In their definitive sociological study of capitalism, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue that anti-capitalism may be "the most significant expression of capitalism in the eyes of history." The work of Bernadette Corporation is founded on a keen awareness of this new spirit, in which all critique becomes fodder that strengthens capitalism through being incorporated by it. Bernadette Corporation's awareness is an awareness of the all too easy subject-position of the anti-capitalist activist, who self-righteously tells the rest of us that "trendiness betrays a weakness of personal identity," a line read by the "company" documentary about themselves: The B.C. Corporate Story.
The group's first retrospective -- Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted years -- currently on view at Artists Space, is assembled as a fashion showroom cum corporate convention presentation cum history museum exhibit cum art show. This design points to the ways that these different styles of presenting ultimately resemble one another. Mannequins wearing clothing that is part terrorist-chic, part "urban youth" pastiche are strewn around the gallery, along with fashion magazine spreads, stacks of movie scripts, and mugs in glass cases emblazoned with poetry (a standardized utility-commodity with a human touch). Widescreen T.V. monitors, also encased in glass and placed on a pedestal, are thrown on top of one another like the forgotten debris in the aftermath of a looting (the museumification of past struggles). Flanking these works are didactic placards that wind around the room telling Bernadette Corporation's story. The visitor can of course choose to read these informational boards, though perhaps any understanding of Bernadette Corporation is more likely to be found in thinking about how the content is presented rather than pondering the content itself. Elsewhere, pinned to the wall, there is a placard of a Village Voice review of their novel Reena Spaulings as well as one collecting numerous different versions of the group's bio. Their art, as they suggest themselves, is indivisible from their publicity and promotional materials.
Bernadette Corporation, Creation of a False Feeling, 2000, Color photograph; Photograph: Cris Moor.
One of the final placards in the chronology tells how Bernadette Corporation joined Occupy Wall Street (one of their "members," Antek Walczak, was arrested), along with "celebrities" like Susan Sarandon, Slavoj Žižek, David Graeber, and Kanye West. Hollywood stars, popular musicians and left-wing intellectuals, in Bernadette Corporation's parlance, are one and the same. This theme returns in their work Get Rid of Yourself, a collage video that reads as a trailer for a movie starring Chloë Sevigny. It remixes together footage of black bloc anarchists and non-violent marchers from the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa with intertitles that build up suspense for the movie we hope to see. Bernadette Corporation proclaim themselves to be aligned with black bloc tactics and their refusal of representation for anonymity -- a refusal that is also pitched as a critique of the "liberal" left shared by Bernadette Corporation. However, in their video, these "radical" anarchists appear just as spectacular and theatrical as the "moderate" marchers with their predictable signs, slogans and fashion senses. It's a clever example of how easily commodifiable political activism is, whether it's all wholly intentional or not.
Installation view from Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years, Retrospective Scarves, 2012, 7 inkjet printed silk scarves, 21 x 21 inches each; Photo: Daniel Pérez
In a dark space on the right side of the gallery is a room of books on display. There's a copy of Moby Dick, Howl, the Koran and numerous others. On further investigation we learn these books are collections of reviews, mainly from online sources such as Amazon, of the books whose titles they have appropriated. One review, of The Coming Insurrection, describes it as "a long whiny diatribe on how modern civilization has ruined poor Mr. Invisible's life." It's an inclusion that speaks to the fun that Bernadette Corporation often seem to be having at the expense of a manifesto-thumping, sign wielding left, though the books taken together are also posed as an investigation of populism.
The failure of the exhibition resides in Bernadette Corporation's investment in demonstrating how complicity can be resistant. Their approach is more in line with the anti-capitalists they upend than it is with the corporation, the fashion magazine or the Hollywood filmmaker. Bernadette Corporation are motivated by the desire to locate what is authentically political in anonymity, in refusal, in emptiness, in nothingness, in the commodity even. Their ambivalence about protest and their desire to identify what is political about ambivalence is too clearly stated, too much of a statement, too much of a critique. It's new fodder for the new spirit of capitalism, once again.
(Image on top: The BC Corporate Story, 1996, hi-8 video, 7:49 minutes, distribution: Electronic Arts Intermix, Installation view from Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years, Artists Space, 2012; Photo: Daniel Pérez)