Over time, the term bootlegging has evolved beyond illegal copyright infringement and moonshine to describe, in essence, a creative act. For this series, we turned to designers and artists who exploit this phenomenon to provide some insight into contemporary culture’s obsession with bootlegging. Read more.
Shanzhai Lyric is a “poetic research and archival unit” that documents and transforms awkwardly translated slogans from Chinese bootleg T-shirts into an ongoing poem. The project exists as a part of Display Distribute, “an itinerant research platform, documentary gesture, distribution service, and sometimes shop in Kowloon, Hong Kong, that takes up thematically the effects of the flows of capital that characterize and shape our world.” Shanzhai Lyric has gained a large following via the project’s Instagram page and takes on a physical form through various interventions including publications, performance-lectures, and installations. In the following interview I speak with members of the Shanzhai Lyric project team about bootlegging, global hierarchies, shininess, and the “detritus of consumerism.”
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Ben Schwartz (BS)
Can you discuss a particular example of bootlegging in your practice? What and why did you bootleg? What were the implications? What did you hope to achieve?
Shanzhai Lyric (SL)
“Shanzhai Lyric” is the name of both the project and the phenomenon we are trying to identify—an anonymously and collectively authored ongoing poem emerging out of the detritus of consumerism. The name Shanzhai Lyric itself can be read as a kind of bootleg, eliding distinction as an attempt at expressing solidarity with the aesthetic philosophy and politics of this hybrid English while not claiming ownership over the found phrases that we are gathering as our subject.
We are less interested in producing our own bootlegs than in identifying shanzhai strategies and sharing them across various platforms through experiments in publication, performance, curation, archive, installation, and conversation. Our aim is to place shanzhai lyrics in dialogue with other poetic and artistic lineages that also experiment with mimicry, wordplay, poetic plagiarism, and nonsense as subversive methods. We do this in a very physical sense, weaving two main threads by which textile becomes text and text becomes textile. With The Incomplete Poem we insert shanzhai garments into libraries, art collections, and home closets to comprise an ever-unfinished work, and alongside this we are continuously inserting shanzhai lyrics into publications ranging from poetry zines to fashion magazines to political journals, forming an ongoing piece we call The Endless Garment.
Earlier this year we performed a shanzhai poetry-lecture that oscillates between reading off shanzhai T-shirts and reading from theoretical texts in the space of the Stuart Hall Library to contextualize shanzhai writing as a postcolonial literature. Similarly, bringing shanzhai garments into the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths situates the pieces within a tradition of feminist experimental text and textile.
We have slowly been assembling a collection of garments that are activated in various ways and distributed across various hosting sites that have included galleries, libraries, personal closets—it is always in transit and open to visitors to read, peruse, and wear. It is important to us that this poem is alive and ever-shifting, that it avoids becoming static or institutionalized, that anyone can add to or draw from its resources. Part of creating this lexicon of tactics also involves identifying artists and thinkers who have wittingly or unwittingly employed shanzhai tools of critique and subversion. Spanning different types of spaces is an effort to demonstrate how this work functions among different traditions, settings, and discourses.
While it can be difficult to pinpoint the precise protocols by which shanzhai phrases are produced, and we are mindful of over-ascribing agency, we look to shanzhai lyrics as evidencing strategies of poetic plagiarism that can be helpful for navigating a nonsense world. We employ a mode of reparative reading by viewing these phrases as moments of hopeful breaking with dominant forms.
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How do you understand bootlegging today—on a broad level as well as how it’s related to your practice?
The word “bootleg” connotes illegality and covert activities—the word literally refers to the practice of transporting illegal liquor in one’s boot. Following from this legacy, we are interested in the politics of concealment and in alternate modes of circulation that arise from distributing illicit goods.
Our project looks specifically at the language that appears on so-called bootleg T-shirts made in China and transported across the globe. Our aim is firstly to absolve these items from the moralizing condemnation they receive within a Western framework, and to this end we find ideological resonance in the term “shanzhai” from Chinese, rather than the English “bootleg.” As writer Yu Hua notes, shanzhai translates directly to “mountain hamlet,” suggesting the enticing possibility of absconding from society, with resources in tow to be shared and redistributed. Thus shanzhai goods retain an association with a history of rebellion and the ideals of radical collectivity.
Philosopher Byung Chul-Han traces the legal and art-historical underpinnings of shanzhai back to ancient Chinese legal structures that define a principle of truth as ever-shifting and relative to circumstance, rather than relying on fixed principle. Looking at the tradition of scroll painting, he further roots his definition in Eastern conceptions of art that thwart the notion of individual authorship by pursuing a process that finds value generated via collective and ongoing inscription. As a scroll painting passes through many hands, its value increases as it continuously changes and expands, literally marked by all those who possess it.
Bearing these two understandings in mind, we are particularly interested in the language borne of a certain breed of counterfeit clothing coming out of China that finds errant English in abundant configurations printed across T-shirts so densely as to form poems and patterns. This project seeks to explore the various strategies of shanzhai as ecstatically illuminating and potentially liberating.
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Can you talk about the relationship between bootlegging and politics? Bootlegging and irony? Bootlegging and fandom? Bootlegging and capitalism?
