This text is a preview to the Shanzhai Lyrics contribution to the next issue of Press & Fold magazine, coming out this fall.
FREEDON echoes freedom but it has lost one line. The alteration of M into N in the moments of
manufacture reveals the hollowness of the word, hobbling along, missing something.
Taking delight in nonstandard English, FREEDON offers an ethics of error, valorising a ‘broken’
English for its ability to astutely and humorously comment upon a contemporary life that in
many ways feels broken. In its half-hearted imitation of the English ‘freedom,’ FREEDON is
at once a poor copy, where something seems to have gone awry, and a demonstration of joyous
abandon: the FREEDON to circulate freely, to don whatever and disregard the rules.
The title of this article comes from a particularly poignant t-shirt found in Hong Kong last year. What appears to be a spelling mistake can be a conceptual opening. Rejection of the standard carves a path towards poetic insight unmoored from correctness. ‘Mistakes’ reveal a certain agency, the labour and gesture of the human hand. FREEDON is a moment of freedom from the imposition of ‘freedom.’ It is the refusal of an empty claim. FREEDON calls out freedom’s bluff.
In the Pearl River Delta, where an abundance of the world’s goods are made for export, alternate markets circulate items known as shanzhai. In English, we might say counterfeit, or bootleg, or fake. But in our findings these translations aren’t quite right.
In Chinese, shanzhai literally means mountain hamlet, suggesting an area where outlaws would stockpile stolen resources to redistribute among those on the margins. The word shanzhai retains this sense of subversive resistance and rejects the very notion of a single, original, rightful owner.
In shanzhai collaborations between seamstress and machine, the loom is a potential instrument of rebellion. In snatched moments on unsanctioned tools, the shanzhai shirt as stolen product protests a larger theft: theft of land, theft of resources, theft of time.
The hybrid language that appears on shanzhai clothing – mostly made by women and an object of fascination and derision around the world – can also be read as ‘shanzhai lyrics,’ a feminist project of appropriation poetics, a form of écriture féminine written from and on the body. A la Nasrullah Mambrol’s description of écriture féminine as conceptualized by Helene Cixous, shanzhai writing is also "characterised by disruptions in the text such as gaps, silences, puns, new images... incomprehensible and inconsistent... it is attributed to centuries of suppression of the female voice, which now speaks in a borrowed language." 1 Wantonly rearranging a borrowed tongue, it destabilizes hierarchy, and makes space for new insights at the site of non-normative language.
LIVING IN POVERTY DOESN’T MEAN
STERILITY, IN THE FACE OF
F THE PESSIMISTIC
THINKING ABOUT THE
FUTURE STATE OF THE
THE RESULT OF MORE
LIBERAL IDEAS KEEP
CLOSE TO LIFE.
ARE CREATED BASED ON
ISSUES LIKE MEDITA TION
BLOWED AWAY BY MIST.
THE NEUTRAL AND
EXPLORE WHAT WE NEED
INESCAPABLE REALITY IS
THROUGH PLAIN AND
These T-shirts model what we might call shanzhai tactics: subverting hierarchy through exaggerated mimicry.
Logos become symbols that mock the hyperbole of branding.
Language is transformed into an unspooling pattern.
These T-shirts model what we might call shanzhai tactics: subverting hierarchy through exaggerated mimicry. Logos become symbols that mock the hyperbole of branding. Language is transformed into an unspooling pattern.
Dear my boss,
I don’t want to was i for the weekens
I’m going to find my happiness
(Skateboard, Read a boot Surf,
Travel, Dance Seep)
SO I WILL QUIT!! Happiness Makes Please confirm business sense
Vogue Meili On theaicxa iswafrcoj the the aicxae mesor the
The rampant interweaving of branded trademarks, plagiarized material,
and unrecognizable content destabilizes clear distinctions between original and copy,
undermining claims to intellectual property rights. And yet, the rich and powerful continue
to determine the parameters of who gets fined or jailed for violating them. As the popularity
of shanzhai grows, Western corporations have begun making their own shanzhai inspired lines –
shanzhai shanzhai. In its Canal Street shanzhai-style pop-up shop, the brand Diesel sold DEISEL merchandise,
capitalizing on the aesthetics of counterfeit and the appeal of a deliberate flaw. Despite this cheeky
homage, who gets called (and sued for being) a bootlegger has to do with the continued delineation and
protection of private property for a small elite. Corporate entities can afford to defend their plagiarism
as innovation; the smaller operations of the secondary market cannot.
FREEDOM OF THE
I N D E S P E N S I B L E
Largely made from appropriated materials, shanzhai writing can be
read as evidence of what Marxist feminist scholar Sylvia Federici, in her text
Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, refers to as
“everyday forms of resistance,” the pilfering, smuggling, poaching, and piracy
that have long been the daily survival and subversion methods of the underclass
to enact the redistribution of goods. A specifically feminist framing of shanzhai
fashion production links the daily uncompensated labour of women that enabled the
development of capitalism with contemporary issues of unequal access to the wealth
generated by technological innovation.
