Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky joined forces to create printed matter based on their investigations during the Crystal Ruth Bell Residency in Beijing this summer. 

China Residencies: For starts, how did you two meet?

Ming Lin: Alex and I met in preschool in the East Village when we were two years old.

Alexandra Tatarsky: Ming was a very good artist at age two.

CR: How did you two decide that you wanted to do a project together?

ML: We didn’t go to highschool together and went on to study in different countries, but whenever we came back together, we realized we had overlapping and intersecting interests.

AT: We had worked together on prior projects that had to do with curation and place.

ML: We did an exhibition at the City Reliquary that was an homage to our experience of New York, as native New Yorkers, lamenting the disappearance of many of things we had grown up with. Alex did this really great assemblage of poems and photos devoted to empty lots, I made drawings that were food-related, restaurants, cafés and diners we had frequented that since closed down.

AT: There was also an homage to a special kind of toxic goo that disappeared. The exhibit collected and archived details of a New York City that we saw disappearing all around us as it was becoming cleaner and unattainable for a lot of small, “in-between” establishments and experiences. All of these people and places that had allowed us to congregate were gone, and the community felt like it had no place to exist.

CR: Very quickly, can you give me a condensed version of what you both did between high school and this past summer?

AT: I went to high school on the Lower East Side and studied languages that were spoken in the neighborhood, including Spanish, Russian and Mandarin. I worked and travelled in Eastern Europe and Central America and then eventually went to school to study Russian literature where I defended a thesis on theologies of translation and the sacrality of the letter. I expected to become a language scholar but then I accidentally became a performer, writing and performing one-woman shows. I was at mime school in Philadelphia when I stumbled upon this opportunity to explore language, poetics and place through an investigation of tee-shirt text in Beijing.

CR: As a side note: are you related to Andy Kaufman?

AT: I don’t want the fact that he’s my dad to overshadow everything I do, but as the world now knows, I did grow up with Andy as my father.

CR: Wonderful. And Ming?

ML: I studied visual arts in high school, then went to Montreal where I sort of fell into art history and anthropology as a way to pursue random research jaunts. While I was there, I saw a lecture by a really amazing curator named Nikita Cai at the Times Museum [in Guangzhou] which alerted me to this whole world of contemporary art that I hadn’t known about previously. I had always thought of Chinese art as very commercial. She spoke a lot about the potential for museums to engage with the public in a new way given the lack of established cultural infrastructure and I found that really exciting. In 2013 I had the opportunity to go to Hong Kong to work for ArtAsiaPacific magazine so I moved there. After my stint as an editor, I started working freelance and during that time developed several projects looking at the social and economic environment of Hong Kong and its relationship to China. Last year, Alex and I simultaneously wrote articles for different publications that had a seemingly common thread. With another collaborator, Ted Ledford, I wrote an essay about the garbled text that you find on t-shirts made in China, and Alex wrote a piece about robots—

AT: Spambots.

CR: That’s interesting, a lot of spambot text is machine-generated, and T-shirt text is often machine-translated.

ML: It seemed like we were approaching similar themes from different angles. That’s when I starting thinking about turning it into a project. When the China Residencies opportunity came up, that’s when we made it a real thing.

CR: Your original proposal was to investigate the found language in China that’s usually in English and using the Latin alphabet to convey something, and take that as a jump-off point to examine language and poetry. How did you get started on the project that became about shine?

ML: Shine. It’s so nebulous! There are so many different facets.

CR: It’s not a topic that has been studied much, and even though this was our third time running an open call on China Residencies, none of the nearly 500 project proposals touched on it, and I was always secretly hoping that someone would want to look into these issues of translation and linguistics. One of my points of fascination with Chinglish as a language-learner was seeing how English is used by non-native speakers, as I found it very helpful in understanding how Chinese works. And the other thing I love about it is the poetic aspect, the fact that you’re encountering these unconventional language uses and these turns of phrases that make you think about the world in a totally different way. They way objects are personified, or the text sounds like song lyrics — especially when it rhymes — always made me think that they were snippets of some untold story. I spent a lot of time wandering around China, before I spoke the language decently, really thinking about what was trying to be said through these phrases. What did you first find fascinating about Chinglish?

