New Yorkers of 1990s vintage might recall Bernadette Corporation as a miasmic, word-of-mouthy phenomenon emanating from the demilitarized zone between high and low culture. Founded by Bernadette Van-Huy, Thuy Pham and Antek Walczak, BC began as a series of club nights before morphing into a fashion collective. The group's runway forays dredged the shun-worthy lookbook of prole- and subculture, from goth to Michael Jackson to Puerto Rican "gang girls," churning out several seasons of ready-to-wear meant to épater la bourgeoisie. Against the conservative backdrop of '90s American fashion, it didn't take much to see that BC's gestures were political, oozing scorn for establishment culture while copying its codes and manners. But political how?
An answer is provided by a BC manifesto of 1997, which urged readers to set up their own semilegal corporate HQ: "In New York, commercial property rents for less than residential property, so if you all chip in, you can get a 1,000 sq. foot loft on the Bowery for $1,100 a month. Have the most responsible, smooth talking person in the corporation sign the lease. And finally, though it's not allowed, live there like your immigrant fathers. There is a chance you will get kicked out. If this happens, utterly destroy the space as you retreat in protest of laws that tie the hands of big business." This sounds like a recipe for the classic bohemian cocktail of negation and communitarianism, and it was. By the late 1990s, however, the dot-com boom had begun to erode the shirt-and-tie image of the corporate stiff; downtown New York was flush with young money; soon, $1,100 would no longer pay a month's rent on a Bowery loft, or anywhere in downtown Manhattan. In 1998, BC launched its final season, bringing the corporation's first, most protean phase to an end.
The following decade saw BC casting about for a new theater of operations. Backed by an expanded roster of collaborators, including present-day BC spokesperson John Kelsey, the Corporation traveled to Genoa in 2001 to take part in the anti-G8 demonstrations alongside members of the French ultra-left group Le Parti Imaginaire. Genoa proved disastrous from the start: protesters were violently repressed by Italian state police, in response to which a sizable black bloc of masked demonstrators unleashed a spate of property destruction and looting. Decamping to a resort town in the aftermath, BC made a film using footage of the riots (with cameos by actress Chloe Sevigny and artist Stephan Dillemuth). First screened in 2003, the hour-long video, titled Get Rid of Yourself, cemented the group's second-phase identity as neo-Situationist provocateurs.
Nine years later, following a series of high-profile gallery exhibitions and the publication of their collectively authored novel, Reena Spaulings (2004), BC seems ready to close up shop. Billed as a goodbye exhibition, their Artists Space retrospective, "2000 Wasted Years," was as evasive a finale as one could expect from a group whose identity and brand are synonymous.
As with BC's other recent exhibitions, there was more to read than to see: a series of hanging panels spelled out the collective's history from 1993 to the present, scrolling around the room like a Wikipedia entry. Scattered throughout the show, scraps of memorabilia—including a quartet of mannequins wearing '90s-era BC outfits, a short action-movie trailer for Get Rid of Yourself, and a collection of brushed-steel faucets engraved with online chatter-served as promotional material for an absent product: the Corporation reduced to a facade of promissory advertisements.
To call this atmosphere funereal is less a judgment on the group itself than on the history it summarizes. Avant-gardism was always a matter of inhabiting the shadows while striking at the center of official culture, but in the age of the iPhone, center and margins are one and the same. Now, every quantum of lowbrow energy, no matter how odious, can be parceled and sold as a social product. To explode this regime of spectacle-culture will require more than any avant-garde is capable of. For BC, surviving the digital turn has meant courting invisibility—"getting rid of oneself" behind the corporate smoke screen. Don't be fooled, though: the logo remains, but it has long since been evacuated.
Photos: Two views of “Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years,” 2012, at Artists Space.