Shanzhai Lyric. Incomplete Poem. 2015–ongoing. Installation view, Greater New York 2021, MoMA PS1, October 7, 2021–April 18, 2022. Photo: Marissa Alper. Courtesy MoMA PS1

In August 2021, the curatorial team behind MoMA PS1’s Greater New York convened a series of closed-door roundtable conversations between select artists in the exhibition. The aim was to delve into several guiding themes running throughout the show: the importance of documentary and archival methods; the legacy of Surrealism and its relationship to trauma and posthumanism; the history and ongoing influence of Native artists in New York City; and the confluence of abstraction, mourning, and the passing of time. The first of these conversations, which appears below, was titled “The Documentary Impulse and the Archive” and took place between BlackMass Publishing (Kwamé Sorrel and Yusuf Hassan), Hiram Maristany, and Shanzhai Lyric.

Since that conversation, we have been saddened by the passing of Maristany, a legendary documentary photographer and key figure in the struggle for civil rights in our city. Maristany served as the official photo documentarian for the New York chapter of the Young Lords Party, his images capturing moments of everyday beauty and solidarity in his home of East Harlem.

This conversation, as well as the others, can also be found in the Greater New York exhibition catalogue. In their wide-ranging conversation, this intergenerational group of artists explores the continued political potential of archiving, creating counternarratives, and excavating the hidden histories of New York City and beyond. We hope the conversation will also serve as a tribute to Maristany’s lifelong commitment to supporting young artists and fostering social change through his art.
—Jody Graf, Assistant Curator, MoMA PS1

BlackMass Publishing. Study Hall. 2021

BlackMass Publishing. Study Hall. 2021

Kwamé Sorrel (BlackMass Publishing): Can you explain the origin and significance of the name Shanzhai Lyric?

Shanzhai Lyric: Shanzhai is the Mandarin word for “counterfeit,” but it translates literally to “mountain hamlet.” It allegedly refers to a Song dynasty legend of robbers taking goods from the empire to redistribute among those at the margins, where they were protected by a mountain hamlet. It offers a different mode of thinking about trade and redistribution of resources, and also ownership and authorship. We’ve been very inspired by this terminology as a way of thinking about a more liberatory notion of counterfeit.

The research first started looking specifically at shanzhai garments, mostly made in China but distributed and beloved around the world, that were blanketed in this very beautiful, experimental, often supra-sensical English text. Shanzhai Lyric was a way for us to reconceive of this phenomenon of experimental languages that we saw traveling across bodies around the world. We think of them as bootleg poems, which comment on and often critique the circumstances of their own production.

KS: I grew up in Flushing, Queens, and it was funny because as a kid, we would see an old grandpa on the bus or something, and he would have a hat that said, “World’s best daughter”—something that just didn’t seem to make sense at all.

SL: Yeah! We’re really excited about celebrating that kind of irreverent relationship to language and branding. We’ve been collecting shirts for six years, since we went on a research trip to China and spent a month commuting to this multilevel wholesale clothing market there. At that time, we had no funds, so we were just taking photo documentation of the T-shirt poems. Slowly, over time, however, we’ve been able to amass a large collection that has been in circulation around the globe—in libraries, archives, personal closets, private institutions, community centers. Since we’ve been at PS1, we’ve been meaning to take a trip to Flushing to gather some more items for the archive. Let’s turn the question that you asked us back to you, in terms of the origins and resonance of your name. What does BlackMass Publishing mean for you? What’s the origin of the name?

Yusuf Hassan (BlackMass Publishing): BlackMass Publishing started in 2018 in response to the lack of representation of Black publishers contributing to contemporary printed matter. The name originated from a play by Amiri Baraka called A Black Mass (1966). At the time, I was working on a book compiled of documents, which I had friends contribute to. It started off with three friends, Kwamé being one of them, along with Devin B. Johnson and Jacob Mason-Macklin. We all did different things, and we started to see how our work would feed off of each others’. I titled the book Project BlackMass, and that’s how the first body of work was created. This document never went into print. It just floated around for a little while. Later that year, in the fall of 2018, I started BlackMass Publishing as a way to extend my contribution to other Black artists and the diaspora at large. I wanted to create a mass of Black artists working together in different mediums on the presentation of printed matter and archives.

KS: Yusuf and I work very closely together in producing a lot of these publications. What we focus on is how to continue to build the Mass through print medium specifically. Yusuf always says he wants to figure out how to put music in print: How do you take a song and translate it to music through print medium, without having lyrics or a score or sound? We try to put a lot of movement and rhythm into the practice as well. We’re heavily influenced by music.

