Corporate Aesthetics: Shanzhai Biennial

Advertising image for SHANZHAI BIENNIAL N°1. Photo Asger Carlsen, 2012.


In conjunction with a special section in Art in America‘s April issue (select articles available here, here, and here), A.i.A. presents a series of Web interviews exploring the role of corporations in contemporary art, architecture and design.

The Shanzhai Biennial is more ambitious than most, having occurred twice since its debut in 2012. Both a series of events (“biennials”) and the collective that produces them, Shanzhai Biennial had its first incarnation at Beijing Design Week, where a spot-lit red carpet led past a step-and-repeat banner of tweaked designer logos to a bright, empty and locked retail facade. A second iteration came as part of the Josh Kline-curated 2013 group show “ProBio” at New York’s MoMA PS1. Shanzhai Biennial contributed an LED-laden curtain on which played a video of actress and model Wu Ting Ting lip-syncing to a mangled Mandarin version of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Three “co-presidents”—stylist Avena Gallagher along with artists Babak Radboy and Cyril Duval—are behind the collaborative “meta-brand.” Shanzhai Biennial does to the contemporary art biennial as shanzhai—a Chinese mode of knockoff production and an open-source countercultural ethos—does to iPhones, designer handbags, popular singers and Chinese state television. Shanzhai has been trending in the Western media for a few years now as part of what Radboy calls a “narrative of [Chinese] cultural failure” (see last year’s shanzhai lion), but its agility in parasitizing its mega-brand hosts has more recently impressed and influenced global “maker” culture. With a ruthless impiety, Shanzhai Biennial borrows the cosmopolitan cachet of the international art event and snips its vestigial connection to art objects.

But the “biennial” projects are really only devised to punctuate Shanzhai Biennial’s self-professed aim of ascending into the ether of Louis Vuitton-level ubiquity—just replace “luxury” with its knock-off doppelganger.

Shanzhai Biennial has produced work for friends and peers—musician Fatima Al Qadiri, designer and DJ Telfar Clemens and DIS among them—in ways the co-presidents describe as both organic and opportunistic. Gallagher, Radboy and Duval spoke with A.i.A. via e-mail and over Skype about indefensible positions, tote bags and how to talk to the press.

NATE COHAN I recently saw a video in which you talk about “Shanzhai” as if it were an up-and-coming global city, and it got me thinking about the biennial form as an urban regeneration project that sells its city as a cosmopolitan center. Can we expect to see more of the city of Shanzhai?

BABAK RADBOY We would love to found the city; that’s definitely on the list. It started kind of as a joke. I think the first thing we did as Shanzhai Biennial was add signatures to our emails saying that we were co-presidents, and we immediately started getting these congratulations from people, who also asked, “so what’s Shanzhai like in February?

The phenomenon of shanzhai is deterritorialized at its core—in the same way that a global art market is so obsessed by and so based on territorial expansion, but at the same time has very little to say about the places that it’s in. Whether it’s the Gulf or Istanbul or Baku or China, it’s all Ubers and hotels. The idea of trying to turn something like shanzhai into a place makes a lot of sense.

The way we operate is really based on invitation and opportunity. All of us in some way or another are annoyed at a kind of traditional studio practice and the idea of warehousing art products and labor and waiting for someone to happily discover you, like you’re a mineral resource or something. We really work around the opportunities that present themselves to us. Everything we do is made up for that specific venue, including press—when we have a large article or review coming up we’ll invent the documentation for a piece that maybe didn’t happen.

CYRIL DUVAL We’re never as literal as when we’re interviewed, like right now. In any other aspect of our communication, including some kinds of press and media releases, it’s still about image and brand building. It always comes down to that, including when we make clothes.

COHAN Do you have plans to do more apparel? Or was your project selling children’s clothing for DISown a one-off?

DUVAL DISown was an interesting exercise for us. It was simply a project by artists about consumer objects—which is territory we’ve been addressing for quite some time. We were interested in more than simply coming up with a cool product, marketing it and branding it as Shanzhai Biennial. The three of us realized that the most authentic point of view would be simply to do shanzhai upon shanzhai. We curated products and clothes—curated is a big word—by going to various places in China. We selected the pieces we thought were the most interesting, imported them without any legal issues and branded them as ours with a tag.

RADBOY We added the tag and changed the price.

DUVAL We did mark it up by 10 times or something like that.

RADBOY We’re going to be doing something at Frieze London [Oct. 15-18] that I think will have a lot of actual apparel.

COHAN Can you talk about the Frieze project?

RADBOY In a way it’s a consulting job for Frieze. There’s this really interesting phenomenon of the canvas tote bag from art fairs; they’re made in China, they’re really cheap and they’re given away free. If someone has a bunch of bags, [the art fair bag] is the worst bag that they have. But there’s no bag that says more about their habits of consumption or the level of sophistication of their consumption—also their travel, and how often they’re able to take a couple of weeks off.

DUVAL A bag as a branded postcard says “I was there, I’m a part of this environment.” It’s a strong statement to carry those bags.

RADBOY It’s clear that Frieze is a luxury brand with incredible cachet. It’s the same idea when we talk about a kind of brand arbitrage: in China it makes perfect sense for Apple to become a clothing brand; everyone knows what it is—it stands for quality, innovation, independence, blah blah blah. But you can’t do that here because there’s some kind of inhibition against tapping into the true power of your brand. Same thing with Head and Shoulders being about eveningwear and intimacy—it’s something sexy. Frieze has the same problem, where they need an outside consultant to be able to tap into the real value that they’ve built up in their brand, and to offer products that really make a direct visceral sense for the brand.

COHAN Because the art world needs to believe that it’s more rarefied than fashion?

RADBOY Yeah, but even in general, the structures that create these phenomena of value never do so to their full capability, because of issues of decency and intellectual property. There are all these ways in which the design created by a generalized system—you can call it capitalism—can’t actually be fulfilled by it. I think that’s where we step in and where shanzhai steps in, to create new things.

DUVAL It might include products and might include interiors, or architectural elements. The common denominator is really the visual communication through still images. That never disappears.

COHAN Why still images in particular?

DUVAL Being a fashion brand is sort of just how we intend to achieve a global “lifestyle brand.” But our first campaign using Yue Minjun’s iconography has a strong existence on its own. We still get requests for those specific images to illustrate our work. This is the first time we’ve announced the Frieze project, so from here we start to discuss how we want to communicate and the images we want to craft. All the campaigns are just introductions pointing to the biennial as the final celebration, so it’s about doing precise storytelling—as any brand campaign would do. You announce a product through mysterious ways sometimes, through viral tactics, and then the final product might be totally different than what the campaign suggested. There’s an aspect to storymaking that’s one step at a time.

RADBOY We also have the greatest ability to create an impression through an image. If we want to represent ourselves as if we’re an organization, with the kind of depth and complexity of Nike, we can’t employ thousands of people to create that impression. If we want to open up a shop we can really only make a facade. There’s a certain kind of surface where we have total control and where the viewer can imagine the depth of the operation.

Images are the place where you can imply a much larger whole. We’ve all worked a lot with commercial clients, and the thing that’s behind a commercial image is really unusual within the general production of images. You see a whole system of working relationships that comes together—a brand identity is almost a kind of collective neurosis. The reason why post-production, in terms of fixing people’s pores and makeup, has developed in the way that it has is really a field of dispersed neurosis. Like, “Is it OK for the nose to be shiny?” and at some point in history they decided no. “Is it OK for them to have hair follicles at the edge of the forehead?” and people decided against that. They’ve so erred toward the cautious that this whole kind of language has formed, which has general tendencies but can be very specific for each brand. That’s the kind of real complexity that we can create ourselves.

COHAN It often seems to me that Shanzhai Biennial’s work exposes, maybe more than the well-trod issue of appropriation in art, the wheel-spinning and desperation in fashion that has only become more acute “post-recession.”

RADBOY Both projects really say much more concise things about fashion than art—but this is really an awkward thing to do. People are prepared to read with total seriousness a critical essay about Bieber, but not about fashion. I think it’s fairly obvious fashion makes intelligent people kind of insecure—and at the same time the majority of people in fashion are practically illiterate.

Maybe even more bluntly than in art, fashion is a place where, each season, capitalism proves its virility: that it is the perfect mediator for freedom and innovation and a never-ending fount of new forms and practices.

Shanzhai is like the sorcerer’s apprentice—or the outsourcer’s apprentice. It’s Fantasia, where the sorcerer’s away and the apprentice takes his power into his own hands and ends up getting overturned by the mops: not even people using the tools but the tools themselves. And that’s, I think, how shanzhai works; it’s like the factories are designing the clothes, so in a way the factories have this really intimate understanding of what this stuff is. But it’s from a completely different perspective than the Western history of thing-making—the things are kind of making themselves. For a factory that does, maybe, Burberry umbrellas and Chanel bags and SpongeBob sweatpants, it makes perfect sense to combine the three because they’re all there.

COHAN You’ve also spoken about embracing the figure of the “business artist” before. I’m wondering what you make of the choice we’re usually given in any discussion of corporate-proximal art between affirmation and negation—you’re either aping and amplifying the runaway of capital, or critically reflecting on and resisting it. 

RADBOY It’s hard to say. The distance between culture and commerce is not only increasingly hard to defend, it also appears harder to defend. And it’s interesting who is charged with defending it. It’s abstract, but I think we are transitioning from an organizing principle of contradiction to one of hypocrisy, and from irony to genuine cynicism.

If you’re interested in contradiction you have one foot on safe ground. The whole structure of contradiction is that there’s an established set of norms that you can playfully overturn. It’s kind of the same with irony; there’s always a safe tethering to an expected set of beliefs and assumptions. In the cultural sphere we work in, everything has a kind of performative aspect to it. What’s retained and set apart in this role-playing is the identity of artists themselves, and that’s what always gets rescued: you can create sadomasochistic blood sport ritual paintings, but at the end of the day you’re a good guy.

This step past contradiction is when you no longer have the space of critique. You’re no longer excepted from the question that you’re asking through your work. You’re getting paid, you’re making money and you’re doing this for years! It definitely is a process of reification, but you’re not setting yourself aside as safe from the things that you’re critiquing. I don’t think that that’s radically new, but I guess it’s not on the part of the artist that it’s new or not new, it’s on the part of the consumers of culture. I think you could say that someone like Andy Warhol was not working within contradiction but in hypocrisy—but he was consumed as an ironist.

COHAN Is there a shared feeling in Shanzhai Biennial, DIS, Telfar and maybe Warhol that the maintenance of a critical (or even observational) distance is nostalgic or conservative? How do you deal with the institutions that need to sell that particular idea of critique?

RADBOY That’s definitely why the tendency among artistic/creative producers is changing toward things that are harder to defend, but even, for example, K-Hole is an actual trend consultancy. That’s not that funny, it’s actually true; it’s a performance as much as it is true. They actually consult for hotels and stuff. I think that that’s kind of new ground, and we definitely have the feeling that it’s new ground because we have a lot of pushback from institutions. And what we end up doing is what any real agency would do: you lie. You create one set of documents for an institution explaining how critically important your work is, and another set for your sponsors, and another set for your collaborators. But again what’s new is more on the level of consumption, which people don’t necessarily think about so much: the mood and the expectations of the people who this is for, which is just people in general—the consumers of culture, people who watch HBO, or “House of Cards” or “Scandal.