The central section of Canal Street between the Thrum of Chinatown and the Maw of the Holland Tunnel is only a major artery in a utilitarian sense. In the early 1800s, an actual canal moved water polluted from waste production to the Hudson River. Some planners imagined a Venetian promenade, but it was roughly paved.
Until recently, there were surplus shops on the route – metal, plastic, rubber, glass, textiles – with souvenir shops often hiding fake studios. It was also a magnet for artists: some still live nearby, in lofts that they have lived in since the 1980s. Incidentally, the area lost its main attraction in 2014 when the Mecca Pearl Paint was closed for art supplies.
“When New York was a manufacturing city, you met people in your field here,” said Leon Ferrer, who works at Canal Rubber, one of the few surviving companies of its kind. “We have been blessed to have an area like this.”
For the city’s mighty, central Canal Street, this is a problem to be solved and an opportunity for redevelopment. First, Bloomberg-era rules blamed landlords for counterfeiting in their buildings. Then the developers bought out small owners and waited for an upscale gold mine. It hasn’t happened yet. And over the past year, the combination of the pandemic and windows boarded up for fear of unrest only deepened the anomie.
And yet here again artists are doing what they are doing – messing up history.
Over the past few months, the storefront in 327, a weathered three-story building between Mercer and Greene, has gathered artists, street characters, neighbors like Ferrer, and passers-by in a quirky community to evoke Canal’s past and plant new creative seeds.
As the temporary home of the Canal Street Research Association, invented by artists Alexandra Tatarsky and Ming Lin who worked with curators Constanza Valenzuela and Jack Radley, many things were at the same time. It was a physical location for the couple’s Shanzhai Lyric art project, which considers pirated or Shanzhai merchandise, and especially the strange text on clothing, as a starting point for a kind of poetry. This is where the conceptual project becomes concrete, with pirated copies collected by the artists being exhibited together with others who bring in visitors.
There was art from friends to see; and books on economics, literature and philosophy. The fashion label Puppets and Puppets has presented new creations in the room. There were window projections of art films with local connections. One shows a performance by artist Yoko Inoue on the canal in 2006 where American flag sweaters commissioned by artisans in Ecuador were broken down into balls of yarn for sale.
And the project has become a memory bank. Tatarsky and Lin walked down the canal, taking photos of each facade, and pinning the photos in order in the store. Visitors have posted notes directly on the wall. The result, a kind of random sociology, combines real estate knowledge (“This mark pays for the entire mortgage”), art historical factoids (“David Hammons got the plastic molds for his snowball sale here!”), And stories of hangovers, tattoos, and other incidents .
The crowdsourced subtitles honor defunct venues like Dave’s Luncheonette (“After the Mudd Club at 4am, all artists were given chocolate egg creams,” according to a note from art collective Bing Lee’s Chinatown veteran). and living like Clandestino (“The least objectionable bar in NYC – I think?”).
Everything about the Canal Street Research Association is preliminary.
The space was available because United American Land, the company that bought the building in 2016 and expanded its large portfolio along Canal Street, has been organizing other landlords behind a pop-up mock-up over the past few years to get through art and trendy brands to cause a stir. But Wallplay, the creative agency that ran the program, worked out in February, leaving the Canal Street Research Association to deal directly with a landlord unfazed by its unkempt, bootleg-friendly energy.
Jack Laboz, a director in United American Land, said the vision is “to attract a tenant like someone from TriBeCa or NoLiTa or an art gallery”.
Tatarsky and Lin, he said, “shed some light on the block and it was fun to see.” Still, he pulled the plug. The shop will be closed on Wednesday.
The artists in their early 30s are as local as it gets – proof that you didn’t have to be alive in the heyday of Basquiat and Blondie to be authentic downtown. Tatarsky grew up in the East Village. Lin grew up just a few steps from the shop window on Walker Street. They have been friends since preschool.
As such, they said, they always valued Canal Street’s informal economy, whose businesses catered both to their craft and jewelry-making needs and to their mild teenage rebellion.
“This is where you would get bootleg bags, get your first fake ID, try to buy a bong – these slightly illegal activities,” said Tatarsky. Visitors of all generations would have shared similar memories.
While in store, the two also befriended the Senegalese street vendors of counterfeit bags and belts from luxury brands, whose trade makes up much of the visible retail activity in the area. They learned that many of these men had their own creative lead – musicians, photographers, griots. “Everyone on Canal Street is an artist,” said Tatarsky.
A salesman, Khadim Sene, began to store his djembe drums in the room and to perform in front of the shop with his group Sopé Bakhé. Another, Birane Seck, set up a coffee machine with spiced coffee that he imports from Senegal.
“Khadim once said that the bags are for money, but the coffee and art are for God,” said Tatarsky. “If you are doing what you have to do and you also have a spiritual or artistic practice, these things are not in contradiction. And that kind of density and closeness makes it easier for them in New York City. “
On a chilly Saturday, characters included an elderly woman with a hiker who attended to craft supplies; a man pulling a cart with carpets for sale; and Day Sinclair, a young artist from Memphis who moved to New York in November with no money or contacts – people still do – and worked on a painting. “This space is fertile,” said Sinclair. “It’s open enough to enter.”
The mood was dilapidated, but recognizable to those in the know.
“The first time we went by, we thought, oh my god, there is a relational art project,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s former cultural commissioner, referring to a method where art is not an object or an exhibition, but a Space for interaction.
Finkelpearl had strolled in with his wife, Eugenie Tsai, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum. Moments later, artist Lu Zhang and her husband Herb Tam, the curator of the Museum of Chinese in America, walked in. “I’m jealous of what you can do here,” said Tam. “You have a lot of people coming in and getting involved on Canal Street as a cultural space, a space of remembrance.”
A few days later it was warm enough for street life. The drummers came out, along with Babacar Top, a Senegalese choreographer who had walked to Canal Street for a taste of his home.
“It’s small here, but it’s big,” said Top. “That’s what I like about New York City. Things are not planned. “
And when the Canal Street Research Association’s time came to an end, it was only in this form. They will immediately move to a new space at 264 Canal Street, an upstairs office open by appointment. Although they are no longer in a store, they intend to continue street-level events for the next several months once the weather warms up. (See your Instagram feed for details.)
Maybe it should be. The concept of Shanzhai promotes impermanence, they said. This term refers to counterfeit goods, but originally meant “mountain village” with roots in a Chinese story in which robbers and other resistance fighters fight a corrupt regime. The story itself has several versions, the authorship of which is not clear.
Likewise, they said, Chinese landscape painting left an empty space on the scroll and welcomed the traces of future writers. Your Canal Street photo map did the same thing. and also the next iteration of the project with the move to a new location.
“We are grateful to all Shanzhai poets,” wrote the artists in an email. “The research continues.”