Bernadette Corporation 2000 Wasted Years at Artists Space
Review by Nickolas Calabrese
Society sits on your chest like the devil, its presence near impossible to shake off. Garth Brooks sang about his affinity with people who ruin societal norms through by showing up to black tie events in dirty work boots. His ‘friends in low places’ are concerned with the aesthetics of social life; the need to introduce a foreign element. Brooks’ friends are the same ones who throw incendiaries at police during riots. They want to perceive, first hand, the permutations that a society might take. Difference is speculated upon by this trenchant group. Pressure is the devil on your chest. Pressure is society. Liminality is progress.
Bernadette Corporation, which presently consists of Bernadette Van-Huy, Antek Walczak, and John Kelsey, are an example of the kind of semi-anonymous collective that has consistently gained favor since the 80s. BC’s retrospective at Artists Space in NYC, 2000 Wasted Years, is a subtle presentation of their oxymoronic identityless brand. This contradiction - branding the anonymous - is at the heart of BC’s work since its inception in 1994. Taking a cue from Tiqqun (the French activist/literary collective) BC is concerned not with what we are as bodies (social collectives, political allies, clashing groups), but how we are as bodies. The individual’s accomplishments are near useless to BC, the community that forms around transitional states is what BC craves. But in all this seriousness, there is an impudent, insipid, railing for group action without making a case for why. This is why BC is so important. They divorce themselves from preaching politics to spend more time examining. In other words: Bernadette Corporation functions as an arcane analyst in the larger discussion of how a society becomes what it is, and what the in-between states are. Examples of their criterion are abundant in 2000 Wasted Years.
Fashion runway events, which play on TV monitors upon entering the gallery, had dominated the early part of BC’s work and are a great example of the shape that BC was pointing towards: the liminal state which they occupy. The artists and their friends would put on open-ended collaborative fashion shows, employing photographers, stylists, models, etc., with themes inspired by groups like lower east side Latinas or Pamela Anderson (arguably a group insofar as she was something like an indexical type during the 90s). The models would perform an actual fashion show in the outfits conceived by BC and their collaborators - it was, strictly speaking, a performance understood as an actual fashion show, not a fake fashion show. There was a kernel of comedy in the fashion works, as in most of BC’s work; but not in-your-face types of funny, more deadpan comedy executed so you are not sure if the artists themselves ‘get’ the joke. They have an ethic of inclusion that gives everybody involved a total investment in what they are doing.
Most of what can be said about the fashion shows also applies to BC’s magazine, Made in America, which lasted for three issues. MiA (which is now available as an e-book distributed by Paul Chan’s publishing house Badlands Unlimited) had the same collective functioning that the fashion shows had. It was the next way for BC to go beyond the principal members of BC while still being a product of BC. The publications were loosely structured as art/intellectual journals with no definite format, no definite life-span, and a catalogue of texts that seemed relevant to collectively addressing states of in-between-ness in groups (not to say that all of the text is serious: some of it is borderline, if not obstinate non-sense). Featuring coverage of art, fashion, and prose by writers like Jim Fletcher, Chris Kraus, Jutta Koether, Sylvere Lotringer, and Paul Virilio, it is pretty obvious to see the range of inspirations from Semiotext(e) to Vogue to Texte zur Kunst, all of whom seem to be in similar states of persistent becoming. It is not a stretch to consider the magazine as an apotheosis of BC’s structure, or non-structure, collecting input to march forward (fist in air).
And march forward they did, with films and videos. Probably the most well-known is Get Rid of Yourself, an hour-long film from 2003 that tackles the G8 summit riots and champions the protest documentary. But whereas one of the genre gods like Chris Marker would have given the viewer directed content, BC purges direction and loses itself in the anonymity of the event by focusing in on the ‘Black Bloc’, a mostly anonymous group fixed on disruption. This paired with voice overs in various languages, especially Chloe Sevigny’s delivering a confusing text about the riots read in her spiritless manner from her bland European kitchen, provides a vaguely beguiling, though incomplete, tone to the film which was certainly the point. But as the film’s title suggests, there is also a teleological end that the film strives toward - to eliminate the individual in favor of the group (maybe that is too much of a post-modern explanation, but it seems warranted here).
There are plenty more examples of the elimination of the self (or author) throughout the exhibition, from the collectively written novel Reena Spaulings, to the on demand canonical works - Moby Dick, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Howl, et al - that are made entirely using user reviews from websites like amazon.com. The collaboration is the form of most of the work that BC produces. The faucets engraved with text from internet user comments about Rhianna’s leaked nude photos merge the unwilling collaboration into BC’s already established practice. This is what Bernadette Corporation is all about: collaboration, and the liminal state from one power scheme to the next. Fashions come and fashions go, political leaders come and go, art fads come and go. BC is aware of the dynamics of group dynamics, and sees no reason for the individual artist to be the author anymore. The author is a subjective state in BC’s multiverse; the form of the work takes its direction from collaboration, while the content sets itself up within that established form. BC’s show at Artists Space is successful, and will surely set the bar for the next generation of collaborative artists, writers, cinefiles, etc. - after all, social progress is what BC has engendered in a realm they have helped to shape.