Techniques of Today - Bennett Simpson on Bernadette Corporation (Artforum, September 2004)


It is the summer of 2001, and the New York--and Paris-based collective known as Bernadette Corporation has temporarily merged with Le Parti Imaginaire, a faction of post-Situationist militants and intellectuals with links to the burgeoning antiglobalization movement. The two groups have their own distinct practices and motivations, but, for the moment, they are united by the idea of making a film, which is to be set in the seaside Italian city of Genoa, amid the protests and stultifying inconclusiveness that will engulf the G8 Summit that July. The film resists knowing what it is or wants to be. And so its makers improvise, exploring what they call the "potential of community based on a radical refusal of political identity."

What results is Get Rid of Yourself, an hourlong cine-tract-cum-documentary centering on the experiences and reflections of the so-called Black Bloc. Originating in Germany in the 1980s, the Black Bloc have become a bogeyman of globalization protest culture--an umbrella name for the black-clad anarchists who temporarily, and anonymously, convene in places like Genoa. With their symbolic targets and superfluous actions--looting supermarkets, ransacking banks--the group's "zones offensives d'opacite," as members characterize their tactical goal, have sought to disrupt the deliberations of the more mainstream demonstrators as much as they have the summit meetings themselves. Get Rid of Yourself uses the Black Bloc's words and images to portray the fight over globalization as a fiction, a space for losing oneself on purpose. Much of its footage is what might be expected: scenes at the barricades, hooded youths surging and scattering, swarms of cops and tear gas. Other parts of the film are set in the days and weeks just after the protests, when Bernadette Corporation and friends repaired to a quiet Calabrian beach house to take stock of the violence. These scenes of country landscapes and low-level leisure provide a melancholy countereffect to Genoa's harsh compression of events. Still other scenes layer fiction on fiction, as when footage from an undisclosed fashion shoot is merged with that of the protestors and their capitalist targets.

Since its release in 2002, Get Rid of Yourself has been screened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, among other venues. Indeed, what the film locates in the Black Bloc's gang mentality and "refusal of identity" has numerous implications for art, quite apart from its grounding in current events. It is tempting to see these noir radicals as an allegory of Bernadette Corporation themselves, or, pitched more generally, as emblematic of how artists today might--but rarely do--reflect and deflect their own instrumentalization. "I think the young people of today, they need a little bit more strategy, you know; they are a little bit too confused about their own, you know, what they are supposed to do." So says Werner von Delmont, a bewigged time-traveling philosopher (and alter ego of artist Stephan Dillemuth) whom the film drops into Genoa's immediate aftermath. This problem of identity is further echoed in scenes featuring Chloe Sevigny, muse of quotidian chic, who plays an actress trying and failing to learn lines to a film about protests--lines, one realizes, that derive from the "real" Black Bloc testimonies voiced elsewhere in the film. Smoking cigarettes in the soft light of a haute-bourgeois kitchen, Sevigny describes the crazy pleasure had in smashing an ATM with a hammer. Like von Delmont, she is a foil to the Black Bloc's multitude; but where his world-weary outlook provides irony or historical consciousness, her character flirts with the group's desire for chaos. The film accumulates these displacements relentlessly. Sevigny speaking an actress. An actress speaking a protestor. A film speaking the Black Bloc. At one point a manifesto scrolls across a black background. "They say, 'another world is possible.' But I am another world. Am I possible?"

Am I possible? The question is the beating heart of the film, but it also reverberates throughout Bernadette Corporation's decadelong existence on the borders of fashion and art. BC was founded in 1994 with the premise that a corporation was "the perfect alibi for not having to fix an identity." The group's original members--participants have fluctuated over the years--shared interests in Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren, and Jean-Luc Godard but also the bootlegging and new immigrant cultures surrounding their loft "headquarters" on the Bowery. "Mock incorporation is quick and easy," they wrote, "no registration or fees, simply choose a name (i.e., Booty Corporation, Bourgeois Corporation, Buns Corporation) and spend a lot of time together. Ideas will come later." The early days of BC may be traced to New York's constant demand for youth as human decor. Hired at first to organize parties in downtown nightclubs, BC plainly understood the flexibility of their position. The 1990s were just beginning to take shape. In a cultural landscape littered with "alternatives" (grunge, heroin chic, Bill Clinton), BC were quick to see identity as a fallacious term usurped by capital--and so they sought to undermine it from within, in their words, by "emulating a corporate image through 'joke' forms of business that are serious."

They soon began a line of women's fashion. Their first items were an amalgam of street wear and DIY haute couture: minimal silhouettes overloaded with vernacular detail, jerseys riddled with appropriated logos--an intended explosion of style as signification. They held variations on the runway show in 1995, 1996, and 1997. These displayed a high disregard for commodity purpose, often combining top models with stadium theatricalities like dancing bear mascots, free-floating sloganeering, and, once, a high school cheerleading squad from Brooklyn. BC's strategies worked quite well in the '90s boom. Their clothes were published in Harper's Bazaar, Purple, Visionaire, and Index Magazine. Along with Seth Shapiro's American Manufacturing and Susan Cianciolo's Run Collection, the label had a share in establishing a new conceptual horizon for New York underground fashion. On the art side, shows at galleries like Colin de Land's American Fine Arts in New York and write-ups in Artforum and Texte zur Kunst ensured a vagueness of discipline and market that more than satisfied the demand for "crossover."

By 1999, however, the group had ended its fashion label and reorganized its membership. BC resurfaced as a publishing venture, in the vein of the Purple Institute in Paris, and began exploring film and video work more directly. They claimed the magazine they produced, Made in USA, was named after "Godard's worst film." In its brief life, the magazine presented both professional and amateur fashion work--printed, improbably, in black-and-white--alongside writings by contemporary artists and critics. Translations of historical texts by Pasolini, Mallarme, and Serge Daney popped up next to reviews of neighborhoods and films. One issue featured an interview with the directors of marketing and design for H & M; another was made in conjunction with a video work, Hell Frozen Over, juxtaposing Sylvere Lotringer discussing Mallarme by a winter lake with a fashion shoot that might have been staged at Home Depot. A rotating graphic design poached styles and formats from other magazines--Artforum's Top Ten, Purple's typeface. This strategy, coupled with advertisements that rarely contained more than a simple logo or name floating on a white page (or once, on the cover), reinforced the ambivalence of BC's own brand status. Made in USA gave the impression of not caring for a magazine's traditional role of establishing and arbitrating cultural value. Its sensibility was that of artists talking to artists, the haphazard, "whatever" reflection of people in a place and time.

With its group work of writing and editing, Made in USA was an obvious precedent for BC's current project, what they are calling a "collective novel." An editorial team, including artist Jutta Koether and actor/poet Jim Fletcher, have conceived a general framework of chapters, which are being written by some twenty collaborators over many months before being assembled into a finished narrative by BC. The novel revolves around two main protagonists. One is a young woman named Reena Spaulings, an unsuspecting New York anybody swooped up into the worlds of fashion and film by scheming talent scouts who cast her as this season's It Girl in a high-profile lingerie campaign. The second protagonist is New York City itself, which, early in the book, is devastated by a massive tornado. Postdisaster, the city descends into gang violence. Reena shrewdly adjusts to the situation, using her newfound status to create a start-up venture that seeks to sabotage New York's cineplexes and theaters. The preposterousness of this narrative may owe to the exquisite-corpse effect of multiple authors taking off from an unknown. But it also derives from BC's emulation of a Hollywood screen-writing technique whereby a studio boss assigns a stable of writers specialized functions like dialogue, detail, and action. Whatever the case, the resulting potboiler is a thinly veiled "novelization" of New York life post-9/11. With the manufactured insouciance of a second-tier cable show--a story of a girl in a crazy world, trying to navigate men, fame, and the pitfalls of urban life--the work is geared to reflect its time and bears little resemblance to the immense and subtle filters of subjectivity (particularly that of young women) created by masters of the form like Austen, Eliot, James, or Wolfe. BC admit that the novel "may not be quality literature," but they also state that this is hardly the point. The collective structure allows Reena and her city to be "'communized'--each somehow interchangeable as enactments of a putting-in-common of [the writers'] separate subjectivities and linguistic capacities."

To make sense of BC and its many episodes--fashion, magazine, film, and novel--the pertinent question is not "What is an artist today?" but rather "How might an artist evade culture's demand for marketable identity in her person, products, style, and career?" We are presented with images of the artist all the time, although most often such images only reaffirm cliches or the most conservative thinking: artist as society (or industry) entertainer, artist as child, artist as expressive savant. Far less frequently do artists appear to challenge outright the images that are available to them. Bernadette Corporation provide one such instance. Their practice is of the most experimental sort--a constant throwing off of reflections. One occasionally feels that they are not artists at all but a society-reading machine, a manufacturer of tools capable of prying open or admitting access to different ways of being. Among other things, they have made fashion a tool for seeing youth as a subject of lifestyle regime (and vice versa). They have given us the magazine tool, for imagining the potential of community beyond the checkpoints, what Foucault called "dispositifs," of the institutional art and fashion systems. In Genoa, their cinema found an otherness, a politics, in the Black Bloc's tactics of disruption. And with their collective novel, they have recast daily life as an open, many-voiced fiction.

Ironically, the techniques employed by the group seem to have looked backward as the group itself has evolved. In the mid-'90s, BC's work in fashion was briefly contemporary with their moment of crossover and lifestyle. From 1999 to 2001, Made in USA took up the form of the artist's magazine, which, with a few exceptions, had withered since its heyday in the '70s and '80s. The subsequent turn to political documentary echoed the even more distant moment of 1968 and the work of Godard and, later, Harun Farocki. And now, with their bastard exercise in novel writing, BC have alighted on the preferred expressive genre of the nineteenth century, a period so far in the past as to bear little resemblance to the dominant artistic modes of today.

Though the many figures that populate their work--the Black Bloc, Chloe Sevigny, Werner von Delmont, the multiple blank-faced models that flow through Made in USA like a dream, the fictional Reena Spaulings--resemble nothing so much as a community of subjects disappearing their way through a century of imperial culture, it would be a mistake to read BC's refusals as symptomatic of art's recent backlash against identity politics. BC do not "get rid" of identity in order to get rid of politics. Precisely the opposite is true: It is identity that has ceased to be political. Through the figure of the Black Bloc, BC remove themselves from a culture that has forfeited the question of self to the functions of capital. This is no abstract proposition but one specifically targeted at the worlds of art and fashion, which they have occupied for the past decade, domains where "self" was produced overtime. If the '90s were about infinite territorializations of freedom and expression, the times found no better icon than the artist, in whose figure traditional romantic ideologies of unboundedness were sutured to New Economy shibboleths. BC's fictions don't want to be fixed or put to work; they want to defect. After the convulsions of Empire lately witnessed around the world, we ought to be suspicious of culture's parade of subjectivities--especially in art, one of the few homes refusal has ever known.

Bennett Simpson is associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group