Shanzhai Biennial

“你這個剝皮的野獸!“ 農民慘叫道 / "You’re a man-eating beast!” the peasant cries out
2014
Titan MaxiCASE, Standard RAL Painted RED (RAL 3024), 2m cable and plug, fluorescent tubes – 5 rows, photo print on paper
119 × 168 × 16.5 cm (46 ⅞" × 66 ⅛" × 6 ½")
Edition of 3 plus III AP

Installation view: Shanzhai Biennial No. 3: 100 Hamilton Terrace Project Native Informant @ Frieze London 2014

正當老農夫的兒子上前和房東老劉對執 他立馬被國民黨的軍人和密秘組織的走狗給攔結著 / The old peasant’s son is held back by a Kuomingtang soldier and a secret society henchman as he rushes up to argue with landlord Liu
2014
Titan MaxiCASE, Standard RAL Painted RED (RAL 3024), 2m cable and plug, fluorescent tubes – 5 rows, photo print on paper
119 × 168 × 16.5 cm (46 ⅞" × 66 ⅛" × 6 ½")
Edition of 3 plus III AP

Installation view: Shanzhai Biennial No. 3: 100 Hamilton Terrace Project Native Informant @ Frieze London 2014

Installation view: Shanzhai Biennial No. 3: 100 Hamilton Terrace Project Native Informant 2014

Shanzhai Biennial No. 3: 100 Hamilton Terrace
2014
HD video
03:22
Edition of 3 plus III AP

Installation view: Shanzhai Biennial Presents: TASTE®-Makers™, New Museum Next Generation Triennial Party, New York 2013

Installation view: Shanzhai Biennial Presents: TASTE®-Makers™, New Museum Next Generation Triennial Party, New York 2013

Shanzhai Biennial No. 2
2013
HD video, LED curtain, sound
Dimensions variable
Edition of 3 plus III AP

Shanzhai Biennial No. 2
2013
HD video, LED curtain, sound
Dimensions variable
Edition of 3 plus III AP

Shanzhai Biennial No. 1
2012
Mixed media
Dimensions variable
Unique

Shanzhai Biennial No. 1
2012
Mixed media
Dimensions variable
Unique

CV

Shanzhai Biennial

Projects:

2016 Nuqqat Conference, Kuwait
2014 The Shanzhai Library by Shanzhai Biennial, DISown, Red Bull Studios, New York, curated by DIS Magazine
2014 Shanzhai Biennial for global lifestyle/fashion brand TELFAR, Autumn/Winter 2014 runway show
2013 Shanzhai Biennial No. 2, Centre Pompidou, Paris
2013 Shanzhai Biennial for global lifestyle/fashion brand TELFAR, Spring/Summer 2014 presentation in collaboration with Future Brown (Fatima Al Qadiri, Nguzunguzu, J-Cush) & MOCAtv, New York
2013 Shanzhai Biennial No. 2, ProBio, Expo 1/MoMA PS1, New York, curated by Josh Kline
2013 Shanzhai Biennial Presents: TASTE®-Makers™, New Museum Next Generation Triennial Party, New York, USA, curated by Ryan Trecartin & Lauren Cornell
2012 Shanzhai Biennial No. 1, Beijing Design Week, Beijing Release of Shanzhai Biennial No. 1 campaign within the art issue of Modern Weekly

PRESS / REVIEWS

31 Oct 2015

SBI :: Fake it till you make it

Harry Burke Spike NO. 45 (Autumn 2015)


27 Jul 2015

SBI :: Shanzhai

Shanzhai is neither an Instagram geotag nor a city in China hosting a biennial— despite our multiple efforts to make this the case. As co-president of the Shanzhai Biennial (with Avena Gallagher and Babak Radboy), we have been active since fall 2012; with three installments (SB1 at Beijing Design Week, SB2 at MoMA PS1, and SB3 at Frieze Art Fair) in the course of three years, we are known as the biennial with the fastest turnaround in the whole industry. The original Mandarin phrase shanzhai translates as “fortified mountain refuge,” a place where ancient bandits hid in secrecy to stockpile goods and wealth, illustrating the contemporary mechanisms of a Robin Hood role model for the redistribution of wealth and cultural capital. Originally coined to refer to illegal electronic goods of poor quality from the southern city of Shenzhen, it has quickly and exponentially risen to a cultural genre of appropriation, combination, recreation, and parody applied to modern consumerism: shanzhai garments, goods, magazines, brands, but also pop stars, TV shows, gas stations, and museums.

Constantly reappropriated by recent tropes of late western capitalism (think of Jeremy Scott for Moschino and M.I.A. using Versace bootlegs to produce a capsule collection for Versace), the genre known as shanzhai stands as one of the most emblematic and original forms of creative appropriation in the cultural industries. Through an unfortunate pseudo-intellectual formalism, it is often reduced to the simple notion of counterfeit; in fact it produces the exact opposite. The sole purpose of the counterfeit luxury good is to mimic the original and simulate equivalent social status for its owner, while a shanzhai good is an intellectual construction and assemblage of cultural symbols and icons that encompasses a power of attraction. Some of the most sophisticated manifestations can be read in multiple ways and gather several cultural references into a single entity.

Far from Chinese middle class preoccupations with symbols of luxury and wealth—closer to the grassroots labor crushed by multinationals in a cynically unshackled production economy—a message is sent towards the upper classes: the true arrogant and libertarian display of countercultural production muscle backfiring at shamelessly unethical production models. Or, as my co-president Babak Radboy says: “How to distill the whole world into a pair of sneakers.” M+ curator Aric Chen calls shanzhai the “pop art of China” in that it is a literal translation of China’s understand- ing of the emergence of its own intellectual leadership in the integration and transformation of western sensibilities and twentieth-century capitalism. By reversing the engineering of capitalism for its own benefit, a shadow industry of anonymous and collaborative ghost-design has risen. With international ramifications and systems of distribution in the Middle East and Central America, it is as impossibly unquantifiable as Cosa Nostra itself.

After years of studying the mechanisms of shanzhai through our travels and branding experiments (“a multinational brand posing as an art-project posing as an multinational brand posing as a biennial”), our enterprise is clear: being shanzhai, not acting like it. Each of our projects is carefully planned, financed, advertised, and eventually disclosed to a global audience. The starting point is always an invitation (from a cultural institution or brand) that triggers a mechanism within our working process: local social components become specific sources of inspiration and commentary to unfold through our advertising campaigns and a physical result. For each biennial, we navigate concepts and contexts to refresh the aura of our brand. As Radboy told T, “the advertising campaign has more in common with a military campaign: It is first and foremost concerned with territory and not cash.”

Cyril Duval LEAP No. 33 (27 July 2015)


1 Nov 2014

SBI :: Artforum Critic’s Pick

Perhaps having grown tired of the now well-worn economic arc of the gentrification of neighborhoods, which artists have in turn already gentrified, the collective Shanzhai Biennial—Babak Radboy, Cyril Duval, and Avena Gallagher—has embraced the poorly concealed machinations of urban regeneration by slickly rebranding the process into a prudent and aspirational investment for this exhibition. Their misleading moniker, which signifies neither a real biennial nor a particular place but refers to the Chinese term for knocking off designer goods for the black market, figures the artist as a luxury accessory sold through the art market’s lifestyle brand.

The installation SHANZHAI BIENNIAL NO. 3: 100 HAMILTON TERRACE, 2014, is the sole work in this show, and features an opulent, red-lacquered and carpeted real- estate office selling a fifty-million-dollar (or thirty-two million-pound) property located at the titular address in London. The absurd price was flaunted at the Frieze Art Fair last month with a similar installation in this gallery’s booth. Both iterations of the work feature a glossy advertising campaign composed of backlit posters and sleek videos. Created in consultation with London brokerage firm Aston Chase, the ads’ imagery mimics tropes of high-end fashion, with groups of models posed around a vast indoor swimming pool at the property or sitting in pairs looking into the distance—evoking a vacant luxury. With this polished campaign—searing in its execution—the collective steps in front of the seemingly inevitable problem of artists’ urban displacement by harnessing their commercial value for their own ends. In drawing a big red circle around the next hot property, this group’s members stand to gain directly from speculative real-estate markets that usually crush artists.

Jennifer Piejko Artforum November 2014


18 Jul 2013

SBI :: An Interview with Babak Radboy

Frank chats on distribution of wealth, identity politics and the growing economies of Africa and China

I first came across Babak Radboy, or at least a concept of him, online. A mysterious construct connected to the Shanzhai Biennial website, forever “COMING SOON”, an avatar of the appropriated Bad Boy logo on his Twitter account, an illuminating and amusing Q&A with Fatima Al Qadiri.

“We could talk about the elephant in the room which is the application of so much Marxist methodology to what is essentially advertising,” says the real Radboy, artist, art director and, from where I’m (figuratively) standing, neo-Marxist. It’s true that, between the slightly unsettling “offness” of art collaboration-as-reapplied branding strategy of Shanzhai and his art direction in Kanye West’s ‘Power’ video, you could be fooled into thinking that Radboy’s is an embrace of capitalism, despite its unworkability becoming increasingly clear. But, in the same way that the irreverent wit of Middle Eastern art and culture magazine, Bidoun (where he is Creative Director), points to the inherent prejudices of Western ‘compassion’, Radboy critiques and subverts the capitalist system through his apparent collusion but actual subversion of it.

That’s no more explicit than in his most recent work with Yodit Ecklund on the marketing strategy for sustainable and fair-trade African surf wear label, Bantu. There, with some clever ideas and no ad budget, the project manages exposure through editorial spreads, at the same time as drawing attention to condescending and inaccurate Western perceptions of the African continent –namely as one blighted by famine, poverty and disease –by reclaiming and playing with these misconceptions through slogans like “Surfering Africans” and “End Hunger, Eat My Shorts”.

Because, as Lucy Chinen says in a recent interview with aqnb, “being subversive now doesn’t necessarily mean [being] controversial”, and for Radboy at least, he saves the scandal for his interviews.

aqnb: It’s interesting that you’re marketing Bantu through editorial. Do you see it as a subversion of current systems that function on so-called “immaterial labour”?

Babak Radboy: Yeah sure. It’s, in some ways, an application of my formal work with Shanzhai Biennial: the basic thesis that if you do something interesting enough you don’t need an ad budget (or any budget, up to a point).

But I think the notion of subversion and also ‘immaterial labor’ have become a short- hand that doesn’t refer to very much any more. When financial services operate at 145 per cent of the US GDP, there can be nothing subversive about immateriality. Also, if this particular work is subverting the gatekeepers and bypassing protocol to gain visibility, then it is also subverting the space allotted ‘real’ artists who’s work is ostensibly not instrumental in selling something; unicorns who trade in glances and inspire us all with their special visions.

I honestly think this is basically just decent advertising, fitted to a certain scale and market. It ignores the protocols, which do not serve it and invokes the ones that do.

aqnb: What’s your personal interest in places like China and Africa?

BR: Everyone is interested in China and China is interested in Africa. Objectively, Africa is probably about to become the most interesting place in history.

aqnb: You’ve been to China but have you been to Africa?

BR: All parties agree Egypt is not in Africa, so no.

I was in China launching Shanzhai Biennial when I first saw CCTV [China Central Television]’s only English language channel, Africa News. They presented a specific narrative about Africa, it was, of course, a kind of propaganda, it just happened to be quite a bit less stupid than everyone else’s propaganda.

Here is Africa, with over one billion people, under 20 [years-old], who need almost everything. From a certain angle it looks a lot like 100 more years of progressive capitalism. This is, of course, nothing to celebrate but when I say progressive I do mean it, however grudgingly.

Of course, I’m aware that it is not so simple to imagine the continent is a real fix for the labour crisis of capitalism or the extinction of the western middle class... I’m aware that the ‘development’ of Africa is not inevitable, and that there is an equal amount of ugliness in both its success and failure...

aqnb: What is the goal with this new Bantu campaign?

BR: Well, for me it was about articulating a different vision of Africa, in terms of how it is perceived, how it operates, in shorthand, in images and the imagination. But, to be clear, we are talking about images and not a place. It is not about being true to form, the relationship between something as undesirable as a continent of nation states and the genius of the people who live there can never be resolved in something like a narrative or image. For me the point is the current image of Africa being hustled is an insult, an embarrassment for everyone involved, profoundly harmful and, conveniently, also completely inaccurate.

aqnb: You’ve mentioned that the focus would be on playing with pre-existing notions about Africa. Do you think there’s an element of condescension in these well intentioned, though patronising, attitudes toward ‘developing’ countries?

BR: Yes. Most of what Oscar Wilde said still holds. The entire discourse of human rights and philanthropy is deeply anti-political and besides that a pretty complete failure. The object here is to avoid at all costs the personal agency and political power of the polis, even if it takes half your personal fortune. In that sense African aid has been a success.

aqnb: In your experience, have you seen a similar attitude in other cultures or do you think it’s specific to the West?

BR: It is not specific to the west ethnically or geographically, just historically. It is the moral outlook of neo-liberal capitalism making bedfellows of activists, corporations, governments and academics in one giant, boring sublimation of class struggle.

The thing I found most profoundly striking about China, that I was amazed I had never heard before from travellers, was the complete absence of this specific and seemingly universal “soft-left” complex of guilt and condescension. Not only on the side of the ‘privileged’ for the poor but the other way as well. It is a breath of fresh air. This is why you cannot get service in a Chinese restaurant. It is not some kind of primordial aspect of the Chinese character, at the beginning of the 20th century there was probably no polis more servile than the Chinese. It is an effect of the Cultural Revolution, pure and simple. Class struggle is still on the surface, for now anyway.

aqnb: With Shanzhai, when you say the pedagogical model of exploring it would be more exploitative than your particular process of value creation, do you mean that in terms of isolating it from this dynamic exchange that makes things like Shanzhai so exciting, or in terms of Western condescension?

BR: I think a lot of people in my field get confused at this distinction — and think racism is like a truffle hidden in texts and images. Third stream readers of writers like Edward Said, who we call post-Marxist, forget that it’s post-Marxist in that it is after Marx; that they were applying his methods to changing circumstances. There was a real political content and a real economic critique and all we take from it is this identity thing. Especially now, when the west is slipping so quickly, it starts to become ridiculous to worry about Chinese feelings.

So this is my grossly simplified pro-racism argument: give me money, power, mobility, equal standing under the law and sovereignty and you call me whatever you want. Khaleeji’s are the best example of this, someone who can trace their family back a millennia and buy your house a few thousand times over can stand to be bemused by your racism or your charity.

But it isn’t actually a simple matter. There is definitely a failure of the imagination at work. I would point out that it is precisely the most compassionate and diversity hungry Westerners who will surprise you with a rant about the inhumanity of the Chinese, on human rights, the environment, ‘character’ etc. It is uncanny to observe how perfectly this ‘lefty’ perspective fits into state interests in global capitalist competition.

aqnb: It makes me think about assumptions made about the perceived totalitarianism of other non-Western governments. Not that I necessarily agree with those political systems but there are many parallels between the attitudes and the uncritical embrace of, say, Communism and the highly problematic approach to democracy in countries like the US, UK and Australia.

BR: This is another very contentious and long conversation to have. I will risk scandal and say that in my personal view there is no discrepancy of freedom between China and most western nations, just a radically different arrangement of pretty much the same amount of freedom.

Most of the people I met in China disagreed strongly on this point, they were deeply pessimistic about their government, but, then again, the people I spoke to spoke English and hung around galleries. Almost by dint of this fact alone represented certain class interests and/or aspirations.

I think the prevailing narrative puts a truly disproportionate emphasis on freedom of expression when considering the freedom or un-freedom of a place or people, and this serves a truly instrumental function in international relations. This is how the state and business interests have effectively colonized the left.

In the case of China, especially, we are fed the worst kind of propaganda in terms of how news is filtered. Chinese state repression includes many policies, which are downright heroic when compared to those of western nations. The government has fought a pitched battle, for example, against speculation on real estate because shelter is what you might call a human right. Rents are to be proportionate to wages. The monumental gains of organized labor in China is completely ignored by the western press who are, I imagine, waiting for one on free speech or religion.

In any case it is not simple and betrays not only a soft cultural bias but concrete national and, or corporate expediencies.

aqnb: What are your thoughts on the appropriation of Middle Eastern cultural tropes, for example, do you take particular offence to it?

BR: Not really [laughs]. It’s like the Seinfeld joke where Jerry is not offended as a Jew, but as a comedian... I’m offended as an artist by someone like Olympia Scarry, but not as an Iranian.

aqnb: Do you think that, as political and economic power shifts towards countries like China and Africa, that those attitudes will change? Do you see those shifts happening already?

BR: I really don’t know. I see more evidence of increases in overt identitarian conflict. The gist of it is that multiculturalism has always been a supplement to superiority. I’m not sure it can survive without it. I think the best we can hope for is the rise in a healthy and sincere apathy towards ethnic and national differences.

Jean Kay AQNB 18 July 2013


15 Jun 2013

SBI :: Shanzhai Biennial

Words by Kevin McGarry

“We lie a lot. We’re based on misrepresentation in many forms.” What could be a more honest disclaimer about Shanzhai Biennial than this, told to me by its co-president Babak Radboy? Radboy, the creative director who led the design of Bidoun magazine, was speaking about the venture he runs with Cyril Duval, whose artistic alter ego is Item Idem, and Avena Gallagher, a stylist who also collaborates with Bernadette Corporation. Looking at Shanzhai Biennial through the lens of contemporary art, the fact that it’s built of untruths is not inherently provocative. It’s more a validation that contemporary art can be an appropriate rubric for it. Famously, lies that edify are what art is, and Shanzhai Biennial’s enlightened musings erode the varnishes that encase creative enterprises in knowable classifications. But this is not to say that Shanzhai Biennial is about breaking molds. Conversely, they show a preternatural ability to conform to concurrent facades—most squarely, art project and luxury brand—like a Darwinianly super- powered, conceptual organism, which preemptively diversifies rather than adapts.

Deceit begins in the project’s naming. Shanzhai Biennial is not an exhibition, and so it’s probably not a biennial. (But who would go on the line and box in our most high-minded platform for aesthetic inquiry with fixed criteria!) Most evidence identifies Shanzhai Biennial as a fashion label. The placeholder standing in for the company website is a splash page titled “COMING SOON.” On top, an animated gif rapidly cycles through thumbnails of corrupted corporate logos: sideways McDonald’s arches, American Idol rephrased as “I Am I do!,” Calvin Klein’s initials tweaked to read “ok,” and several constellations of Chinese characters which, to most Western eyes, mean only anything we’re told they mean. Below, an awkwardly tall Chinese model dressed in a navy cardigan patterned with the Apple logo apes the toothy grimace of a Yue Minjun painting, an intentional counterfeit of the artist’s trademark caricatures.

This image is taken from Shanzhai Biennial’s first advertising campaign, which ran not in a self- published leaflet but in China’s most widely read lifestyle magazine, Modern Weekly (circulation: one million). The Apple-checked sweater is a product from the debut collection, which along with similarly brand-abstracted knock-offs like a “Holisister” top and “The South Place” jacket (hacking the respective identities of clothing companies Hollister and The North Face), was presented as a sensationally choreographed highlight of Beijing Design Week in September 2012. A spotlighted, velvet rope-lined red carpet led bold-faced guests not to a runway show or to a more situational presentation of the clothes, but to a dead end step-and-repeat marked with another batch of logos. There were no actual clothes present.

Today audiences are prepared, obligingly or not, to read almost anything that occurs under the auspices of art as performance. Often enough, these interpretations seem drummed up as a substitution for lack of meaning and ought to be discredited. But what accompanies the expansion of pop rhetoric around performance art is a broadening consciousness of the processes by which evidence and effects associated with events—theatrical, virtual, fictitious, etc.—are fetishized as instruments of value. Shanzhai Biennial does not advertise itself as engaging with any dimension of performance, but these processes are at the heart of their creative logics and thus their brand (and vice versa).

Are Shanzhai Biennial’s clothes for sale? Not at the time of printing. Will they be soon? Maybe.

 
 

Do they truly exist as objects? Ostensibly. Is the project diminished if they don’t? The importance of whatever Shanzhai Biennial tangibly does—design clothes, for instance—is eclipsed by all the collateral evidence that circulates around their activities. Rendered so explicitly, these circumstances are less prevalent in art than in fashion, where it’s a well-known fact that the most important names are kept in business not by selling wardrobes but by successfully marketing (at great expense) materially fleeting incarnations of their brands, like bags and perfumes. What is anything but explicit, however, is how Shanzhai Biennial represents itself to its core audience of meta-savvy readers of culture who are familiar with the imposter model of generating critique from within an infiltrated industry. Shanzhai Bienial cultivates evasiveness as a Mobius strip around which art and fashion must chase each other, and this is a more sustainable means of inquiry in an age that’s desperately in need of perpetual motion machines.

The other deceptive thing about the name Shanzhai Biennial is that Shanzhai is not a city in China. The translation is “mountain stronghold,” referring to places built in craggy villages for stockpiling contraband outside the reach of authorities. There’s a political aspect to the word that suggests the lawbreakers are Robin Hood types, within their ethical rights to do wrong, perhaps a similar entitlement as what’s advocated by free culture vigilantes. In popular usage, Shanzhai most often refers to the prolific industry of items clumsily appropriating brand names. This is of course the phenomenon Shanzhai Biennial riffs on in all their designs and interventions.

 
 

Errors in language are an intrinsic difference between Shanzhai and counterfeit. A fake is designed to pass as the real thing whereas a Shanzhai product is designed to evoke the real thing, but also to be caught as a fraud. Contrary to any assumptions about funny ESL mistakes, most Shanzhai products use spellings that are intentionally incorrect. As an exercise in near rhyme, they join concepts through poetry while creating subtle disruptions in an globally oversaturated matrix of visual referents. Dents like these command more attention and are arguably clearer signs than the slick source codes they adulterate.

In collaboration with lawyer and curator Pati Hertling, Shanzhai Biennial recently developed a clothing tag that hosts an entire waiver and release of liability indemnifying the company from claims that might be brought against them as a result of the public display of their bastardized logos. The large swath of fine print is draped over the potentially offensive icon that appears on each garment, and in the spirit of those mattress disclaimers that are also not to be removed, if it is, the terms still apply. Under the eyes of the law, the project begins to make some distinctions here about what it is and what it is not. Item (E) requires the tag-tampering wearer to acknowledge that “Shanzhai Biennial is not an actual Biennial and is not involved in the business of exhibition or presenting works of art to the public.”

This unambiguous statement only corroborates the complexity of the project’s dubious status as a biennial. In black and white, sure, it isn’t one. But in these pages does it make sense to say that Shanzhai Biennial is not involved in presenting works of art to the public? A binding assurance that they are not integrates another system of interpretation and meaning-making— law— into an already crowded stream of consciousness following from their dissemination of images. In their propositions, Shanzhai Biennial abstains from pointing, winking, or making any anthropomorphized gestures that clue their audience into the rules of the games they, as cultural players, are inevitably playing. There is a resolute stillness in they how occupy their schizophrenic being. Is this Eastern mysticism at work? Could it be sold as such?

Kevin McGarry Kaleidoscope Issue 18 Summer 2013


13 Jun 2013

SBI :: Wear the Apple logo, because you can

The inside story of an art-fashion biennial inspired by China's bootlegging capital Shanzhai

Shanzhai is not an actual city. It’s an easy mistake to make for anyone unfamiliar with Chinese geography, in the same way that it would be impossible for a monolingual English speaker to realise that “conceptual artist” Wu Ting Ting is being mistranslated in the subtitles for the Shanzhai Biennial video for MoMA PS1’s ProBio exhibition. Wearing sunglasses that look like a Google search engine, Item Idem's Cyril Duval talks about how “massive” the Shanzhai scene is, stylist Avena Gallagher reserves her praise for the real city of Shanghai and Babak Radboy declares “everything that’s happening ends up getting distilled into a pair of sneakers”.

The slick campaign trailer for ‘Shanzhai Biennial No. 2’ (the second “biennial” since September last year) features Wu Ting Ting barely lip syncing to Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ sung in Mandarin, while wearing a misspelled rendering of a Head and Shoulders shampoo bottle in the form of a sequined dress. It’s all wrong, yet strangely right, as the Shanzhai Biennial trio dismiss any patronising reservations one might have over the cultural appropriation of a working class movement, begun in Chinese factories. Conscious of being exploited by big business, taking their skills and making their own equally as functional, darkly funny, versions of the luxury items workers make for next to nothing, these intriguing contortions of familiar imagery will eventually wind up in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where Radboy first encountered them.

As Creative Director of Middle Eastern art and culture magazine, Bidoun, he’s late for our interview because he’s been filming for an African surf line, Bantu. An Iranian-born American whose interests lie squarely with China and Africa, Radboy is the embodiment of a globalism that implicates every one of us in the “Shanzhai” phenomenon: “When you ask, ‘how did this pair of Obama shoes get made?’ The answer includes every piece of cargo that flows between oceans. It’s made by the entire system.”

Dazed Digital: Shanzhai Biennial is a campaign in support of something that’s coming but that something never comes. Is that playing on that idea of marketing as creating desire?
Babak Radboy: Definitely. We’re based on this Chinese cultural phenomenon, which is both specific to a massively developing country and also at a moment of late- capitalism. It’s this conversation between this massive production facility and late capitalism’s brand aura and intellectual property, so the two kind of create this unique event of Shanzhai, which ends up being pretty squarely a cultural phenomenon. It’s a kind of punk in China.

It all started just living in Chinatown and encountering these products. I make a lot of things and there’s no way I could reverse engineer how these objects are made, so I went online, researched and found out that that Chanel purse that says “Camel” on it is actually supposed to be funny in China. It actually represents this mix of irony, frustration and pride; it’s like a working class pride.

DD: So you’re talking about Shanzhai being a kind of punk, is that separate from the counterfeit industry?
BR: It’s related to counterfeit but it can be considered quite separate because, when you make Shanzhai, you’re not trying to pass it off as the original. You’re referencing it and sometimes you’re referencing it in a way that’s self-consciously absurd.

DD: But it’s not a subculture that’s divorced from the economy, it’s still small business.
BR: It’s highly identified with people who have just moved from the countryside, so Shanzhai factories are really small and made of family units. It’s technology, it’s clothing, it’s entertainment; there’s Shanzhai architecture, there are Shanzhai singers... They do this big spring gala programme, the big TV event in China, and a couple of years ago they started doing a fake one. They have CCTV [China Central Television] and some people started CCSTV, which is China Countryside Television [laughs]. They did a thing where their mike stands were made out of an umbrella and a toilet plunger, so there’s this totally grass roots, self-conscious irony, that has to do with mimesis.

DD: Where does it come from? Is there a long history of this sort of humour?
BR: I wouldn’t say that it’s that long. If you imagine the usual story arc of how one of these factories starts, which is, you move to a city from the countryside and you’re working in this really shitty factory, crazy hours. You’re making Prada bags, you’re making iPhones, you know how much they’re selling for and you know that no matter how long you work at that factory, you will never ever have this product, right? But you also learn how to use a serger, you learn how to use a welder, you learn how to basically make this shit.

So then you go out with your family and with your friends and you start making the ‘HiPhone’ and the ‘Dada bag’, that humour is going to be there because, first of all, your product is as good, in any functional sense, as any other one. It’s keying into the desire that years of investment have produced for those brands but, at the same time, it’s actually affordable for all the people in the factories, so there’s going to be this dark humour and that’s why you see it.

DD: It seems to me that the way that Shanzhai Biennial works is that, without offering a particular standpoint, it’s as insidious in its processes as the system that it both emulates and critiques.
BR: It’s true that this kind of work represents a point of view. It represents a certain fluency and a certain unspoken politics but I think it’s important that the effect of the work is really, truly not political. It’s really important to understand this type of work that way, which I do think is new.

The Shanzhai thing is seen as a critique of the art industry but, almost more interestingly, it’s also a critique of the fashion industry and people don’t quite pick up on that as much. I’ve been working in New York for a long time. My fiancée’s a stylist and I’ve seen labels come up, I’ve seen talent rise and fall. We’re in a situation where, if you’re a pretty successful line, you’re barely breaking even. That’s a symptom of late- Capitalism. Making things is not going to make you any money. The whole way that fashion makes sense of itself is disintegrating and Shanzhai is a part of that.

DD: So, if there were to be a point, it would be that there is no point?
BR: Yeah but, also, it’s a great one liner that we’re a brand without products but we have products, we’re coming out with two lines this summer and, in designing them true to Shanzhai, we’re trying to make them as absurd as possible. If you find this crazy Nike jumper that has Harry Potter and Obama on it, it’s kind of couture. It’s incredibly rare, in a way, and it’s incredibly contemporary. It has this charge to it and it feels really new and it’s expensive and it costs nothing. It’s the cheapest clothing in the world, made out of the shittiest material. If you could make a luxury line of this total plastic shit, your profit margins are going to be out of control because people want to make sure it’s genuinely cheap [laughs].
We are actually making products but the structure of the business and the relationship between the brand and the product is functionally pointless. None of the clothes in our first campaign, except for ‘The South Place’, which we made one copy of, actually exist.

It’s all done in PhotoShop. We have a campaign that doesn’t have a direct relation to the objects.

DD: So, basically, it’s all about mediation and nothing to do with a message.
BR: [laughs] That sounds like something I agree with.

Steph Kretowicz Dazed Digital 13 June 2013


12 Nov 2012

SBI :: SAY HAI TO SHANZHAI

Babak Radboy and Cyril Duval's Shanzhai Biennial Turns Luxury Branding On Its Ear, Aiming To Confuse As Much As Amuse

 

One thing that the fashion industry has never taken lightly is knockoffs. Brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry, and Tory Burch have all seen lookalike products sold at twilight along the crowded Chinatown corners of Canal Street—cheaply made, for a fraction of the cost. Some of these sartorial heavyweights have won multimillion- dollar lawsuits against the factories that manufacture these designer-imposter bags, sunglasses, cell phone cases, scarves, etc., sending the stewards of the sham assembly lines into colossal debt into perpetuity. Somehow still, somehow marvellously, the knockoffs continue to survive like atomic roaches.

When confronted with the work of Shanzhai Biennial, a new project by artists Babak Radboy and Cyril Duval (Item Idem), one reacts with a special type of confusion: Is this a fashion line? Are they selling knockoffs? Is it some kind of joke? Are these clothes real? Where can you buy them? Do you want them? These are some of the questions that may pop up. Clearly nodding to inherent hilarity of the skewed words and altered brand names that go along with knockoff culture (known overseas as "Shanzhai" branding), it's evident that the work is a clever, irreverent acknowledgment of the faux- fashion phenomenon as well as an exaggerated example of it—though many of the pieces co-opt specific brands, they are designed in styles said brands would never produce. V spoke with Radboy following the duo's debut at Beijing Design Week, where they premiered their first campaign in a building designed by Ai Wei Wei.

PATRIK SANDBERG How was the launch?
BABAK RADBOY The opening was pretty hilarious. We were invited to Beijing Design Week which opened over the course of three days at three separate locations around Beijing. Ours was on the second day in Caochangdi in a complex designed by Ai Wei Wei. When we realized that the opening night had no official ceremony planned, we decided to base our install around appropriating the entire event. We installed a red carpet that started at the entrance of the compound but then made a hard left— circumventing all the other exhibitors and leading directly to our space, ending on a step-and-repeat V.I.P. reception area. Fashion One TV and other journalists were there interviewing people as they showed up and we had a Chinese hostess dressed in one of our prototype products, handing out SB branded eye masks.

PS What was the inspiration behind the environment?
BR In the actual space, we built a façade of a retail store, running our campaign images as giant light boxes on acrylic behind glass and chrome doors that were totally locked. That was the basic idea. A lot of hype for a bright, empty façade.

PS To clear up any confusion: what is Shanzhai Biennial exactly? Will there be an actual collection available to buy?
BR The whole thing has been admittedly purposefully confusing. So much so, that the New York Times totally misrepresented it and we decided not to correct them! We want to encourage some misunderstanding and rumor to build an aura around the brand. The goal is to sell actual things—but we are still in the process of making any actual things.

PS Tell us about the campaign images. What inspired the poses?
BR We literally made our first campaign in Photoshop and then sent the images to sample makers to make the actual garments. The campaign ran as an 8-page advertorial in China's most mainstream magazine—Modern Weekly. It's a rip-off of the paintings of Chinese art-star Yue Minju, whose work is constantly being plagiarized and is available all over China. Each photo is based 100% on one of his horrible paintings. The photos were shot by Asger Carlsen and styled by Avena Gallagher, who is our fashion director.

Patrick Sandberg V Magazine 12 November 2012


1 Oct 2012

SBI :: Copy Cats