new meanings. By locating this display on Canal Street, New York City's outdoor mall of counterfeit goods, CSRA invites visitors to reimagine how the practice of knocking off can transform standards of authenticity.

The dynamics of any street constitute multiple, sometimes disconnected, things occurring at once, and CSRA’s work is devised within this context. The informal, the casual, the disjointed, and the quotidian are spun together into thoughtful considerations of how social and political economies continue to intersect on Canal Street. The informal is also a deliberate strategy for engagement: the storefront retail space serves as a backdrop for spontaneous conversations with visitors who walk in. New creative ventures have emerged organically through social interactions, especially with Canal Street’s community of vendors and neighbors.

On a Sunday afternoon in early December, CSRA hosted a sidewalk drum lesson and concert by Khadim Sene. A vendor who sells bags and accessories across the street, Sene is also an accomplished griot musician and educator. The weekend concert featured Sopé Bakhé, a music group Sene formed with his Canal Street coworkers, many of whom are also prolific musicians, and open to anyone who wants to participate in what he calls “a celebration of art and spirit.” Afterwards, rapper and actor King Faheem, aka Skrapaveli, performed a short set and sold his handmade limited-edition apparel. Playing out entirely on the street, the event felt spontaneous as it enticed passersby to join in a festive combination of music, goods for sale, and Senegalese café touba. These new relationships have shaped the contours of CSRA’s work, and the group hopes to collaborate on a film with local clothing and accessories vendor Khalifa Thiam, who has a background in journalism, incorporating footage from his documentary project which he began on the block in the early 2000s. March will feature work by collaborative fashion venture Puppets and Puppets.

Shanzhai Lyric, Untitled (Sopé Bahké), 2020. A concert by local group Sopé Bahké and gathered neighbors and visitors to the block. Courtesy Canal Street Research Association, New York. Photo by Constanza Valenzuela.

Shanzhai Lyric’s method of research employs free-association to construct a networked approach to interpretation and information collection. This ranges from exploring Canal Street’s geographic history as the 19th century extension of a natural waterway built to divert sewage runoff; to referencing the plywood-boarded property with the use of plywood furnishings to display research and allow seated conversations between viewers; to producing holiday window displays as an homage to David Hammons’ iconic 1983 snowball vending piece, Bliz-aard Ball Sale. Though seemingly disconnected, all of these examples speak to the way Canal Street has functioned as a site for creative re-interpretation of the familiar. Shared in conversations with visitors, folios filled with research materials, and Instagram posts, such varied, site-specific research reflects an experience of a street where established formats have been regularly subverted, both in and outside of art, for centuries.


Anna Harsanyi

is a curator, educator, and arts manager. She teaches at The New School.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues