God Bless You in History: Bernadette Corporation Under the Microscope (2014)

*we were recently awarded an honorary mention during the All College Honors Writing Competition at the California College of the Arts for this piece, by independent curator Julie Lazar, from the International Contemporary Arts Network. 

“It is often said that the West’s great undertaking is the commercialization of the whole world, the hitching of the fate of everything to the fate of the commodity. That great undertaking will turn out rather to have been the aestheticization of the whole world—its cosmopolitan spectacularization, its transformation into images, its semiological organization[i].” – Jean Baudrillard

“At a time when the fashion industry was confronted with a DIY [do-it-yourself] rebelliousness, Bernadette Corporation took its cues from the political-literary wing of the historical avant-garde. They engaged in quotation, concepts, fictions, appropriation, provocation, hoaxes, and anti-artistic postures of crass commercialism[ii].”– Bernadette Corporation

Bernadette Corporation (BC) is an art collective that seeks to take on the corporate form by “going native,” adopting its form and tactics as the collective crosses from one level of involvement with corporate identities to the next[iii]. 2000 Wasted Years was the title of the retrospective of Bernadette Corporation (BC) held at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London last year[iv]. The exhibition contained video, clothing, photography, poetry, and prose, and it was the first major showcase of the collective’s work shown in Britain[v]. The exhibition narrates the epic journey of Bernadette Van Huy[vi], John Kelsey[vii] and Emily Sunblad[viii], artists at the core of the collective, from their beginnings in 1993 as creators of a fashion line, to their role as editors, amateur filmmakers, and political provocateurs. The exhibition took a retrospective look at their goals with a work titled BC Corporate History (1997)[ix], which, according to BC, was “a video based on the idea of internal corporate material that companies show to their own ranks to prop themselves up as having a history and a destiny, pushing the internal corporate propaganda.” This video created the myth that is manifest in 2000 Wasted Years. BC embraces the political act of resisting identity and overlaps it with the notion of limited liability inherent to the corporate form in a composite enterprise. They elide the possibility of direct identification—forming temporary alliances with agents as they come across business venture opportunities that interest them. Their elusiveness speaks to the impersonality of the corporate image they seek to simultaneously embrace and efface in the name of their artistic brand. In this essay, I discuss some of the works on video as well as publications produced by this controversial art collective, with the aim of locating a possible motive for their cloak-and-dagger activity.

The collective’s trajectory has afforded them a fascinating voyage, allowing them great freedom to indulge intimations with both the corporate logicians of the fashion industry and art establishment, as well as rogue organizations like the post-Situationist group Le Parti Imaginaire. Le Parti Imaginaire and BC collaborated on a film about the Black Bloc anarchist riots that took place in Genoa, Italy, during the Group of Eight (G8) Summit in 2001[x]. This film partnership is just one of the many apparent contradictions that the collective embodies, and like the rest of their inconsistencies—ideological or otherwise—the collective instrumentalizes them to brand their practice as a customized paradox.

As you entered the main gallery of the ICA, you heard the jarring sounds of the film Get Rid of Yourself (2003)[xi], whose trailer looped every few minutes on a giant plasma screen. The video is a mash-up up footage of riots in Genoa and the actress Chloe Sevigny reading excerpts of Black Bloc’s critique of global political organizations and its corporate affiliates. The work also includes clips of nonchalant conversations that members of BC held in a cottage in the Italian countryside about the riots taking place in Genoa. The combination of the dissident, the superfluous, and the quotidian creates a contentious work, which oscillates between the documentary and the experimental[xii]. The work is also a great experiment in media production because the filming of the riots and the collaboration with Parti Imaginaire in Europe and Sevigny in the US required strategic coordination. How is all this planning carried out? Where and how are the themes or plots for the corporate hoaxes that BC performs hatched? These are some of the intrigues and practices associated with this very controversial art collective.

The walk towards the screen where Get Rid of Yourself (2003) is playing took you along a series of light boxes fixed to the wall that show photographs of luscious women accompanied with the statement of purpose of BC. The text is a narration of their sense of their own history—written by Bernadette Van Huy herself, drawing from her family history and her own experiences planning parties for clubs in New York in the 1990s. The boxes also display apparel worn by the models—on which BC embroidered their logo—suggesting a ubiquity in the world of fashion or clothing design that is entirely constructed. One could argue that this collective’s brand of pertinacious experimentation with fiction is their art, and that they work with falsification as their materia prima.

Installation view, British Institute of Contemporary Art, London, U.K.
Installation view, British Institute of Contemporary Art, London, U.K.

Art curator and Artforum writer Bennet Simpson speaks about Get Rid of Yourself, the brainchild of BC and Le Parti Imaginaire, as an exploration of the “potential of community based on a radical refusal of political identity[xiii].” For art, this rejection of identification has numerous implications, as Simpson points out, as it has resonance within the fields of postcolonial and gender studies, and of course invites the question of the true role of the author or the value of having a fixed authorial voice. The mystery around the authorial voice may be a superficial one to some — we are after all living in a world post the philosophical treatise declaring the death of the author — but as a rule of thumb one should think critically about the ethicality of the practices of any artist, especially one who is elusive, evasive, and potentially treacherous.

Appropriation and secretivity are a problematic mix, because within its folds underhanded actions may gain legitimacy as artistic practices. A project presented in the exhibit, which encapsulates the taciturn appropriation methodologies of BC, is Reena Spaulings: A Collective Novel (2005), here described by the collective:

“Reena Spaulings is a collectively-authored novel set in present-day New York. What is today? What is a city? These are two of the many questions this book sets out to ask. Like most novels, Reena Spaulings is a story about a twenty-something woman who works as a museum guard, is “discovered” and hired to model in an international advertising campaign, after which she gets fame and money, things change, the city experiences some very bad weather and strange new forms of social disobedience, and an idea is hatched to make a musical called “Battle Over Broadway,” a live song-and-dance-riot. It’s a story about a nobody who could be anybody becoming a somebody for everybody. It is a novel that tries to live the metropolitan life… It is generic and perfect. It took less than three years to write. It is writing for everybody, by nobody, an overcrowded literary graveyard whose zombie author is called Bernadette Corporation[xiv].”

The fictional character of this novel has become a notorious gallery owner of a space called Reena Spaulings Fine Art, in New York City, and has become an artist and a curator impersonated by all members of BC simultaneously. This can be considered an extension of their strikethrough of individual distinctiveness, and an exercise to give agency to the marginal, as it empowers anyone who has desire to participate to step up to the microphone and create by dissembling. The fiction issued about Reena has made possible a new network of activity to form around the gallery, garnering the attention of artists in the US and abroad, including being showcased in exhibitions as an actual living artist and as a legitimate space. In spite of all this, one cannot help but ask, who really wrote Reena Spaulings? Who deserves credit? Who deserves to profit from the sales of the novel, or the sales from the gallery space that emerged in the wake of her creation and which bears her name? How was the network that collaborated in the making compensated for their efforts? Identity and recognition, in a world full of inequality, can become a heated political debate very quickly. They provide no answers to the ethical queries about BC I proposed above.

Another of BC’s literary works (and the source of the title of this essay) is the book The Complete Poem (2009),which is another strong example for exposing the contradiction behind BC’s purported radical posture against corporate culture. The book is an epic amalgamation of photographs and stream of consciousness poetry that blends a mock fashion photo shoot and an exquisite corpse[xv]. It is composed of photographs of young, scruffy bodies taken by fashion photographer David Vasiljevic, who had that same year completed a very successful advertising campaign with the Levi’s denim brand. BC, having seen the work in the ad pages of fashion magazines, quickly set out to commission the same photographer in order to highjack some of the thunder of the established jeans company in the media. Alongside the photographs was a 130-page poem written by an undisclosed number of people. The original manuscripts of the poems were exhibited next to large format prints of the youths in jeans and were presented in a series of thirteen glass displays. The photos and text were part of an exhibition at the Greene Naftali gallery in New York City in 2009 titled A Billion and Change[xvi]. This content was included in the 2000 Wasted Years exhibit as part of a timeline that chronicles the collective’s projects through the 1990s and 2000s.

Installation View, British ICA, London, U.K.
Installation View, British ICA, London, U.K.

