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Bernadette Corporation:
If Everything Works

Interview by
Annie Ochmanek
From Issue 12 Fall 2011

Exploiting opacity, misinterpretations and fake avant-gardisms, Bernadette Corporation uses fashion to mirror our inane first-thought-best-thought culture, at the risk of inviting “gentrification” into artistic territories.

ANNIE OCHMANEK  As Chris Kraus wrote in her review of your Greene Naftali show “The Complete Poem,” Bernadette Corporation (BC) has a notable ability to “stat[e] the obvious in all its complexity.” This describes not only BC’s poetic skill, but also your capacity to inhabit many facets of the art world and the culture industry at large, reflecting the interconnections at work as well as the opacity of one sector as it appears to another. You have consistently used fashion as an agent for this. What is it about fashion imagery specifically that allows for BC’s fluency?

BERNADETTE CORPORATION  Fashion was interesting to us originally because it already operated across all these sectors, across all media. In the 1990s, fashion was a sort of Internet before the Internet. It was both a system and an image, and it moved very quickly. It was a high-speed connection between the street and the office tower, between New York, Paris and Hong Kong. But it wasn’t efficient communication; it was full of crossed signals, misinterpretations, failed transmissions, ridiculous avant-gardisms… Today, the Internet and fashion are exactly the same, so, for example, „anti-fashion“ is only possible as anti-network, suicide pure and simple.

When we do fashion now, we are basically presenting information about the contemporary body and using the model as a stand-in for the artist or poet. At Meyer Kainer Gallery, we exhibited images of a nude model wearing nothing but diamond rings and necklaces from a jeweler on the Upper East Side. This was not a fashion statement on our part; it was just using the average, generic fashion image to speculate on contemporary poverty, which is sort of a nonidea with a non-image. It was a way to show up with nothing—an actual nothing that we could bounce ourselves off of for a moment while thinking about what happens when artists, like fashion, become just information. We didn’t make any of these images; they were commissioned to professionals—photographer, model, designer and stylist. The images are a series of basic instructions from us to them, re-distributed in the gallery as work. They are communications turned into content.

AO  A few of the model cards you showed in Vienna also very literally frame the model as an artwork—laid out on a packing blanket, ready to be crated and shipped. Following this logic, the artist becomes a “stylist” for the exhibition. BC has returned to the method of commissioning a number of times (from hiring fashion photographers for brand-less photo shoots to directing actress Chloë Sevigny to “rehearse” lines of Black Bloc testimony in your film Get Rid Of Yourself); it seems to be a reliable technique for the de-subjectification of a given form.

BC  It’s a way of opening a site of production that’s more machine-like and that can be inhabited by many people. When we wrote the novel Reena Spaulings, for example, we modeled our process on that of the Hollywood screenplay, which in the studio era, was produced on a sort of assembly line of typewriters. In recent projects, we don’t want to pretend anymore that fashion works as a space of personal expression. So we commission the “creative” side of the job, acting more like an agency or company that hires the agency that hires the photographer, the model, etc. It’s a way of redistributing creativity, and opening the work to a certain whatever-ness in order to rethink what an artwork can be and how it can be made. The model card, like the art object, is how the artist or model circulates herself in the marketplace. It is somehow less than a photograph and more like a print; it raises the question of its own status as an artwork.

When we started, there was an idea that behind the blank and anonymous corporate façade was wide-open space, a wilderness where anything goes.

AO  In a similar act of re-distribution, for the piece Media Hot and Cold, BC used a self-publishing service to print collections of online consumer reviews of texts ranging from the coming insurrection to Ginsberg’s “How” to the Koran. This gesture mirrors our inane first-thought-best-thought culture (in which the average interview tends to be two people chewing the fat, and any virtual correspondence is liable to be reprinted, verbatim, as next week’s press release). In the context of your Galerie Neu show, in which two flat screens showed footage of the BP oil spill while Rihanna-related Tweets (engraved on plumbing fixtures) echoed through the space, this piece brought to mind not only the linguistic pollution of our critical sphere, but also the power of open commentary feeds, like Twitter, to facilitate political organization or social revolution. How did BC conceive of Media Hot and Cold and its relation to the show as a whole?

BC  The so-called “Twitter Revolution” is also a kind of spill—a catastrophic, democratic leak. We began with an image of Rihanna: a cell phone picture she took of herself in a hotel bathroom that got “leaked” onto the Internet. So the show at Neu was structured around a relationship between the ideas of the Self and the Leak. We imagined a sort of crisis or “crack-up” in the privacy of the bathroom (the title, “A Haven for the Soul,” was taken from ad copy for the company that provided us with the designer plumbing fixtures we displayed in the exhibition), a catastrophe that was at once informatic, biopolitical and environmental.

Media Hot and Cold presented a sort of literary leak. We were interested in the para-literary production that occurs around the online consumption of books—all these communicating reader-selves interacting with Amazon and other sites as they consume great, popular and alternative literature. We realized that the amount of communication that happens around consuming literature was itself a kind of literature, and that there was enough of it to fill entire shelves of volumes.

Literature is beginning to leak in a new way—automatically, anonymously—and we wanted to re-package this phenomenon and make objects out of it, to momentarily freeze it in a display. It made sense to carry this gesture out via a publish-on-demand service that bypasses traditional modes of literary distribution by directly activating users. Literary theorists have often championed the agency of the reader, but nowadays users make literature without even realizing it. Meanwhile, literature becomes another opportunity to communicate oneself.

AO  In 2010, you were commissioned to do a project on a group of digital screens installed about the ticket counters at MOMA in New York, and in response, you ran looped footage of the museum itself—a clock, the turning coat racks—alongside blank, black screens, some branded with the BC logo. The conceptual feedback cycle of this piece seemed to recall techniques of classic institutional critique while avoiding the pedantic element of associated with this strategy. How would position your approach in relation to that camp?

BC  In the late 1990s, BC had ties with Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts gallery, whose program represented a high point of classic institutional critique. But at that time, BC was gravitating toward nightclubs and runways, not museums. However, Colin de Land recognized BC as a “self-organizing institution,” and perhaps made this observation in order to differentiate our approach from the strategies of institutional critique as practiced by some of his other artists (Andrea Fraser, Christian Philipp Mueller, etc), but also as a way of conjugating our practice in its terms. We were doing our thing near to institutional critique but also outside it, with other interests and other techniques, and without connections to museums or academies. We inhabited nightlife; they inhabited the Whitney Program. They were friends with Hal Foster; we were friends with Actress and A.R.E. Weapons. They performed naked at the DIA Foundation when we were dressing fashion models. And, for example, when BC went to Genoa to make the film Get Rid of Yourself, it was because it seemed much more interesting and challenging to work with the Black Bloc than to make “critical art” with and for other artists. (This was before 9-11. Now all art is quasi-critical, self-reflexivity being one of the ways it produces value and legitimacy within the now very wide-open apparatus of the art market. Here, criticality functions mainly as a sign of connectedness.)

In the meantime, BC found its way into museums and art history, too, but in some ways remains at a fascinated distance inside these legitimate institutions. The question of whether it belongs there still remains. With The Big Clock at MoMA, our idea was to not show up with any finished work, to not use the museum as a platform for displaying BC-produced stuff, but instead to make a work using only the time and space of the museum itself by appropriating MoMA’s information software and its self-mediations as a means of generating a new BC image. We used the MoMA font, the MoMA gift shop, galleries and coat check, MoMA’s internal surveillance system and the program that cycles MoMA information and imagery across a series of monitors in the lobby. Maybe The Big Clock wasn’t so much institutional critique as a way of making MoMA automatically critique itself. We also took this opportunity to circulate the BC logo on the same screens as the MoMA logo, programming a sort of institutional co-branding. We made MoMA into a big, real-time roto-relief, or feedback loop, and signed this BC.

AO  You once explained that BC “liked to use the fiction of a corporation because of its unattractiveness and blankness. It was a means of throwing off the readability of the project and making it less easy to stomach.” This is a real strength of BC’s—an ability to maintain deliberate irresolution, maybe a slight ill-fittingness, within its spaces of exhibition or sites of production, and at the same time deliver a glossy (commercial) presentation. You seem to be seriously committed to this kind of precarity, but the quality also seems to come naturally. Is this indigestible aesthetic a way of avoiding co-option? Or is it perhaps a sort of marketing scheme of its own? Is BC, in some ways, inviting gentrification into the artistic territories you’ve opened up?

BC  When we started, there was an idea that behind the blank and anonymous corporate façade was wide-open space, a wilderness where anything goes. But recently this outside/inside dialectic has mutated, so that even our most intimate communications, those private notes-to-self, are mediated by screens and big business. There’s nothing behind or aside from the screen anymore; it’s all on-screen. When we work on blankness now, it’s not the imposing, monolithic blankness of Conde Nast and IBM; it’s the easy-going blankness space we have to work in, and it’s both a corporate space and a space of individual poverty. It has an ambiguous texture: both whole grain and sleek, charmingly rough-hewn and cybernetically adjusted, personal and impersonal. It’s the space of a smart phone in one hand and a sack of organic vegetables in the other. The gallery is both a sort of haven for the endangered soul of the creative genius and a factory where souls can really go to work in the most anonymous, generic way. It’s also the place where our personal poverty is publicly, violently exposed to the euphoric speed of cyber-capitalism and its crisis. Here, raw linen and moldy plaster are the new surfaces of commerce. We can either fabricate drippy personable objects that fit in by seeming not to fit in, or fit right in with some slick images and image-ready bodies. Everything works. Maybe what’s missing in our work is simply the artist. And the artist is the final contemporary art product, so digestible to the end.

AO  In Get Rid Of Yourself, rioting is discussed as a form of improvisation within given constraints. BC, in its serial inhabitation of various mediums, has made a continued effort to advance and subvert modes of disobedience. Are there any spaces left with real possibility for insurrection, specifically in the art world, in which, as you say, “everything works”?

BC    It seems important to keep finding ways of suspending the function of the artist, but to do this as an artist. In Genoa, the rioters disrupted the social democratic idea of the protest as a site of free expression, abandoning the policed, mediatic space of the protest from inside the protest. Everything that works in art can also be unworked, or simply abandoned.

Bernadette Corporation is an art and fashion collective based in New York City and Paris.
Annie Ochmanek is a writer based in New York.

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