We want shanzhai lyrics to be viewed not as error-ridden or mistaken but as a rich mode of communicating that speaks with perverse lyricism to the experience of living under contemporary capitalism. In thinking through our own definitions of bootleg, we relish the uniquely shiny and opaque qualities of shanzhai as a possible lens for this critique. Shininess is a characteristic endemic to the fashion industry as that which both draws attention to and conceals the fetish of the commodity. Counterfeit fashion items are often excessively shiny in material, and one could say this attribute attempts to make up for or conceal a lack of quality or authenticity. But in the case of our bootleg T-shirts, which are often flagrant in their “counterfeitedness,” we find the opportunity to look more closely at the functions of this shininess. There’s the possibility that something else is being reflected and refracted; the shininess of the counterfeit participates in a politics of opacity in that its opulence and seductive nature offers a certain protective shield by nature of its impenetrable sheen. The distracting, scintillating glint obscures an always shifting complexity and so provides cover for its subversive activities. The shiny “broken” English that acts as both decoration and description, indicates rupture at a wider level. The frayed and fraying structures of consumer capitalism rely on a language of smooth lies to sell happiness in the form of a T-shirt; the shanzhai lyric embodies where this smoothness breaks down to reveal the contradictions of the lie and give space to a different truth.
Bootlegging is as well a means of getting a luxury product at a cheaper price (luxury handbags, watches, etc.). What does it mean when a bootleg sweatshirt is selling at upwards of $500?
Designations of theft are heavily tied to legacies of colonialism and sustain the myth of rightful ownership by particular corporate entities and nation-states. Subverting this myth is tricky because the fashion industry is cannibalistic in nature: as soon as shanzhai lyrics appear they are just as quickly subsumed by what they have risen to challenge. For instance, a company can capitalize on the cache of shanzhai by making its own cheeky interpretations of shanzhai versions of its products—and thus appear to neuter the destabilizing potential of secondary markets. Bootlegs reflect demand; they actually exist in symbiotic dependence with luxury brands, which need them around in order to demonstrate insatiable desirability.
Instances where designers and producers might use the factory blueprints or machinery towards their own designs are for us creative moments that engage in critique, response, and modification rather than theft of the original. This mode of reading draws into question the whole apparatus by which theft is determined, a notion of criminality designed to sustain the powerful by condemning the sharing of patterns and ideas while protecting corporate theft of time, land, and resources through exploitative, polluting labor practices.
In sharing and admiring this non-normative English we attempt to imagine the possibilities of reordering that can extend beyond aesthetics and language to challenge the configurations of global hierarchies. Shanzhai lyrics encourage us to enjoy and embrace a nonsense language that fosters unlikely collisions between different worlds and registers and destabilizes our notions of a correct, homogenous standard. Working to shift the mechanisms of meaning-making participates in debunking the primacy of the “original” and its attending notions of property and authorship, which are at their core western constructions designed to control and contain the flow of wealth. Shanzhai strategies are necessarily fleeting and slippery, but what they shed light on momentarily is a vital reorientation of values. We find the increasing desire for shanzhai products—and they might be considered more desirable than the original with higher prices that reflect this—to be an exciting development. To us, this indicates a fatigue and frustration with an older aspirational model whereby a shanzhai product is understood to be “imitating” a luxury brand product. Instead, we see shanzhai as a form of innovation rather than imitation that offers, through shanzhai lyrics, a poetic take on the empty and worn-out signifiers of high fashion.
How does bootlegging relate to the idea of ownership. Does it share a relationship to the internet and the way no one truly owns an idea?
Shanzhai lyrics are written through poetic collaborations between human and machine. They can be read as recombinatory texts that allow for the deterritorializing of meaning, as analogue hyperlinks that allow for alinear and non-monolithic viewpoints to collide and intersect, extending and expanding in multiple directions.
Following Byung Chul-Han, we view shanzhai lyrics within the lineage of traditional Chinese scroll painting, in which value accrues via collectively-authored, ever-growing loci of inscriptions. This process reflects an alternate model of meaning-making generated through the expression of not just one but a multitude of voices. Such notions of radical collectivity and freedom of expression might be seen paralleling the utopian aspirations of the internet whose endless scroll ideally allows for colliding registers of high and low through a seamless, simultaneous, and ongoing transmission that, as the collective Critical Art Ensemble notes in their work on poetic plagiarism, ultimately renders the notion of a single, original author irrelevant. It is only when companies seek to protect their assets and wield control over the flow of information for the sake of profit that the question of authorship and credit becomes a problem.
We recently experimented with the format of the scroll in our installation at the Long March Space in Beijing by inviting visitors to access the Open Archive by participating in a collective translation exercise. Shanzhai T-shirts could be taken off the rack and translated in as many ways as there were visitors to the space, and these versions were inscribed on an unfurling paper scroll that became an ever-unfinished document of the process of interpretation. How do we translate one nonsense tongue into another, collectively making sense of “broken” and distorted pieces? How do we find space to write a strange poem together that never ends? Poetry refutes the logic of exchangeability and legibility. We babble and exclaim. Freed, and on and on: FREEDON.*
* FREEDON (and on and on), 2018, is the title of the Shanzhai Lyric’s latest mini-publication, which looks at mimicry and theft, who has a right to steal, and how notions of property and ownership contribute to our conceptions of freedom. Printed on the occasion of preliminary research carried out in residence at clearview, in consultation with the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths, London and currently available through Display Distribute and Tenderbooks.
A project of Display Distribute, Shanzhai Lyric is principally carried out by Ming Lin and Alex Tatarsky by gathering an experimental poetics found on garments manufactured in the Pearl River Delta and proliferating across the globe. The work takes the form of writings, curation, poetry-lecture and installation-publications. @shanzhai_lyric