AT: It relates a lot to the spambot project I was doing. Similarly, this text is in part machine generated using new translation and text-aggregating tools that end up revealing inventive, experimental ways of relating to English. In this way, it estranges the language to create a visceral poetic encounter with ordinary speech. What attracted us to what we’re calling the shanzhai lyric--a specific linguistic and cultural phenomenon of the bootleg fashion market--is its very meta quality, the way in which it comments upon itself, upon fashion, branding, production, and the collision of cultural values. What we learned was that often the text had been generated and compiled from multiple online searches around certain keywords--for instance, “London” or “freedom”--but it would get changed at some point in the design process, either in re-typing or translating or type-setting, and as a result undermine its own confident claims. The text might declare something really loudly about “fashion being beautiful for everyone”, but spelling and grammar aberrations would then disrupt the normally sleek language of advertising copy, lending the phrase a self-questioning or critical stance. The process opens up the possibility for actually saying something very subversive. In the same way shininess or gloss or sheen can be used to create an illusion or projection of glamour but often points towards something hidden, cracks in the shine reveal it to be a superficial layer covering up and distracting from something far more complicated. That became our point of fascination, and it became a way to think about “shine” and “gloss” literally, in that the fabric itself was often shiny, but also in terms of language and glossolalia [speaking in tongues] and hearing truth spoken through gibberish.

ML: Another major impetus was noticing that people really do have this fascination with Chinglish, but that the term itself doesn’t seem to encompass our particular admiration. We’re not interested in mocking it. In fact, we have been adamantly opposed to calling our texts “Chinglish” because we find this term to be derogatory. The word I’ve often used to describe our process is “distillation”. Our aim was to sift through this collective voice: all of this global marketing and fashion rhetoric that has been churned through anonymous aggregators to become poetic form. The “shine” concept could only have arisen from the opportunity to do the fieldwork. As we were going through the racks at the Zoo Market, we started to think about the material properties of these garments.

CR: How did you go about the field research?

ML: Several people had recommended Zoo Market, a multi-building, multi-level clothing mall, but we also found a lot of inspiration from walking around the village of Feijiacun where our studio was. The in-between space of the migrant worker village really encapsulates the contrast that defines China and contemporary Beijing where you can get a big bag of buns for the amount it costs for one Starbucks coffee. Right near to us, outside the village gates, was a western grocery store, a german bakery, an international private school and a high-end residential compound.

AT: Yes, we found it troubling that we could eat so well in our neighbourhood for the cost of a single cup of coffee in a fashionable cafe in the hutongs. The contrast is disturbing. It makes one very aware of the barriers to entry for certain conversations and a certain world that is popping up — the Chinese or homogenous international "creative class" that seems to share a similar aesthetic.  

CR: I think a lot of this text reflects a fascination for things that exist outside of China, how do you see this sort of mutual fascination playing into this project?

AT: Towards the end of the trip we worked with Emma Karasz as a translator to interview buyers and sellers at the marketplace about their experiences of the clothes. I think we had assumptions that people would have an articulated sense of why they liked these shirts, loyalty to a specific image or brand or style, but they seemed to find the whole thing humorous. Emma would ask: “Do you know what this means? Do you know that it’s more gibberish than English?” and they would laugh and tell us that they really did not care. Americans can be so pompous and have such an inflated image of our influence in the world but the great thing about the shanzhai production system is that while it does take cues from Western brands and products, it does its own thing. It’s not aspirational. It adheres to a different understanding of authenticity, originality, and ownership.

ML: On a more theoretical level, this research led us to the work of Edouard Glissant who talks about the notion of opacity, and advocates for this right to opacity--basically saying that cultures can't fully know one another and that it’s okay to maintain that distance, which fit really well with our investigations of mistranslation and the possibility of learning without having full access to meaning. We established pretty early on that we weren’t going to get to the root of where these phrases originate, in part due to limited resources, but also because we weren’t particularly interested in that. We found the technical aspect somewhat less compelling than the concept of not being able to translate something fully, how this creates new paths for meaning.

CR: The method my linguistics professor Victor Mair uses is actually to quite literally reverse-engineer the process in order to figure out exactly which translation tools were used to create that end result. It’s surprisingly easy to pinpoint the software  — especially the ones that simply say “machine translate error”.

ML: I love those.

CR: But in another pure coincidence, I spent the few months preceding the open call translating Glissant’s work from French to English for the catalog of an exhibition [Atopolis in Mons, Belgium].

ML: Towards the end, Glissant became a guiding icon for his insights, not to mention his name, which sounds like “gloss” and means “slippery”.