LOVE FOR $ALAD
Life is too short to waste any time on wondering what other people think about you In the first place, if they had better things going on in their lives, they would have the time to sit around and talk about you What’s important to me is not others’ opinions of me, but what’s important to me is my opinion of myself
Today, the manual aspects of computing, the labour of inputting information, are still mostly done by female workers who perform the daily, thankless tasks upon which a male-dominated industry depends in order to demonstrate rapid growth and the smoothness of its apparently disembodied operations.
These underpaid and invisibilized workers are referred to as ‘mechanical turks,’ a term that retains its orientalising origins from when it was coined to describe the amazing human-machine hybrid of a chess-playing robot dressed in Turkish clothing (in order to hide the real human inside the machine, moving the pieces with magnets and receiving no credit).
The secondary clothing market in China might be said to bridge the ‘women’s tasks’
of both textile manufacture and computer programming to design and produce shanzhai
garments available for purchase in markets and on e-commerce sites. The language that
erupts from the speed of shifting global trends, filtered through the particular gendered
economics and mechanics of garment design, production, sale, and purchase, is displayed atop
the garments, a literal speaking the body.
THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A WOMAN ARTIST
FEAR IS THE MOST ELEGANT WEAPON
YOUR HANDS ARE NER MESSY
THREATENING BODILY HARMIS CRUDH
WORK INSTEAD ON MINDS AND BELIED
PLAY INSECURITIESLLIKEA PIANO BE
ANXIETYTO EXCRUCLATING LBVELSOU
GENTLY UNDERANNE THE PUBLIC
CONFIDENCE PANICDRIVERS BLNDMAY
IYER CLIFFS ANLTBBRNATIVBIS
FERDS ON FEAR PUT THIS EFFICIENT PROCESS IN MOTION
Shanzhai garments are so fetishized in the West precisely because they do not conceal the labour of production and the anxiety of surplus but instead articulate its contours in a hybrid machine-human language that speaks to the absurdities and inequalities of accumulation.
A major site of terrifying excess, the fashion industry encapsulates the catastrophe of waste. The rush of words that covers and smothers the shanzhai T-shirt is at once constructed of and deconstructs the contradictions of abundance; shanzhai writing is a costume of carnage within the carnivalesque performance of both violence and delight. We babble and exclaim. Freed, and on and on. FREEDON.
1 Mambrol, N. (2016). ‘Ecriture Feminine’, on: Literary Theory and Criticism website, May 14, 2016. See https://literariness.org/2016/05/14/ecriture-feminine.
2 Schultze, E. (2015). ‘Exploitation or emancipation? Women workers in the garment industry’, on: Fashion Revolution website. See www.fashionrevolution.org/exploitation-or-emancipation-women-workers-in-the-garment-industry.
3 Federici, S. (2014). Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation. Autonomedia. p. 17.
4 Wen, S. (2014). ‘The Ladies Vanish’, on The New Inquiry website, November 11, 2014. See https://thenewinquiry.com/the-ladies-vanish.
FREEDON, Shanzhai Lyric, Canton Road Market, Hong Kong Courtesy Display Distribute
– – –
This text is published on the occasion of a current cycle of work that seeks to put shanzhai lyrics in conversation with artist practices that occupy the ‘non-serious’ sites of gossip, fashion accessory, textile, glitch, and theft. Drawing on Marxist feminist discourses that examine the contemporary conditions sustaining the historical invisibilizing of women’s labour (for instance, in fashion production or as data processors in IT industries), here shanzhai lyric is considered as an unauthorized collective creative process that refutes the logic of private ownership and fosters instead the active redistribution of property. The work has been supported by the Women’s Art Library, Special Collections & Archive at Goldsmiths (London), as year-long ‘Archive in Residence,’ and anticipates a larger presentation of Shanzhai Lyric’s ‘The Incomplete Poem’ (2015-) at Abrons Art Center in New York, Fall 2019.
A project of Display Distribute, the Shanzhai Lyric is an inquiry into global logistics and linguistics through the prism of technological aberration and nonofficial cultures. By collecting, archiving, and studying the experimental text that often appears on counterfeit (shanzhai) clothing coming out of China and proliferating across the globe, the project looks specifically at how the language of counterfeit uses mimicry, hybridity, and permutation to both revel in and reveal the artifice of global hierarchies, exploring the potential of mis-translation and nonsense as utopian world-making.
This project was realized with support from the Women’s Art Library/Feminist Review Bursary, RADMIN, and Life Sport.