Hiram Maristany: What you’re saying about a lack of representation in terms of Black issues in printed matter is very important. I think that applies to many other things as well. It applies to many other groups that are poor and are treated in a similar way. I’m a photographer. I was born and raised in East Harlem. My parents immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico. I have been engaged with the civil rights movement from a very young age. I’m very privileged to say that I actually went to the March on Washington. I was by myself. Many of my contemporaries didn’t believe that the March on Washington was important, and I disagreed. It’s not about pitting one group against another. I'm from the generation of the ’60s and ’70s. There were enormous things going on, enormous battles. Battles with institutions like MoMA over the lack of representation of people of color, women, and gay people. Lack of representation of a whole list of things.

I’ve been documenting my community for many decades, and the photographs I am exhibiting in Greater New York show aspects of my community that are positive and document the Young Lords, a political movement that was active in East Harlem. The Young Lords is a Puerto Rican group that is fashioned after the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. I emphasize the word self-defense. They formed because they felt they had to defend their communities. They didn’t come from a perspective of political analysis; they came from a practical reality. They had to defend their community because they felt they were under attack and under siege. What I’m showing are key elements and moments of those events. I am a documentarian, and I’m trying to tell the narrative. Because, unfortunately, the media always distorts our story and somehow puts us in a position where we’re finding the wrong enemies; they’re very sophisticated in dividing and conquering, pitting poor people against poor people. I was also one of the key players in the Puerto Rican arts movement, and helped develop El Museo del Barrio. I was one of the earliest members of the Young Lords, and I became the official photographer of the organization.

SL: Thank you for sharing this personal history embedded in a collective history. Recently, in the fall of 2020, we invented a fictional office entity called Canal Street Research Association. We began inhabiting this empty storefront on Canal Street, near where we grew up, which was largely boarded up and vacant due to many factors: high rent, blight, landlords’ fear of so-called looting following the uprisings in the summer. We stepped into this empty retail space to just be there all day, look out the window, and talk to whoever came in about the unofficial markets and industries—semi-illicit and illicit—of Canal Street, which have created so much important New York history.

One of the things that struck us while we were on Canal Street was a history of the block as perpetually processing waste and overflow. Canal Street was originally an actual canal that was built in order to channel excess sewage and industrial runoff from Collect Pond in Chinatown into the Hudson and East rivers. This created a very fetid waterway that they then tried to beautify by placing trees along its edge. They eventually had to fill it back in, and it became the chaotic, polluted, noisy, crowded thoroughfare that it is today. While we were down there in our storefront, we were aware of the fact that as artists, we were the trees of the situation: we were placed there in order to participate in an upscaling project that landlords there have been undertaking for the past ten years or so. We were placed there to “artwash,” essentially, the neighborhood—until our presentation was found to be at odds with the landlord’s agenda. Since then, we have not had an office. For Greater New York, we will have a storage unit where all of the archival objects that we had been collecting over time—the Shanzhai Lyric archive, which is about two hundred or so T-shirts, and the materials from our former storefront—will be with us in the space. We’ll be accessing these objects throughout the six months [of the show], creating a kind of relay between Long Island City and Canal Street.

One guiding metaphor for us in this work has been tracing the waterways of New York and finding that which has been buried and covered up—these hidden flows, channels, and currencies that literally run from Canal Street in Lower Manhattan to Long Island City. We’ve become very inspired by the classic New York coffee cup, which is a kind of visualization of the research methodology that we will be attempting to embody while at PS1: the meander. This research methodology defies linearity and finds discoveries in the most inefficient and winding way between points. That’s been our guiding philosophy as of late.

Hiram Maristany. Children in the Funeral March of Julio Roldán. 1970

Hiram Maristany. Children in the Funeral March of Julio Roldán. 1970

You will know when you’re kicking butt because you will be creating a whole bunch of enemies.

Hiram Maristany

Shanzhai Lyric. Detail, Canal Street Research Association (storage). 2021

Shanzhai Lyric. Detail, Canal Street Research Association (storage). 2021

KS: It’s quite beautiful that you will grow this project over time. Having a research-based practice, you always want to add something else, right? I think it’s beautiful that you all will be creating this conversation between Canal Street, the museum, and your practice in between.

HM: One of the realities of Canal Street for me was the great art supply store, Pearl Paint. I used to hang out at Pearl Paint when I was still a starving artist—and I mean a real starving artist. We used to go down there, and the owner knew that we were “liberating” things, to put it mildly. What I witnessed was a form of subtle gentrification that was incredible. It’s important to document it, to show it—because a lot of communities are gentrified and they don’t realize that it takes a very long time. When they finally realize, it’s way too late and they’re already displaced. So I’m very intrigued by what you guys are doing.

SL: We’re big Pearl Paint fans! Many folks who have come to share memories with us have talked about how important Pearl Paint was. But none, before you, have expressed this important phrase of “liberating” the goods you need.

HM: I met some really famous artists. They used to say, “I remember when I used to liberate, too, and everybody knew that I was a starving artist.” I came back to pay homage to this place that understood that artists could not afford half the prices. The irony of this is that it’s no longer there because the property was worth more than the business.
I believe that whenever we have great artists that unify different communities, that is an embellishment that is profound. One of the artists that did this is Gil Scott-Heron. He has a poem that I suggest you check out. It’s a poem for José Campos Torres, a Latin American brother who was brutally beaten. The second artist I would mention is Sekou Sundiata, a dear friend of mine. He was born and raised in Central Harlem, but he lived most of his life in East Harlem. He was inspired by a lot of great poets, such as Pedro Pietri—an artist that also transcends his community. As artists, there’s an unstated reality that we have to look at injustice, wherever it is, and respond to it. That doesn’t mean that we have to take on other people’s issues, but we cannot be silent.

YH: One of the biggest inspirations for BlackMass Publishing is Larry Paul Neal. He was very good friends with Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones. While I was researching at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, I found a document called The Rise of Black Consciousness that inspired BlackMass to expand. Neal died before this document was actually published. This set the fire under me to push my practice forward and continue the narrative of what Larry Neal was doing, and to think about how to expand and distribute our work. We started to distribute information through paper pamphlets, which are approachable and easy to disseminate. Right before the pandemic started, we were heading over to France for a show, and then everything came to a halt. We were trying to think about how to continue this conversation around what we would do during this time, and one of the best contributions to BlackMass Publishing was this mailing program that Kwamé developed.

KS: The mailing program essentially was a way for us to expand our conversation during the pandemic. Being that we couldn’t travel, being that it was a weird time for everyone, we wanted to open up our practice to people we were in conversation with but couldn’t directly speak with or see. People would send us poems, letters, photos, mixtapes. The whole purpose was to archive. We would open it up to the public to then contribute to the archive that we’re building. We don’t have a bigger picture in mind for this archive as of yet, but we are continuously building.

I have a question for you, Hiram, about your archiving practice. Were you aware that you were building an archive for a future purpose, or were you simply shooting and documenting because you felt the need to? What was your ultimate goal?

HM: I was not aware that I was archiving. One of the things that I had to deal with as a young man was that all the images depicting Puerto Ricans were negative. We were either committing a crime or a crime was being perpetrated against us. We were always in handcuffs. Our sisters were depicted as teenage mothers—without any morals or ethics. I was very distressed and angry about it. I wanted to try and do something about it. Being naive, I felt that I could address all those negative issues. I just went out and I said, “Let me try and document what’s good about us.” Yes, I grew up extremely poor, but there were values that were incredibly beautiful. But I had no reference for learning how to become a documentarian. A lot of it was trial and error. When I started out, I didn’t even understand the word “narrative.” I did understand that there were people who were Puerto Ricans who were creating history. And I also understood that I had to try and document it because if I didn’t, it would be gone, and gone forever. Through my example, I influenced quite a few other artists; I had a photography workshop where I trained quite a few other artists. But to go back to the core of your question, most of it was not planned.

The reality is that for artists of color, we do not have a system that will nurture or support us financially. Then, when I started to document East Harlem, I was always borrowing money to buy film. There are people who see me in the street and they always remind me: “Hiram, you need $2?” It is a joke, but it was kindness. I never had enough. Always needed something in order to do what I wanted to do. The lone wolf part of it was that we had no institutions that believed in us and supported us. I had to raise my own funds. I had to sell prints in order to sustain myself. I had to do things that, frankly, other artists don’t have to do. And then, when we were finally accepted into certain institutions, they behaved as if they were doing us a favor.

SL: It becomes evident through this conversation how much important knowledge travels through conversation and unofficial spaces—places and modes that often don’t have a formal method of documentation. Who gets to determine officialness and the formality of something? The legibility of something? By restaging—or, as we sometimes say, bootlegging—histories, you actually create the possibility of envisioning a different future. You show that time isn’t this linear path of so-called progress or development, but is in fact circular and cyclical, repeating and glitching in exciting ways.

HM: We were a little crazy back then. We took a lot of risks. I want to speak about El Museo del Barrio. The idea started in the dead of winter, in someone’s basement. It was cold as hell. We said, “Hey, we’re going to build a museum.” We asked the collective question, “Who knows anything about a museum?” And every one of us said, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. We do not know anything.” As artists, we had gone to all the museums, and they told us the following: “Your work is not good enough. Your work is not valid. Your work does not represent art. Your work is not . . ..” And they gave every excuse in the world not to engage us. So our response was, “Well, then we will build our own.” We set out to build this museum. We made tremendous mistakes. We did things backwards. But we learned a profound lesson, that the strength of the institution lies in its people.

SL: Something that’s important for us is that we view all the different entities we operate as, as fictional. Canal Street Research Association is what we call a fictional office entity. It arose spontaneously in the midst of a certain context, and we don’t know how long it will last. Part of the impulse to be shape-shifting has to do with wanting to view the accumulation of research as a collective process, to bring it back to the shanzhai idea. Shanzhai, according to the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, continues the lineage of East Asian landscape painting, which has a lot of emptiness in it. That emptiness inspires inscription. In fact, these landscape paintings accumulate value through collective inscription by subsequent owners/authors over time. We’re inspired to create a space for these kinds of collective inscriptions in our various entities.

We’re also excited by the word “counternarrative,” because we’ve been thinking more deeply into the etymology of counterfeit, and thinking of etymology itself as a kind of digging back into the past. “Counterfeit” goes back to the Latin, counter-facere, which is anti-making or against making—an unmaking. We’ve been excited to think about archiving as a kind of unmaking of the official history. This gets at some of our skepticism, let’s say, of institutions, and a desire to trouble the boundary between fake and real. Who generally decides what is fake and what is real? What is important and what is unimportant? What is to be protected and what is to be banned?

Hiram Maristany. Abuelita Maristany. 1969

Hiram Maristany. Abuelita Maristany. 1969

Shanzhai Lyric. Canal Street Research Association (storage). 2021

Shanzhai Lyric. Canal Street Research Association (storage). 2021

HM: To speak to some of these questions: In our tenth year, El Museo del Barrio was somewhat legitimate, and we had to deal with the American Alliance of Museums. They came in to evaluate us. And they started saying, “Well, first of all, you don’t have a collection. Second of all, you do not have major artists in your institution. So how do you call yourselves a museum? You do not have patrons.” They are using their modality to set the standards for us. Use your own modality. Set whatever standard you want and need. All they wanted to do was to control it. As artists, you’re going to find that there is always a battle between liberation and control. You’re going to have to figure out what side you’re going to be on. We did not get accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, and we lost quite a bit of funding. The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, all these people just bailed out. Fifteen years later, they all came back because we did not disappear. We did not run for shelter.

KS: What you’re speaking of, Hiram, has a lot to do with why Yusuf initially started this practice—wanting to be in control of the narrative. We pay homage to your generation as well. You all laid this groundwork; we’re just following suit.

HM: Well, I tell a lot of young artists, “You don't follow my path.” You take what I started and you make it better. You don’t have to do it the way I do it, but you have to do it better. You will know when you’re kicking butt because you will be creating a whole bunch of enemies. It will not be a peaceful existence.

YH: Preserving the past is a foundation and significant research hub for BlackMass Publishing. We think about how we’re preserving what we’re creating right now—not just through archiving it, but how we’re distributing information. One of the most significant things for us is distributing information instantly. Archives aren’t just being distributed in the standard way, where you need to have access to a physical space. Now, the archive lives in a digital format as well, which we are using. I have a love-hate relationship with the Internet. But the Internet, to tell you the truth, has helped me build a very significant number of relationships.

One of the most prominent aspects of our installation in Greater New York is that it will continuously change throughout the duration of the show. Information will be added, things will be represented in different ways and through different mediums. Printed matter is the base, but it’s not the only source of information—we're using music, poetry. Even right now, what we’re doing via Zoom—I mean, this conversation is happening in real time. At some point it will be transcribed onto paper and will be read as a text. Information doesn’t start with us. It doesn’t end with us. We’re here to pass the torch that was passed to us over to whoever is willing to run with it and distribute information.

SL: We’ve heard this echoed in the way that you all have talked about your practices, but we wanted to add that, for us, the past isn’t past. Even the opposition of past and future sets up a way of relating to time that doesn’t feel quite right to us. Knowledge and stories often do not enter into an official archive or history, and so they seem to disappear to some. What we’re devoted to is surfacing the ways in which they have not disappeared and how they can be brought back to life, like a resurrection process: research as resurrection.

Canal Street holds history in its name: the canal itself continues to run underneath the street. It’s not gone, even though it’s covered up. That feels really important to us in terms of thinking about the flow of time and channels of information. Even when they are hidden, and trees, let’s say, are planted to cover up the stench of history and oppression, these flows of stories are in fact still there. What we’re hearing from you all, and what we hope we can continue to figure out how to do, is that the job of the archivist is to reveal that the stream is still flowing. It’s still there. The history never went away.

Greater New York 2021 is on view at MoMA PS1 through April 18.