CR: Yes! It can also mean “sliding”, as in sliding between languages. In his writings on creolisation, he talks about how there’s not enough value given to the way people combine languages, and that creole and pidgin and other hybridisations are too often dismissed. There’s still not even all that many linguists that find value in studying these ‘in-betweens’, at the time when I wrote that term paper in 2009, there was only one other person starting to write about Chinglish in an academic setting, though there might be more now. There were all those blogs and picture books mocking or maybe celebrating it, but no one was really taking it seriously as a linguistic phenomenon.

AT: The in-betweens were really important to us. It was an entry-way into the study of this phenomenon, and related to interstitial spaces like Display Distribute in Hong Kong, in how we can carve out a space for something beautiful and poetic, something critical, by using the materials and restraints of capitalist production. China is technically Communist, but these clothes represent hypercapitalism as it’s taking place in China right now. Shine and gloss offer a way to see things not in black and white, not as opposing binaries of communism and capitalism, or good and bad where consumerism is an evil thing. Instead, we wanted to turn our attention towards how people are adapting and ask: if this is the world we live in, what new mechanisms and systems are people carving out of the ruins of other systems? In some sense, I think of a parallel between what Display Distribute does with space in Hong Kong, and what these phrases do in language.

CR: Yeah. I also think you’re touching on something really important in the distinction of the surface and the content. This crazy fast-paced globalisation created a lot of shiny glass buildings, lots of homogenous branding and packaging, but these exterior shells don’t always come with any attention to the content, which is also happening with all these museums popping up in China that as big on physical infrastructure but pretty much don’t have a mission or a staff, or even any content.

ML: Right. Shininess is a property or a description, whereas gloss is how you make something shiny — both to give something a cursory overview by glossing over it, to obscure something or to mediate its surface, to buff it or refine it.

CR: One of the biggest criticisms of Chinglish, especially when it comes to signage, is that if you only care about appearances then the messages can become dangerous or offensive in some way.

ML: We started thinking about this a lot when trying to define Chinglish, and in the process realized that we seemed to be focusing on something entirely different—Chinglish may in fact be more administrative or bureaucratic, those texts like the ones you mention that are found on official signage and things that have a practical use. The things we were looking at weren’t as didactic but rather used explicitly to enhance and affirm.

AT: Being fashion items, the text we were looking at was the opposite of practical, so there wasn’t a danger of misunderstanding in that sense. But translating official speech literally often creates these very poetic instances, such as: “Even grass is alive. Be merciful. Don’t crush it.” which sounds rather poignant and strange because in the US we wouldn’t use this turn of phrase to communicate “keep off the grass”. But how do you translate a culture smoothly without losing its particularities?

CR: There’s also occasionally a great deal of humour that arises from these gaps in intent and translation. Did you find your research funny at times, or were you only focused on the words themselves?

ML: Some of them were funny, but really we found them euphoric.

CR: Did the hunt for new examples become a delightful process?

ML: Absolutely, and it was great getting other people involved and as excited as we were. People were sending us pictures of what they found on the street. There was a great thrill, especially once we honed in on the ones that dealt with shininess and glossiness. There was no aspect of mockery, we were more thinking about who these brilliant poets were and how to convey their efforts. We really respect our shanzhai poets.

CR: One of the other things Glissant talks about is that we exist in this “tout-monde”-- we exist and write in the presence of all the other cultures in the world simultaneously, and no one culture is more valid than another--even though we’ve tried to hierarchize, homogenize, clean up and enforce standards that state that certain cultures are more valuable.

AT: I think it’s really important to remember mutual fascination and attraction, how the phenomenon works both ways. Being too critical of a tendency to exoticise, that is, framing all interest in the other as orientalising, speaks to certain assumptions about power, desire and looking. It assumes a hierarchy in which the person looking has a sense of superiority whereby their interest in this “lesser” culture is fetishistic, as opposed to envisioning a horizontal space where all cultures tend to be curious and interested in one and other. That’s why we are interested in mutual influence between various tongues and markets, and how Glissant talks about creolisation as “globalisation made evident”, showing that cultures can interact on parallel footing. We are thinking of curiosity as being mutual and shared, and not coming from an assupmtion of superiority.

CR: These narratives also get more complicated in this current century, even in the way all three of us have families who came from Eastern Europe or Asia and decided to not live where they were from, resulting in the fact that we can move between cultures much more fluidly. But one of the reasons Chinglish isn’t taken seriously is because it’s often dismissed as people simply being “bad” at English, which I find quite upsetting.

ML: When we were writing for the article for the New Inquiry, we had a really great editor, Jesse Darling, who asked us about how much agency we gave to the writers or manufacturers. She asked if we could really prove some kind of intentionality behind the language. We don’t have hard proof that these people have the same sense of authorship that a poet might, but we want to share this work beyond its original context because we think it’s important.

CR: Knowing intent is important when talking about art, but as when any artist creates a work, they don’t control the interpretations of that work. Even if they have a statement somewhere that explains their intent, it doesn’t make other readings of the work irrelevant. People creating these phrases are producing content under a different kind of pressure, not to create artworks but to create items that sell and are well-received in some way, and they are dealing with a different feedback loop but in the end it’s not all that different that a writer trying to sell a book. Someone is searching for and typing up these phrases, they are not purely random. So someone, somewhere, has some agency in creating them. But now that there are so many people in China who speak very fluent English, I still wonder why there isn’t anyone checking. Is good enough the same as perfect? Maybe the cultural difference lies in these different perceptions of what’s acceptable, if typos are actually a big deal or not.

AT: It’s a question of who determines the standard. English and many languages have travelled around the world. For instance: “Mind the gap” is a British-ism that New Yorkers would never say. We recognise it as an iconic Britishism, but it sounds grammatically kind of odd and nonsensical to my ears. The English have “permission” to use English as they see fit, and we in the US, as a former colony, have seized the right or the privilege to use and distort English for our own purposes. It’s interesting to see who has the permission to do that. The English signs in the subway in China are perhaps grammatically correct but sound a bit odd too. But why shouldn’t they have their own lexicon of subway signage?

CR: And we have “no can do”, “no way” and all of those adaptations of Chinese syntax.

AT: “Long time no see”.

ML: We came across those in our research as well, they’re called “calques”.

CR: So much of English is made up of loan-words, it’s interesting to think about who’s allowed to mess with language. Especially when you think about rap and pop-culture, constantly coining new terms and slang. But for Chinglish, there were documented local and governmental efforts to ‘clean it up’ and many people thought at some point that it was on its way out. There were even people saying we should catalog it before it’s gone, but it’s clearly alive and well.

ML: Thank god for us! This project wasn’t motivated by any sense of urgency, it’s ubiquitous in China. But people have said that there was a marked shift before and after the Olympics.

CR: I don’t think it was the Olympics — the official signage at the Olympics were full of Chinglish. I think it’s probably a mix of people’s English getting a little bit better, the translation software getting a lot better, and also everyone’s design aesthetic getting more sophisticated as people have more options to choose from. There’s less comic sans and curlicue party font out there once you have more fonts in the drop down menu.

AT: On a more general note, I am very troubled by homogenising branding culture and how it’s really sped up by the internet and the way we share images. I’ve researched the branding and re-branding of Russia and the “new East”--meaning the post-Soviet countries--and it’s very striking and scary to see this corporate aesthetic that markets itself as local but is in fact an entirely homogenised global brand. It blankets out local idiosyncrasies by claiming to represent the local! This supposed beacon of localism is a corporate-capitalist-consumerist lie to sell mass-marketed ideas and products by claiming they possess local authenticity. And that to me is deeply disturbing, this unifying branding allegedly inspired by the “new” Portland-Brooklyn-Berlin. There are establishments in the hutongs where this plays out, and it feels very sinister to see this trend around world. It’s as damaging to local New York culture as it is to local St Petersburg or local Beijing culture. I’m hoping there will be a sort of local backlash against this branding of local.

CR: That’s been talked about a lot during Beijing Design Week, which is in part about celebrating the truly local but ends up also celebrating this very international contemporary architecture and design aesthetic that you can find anywhere, and until very recently wasn’t in too many places in China. But moving on, what are you both up to now and what are you working on next?

ML: I’m at the Centre for Research Architecture in London pursuing similar themes concerning the way social and political structures impact our built environment and, conversely, how materials and physicality also influence the ways we create knowledge. In particular, I’m looking towards logistical space, pirates, and the illicit practices of a certain fast-fashion retailer.

CR: And Alex?

AT: I’m finishing mime school in Philadelphia and I’m excited to develop multilingual performance pieces, or pieces in gibberish, or without language, so they can speak to many different communities.

CR: Speaking of, I met a Dutch Algerian French mime, Hakim Traïdia, who had just been performing in China and talked exactly about that!

ML: A difficulty with this project was figuring out who our audience should be. We didn’t want to translate the text back into Chinese because we didn’t want to make fun of the people wearing ‘silly’ things on their shirts, it’s led us to think about how we can convey this kind of research.

