YOU CAN’T FAKE REAL
INTERVIEW WITH THE CANAL STREET RESEARCH ASSOCIATIONby Yang Shi
Real is the cornerstone of Canal Street. On this thundering thoroughfare, generations have made their mark of resilience despite long-standing attempts at gentrification. In a quest to document this fleeting tension, New York City artist-writers Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky, who met growing up in Lower Manhattan, founded the Canal Street Research Association. The research started from the history of the block as New York’s epicenter of contraband, a place where global trade flows converge. Since 2015, the duo has been collaborating as the poetic “research unit” Shanzhai Lyric, tracing the journey of bootleg T-shirts from South China around the world. In 2020, they were offered a vacant storefront at the intersection of Canal and Greene Streets, where they established what they call their first fictional office. Passersby were introduced to T-shirts, postcards, purses, mini Empire State Buildings, a mishmash of memorabilia hinting at the lore of Canal Street. An unfurling timeline invited visitors to inscribe their personal histories of the block onto the wall. In early 2021, after losing the space due to a values clash with the landlord, the association relocated to 264 Canal, a 2,000-square-foot loft across the street from the famous Popular Jewelry. When the rent quadrupled in August, they had no choice but to abandon the space. During their last month there, anyone was welcome to install work, launch a spontaneous performance or class, party, hang out or otherwise intervene in the space — commemorating the infamous Canal Zone party of 1979, where artists from near and far were invited to join in the sprawling collaborative work. In this ongoing battle between the ephemeral nature of cities and the permanence of archiving, Canal Street Research Association wishes to honor bootleg as a mode of resistance. Most recently, they have moved underground to a basement space at 351 Canal Street. We met to discuss the Canal Street Research Association's legacy, aspirations, and whether it’s possible to reclaim a neighborhood through art.
Yang Shi: This is the end of a chapter. I must ask you, what have you learned about Canal Street over the years?
We realized that Canal Street was the starting point for most of our interests and worldviews. It has always been a space that finds value and innovation amidst the dregs and castoffs. It’s a space where generations of immigrants and marginalized peoples have landed and gotten their start. Inhabiting the old storefront daily, we learned more about the long history of the block as a channel of waste, overflow and surplus.
Run me through your research process.
Meander as a method. We basically hang out and see what happens. We talk to whoever happens to come by and follow the threads of those conversations wherever they may lead. We take our status as an association seriously and embrace associative thinking to the fullest. We are interested in creating situations that allow for the poetic collision of ideas.
Speaking of poetry, Canal Street Research Association started from your curiosity towards the poetics of mistranslations on bootleg t-shirts. Can you elaborate on that?
We began researching the non-standard poetic English that appears on bootleg clothing during a residency in Beijing in 2015. It was there we coined the term “shanzhai lyrics” to describe this phenomenon and to refer to our work as Shanzhai Lyric. Shanzhai is the Chinese word for counterfeit and translates as “mountain hamlet,” referring to a place on the outskirts of an empire where bandits redistribute stolen goods among those there. This concept of shanzhai, and the liberating possibilities of counterfeiting as a way to destabilize assumptions around ownership and theft, is at the heart of our project.
What have you learned about bootleg that’s specific to Canal Street?
We are fascinated by the contradictions inherent in how the counterfeits industry is criminalized as theft here. Yet the backdrop to all of this is a much larger theft of land—first by the colonizers who settled lower Manhattan and today by landlords who sit on vacant properties to falsely inflate their value.
Can you tell me about the happenings at the loft that were inspired by Canal Zone, a legendary party organized by and for artists in 1979?
Canal Zone was a legendary party held at 533 Canal in 1979, where uptown and downtown artists were invited to create a communal, sprawling work on the walls of a 5,000-square-foot warehouse. Taking its name from the Panama Canal Zone, an unincorporated U.S. territory at the time, anyone feeling lost or in-between could find themselves in this exceptional zone. Last year we started living in an empty loft, a full floor of a vacant office building that was rented to us at a special Covid rate, ten times below “market rate.” There, we were able to finally live in the neighborhood where we grew up, a dream that had long seemed unattainable. We could gaze out at the traffic on Canal Street and continue our research by talking to our neighbors. We held screenings, exhibitions, community meetings, markets, and parties.
Have you shown any of your work exhibited at museums to a greater public outside of the usual art community?
In spring of 2021, the landlord at our storefront space asked us to leave the premises, as he did not appreciate our activities, which he felt were not art. And at that same moment, we were invited to participate as artists in the Greater New York exhibition at MoMA PS1. So during the months of the exhibition, we decided to trace the buried currents and currencies that flow between development projects on Canal Street and in Long Island City. We invited our Canal Street collaborators to visit us at PS1 and experience their wares in this new context. But we always feel the work is most alive in spaces that don’t read as art spaces — for instance, in a storefront, because retail space is more familiar to people who don’t make a habit of going to museums.
After we last spoke in the summer, you went to Paris for a residency at Cité internationale des arts in Paris. How did it go?
Officially, we were in residence at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris. But unofficially, we were in residence at the Musée de la Contrefaçon (the Museum of the Counterfeit). We say unofficially because they stopped responding to our emails, which we suspect have something to do with our difference of opinion on counterfeits. Indeed, the Musée was created by the Union des Fabricants (UNIFAB) at the beginning of the century to monitor the flow of contraband goods crossing the French border. It continues to fulfill this function by training border guards in the identification of counterfeits while raising public awareness of their alleged evils. Its board of directors includes the heads of many major luxury brands, all of whom have a vested interest in promoting the superiority of their products and vilifying imitators.
You are part of a group show that just opened in Montreal at the Canadian Center for Architecture. What can visitors expect?
We are taking part in the exhibition Retail Apocalypse at the Canadian Center for Architecture. The third and last phase in this three-part exhibition addresses the way defunct retail spaces have been repurposed. We plan to recreate a key element from our initial Canal Street Research Association storefront: the Timeline, which was a series of photos we took of every building on Canal Street that visitors were invited to annotate with their own histories.
What’s next for the Canal Street Research Association?
This fall, we debuted a new experiment in reprogramming anti-theft technologies as part of the group show SIREN (some poetics) at the Amant Foundation in Brooklyn. We also presented a continuation of our research on alternative currencies for the Printed Matter Art Book Fair. In October, we meandered alongside a show of Yuji Agematsu and Tauba Auerbach’s works at The Clark. And from our new subterranean digs on Canal and Wooster we are continuing work on a series of what we call bootlegs — or re-stagings — of ephemeral Canal Street histories in which we recreate moments from the block’s complicated past and then document these recreations through photos and films that blur the line between real and fake. Our “Basement Cinema” series pays homage to the legacy of kung-fu movie houses along Canal Street. Our first event, titled “Outlaws of the Marsh” will take place Thursday, December 1st, inaugurating a phase of research looking at marshes as insurrectionary spaces—alongside a continuation of our delving into counterfeits, corruption, and underground poetics.