Given our current uncertainties in economics and politics—where we are still gathering our bearings about what has happened over the last forty years—should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the position of privilege that the corporate form enjoys in contemporary society? Is BC empowering the marginal in order to deflect the power of corporate power players, or are they using the corporate skin as a subterfuge for their unscrupulous pursuits in the art world? The audience must determine any possible answer to these questions on their own.

BC sells the idea that they are in the midst of delivering a brutal blow to the dominant corporate system, but almost twenty years later, it has yet to materialize. They have continued to profit from the strategies and tactics of the system they claim to analyze by participating heavily in commercial events such as art fairs, as well as commercial galleries across the US and Europe, and each time they perfect their knack for perpetrating their elaborate corporate hoaxes.

These approaches are perhaps best understood as a hybrid of concrete poetry and performance, although sometimes, like the case of the 2000 Wasted Years exhibition, they come so close to looking like the real thing (in this case a retrospective) that one could be as bold as to label them a Baudrillardian nightmare. One could argue that BC’s hyperactive fiction is correspondent with a Disneyland-like amalgamation of fashion editorials grafted with diaphanous political activism[xvii]. They draw from fashion, but they do not mention a single phrase about the swathes of human populations the garment industry keeps as slaves in free-trade enclaves around the planet. They claim a deictic gesture towards the runaway chain of externalities that corporations create in their wake, while at the same time they actively engage in the same libertinage.

There is art that exists to spotlight the imperialist aspirations of capitalism, highlighting the negative effects of advertising and propaganda, the blind faith in the rationality of markets, and the rampant commodity fetishism we observe in popular culture in the West. There are many artists with political conviction, and one can ask, Is BC one of those artist groups? After an analysis of their oeuvre, one gets the sense that though they claim to stand against the cold logic of the world of business; they are far from representing a break with the focus and interests of its structures.

The epigraphs to this essay present a clash of ideologies, ever-present in the genesis of myths such as the myth of origin of BC. Baudrillard openly denounces the commodification of the human experience, an idea that conflicts with the voice of the BC artist collective, which appears to want to draw interest in the banal. Nevertheless, for all their work, they fail to accomplish anything significant; their plagiarism of corporate cultural activity does not dent the order of things. They take their rejections of identity to the point where they reject their humanity as well, and they appropriate the coldness of the corporate form to assert its position of privilege in an age where this form is barely accountable for any of the material or psychological collateral damage it creates.

As an artist and curator from the third world (and facing the depredation of my country’s natural and human resources by foreign political and economic interests), I ask, How can an artist who produces art that mirrors the corporate form prove that it can do better? How can they accomplish a positive impact on the public understanding of the corporate form if they do not denounce the crimes against ecology[xviii] committed by corporate players? One could argue that what BC is trying to accomplish is something very different altogether: that they are not espousing themselves to an opinion of pure approval or disapproval of the corporate form but rather taking a position as outsiders.

The late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz said the following about disidentification—the ways in which individuals reject identifying or counter-identifying with dominant ideologies within a society in favor of more dynamic perspectives. He posits that “disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture[xix].” Is BC disidentifying with the corporate form, setting aside the primacy of questions regarding corporate morality? Alternatively, could they be waging a war against it from a completely new perspective, overlooked by both the political right and left? One could argue that their battle takes place in a semiologic versus ideological arena. And that by potentially informing us of ways to eject ourselves from the cycle of frivolous politics through a methodology that does away with notions of both right and left, they create a new universe that escapes the stalemate between the power-full and the power-less. Get Rid of Yourself (2003) and the Reena Spaulings Novel (2005) give agency to the revolutionary and the marginal, and both are remarkable experiments in manipulation of the media.

Perhaps Bennet Simpson was right to point out BC’s search for community, and their embrace of a type of post-modern chaos is both a legitimate and gratifying one. Maybe we do need to get rid of both the right and the left to reach—as Muñoz prescribed—what has been “rendered unthinkable,” like a world without poverty or impunity. Perhaps BC is deploying corporate hoaxes as a way to make room for a yet-unimagined shift of power. Cypriot curator Yiannis Toumazis states the following about the of art world professionals that sits on their hands while political and corporate systems run amok without any oversight: “Despite its ever-fervent mission to contest, challenge, question, and confront power structures, the microcosm of contemporary art sometimes actually reproduces, and even reinforces, traditional structures of power, authority, and control—the systematic capitalisation of ‘engaged art’ has reached such a degree that presently even its most experimental, anti-institutional and radical expressions tend to become mainstream[xx].” Is BC’s lineup composed of unscrupulous hacks or are they poets of disidentity? With their emphasis on opacity and their self-proclaimed exemption from having to explain anything, and the equally opaque award of a retrospective exhibition by the ICA, we can conclude that the jury is still out. We must decide individually, as most always is the way with art.

[i]From Jean Baudrillard’s essay “Transaesthetics” in the text The Transparency of Evil, 1990, translated by James Benedict, p. 16. The text is an anthology of essays on extreme phenomena.

[ii]Excerpt taken from exhibition essay on Artist’s Space website. [http://artistsspace.org/exhibitions/bernadette-corporation]

[iii]It is important to note that BC is not the first artistic collective to assume a radical corporate image stance. The N.E. Thing Co. (NETCO), composed by Ingrid and Iain Baxter, was established in 1967 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and operated until 1978, when the Baxter’s split as a couple. This art corporation focused on the use of photography, in-situ performance, and installations to exhibit the results of their investigations, which consisted mostly of rendering photographic accounts of the proceedings of the art world at the time. BC is a contemporary incarnation of this pre-existing artistic zeitgeist. The one thing BC brings fresh is the link to the fashion industry and its printout of the tactics and strategies of the mediatic contemporary counterculture.

[iv]Artist’s Space in New York City hosted this exhibition from September 9 – December 16, 2012; it then traveled to London, United Kingdom, where the ICA hosted the exhibition from March 27 – June 9, 2013.

[v]The exhibition originated in the gallery Artist’s Space in New York City, where it opened in late 2012.

[vi]Bernadette Nguyen Van-Huy graduated from Brown University in 1992 with a B.A. in Economics.

[vii]John Kelsey is an art critic, artist, and gallery director.

[viii]Emily Sundblad is a singer, actress, art dealer, and painter. She is the founder and director of Reena Spaulings Fine Art, a gallery located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

[ix]The BC Corporate Story (1997), 8 min., color hi-8 video.

[x]“The G8 is an unofficial forum of the heads of the leading industrialized democracies: Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, the United States, Canada (since 1976) and Russia (since 1998). The European Commission has also been represented in all the sessions since the Ottawa Summit in 1981.” [http://uk.reuters.com/article/2008/07/03/us-g8-group-idUKB26280520080703?sp=true]

[xi]2003, DV, 61 min, featuring Chloe Sevigny and Werner von Delmont

[xii]“Provisionally aligning itself with the so-called ‘Black Bloc’ movement—with the arrogance of its discourse as well as the force and style of their resistance—Get Rid of Yourself (2003) is an encounter with emerging, non-instituted or identity-less forms of protest that refuse the representational politics of the official Left.” [http://www.bernadettecorporation.com/getrid.htm]

[xiii]Techniques of Today, by Bennet Simpson, Artforum, September 2004.

[xiv]Published by Semiotext(e), Native Agents Series.

[xv]“Among Surrealists, a technique for exploiting the mystique of accident as a kind of collective collage of words or images called the cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse). Based on an old parlor game, it was played by several people, each of whom would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to conceal part of it, and pass it on to the next player for his contribution.” [http://www.exquisitecorpse.com/]

[xvi]From the essay The Complete Poem – Bernadette Corporation, in the Where Art Belongs, 2011, by Chris Kraus.

[xvii]This notion arises from the main themes of the work The Procession of the Simulacra, from Simulacra and Simulation, by Jean Baudrillard, 1981, where he argues that humanity in the West currently lives in a state of hyperreality that conflates reality and simulations of reality into a manifold system that serves as a way of asserting a dominant order. In the case of the West, this dominant order favors corporate players and corporate interests. Baudrillard posits that individuals living in society in the West circle the drain of “the real,” opting at times for a Disneyland version of the facts rather than face the facts themselves.

[xviii]I use the biologist’s definition of ecology for which the subject of study is how organisms, or survival machines as termed by ethologist Richard Dawkins, relate to each other and their environment.

[xix]Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1999. Print. Rest in peace brother.

[xx]Manifesta 6: The Case of the Cancelled Biennial, 2012, pg. 6

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