Jay Sanders on the Canal Street Research Association
IN A YEAR when collective organizing became the social innovation, New York’s Canal Street revealed itself as a site of complex and conditional overlays. Stretching much of the width of Lower Manhattan, from West Street to Essex, and connecting the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan Bridge, the thoroughfare is defined by its arterial nature. Valued for its supposedly authentic grit despite generations of failed beautification attempts, it is both a microcosm of global trade routes and a long-standing channel of excess and surplus—be it of sewage, industrial waste, or fashion. With retail mostly closed this past fall due to Covid-19, the street’s enduring reputation as a “hawkers’ haven” was dramatically borne out amid an easing of the enforcement of regulations on unlicensed street vending and the distribution of counterfeit goods. Within this context, Canal Street Research Association (CSRA)—an artist-run pop-up, elaborate living theater, ad hoc community memory bank, and venue for serendipity—seemed to fade into being, relying on word of mouth and happenstance to attract and engage an extremely local audience of passersby.
Sited in a vacant storefront at Canal’s intersection with Greene Street, CSRA was conceived and operated by New York–based artists Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky, who since 2015 have worked collaboratively as the “poetic research and archival unit” Shanzhai Lyric. The duo organized the CSRA space into loose sections labeled ARCHIVE, LIBRARY, TIMELINE, and HAMLET, foregrounding, on the front walls, a miniature replica of Canal Street itself, formed from snapshots of its buildings lined up in a row as a single panorama; Lin and Tatarsky encouraged visitors to scribble their own memories of these places directly on the wall. Dense, ever-shuffling displays of “research materials”—an environment of books, T-shirts, mixtapes, handbags, prayer rugs, foam Statue of Liberty visors, mini Empire State Buildings, coffee cups, street-artist caricatures, hand drums, oysters, Mickey Mouses, and salvaged folding chairs from the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center—found full resonance via the guided tours and open-ended discussions that Lin and Tatarsky conducted for days, weeks, and eventually months on end with anyone curious enough to set foot inside. As for “art,” CSRA accumulated what it called a “fantasy office art collection,” including jewelry-store neck forms by Carlos Reyes (rescued from a nearby Canal Street shop), garments by the fashion duo Puppets and Puppets (some of which also served as costumes in a Brecht play presented in the space), depictions of celestial constellations by Emmy Catedral, and an altered scan of a book of Basho haiku by Max Guy.
Lin and Tatarsky opened CSRA at the invitation of curators Constanza Valenzuela and Jack Radley for On Canal, a developer’s plan for populating empty Canal Street storefronts with temporary art installations. After the pandemic bankrupted the creative agency behind the initiative, the newly orphaned CSRA attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to bargain with its unsympathetic landlord to stay open. If art, in the eyes of developers, is basically an attractive placeholder to entice high-paying tenants, CSRA’s decidedly casual retail assemblage mounted a significant challenge to that idea: The space became a site of engagement with the community of artisans, retailers, inhabitants, and visitors who already populate Canal Street and an organic venue for music, screenings, fashion shows, and even planned and unplanned residencies (artist Day Sinclair moved to New York in November and soon began using the space full-time as a studio). Graffiti-marked plywood, local surplus from the summer’s uprising, served as tabletops, temporary walls, and ready-made paintings, as well as a poignant reminder of the stakes at hand. Where downtown retailers saw the threat of looting and property destruction, shielding themselves en masse behind a wooden shell, CSRA perceived an unfurling space redefining itself for collective inspiration.
A core tenet of CSRA’s approach—and that of Shanzhai Lyric more broadly—is the negation of authenticity. Shanzhai is a Chinese neologism meaning “fake,” originally used to described knockoff mobile phones but now applied to a whole litany of ersatz products and cultural forms. As the influential philosopher Byung-Chul Han has shown, the term can be tied to a broader thread of deconstruction or “de-creation” in Chinese thought, according to which the original, rather than the copy, is the aberration. Canal Street, a world-famous home of luxury counterfeits, was the perfect site for Shanzhai Lyric to manifest the most iconic element of its research-based project—the accumulation, archiving, and display of Chinese T-shirts printed with English-language texts (TONIGHT NEED YORK, AIL PALACES ARE TEMPORARY HALACES, FREEDON (AND ON AND ON), DFSCRIPTIVE); here, the garments hung nonchalantly on metal racks as a browsable poetry collage. The venue also provided a stage for bootleg versions of a number of the mythically impermanent art activities of Canal Street history: David Hammons’s Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983 (whose plastic molds were purchased at Canal Plastics); Jack Smith’s never-finished Hamlet; and Jaime Davidovich and Judith Henry’s Wooster Enterprises all became scripts for CSRA’s offhand homages.
Despite the project’s structured and prismatic ambiguity, the space felt wholly inviting, which was a radical feat. Lin and Tatarsky had opened a rare and inevitably temporary micro-utopia that vividly channeled the many artist-performance storefronts—they mentioned Claes Oldenburg’s The Store, 1961; George Maciunas’s Fluxshop; and Stefan Eins’s 3 Mercer Street Store as precedents—that populate the history of downtown New York.
Jay Sanders is the executive director and chief curator of Artists Space, New York.