Meta.Morf X – Digital Wild / Dokkhuset, March 6 – 7, 2020 / Curator: Zane Cerpina

SHANZHAI ARCHEOLOGY – Rewilding Technological Imaginaries

Shanzhai (山寨) is a derogatory term used in China to qualify objects that are cheaply made, poorly counterfeit or just plain crappy. In a way, “shanzhai” evokes to a Chinese person a similar concept as “Made in China” would for a Western one. Originally referring to a “mountainous village”, its association with Shenzhen — the name of the city where the whole Made in China industrial relocation began — has certainly helped spread the word. Formerly known for its loose tax regulations and copyright enforcement, the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was — and somehow still is — China’s original sweatshop. The mountains located on the outskirts of the SEZ have over the years sheltered an incredible amount of small plants specialising primarily in making and assembling toys, clothes and electronics. Over time, they learned to disassemble, recreate and sell these products and devices — often adding some personal touches to branding and design in the process. From this adaptive process hatched a large number of manufacturers specialising in very cheap and inadequate products, that became known across China as the shanzhai factories.

Since 2010, the city of Shenzhen has been raising its international profile, propelling its gigantic IT industry to the forefront of the global stage with the presence of industry leaders like Huawei, Tencent or DJI. The shanzhai story started to gain momentum in design and academic circles outside China, turning the factories into glorious renegades, precursors of iterative product design and manufacturing. For the city of Shenzhen, stories of the shanzhai factories are kept alive as part of a foundational mythology, even though most plants were kicked out many years ago by rising land costs or reform campaigns. Many of the original factories were undeclared or just plain illegal. Most factory owners were migrants from other parts of China who relied extensively on informal networks from their villages of origin. As of today, very few original accounts of life in these factories exist. Despite the fashionable tone now represented by the term shanzhai, working conditions in these plants were harsh, often making a job at Foxconn a desirable achievement.

While all this history is gradually being replaced by the official story of Shenzhen’s global technological hub, the Shanzhai Archeology project aims to collect and archive the disappearing artefacts produced by these shanzhai factories. It is an effort of conservation of outstanding specimens, together with their uses, functions, stories, and areas of circulation, as a way to narrate a larger geo-political and historical transformation concerning the global lives of manufactured technologies over the past 40 years. Investigating these unconventional technological artefacts outside China can help us challenge the dominant, one-sided stories about innovation and eventually help us reconsider the normative, western imaginaries of technology.

— Excerpt from “Realtime: Making Digital China”, An Archeology of Shanzhai Phones (Clément Renaud & Published by PPUR, 2020

DISNOVATION.ORG is a working group based in Paris, initiated by Nicolas Maigret (FR) and Maria Roszkowska (PL/FR). At the intersection of contemporary art, research and hacking, the collective develops situations of disruption, speculation, and debate, in order to question dominant techno-positivist ideologies, and to stimulate post-growth narratives. They edited The Pirate Book, an anthology on media piracy. Their research includes artworks, curation and publications. In 2018, they received a Design Trust Grant (Hong Kong) for a research about China’s Shanzhai culture. They are currently visiting researchers at the University of California, Irvine.

Their work has been presented at numerous art centers and festivals internationally such as Centre Pompidou (Paris), Transmediale (Berlin), the Museum of Art and Design (New York), Palais de Tokyo (Paris), FILE (Sao Paulo), ZKM (Karlsruhe), Strelka Institute (Moscow), ISEA (Hong Kong), Elektra (Montréal), China Museum of Digital Arts (Beijing), and the Chaos Computer Congress (Hamburg)… Their work has been featured in Forbes, Vice, Wired, Motherboard, Libération, Die Zeit, Arte TV, Next Nature, Hyperallergic, Le Temps,, Digicult, Gizmodo, Seattle Weekly,, and Filmmaker Magazine among others.