CR: I mean, a similar thing happens here with people getting tattooed with Chinese or Japanese text that they can’t read and is sometimes full of mistakes, I think that’s even sillier since it’s permanent! But then again that might be a classist attitude of ridiculing people who don’t research or strive to understand the text they put on themselves. How did you finally did end up presenting this project, at the open studio and beyond?

AT: We presented a publication of text we had collected alongside research photos and coffee. We made a roving café related to another project that Ming is involved with, which gave us an opportunity to move around town and talk to people about our research.

ML: Display Distribute has been serving as a distribution network for an artist-run grocery line called Feral Trade. It relies on the excess carrying power of social networks to dispatch goods throughout the world. Through Display Distribute’s networks coffee was transported by various art practitioners from Mexico to the UK, then to Hong Kong and then onwards to Beijing, Shanghai, Dalian and Chengdu. We served this coffee at the open studios as a means to create a space where people could come and look at our small zine. We also had a separate bar event to celebrate the end of the residency that was focused on “shine” in a more playful way.

CR: Ming, tell me a little about Modes Vu and Display Distribute.

ML: Modes Vu is a publishing project founded in 2013 by Erik Bernhardsson. Experimenting with emergent print formats, the book series are intended to encapsulate an evolving visual culture, making use of a distributed network of authors and editors who are working from Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Beijing, Shanghai and across Europe. Modes Vu is the primary publisher for Display Distribute, which is a shop and exhibition space in Hong Kong that began as an ethnographic inquiry and later became a publication and exhibition project.

CR: And Display Distribute is currently in Shanghai at Bazaar Compatible. Is Shine there?

ML: Shine isn’t, but another related project, Système D, is. This term originated in West Africa from the French word debrouillardise, which essentially describes the art of making-do. In Hong Kong, we discovered a tailor in Sham Shui Po named Simpson, who has a store filled with hand-constructed garments that he composed out of remnant pieces of surplus from Shenzhen. His work is on the opposite end of the spectrum—rather than being part of the manufacturing process, he picks from the dregs production, reworking the scraps of shanzhai garments. His clothes are almost punk, —lots of zippers and plaid, studs, and weird hooks. We selected a number of his shirts and exhibited them as the Système D collection at Bazaar Compatible in an exhibition called Parallel Trade. Artists Elaine W. Ho and Gao Ling played shopkeeper-curators at the Shanghai Display Distribute shop where 30 artists contributed works created out of the leftovers of their production process in a sort of exploration of the notion of surplus and excess.

CR: And you Alex, what are your plans for 2015 and beyond?

AT: I recently became part of a theatre company at the New Museum called X-ID Rep devoted to exploring the ethics of intercultural cross-play, the ethics of representing identities that aren’t your own. I’m very interested in this in my performance work--which voices do I have the right to embody on stage? This question came up a lot between Ming and me in Beijing, in terms of how to present and perform the material we were collecting in a way that felt ethical and respectful. At the New Museum we’re in the space all day every day over the course of five weeks so we’re on display for museum goers to come watch the process of us wrestling with these issues. It’s a very diverse company trying to figure out very difficult, complicated, and often emotional questions. The project developed in response to recent controversies around redface, blackface, yellowface in American theater, for instance the cancelled production of “The Mikado”-- a play from the 1800’s that features White actors using an imagined Japan as a prism to examine British culture--and the theatrical lag around re-mounting productions from an era when “the Orient” represented a way for a Western audience to reflect on itself. How might it be possible to engage otherness in a way that’s ethical and generative? This was very much on my mind when I did a reading of shanzhai lyrics at the Detroit Art Book Fair.

CR: Do you think that has something to do with the fact that you’re working with found materials instead of your own words?

AT: Yes, Ming and I talk a lot about how we want to continue sharing this work. We’re working on a book with Modes Vu to present more of the phrases. It’s a really interesting question for us: do we present them individually as proverbs? Do we compile them into long form poems or narratives? And what does it mean to take the text out of its original contexts, the social context of the marketplace and the visual context of its appearance on the t-shirt?

CR: Taking this text away from its original objects, colour palette, fonts, and so on allows you to take the words more seriously.

ML: We’re also wary of sterilising it, or thinking that it’s only legitimised at a certain register.

CR: Do you two want to go back to China?

ML + AT: Yeah!

CR: Any last things you want to add about your time in China or your projects?

AT: I mostly miss chua’r.

This interview was conducted in person, with Ming Lin in London with Alexandra Tatarsky reached over Skype, by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies.