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.